The select stage actors from The Producers who were invited to recreate their roles in the screen version of the smash Mel Brooks musical were all grateful for the opportunity. (Hollywood has not been known for its loyalty to the original talent, after all, when transferring shows from the boards to the screen.) That doesn't necessarily mean, however, that any of them ever wanted to actually see the performances for which they have been so lavishly praised. After attending a screening of the film—which will receive a limited release Dec. 16, followed by a wide release Dec. 25—Matthew Broderick, who plays mousy accountant and novice showman Leo Bloom, said, "I'm not sure if I ever wanted to see me do that."
The response of Gary Beach, the story's flamboyantly awful director Roger DeBris, was, "Wow. Everybody else is great."
As for Nathan Lane, whose scheming producer Max Bialystock is arguably the most famous musical theatre performance of the past decade: "I never like seeing myself on screen."
The actors, as well as their director Susan Stroman, gathered at a recent press junket to discuss their experiences converting the Broadway hit into a movie musical. Unlike the recent Oscar-winning movie musical Chicago, which some critics faulted for hyperactive editing which shortchanged the traditional musical values of song delivery, dancing and sustained character development, The Producers is marked by a more traditional filming style reminiscent of the golden age of the genre. "It does pay homage to that old musicals at M-G-M," said Stroman. "I grew up watching those on television and that's what propelled me into the theatre."
Gary Beach agreed. "If the movie's successful," he said, "it's because Susan has brought that [style] from another era. It looks like something that someone found in an archive and has been lost for 25 years. It has that feeling about it."
Beach and Roger Bart, who plays DeBris' swishy commonlaw assistant Carmen Ghia, wondered, upon beginning the shoot, whether they'd be asked to tone down the broad, comic style that marks the Broadway production. They soon got their answer. "The very first shot we did was the farcical scene in Max's office when the cops arrive," told Bart. "It's the only time where we run around screaming our heads off. It's very broad. We knew we have to scream, we had no choice. It's Mel Brooks world. Later we had to do the first scene in Roger's apartment. We did one take and they said 'bigger!' They trusted the style."
He then added, joking, "And we're really convinced that after about 60, 70 minutes of the movie you're really going to adjust to it."
"The material demands a kind of size. You have to honor that," echoed Lane, who, in contrast to the jesting Beach and Bart, wore the saturnine face he typically presents to the press. (Though, when your first question is "You're known as a loud character—has that ever gotten you in trouble?," it's hard to blame him.) "The major difference [with doing the film] is there's no audience. You have to let go of that, because it's a very audience-driven show. You have to go back to basics."
Lane, according to Stroman, brought to the set the same tireless work ethic he's known for in the theatre. "Nathan goes full out," she said. "He's not afraid of falling. He's not afraid of making a mistake. Because of his energy, he challenges the others. He's very bright and smart and witty. His mind is always turning over."
Stroman had nothing to teach Lane about hitting the appropriate theatrical rhythms. Others, however, needed a tutorial. "Everybody on the set had to learn how to do a musical," she explained. "For example, doors and floors in a musical are all-important. In theatre you make an entrance, you say a joke, you slam the door. The doors have to be very percussive. The floors have to be reflective. You see the girls in pearls reflected in the floor, all shiny and black. For the production designer, this was all new to him."
The film was shot out of sequence, as is the norm in the film world, and the performers both lipsynched and sang their songs live, giving Stroman the option of using either version in the final print. The director-choreographer—whose first film this is—was enthusiastic about the newfound creative freedom the form afforded her.
"I was trying to find a way to take the proscenium picture of the show and give it four walls and a sky; to give it breadth, make it more fantastical," she said. "For example, on Broadway I have only six girls in pearls dancing with Matthew Broderick. In the movie I have 12. Or I'm able to go out to Central Park and have Nathan dance with 100 little old ladies with walkers."
On other occasions, however, Stroman unintentionally worked with less. Like during one early take of the big ensemble number "Keep It Gay," which Bart remembered as coming off particularly well. After Stroman yelled "cut" and everyone began congratulating each other on the success of the performance, Nathan Lane quietly spoke up. "Did anyone notice," he said, "that Matthew is not here?"