A new captain of the ship

Unflappable

A new captain of the ship

Marshall, a Broadway choreographer and director turned filmmaker, had powered that musical to a best picture Oscar in 2002. But his next two films, Memoirs of a Geisha and Nine, were kicked in the teeth by critics and sputtered at the multiplex.

Yet Disney knew it needed to do something bold to make Pirates sail again. Fans of the franchise were in open rebellion over bloated running times and bewildering story lines. (A crab army that can carry a landlocked ship on its back? Really?) The third installment, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, clocked in at a barnacle-covered 2 hours 49 minutes and was quickly nicknamed “At Wit’s End” by bloggers. Senior Disney executives, dismayed by ballooning costs, were in a similar state of mind.

Even Johnny Depp, the linchpin of the series as the swishy swashbuckler Captain Jack Sparrow, knew that the last film, directed by Gore Verbinski (as were the first two), had lost its way. “In the second and third movies Gore was married to an enormous amount of substories, a lot of mathematics to connect,” Depp said carefully in a telephone interview. But a new director, in particular an unlikely choice like Marshall, could “breathe air into every moment,” Depp said.

Depp’s determination bodes well for Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the latest offering in the series. Was Marshall equally bent on restoring specialness to this theme-park ride turned movie franchise? “I really had one criteria for signing on,”  Marshall said over lunch last month. “And that was a story I could actually follow.” The challenge was to do it in fewer shooting days than needed for At World’s End, and with a reduced effects budget.

Marshall’s choreography background led to Disney’s embrace, said Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of the Pirates series. “He understands movement and how action could be done in a different and fresh way,” he said. Still, Marshall’s ascendency in Hollywood is unusual. Stage experience does not typically translate into successful filmmaking. People like Elia Kazan, Orson Welles and Arthur Penn did it back when movies were wordier and less dependent on visual effects. But directors who have tried to play in both worlds more recently — James Lapine, Julie Taymor — have struggled, even on the more serious end of cinema. (One exception: Stephen Daldry of The Hours fame.)

Marshall, 50, is often compared to Bob Fosse, who directed the original stage production of Chicago. Despite Busby Berkeley, the list of choreographers who have become successful movie directors is even shorter. And unlike Fosse, who won an Oscar for directing Cabaret, Marshall had to be coaxed behind a camera.

“Film was the furthest thing from my mind, and the first time I was supposed to call the word ‘action’ I couldn’t even do it because it felt so unnatural,” he said. “So I just mumbled, ‘OK, go.’ But even by the end of that day I was fine. I’ve tried to dissect why I took so quickly to it. I think it’s because when I used to stage for theatre, to free myself — to think beyond that little space under the proscenium — I would always imagine what the scene or number would look like on film. And then I would translate it to the stage.”

A lot is riding on this film of the series and a run-of-the-mill blockbuster won’t do — Stranger Tides was expensive despite the budget pressures, costing an estimated $400 million to make and market.

After graduating from Carnegie Mellon University’s musical theatre programme, Marshall headed for New York, where he  took up choreography. He then aimed higher, earning directing credits that include the 1998 revivals of Cabaret and Little Me. Shortly after that, Marshall went to meet with Harvey Weinstein, who was interested in turning Rent into a movie.

Instead, Marshall pitched his vision for Chicago.  It’s a wonder he wanted to make another movie after that experience. Marshall usually exudes a relaxed charm, but the pressure of adapting Chicago was so intense that he collapsed on the set, apparently from fatigue.

Marshall also had to rebuff demands from Weinstein about casting Britney Spears and including an additional song written by Janet Jackson. But the Oscar erased all those memories, and Marshall worked with Weinstein again on the musical Nine in 2009, partly out of commitment to the material and partly because, under his Chicago contract, he owed Weinstein a second movie. “Harvey took a big risk on me, and I’ll never forget it,” Marshall said.

Weinstein said: “Rob is an actor’s director — they love him. Rob is also an artist. With Nine, we picked the most difficult musical we could. I think that movie is misunderstood.” Nine, which starred Daniel Day-Lewis and some of moviedom’s leading actresses (including Cruz) received five Oscar nominations but was hammered by most critics, who complained it was emotionally distant and lacked cohesion. “How a project is perceived is never the experience you have,” he said. “I’m more proud of Nine than anything else I’ve done.”

Unflappability appears to be one of Mr. Marshall’s signature traits. He also stands out, at least in Hollywood, by not seeming jaded. “He has this authenticity,” said Rich Ross, Disney’s movie chairman. “To meet him is to know him. There are people where you feel like you’re being worked. With Rob, you always feel like you’re getting him. It allows him to connect with people.”

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