What was interesting on Nine was that we needed to make each of the musical numbers work on one set that didn’t change its basic structure. There were ten or twelve of them so it was very complicated. So we had to work out exactly the size of each of a series of canted platforms and ramps and scaffold structures. The idea was that it was a set under construction, an unfinished set that became the playground for all of the musical numbers. So Rob created the first musical number and we got a sense of how big the various areas needed to be and started drawing that up. And then when he created the second musical number it didn’t quite fit so we had to go back and rework the first number and the second number together so that they both fit in the same basic geography. The same thing happened for the third number and the forth number and the fifth number. The basic bones of the set had to be altered continually until we got to a place where we had a stage that we could then, with dressing, change into each of the worlds that we wanted it to be, and at the same time have it still work for each of the dance numbers. So that ended up being very complex. You can’t just show up on a huge, complicated set like that, that has probably twenty different levels based on the floor and our different ramps and scaffold structures and stairwells. It had to be rehearsed in advance. So we had to build a giant rehearsal set that again was exactly to the inch of what the finished set would be.
AS: With all the twenty platforms…
JM: Yes and all the canted platforms and levels and rakes, and staircases and spiral stairs.
AS: You essentially had to build two sets.
JM: We basically built the set twice. Once, out of plywood that didn’t look like anything. And that set we would physically alter during the rehearsals because if Rob found out he needed an extra five foot on the side, at night we would go in and extend it five feet. And then once it was established that that was the right thing to have done, we then would go to the real set that we were building simultaneously and extend that. But extend it in a very beautiful way so it looked like this old, Italian set being built.
We had a staircase on Chicago that we built as twelve steps and they started rehearsing on it and it was decided it would be better to have it be eleven steps so at lunch time we cut a step off. This was all built out of wood. Then later on that afternoon they went back and said, No, it probably should be thirteen steps. So we quickly built two new steps. Once Rob locks it in, it’s locked in and I have to take that and turn it into the visuals that tell the story. But all of the physical spaces and planes are defined by the dance. It’s so much fun. I mean just being around dancers and singers is magical. It’s just such pure, creative filmmaking because as you’re creating everything you’re around human beings that are really physically singing and dancing.
AS: And they’re involved in the creation of the set, unlike the normal process where you build a set and the actors show up…
JM: Well it’s kind of the ultimate version of what we talked about with dropping the video camera into the model and laying the set out full-size with cardboard boxes. In Nine, the one main set was something that the dancers and choreographers and Dion the cameraman had been working on for six weeks before we started shooting. He actually shot each of the musical numbers on video because once the routines were finalized by Rob Marshall and John DeLuca they would present them to us. Colleen Atwood (the costume designer), Dion Beebe, and I would all come in. We’d all been through it in terms of what made sense for each of our departments but they would then present the whole number and they’d run though it a few times. Dion would actually film it on video and do a little rough cut. So even before going in to shoot the number Dion was pretty confident in terms of where he needed to be with the camera, where he needed to be with lights, and I was confident with what I needed to wild out and move.