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'Into the Woods' scribe James Lapine learns the writer may be king on Broadway, but not in Hollywood




Producer John DeLuca, Tracey Ullman, Daniel Huttlestone, writer James Lapine, Lilla Crawford, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Anna Kendrick, MacKenzie Mauzy, director Rob Marshall, Billy Magnussen, Christine Baranski and producer Marc Platt attends the world premiere of
Producer John DeLuca, Tracey Ullman, Daniel Huttlestone, writer James Lapine, Lilla Crawford, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Anna Kendrick, MacKenzie Mauzy, director Rob Marshall, Billy Magnussen, Christine Baranski and producer Marc Platt attends the world premiere of "Into the Woods" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 8, 2014 in New York City.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Producer John DeLuca, Tracey Ullman, Daniel Huttlestone, writer James Lapine, Lilla Crawford, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Anna Kendrick, MacKenzie Mauzy, director Rob Marshall, Billy Magnussen, Christine Baranski and producer Marc Platt attends the world premiere of
Writer James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim attend the world premiere of "Into the Woods" at the Ziegfeld Theatre on December 8, 2014 in New York City..The stars came out for the world premiere of ?Into the Woods? on Monday, December 8, 2014 at the Ziegfeld Theater in New York.
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Producer John DeLuca, Tracey Ullman, Daniel Huttlestone, writer James Lapine, Lilla Crawford, Emily Blunt, Meryl Streep, Stephen Sondheim, Anna Kendrick, MacKenzie Mauzy, director Rob Marshall, Billy Magnussen, Christine Baranski and producer Marc Platt attends the world premiere of
(L-R) Producer Marc Platt, screenwriter James Lapine and cinematographer Dion Beebe speak onstage during the "Into the Woods" All Guild Q & A at AMPAS Samuel Goldwyn Theater on December 18, 2014 in Beverly Hills, California.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for The Walt Disney Company


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"Into the Woods" first premiered on Broadway in 1987 with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and the book by James Lapine. It went on to receive rave reviews and Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Book.

Lapine continued to revisit "Into the Woods" over the years, directing revivals in 1997 and 2002. But the musical was destined to remain on the stage — or so it seemed until Disney came calling. Lapine began adapting "Into the Woods" for the big screen in 2010, and soon you'll be able to see the finished product for yourself.

When Lapine joined us on The Frame, we asked him about the differences between writing for the stage and writing for the screen, the tricky parts of adapting a musical, and dealing with the expectations of fans.

Interview Highlights:

In watching the movie, what immediately struck me is it almost feels as if it should have been a movie first and then a musical, because there are so many cinematic elements to the story itself.

Yeah. Well, that was what was fun about adapting it for the screen. Being a writer/director on stage, I have to be very aware of what I can do and can't do, but in this instance it was an open invitation to go anywhere the imagination chose to go.

As a screenwriter, was it liberating to be able to write things that, as a playwright, you might have to say, "I'm not sure how they're going to pull this off, so I have to come up with an alternative version?" Was that exciting and rewarding?

I don't get excited very often ... or rewarded, actually. [laughs] But I enjoyed it!

Maybe satisfied?

Now we're talking. [laughs] I loved to be able to just sit down and write whatever came into my head. Of course, that's the first draft, and by the time you get to the second draft and you've got a budget, a lot of those wonderful things that you wanted to do are unfortunately no longer able to be realized.

Well, that brings me to my next question. You work in two different worlds, one which I'll describe as the "Dramatist Guild World," in which the writer's words are gospel, and the other is the "Hollywood Writers Guild of America World," where the writer's words are basically a starting point. What was it like moving from the world where you were the author, to the other world where you were part of a team?
 

Well, it was an adjustment. But I'm married to a screenwriter, so it was no big surprise. I didn't really have a problem with it; what was an adjustment was when I actually saw, after the movie was shot, that there was some freedom with the language. I'm sort of fastidious about that, so that took a little adjustment, just personally, since most people probably wouldn't even know what I'm talking about. But you pick a very, you pick a particular verb, and when somebody uses a different verb on the stage you would correct them and say, "No, that's not what I wrote." But the film's already made, so ...

You're working with a piece of material — your own musical — that's incredibly well-known and beloved. There are a lot of people who know every word of every song, so when you're adapting that, in the back of your mind you probably know that some people are going to be concerned about any little change. But you're having to make a movie adaptation, and on top of that it's a Disney movie adaptation. How do you balance all of those competing interests?

First of all, you know what you're signing up for. Secondly, we were lucky to have a director who loved the stage version and was happy to honor it. We had sold the movie earlier in the 90s, and it was very loosely adapted and, I thought, kind of left our story behind and went somewhere else.

But the stage version always exists, it's not going anywhere. And I've told people who are upset with this, that, or some other thing, "You always have the stage version." The movie has to be its own thing, and it would be very dull and boring if it were completely honorable to the stage version; it wouldn't be a very good movie.

Let's talk about a song that's in both the musical and the movie, "On the Steps of the Palace."

This is a song that has changed a little bit — talk about the adaptation from musical to movie for this song.
 

On stage, we had very presentational moments, and by that I mean people came forward and basically confided in the audience, which is a stage convention. In our first production we had something called a "passerelle," which really allowed actors to step off the proscenium into the audience, and we used that in those instances where they were sharing their thoughts.

That doesn't work in film, so we had to look at these songs that did that and reinvent them in a way such that they were either sung to another character, which happened in a few instances, but Cinderella's was more of a dilemma. So what we chose to do was freeze time and create a kind of device in which we see her dramatically make a decision about what to do given the circumstances of almost being trapped by her Prince.

One of the things that seems immediately appealing about doing this adaptation is that there are a lot of things referenced in the musical that are off-stage, and now you get a chance to dramatize them. Cinderella goes to a ball, you get up to the Giant's world when Jack goes up the beanstalk, and yet when the movie comes out, you kind of get close to those entrances but you don't go in. What happened there?

They cut the budget. It's just that simple. There were some great visuals there, but that's when you make the hard choices. It could have been a big, sprawling, special effects-driven, hundred million dollar movie, but it wasn't. And I think Rob [Marshall] had to make the choices; they weren't mine to make; they were his, and he knew what things were going to cost, what our shooting time was going to be, and production design, so that's why certain things like the Giant's Kingdom and Cinderella's Ball are not realized.

"Into the Woods" opens in theaters on Christmas Day.



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