"Into the Woods" fans have long loved the princely duet "Agony" in which the two charmers attempt to one-up each other as they sing of their own virtues and their future conquests. On stage, the scene happens in a corner of the forest, but for the big-screen adaptation, Marshall and his team found a new way to bring the song to life in what may be one of the film's strongest moments.
"We were shooting a majority of our outdoor work in a place called Great Windsor Park where Windsor Castle is," Marshall explained. "We were working on a tight budget and a short shooting schedule, so we needed to keep things condensed. We had found this pine forest that was beautiful, and it's where the opening scene where the princes meet takes place. It was sort of stately and very prince-like, very dense and beautiful, and we thought that's where we were going to shoot it."
But with so much of the film set within similarly wooded locations, Marshall and producer John DeLuca began to question whether or not they wanted to shoot "Agony" there as well. "We started to come up with how we would stage it there and how it would be, but it just wasn't getting us anywhere," Marshall recalled.
Thankfully, the Internet had the answer. "I went home and was sort of frantically looking through the website of Great Windsor Park," Marshall laughed, "and I found this waterfall that was there. It's a man-made waterfall from the 1930s. You can control the water. You can turn it off and you can turn it on. I saw it, and I just saw the number. I saw the competitive nature of the number, I saw the over-the-top sensibility of it with this grand waterfall that has two tiers."
With associate choreographer Joey Pizzi in tow, DeLuca and Marshall set out to explore the waterfall for themselves. "The water was off and so we jumped around and try to stage the number and saw that we could. We were so excited," he said. Princes Pine and Magnussen were brought on location to rehearse the song without water. "Chris and Billy were so thrilled like kids on a jungle gym. They thought it was such fun and so exciting to stage it there," Marshall said.
In just sneakers and street clothes, the team quickly realized the rocks would be a slippery hazard once the water was turned on. The art department had a solution to keep the princes from tumbling down the falls.
"Our art department was very smart," Marshall said. "They put down chicken wire and covered it with something so that you didn't see it on screen."
The shots we see in the film, which were captured in only four to five takes, were the first and only time the actors did the number with water flowing over the falls.
"So then came the day of the shoot, and that's the first time they did it with water! But they were fearless. The only green screen that we used in that is the final shot at the end of the number when we're pulling back and you see the castle in the distance. The rest of it was all real on that waterfall," Marshall revealed.
It was apparent to Marshall from the day of the shoot that "Agony" would be a highlight of the film. "I can always tell when a number is working... when the stage hands, we call them grips in film, when the grips are singing the song. They were singing 'Agony' at the top of their lungs. It was great."
Marshall also delved into the initial rehearsal process of "Into the Woods." Like many films, it was shot out of order, but Marshall said that he united the entire cast to do a group run-through of the opening number on a sound stage. "I did work through in order the whole opening all over this crazy sound stage, just so I could kind of get a sense of it," he said. For a full-fledged musical film that employed a cast of actors who cut their teeth in theatre, rehearsal was an essential part of the process.
"After we had been in rehearsal for about three weeks, we did a reading because people by then knew their material. That helped enormously," Marshall said. "We got a real sense of the flow and made some changes after that, too. That was when we really found the piece. Most of the people in this cast came from theatre. They understand rehearsal and they were all desperate for rehearsal. You start the whole process like you do in the theatre. You get in a room, and instead of a room we were on a sound-stage, but it was still tape on the floor with every different set and working through that.
"We attacked everything. We attacked the scene work, we attacked the musical numbers because they're so seamless back and forth because you have to. We touched on everything before we started filming. So when we got on set we were ready to shoot. It's really the best way to work if you can do it that way."
As far as "Easter Eggs" go, Marshall pointed out two moments in the film that Sondheim-devotees should look out for. When Cinderella arrives at the ball, the "Night Waltz" from A Little Night Music is playing; and later, when Jack is found asleep with the Giant's harp, it is playing the harp line from another Night Music tune, "You Must Meet My Wife."
Watch "Agony" in action below!