Advertisement

‘The Little Mermaid’ Filmmakers Talk the Sea Creature Designs, Bypassing “Les Poissons” and Cutting Javier Bardem’s New Song

The Little Mermaid’s brain trust of director Rob Marshall and producer John DeLuca decided early on that verisimilitude was the name of the game. They knew that their live-action reimagining of the 1989 animated classic couldn’t have it both ways, so they opted for photorealism at every turn instead of a hybrid of realistic and fantastical elements. That meant Ariel’s (Halle Bailey) beloved sea-creature sidekicks of Flounder (Jacob Tremblay), Sebastian (Daveed Diggs) and Scuttle (Awkwafina) had to be reinvented as well.

“We knew right from the beginning that we were gonna create a photoreal world underwater,” Marshall tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We’ve had an animated film, but … we’re now in a live-action genre. We want to believe we’re in that space, so there was no version of creating a Flounder that didn’t look like a fish. There was no version of creating a crab that didn’t look like a crab. We worked with the incredible CGI artists from The Lion King (2019) to really bring these characters to life and make them look like real creatures.”

More from The Hollywood Reporter

As a result, Sebastian and Chef Louis’ (René Auberjonois) animated showdown to the tune of “Les Poissons” also had no place in a more realistic live-action story.

“It’s literally a Saturday morning cartoon section. If we had filmed it — I don’t know how we would’ve filmed it — it never would have played. It’s also a vacation from the story and has nothing to do with the story, so you can’t do that in a live-action film,” Marshall says.

The longtime creative and life partners behind the best picture-winning Chicago (2002) even killed their own darlings including a new original song by Javier Bardem’s King Triton.

“What we learned very quickly was that [Bardem’s song] was robbing from the ending of the film. And Javier knew that, too,” Marshall admits. “But he was so spectacular in the song, and it sounds amazing. So we’ll be able to share that new piece with the world after the film comes out.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Marshall and DeLuca also discuss Bailey’s showstopping audition and whether they have another Disney musical in them, post-Mermaid, Mary Poppins Returns (2018) and Into the Woods (2014).

So, if somebody told the two of you in 1989 that you would someday make a live-action Little Mermaid, would any part of you have believed them? 

John DeLuca: Never, but we saw it together.

Rob Marshall: Yeah, we wouldn’t believe it, mostly because we weren’t in film in any way, shape or form. We were doing theater at the time. In fact, the Broadway community was so excited about [The Little Mermaid (1989)] because it was the return of the movie musical. There hadn’t been movies with music or musicals in that era at all, and it ushered in that incredible era of animated musicals. And, in a way, it opened the door to Chicago for us years later, because people were starting to accept the idea of people singing and breaking into song, even though it was animated.

DeLuca: Thank God.

Marshall: So there’s no version of us ever believing that this would’ve happened.

THE LITTLE MERMAID Rob Marshall John DeLuca
Halle Bailey in The Little Mermaid

When you guys saw Halle Bailey audition for the first time, did you immediately call it a day and break for lunch? Did the search end right then and there? 

DeLuca & Marshall: (Laugh.)

DeLuca: First, Rob dried his eyes. Halle came in, she sang and I looked over to see tears streaming down his face. So I thought, “Oh, he’s smitten.”

Marshall: (Laughs.) It was very powerful, but it’s hard to believe that she was the first person who auditioned for us. I remember turning to John and saying exactly what you just said: “Is that it? Are we done?” But we didn’t quite believe it. So we started the search after she came in …

DeLuca: We saw everyone.

Marshall: Everyone! We made sure we saw hundreds of women and great actors and singers after that, but she immediately set the bar so high that no one surpassed it. No one did. And we saw every ethnicity. There was no agenda to cast a woman of color. It was really just, “Let’s find the best Ariel,” and Halle claimed the role. We always say this to ourselves, but our goal is to never have to really even choose; it’s chosen for us. So she claimed the role and said, “I’m Ariel.”

THE LITTLE MERMAID Rob Marshall John DeLuca
Awkwafina’s Scuttle, Jacob Tremblay’s Flounder and Halley Bailey’s Ariel in The Little Mermaid

I preferred the direction you took with the talking sea creatures, but I’m sure you were expecting some bellyaching since people are so attached to the animated versions. Did you still test a number of different designs, from realistic to more fantastical? 

