We received so many questions for Austin Shaw, Executive Producer of The Phantom of the Opera, that we have had to post the interview in two instalments… here’s the first one.
To avoid repetition, we have grouped questions covering similar themes together…
I am the Managing Director of Really Useful films and I’ve been responsible for putting together all of the films of Andrew’s shows to date – Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Joseph, By Jeeves and now the big screen version of Phantom. My responsibilities include bringing the finance together, working closely with the director, the composer and the other creative team members to shepherd the project through.
What were Emmy and Gerard’s Screen Test Like?
Gerry didn’t actually screen test. We had a very small list of potential Phantoms and Joel had seen Gerry in Dracula 2000 and been very interested in working with him since that time so we started talking to Gerry and, although we knew he had been in a rock band, we needed to know if he could sing the Phantom role. Gerry had some singing instruction and met Simon Lee, the Musical Director and then sang for Andrew as an audition. He obviously passed this and so there was no screen test for Gerry at all. It was relatively straightforward casting him.
We did screen tests for potential Christine’s and Emmy’s screen test is on the DVD as a “hidden extra” in certain territories. We ended up doing her screen test in New York one weekend and it was quite a full production number – we had hair and make up and we had a piano and John Mathieson, our DP came over and lit the whole thing so it was all shot on film and is fairly sumptious. Emmy was one of several candidates for screen testing and she came in right at the last minute – we had a list of people we planned to see on the Saturday and I think it wasn’t until the Wednesday prior that her agent called to add her to the list.
What you were looking for when casting the role of Christine?
The essence of Phantom is that the story is about a young chorus girl who has a certain youth and naivety and believes that there really is a ghost of her dead father. She is seduced by the Phantom and also has her first romantic love interest being awakened with Roaul. Essentially we were trying to stay true to the original Gaston Leroux idea that Christine was a 17-year-old – quite an innocent who during the course of the story blossoms into womanhood. That cuts down the list of potential actors remarkably when you are looking for someone who has experience, who can sing, and can still fit into that age group.
You say that the Christine role you kept quite true to the original, but a lot of people feel that Gerard Butler’s Phantom was very different from the novel. i.e. that he was far too attractive and was too young. What made you decide that this approach to the Phantom would work so well?
Gerry was actually at the screen tests for our Christine and there was a definite chemistry between Gerry and Emmy from that very first meeting they had. Once you go with the idea of casting a 16-year-old Christine, your Phantom has to be a plausible love interest. Gerry is in his early 30’s. If we had gone for an older Phantom I don’t think it would have been a credible love interest for such a young girl.
How well do you feel the film was cast?
I think we “lucked out” in every department really. After Gerry, Emmy and Patrick, Minnie Driver did a tremendous job as Carlotta, bringing a whole new dimension to that character and then of course we had actors of the stature of Miranda Richardson, Simon Callow and Ciaran Hinds. Jennifer Ellison proved to be an inspired choice. I believe we did really well with regard to the casting.
Do you believe the actors portrayed their subjects to the best of their ability?
Yes I do. I think it was a fine ensemble of actors.
What is it like to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
Challenging, always interesting. He is always pushing for perfection. He is very demanding and wants everything to be tip-top quality and occasionally there are moments where you can be absolutely struggling for the best course of action and Andrew can walk into the room and put his finger on the problem immediately. It is an uncanny ability he has.
You picked great choices in actors who played in The Phantom of the Opera and it ended up doing well. Were their any actors you considered at first to play in the movie? Can you give any details of who they may have been?
The casting process of any big movie is always a public affair. There is always a lot of speculation and that speculation tends to come from the press themselves, rather than the producers. Although an awful lot of names were bandied around in the press as to who should and who shouldn’t be cast as the Phantom – the speculation really was centred on the Phantom’s role rather than any other – Gerry came into the frame very early on. Joel had wanted to work with him for a very long time. Gerry is also represented by the same agent as Joel so they already knew each other. So we didn’t actually see other people at all for the role.
Were any of the cast members dubbed with regards to their singing in the film?
Minnie Driver. Although Minnie does have a tremendous voice, as her recent album demonstrates, she has a bluesy, smokey voice whereas the role of Carlotta is high opera. But we made no secret of this. In fact the lady who actually sings the Carlotta role was also cast in the movie so that she and Minnie had the opportunity to work together and bond and agree on the vocal performance.
Moving on to the actual filming, were there any delays caused by inclement weather?
No we were remarkably lucky. Everything was filmed on soundstages bar a few exterior shots of the Opera House and, although we were filming in the depths of winter we were very fortunate in that we had no rain.
How hard was it to do the outside scenes in a soundstage to make them look so real?
The exterior shots were in fact filmed outside. The exterior of the Opera House was filmed on a back lot at Pinewood studios so it was a genuine exterior set.
On the POTO DVD do you talk in detail about the chandelier crashing sequence and if you do could you explain how it was filmed? Were stunt people involved?
