'Into the Woods' director Marshall inspired by Sondheim, Streep

Filmmaker's latest movie musical new on Blu-ray, DVD

On the set of "Into the Woods" (l to r): Producer John DeLuca, director Rob Marshall, and actors James Corden and Emily Blunt.
On the set of "Into the Woods" (l to r): Producer John DeLuca, director Rob Marshall, and actors James Corden and Emily Blunt. (Walt Disney Pictures)

Whether it's been on stage or the big screen, acclaimed "Chicago" director Rob Marshall has never taken his work for granted. And in the case of "Into the Woods," his latest film adaptation of a beloved stage musical, the filmmaker not only feels blessed with the opportunity to direct it, but honored because of who wrote it in the first place.

"Stephen Sondheim's work is fearless. There's no one like him," Marshall told me, humbly, in a recent call from New York. "To be able to bring his work to film was thrilling, especially in his lifetime. To have him there working alongside us was incredible. There was a great deal of responsibility making the musical, not only because it's a great piece, but for the love so many people have for it."

Marshall said he immediately found out how passionate people were for "Into the Woods" -- which debuted on Broadway in November 1987 -- via social media after the film version was announced.

"People were texting, tweeting and going on the Internet, saying, 'We want this' and 'We hope it's that,' and it made me realize there was a lot of people who embraced the piece and wanted it to be good, as did I," Marshall said.

And, as far as Marshall can tell, the film version -- which grossed nearly $200 million at the box office worldwide -- met fans' expectations.

"One of the surprises out of all of this is how well it did. I never quite imagined that a Sondheim musical could be that popular," Marshall said. "It's very unique. It's very specific and sophisticated, and the fact that it reached that many people has been really the thrill of this."

Better yet for Marshall, the film is about to reach many more. New on Blu-ray and DVD (Walt Disney Home Entertainment) Tuesday, "Into the Woods" tells the tale of a witch (Meryl Streep) who burdens a childless baker couple (Emily Blunt and James Corden) with the daunting task of venturing into the woods and locating various items belonging to famous Grimm's fairy tale characters. Once the items are gathered together, it will help lift a curse that's been placed on all of three of them.

The film's all-star cast also includes Johnny Depp as the Big Bad Wolf, Anna Kendrick as Cinderella and Chris Pine as Cinderella's Prince.

The interesting thing is, no matter how big the star status of each actor or how much experience they had with musicals prior to, Marshall required each of them to audition for their roles for "Into the Woods."

The filmmaker said the fun part was that he got to experience for the first time talent that he didn't know existed.

"I never heard Chris Pine or Emily Blunt sing before, so it was a surprise for me during the audition process to hear them. In a way they were the two biggest surprises because I knew their work as actors on film, but I didn't know they had these gifts," Marshall said. "I've experienced this many times now, starting with Renee Zellweger, Richard Gere and John C. Reilly in 'Chicago,' and now the actors with this film: You realize there are so many truly talented people that have more gifts than you'd ever know. They can sing and dance in ways you would have never expected."

In a way, Marshall added, he's found the process so liberating for so many performers once they take the first plunge.

"Ask any of them, and they'll say, 'When is the next musical?' It's exciting for an actor because you're exploring a side of you that you don't know," Marshall said. "There's nothing like it. Singing reveals something in the character that nothing else can do. It just lifts everybody. It's a thrilling genre that everybody gets swept up in."

Perhaps most transformed by "Into the Woods" was Streep, Marshall observed.

"She worked so hard. I've never seen anything like it in my life," Marshall said. "The thing that's such a lesson for everyone who works with her, especially the younger actors who watch her, is she loves the work. It's not about all the other stuff surrounding acting, it's the work itself."

What impressed Marshall about Streep is how she doesn't rest on her laurels as an actor, but constantly looks for new ways to improve her performances.

"She explores everything. I really kept thinking as I was working with her as an explorer. She's always looking for other things to bring to the part," Marshall said in admiration. " She tries every angle, and is always looking in the corners of the character, trying to figure out what's going to bring it to life. She's trying things constantly and is fearless. It's really about the work and her love of it. She was really inspiring to be around."

Tim Lammers is a syndicated movie journalist and author of the e-book "Direct Conversations: The Animated Films of Tim Burton."