Marshall: No, because we knew right from the beginning that we were gonna create a photoreal world underwater. I wanted to believe we were there. For instance, Triton’s [Javier Bardem] palace is made out of a coral reef. It’s all natural. Everything. We’ve had an animated film, but this is a different genre. We’re now in a live-action genre. We want to believe we’re in that space, so there was no version of creating a Flounder that didn’t look like a fish. There was no version of creating a crab that didn’t look like a crab. This [Sebastian] is an actual crab based on an actual crab. We worked with the incredible CGI artists from The Lion King (2019) to really bring these characters to life and make them look like real creatures. For example, with Scuttle [Awkwafina], John and I chose to make Scuttle a diving bird [that can go underwater]. It was really important to us because we didn’t want Ariel to have ever crossed into the surface. It was very important to raise the stakes so that she’d never been up there, ever. So the only way she could learn about the surface through Scuttle was as a diving bird underwater. And by raising those stakes, it’s so thrilling the first time she actually crosses into the real world. In the animated film, she’s up and down, up and down. So the stakes are raised, and that’s what you can do with a live-action film. You can bring things to life. You can make it more fully realized, more emotional, deeper, more expansive, more epic. So it was really important to us to reimagine this and make it work as a live-action, standalone piece.

You had to cut a new Javier Bardem-led song, and while that’s never an easy phone call to make, was it especially terrifying given that it’s JavIer Bardem on the other end of the line?

DeLuca & Marshall: (Laugh.)

DeLuca: Well, we’re lucky because he’s a great friend. The whole family is: Penélope [Cruz], Javier and their kids. So knowing them for a long time makes it easier.

Marshall: Yes, and he’s a total gentleman. He understood that we were creating, in many ways, a new piece. We’re obviously taking the great bones of what was there, but you try things. We do musicals on stage as well, and when you take a play or a musical out of town, you learn what works. So the movie tells you, and what we learned very quickly was that [Bardem’s song] was robbing from the ending of the film. You have to protect that moment where Triton’s inner feelings are revealed and he comes to terms with Ariel and learns to let her go. So the song robbed from that moment, and it was very important to protect it. And Javier knew that, too. But he was so spectacular in the song, and it sounds amazing. So we’ll be able to share that new piece with the world after the film comes out, but you learn to listen to what the film tells you.

DeLuca: Now you’ve ruined the movie! Now people know how it ends.

DeLuca & Marshall: (Laugh.)

THE LITTLE MERMAID Rob Marshall John DeLuca
Javier Bardem in The Little Mermaid

Just out of curiosity, did the “Les Poissons” sequence ever make it very far during development? 

DeLuca: Never.

DeLuca & Marshall: (Laugh.)

DeLuca: When we wrote our first outline, there just wasn’t space.

Marshall: That whole thing is also an animated concept.

DeLuca: As fun as it is …

Marshall: It’s literally a Saturday morning cartoon section. If we had filmed it — I don’t know how we would’ve filmed it — it never would have played. It’s also a vacation from the story and has nothing to do with the story, so you can’t do that in a live-action film. That was a wonderful animated concept, but like I said, we’re in a different genre. So it was very important to keep the story moving forward in a very live-action way.

THE LITTLE MERMAID Rob Marshall John DeLuca
(L-R): Cinematographer Dion Beebe, Director Rob Marshall, and Producer John DeLuca on the set of The Little Mermaid

As far as what’s next, do the two of you have another Disney musical in you, or is time for a hard left turn? 

DeLuca: It’s time [for a hard left turn]!

DeLuca & Marshall: (Laugh.)

Marshall: Listen, musicals are in our blood. We love the genre so much, and we believe in it. It’s also a very difficult genre to work with because it’s delicate. Any moment can go off the rails and become a Saturday Night Live sketch. So you have to always make sure that when someone starts to sing, it’s earned and feels natural and organic, not gratuitous. Otherwise, it’s that embarrassing moment when someone starts to sing and you think, “This doesn’t work.” But we love it, and we’ll probably continue to work with musicals. One thing I know for sure is that John and I don’t like doing the same thing again. We don’t want to do Chicago 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. We did Chicago, so we don’t need to do more. The Little Mermaid was four-and-a-half years of our lives, so we want another journey and another world.

DeLuca: We’re definitely open to everything, though.

Marshall: Why, you have something for us?

Based on that recent viral video, how about Transformers the Musical

DeLuca & Marshall: (Laugh.)

Marshall: There you go! I’m looking forward to that opening number.

***
The Little Mermaid opens in theaters May 26th. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Best of The Hollywood Reporter

Click here to read the full article.