Yes we do – there are two pieces in the DVD, one about building the chandelier and Swarovski’s involvement, and one about the stunt work which was necessary to crash it. You only get the opportunity to crash a chandelier like that once, so we had seven cameras focused on it and it was painstakingly planned down to the last detail in terms of the stunt people under the chandelier. We probably had about 150 extras who were not in a danger zone and we probably had about 60 stunt people who WERE in the danger zone. We rehearsed it throughout the day and that one scene, of the crash, took a whole day to film.
In the burning of the Opera house how did you burn it so it did not get out of control and were there actually actors in the auditorium seats trying to escape?
In terms of the fire, again, you plan things very carefully, you make sure everything will burn in a controlled manner and in the way you want it to. And immediately after the chandelier crashed and the fire breaks out we had to evacuate that stage – the only people allowed to remain on it were fireman and cameras were kept rolling and the fireman stepped in to put the fire out after about 30 seconds.
How do you film scenes of panic and chaos without everyone getting completely out of control?
By using stunt people who are very experienced and professional in this situation.
On the subject of stuntmen – did Gerry and Patrick do their own swordfight?
Patrick had done an amazing amount of swordwork previously – at college he did a course on swordfighting – Gerry had not. Therefore Patrick did 100% of his own stunts but although Gerry did the large majority of his own work some parts were deemed too dangerous and – although he was keen to do as much as he could – we took the decision not to allow him to do those.
During the film when the Phantom’s mask is on and the prosthetics are not applied, is Gerard wearing a wig or did he grow his hair for the part?
It’s a wig.
How long did the prosthetic process take everyday?
Again, there is a feature on the DVD about the Phantom’s makeup. I think the very first time it was applied it took something like six hours, but by the time the make up had been applied on many successive occasions the artist cut this down to about three to three and a half hours. But it was a pretty gruelling slog for Gerry to sit in the chair and have that applied.
How does the Phantom’s mask stick to is face during the film?
Nothing more technical than double sided sticky tape!
Why did you decide to show exterior scenes of the Opera House on fire?
The opening shot of the movie illustrates that the whole fabric of the Opera House has been virtually destroyed by fire. There are holes in the roof, there is disrepair everywhere and the whole exterior is scorched so having established that and the fact that the contents are being auctioned off and presumably the Opera House is about to be demolished, we felt it was important, for consistency to show the actual fire ravaging the building. Although the narrative of the story drives with such a pace at that point of the movie you have to cut back inside very quickly to show Mme Giry and Raoul chasing the Phantom down into the lair.
Were a special type of candles used for the lair scenes?
The candles that come out of the water did genuinely light as they hit the air. They were all actually gas driven and our special effects team developed those so that they would ignite at the moment they hit the air. Having achieved those, all of the candles in the lair itself were either genuine wax candles, albeit very slow burning with a double wick, or they were false candles with oil inside.
Why was the decision made to have the cast wear black and white outfits and none of the creative (monkeys, jokers etc.) and colourful costumes during”Masquerade” scenes
Very early on Joel decided with Alexandra Byrne, our Costume Designer, that the colour scheme for the Masquerade ball should be black, white, gold and silver so that when the Phantom appears in his red death costume, and Christine in her pink dress, they would immediately stand out. The difficulty in film, costume wise is that if you dress people in 50 different colours it actually looks quite chaotic and messy on screen.
Which was the most difficult scene in the movie to film?
Undoubtedly the most difficult sequences were in the lair. Working in water is immensely difficult and also because of the lighting and the candles it got incredibly hot. Although it was built on the sound stage it had full ceilings in there and so was claustrophic and humid which meant it was exhausting work. Because of the nature of the set, everything was enclosed, almost like a real cave, it meant that Joel as Director and all of the crew, bar the cameraman, had to be outside of the set so communication with actors was very difficult and consequently everything took a lot longer. When you are trying to move heavy equipment such as cranes throughout water everything takes much more time.
What scene did you most enjoy filming?
Hmmm. Tough. It was all a lot of fun. I think Masquerade stands out as an immensely energetic period of the shoot. Obviously with so many people dancing on set at once it was a wonderful thing to see and to shoot. And also Hannibal was a lot of fun. It was the very first sequence we filmed. With Minnie as Carlotta storming off there was a lot of comedy in the scene and it was a lovely way to start the shoot. A very upbeat, comedic moment.
Were there any really funny bloopers/outtakes that stick out in your mind from when you were filming?
No. We had remarkably few bloopers. In fact a lot of people always ask if you will be including bloopers on the DVD and actually I can only think of maybe two or three real bloopers during the whole film. And although these may seem funny at the time on set when you review them in the cold light of day on a DVD a lot of the time jokes that happen on set may not be funny to the outside world. So we decided not to put the very few that we had on the DVD.
The movie is pieced together so well and I noticed a few things were changed from the show. What thought processes went into changing and making the movie the way it is?
The script was very long in gestation because Joel was originally attached to the project in 1988/9. He had written a script with Andrew at that time and then over the intervening years that script had been in the background as the sort of blueprint and then when he came back to it we made a few other adjustments. Essentially I hope we have stayed very true to the stage show but have been able to adapt it to provide a more filmic adaptation and also the advantage of the film is that it gives you the opportunity to explain the story in a little more depth in places. For instance, Mme Giry’s tale of where the Phantom came from becomes a little clearer in the film than it can be on stage.
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