Rob Marshall On Why He Had To Make Changes To ‘The Little Mermaid’ And Why Halle Bailey Was The Obvious Choice For Ariel

Rob Marshall is very clear about The Little Mermaid being the most challenging movie he’s ever made. The director who turned the stage production of Chicago into a Best Picture Oscar winner now takes on a live-action adaptation of the beloved 1989 animated film, The Little Mermaid. Clocking in almost an hour longer than the original, Marshall explains this isn’t a scene-by-scene remake. There are numerous new scenes and a couple that didn’t make the cut from the original. (Most notably Sebastian the crab almost becomes a meal at the hands of an eccentric chef.)

And, as Marshall notes, there is a rule change. Ariel (Halle Bailey, who is wonderful), a mermaid, falls in love with a human prince, Eric (Jonah Hauer-King), after saving his life during a shipwreck. Her father (Javier Bardem) really hates humans and bans her from seeing him. But the sinister Ursula (Melissa McCarthy, having a great time) makes Ariel a deal: She can be a human for three days, but she can’t speak. If the two kiss, she can remain human. If she fails, she belongs to Ursula. As Marshall notes, the concept of the kiss seemed “superficial” to him so he adds in the added obstacle that Ariel also doesn’t remember that’s her goal. Leaving it up to her friends Sebastian (Daveed Diggs), Scuttle (Awkwafina), and Flounder (Jacob Tremblay) to make sure all of this happens.

Though, Marshall was taken aback when a certain segment of the internet and media balked of the idea of Halle Bailey playing Ariel. These opinions (as I call them ahead, “performative bullshit”) always seem to come from the same corners of the internet and I did wonder if Marshall prepared Bailey for that. He admits he was naïve but really can’t believe this is still a subject in 2023.

You’ve said this is the most challenging movie you’ve ever made. You made a sequel to Mary Poppins, you turned Chicago into a Best Picture winner. For you to say this is the most challenging actually means something.

Well, when I looked at this and I was asked to do this, I thought, well, how do you do this? I mean, how do you begin? How do you create an underwater musical?! I mean, it was sort of almost impossible to imagine. But I’m always intrigued and sort of, I don’t know, interested in the challenge because I feel like if you’re going to do something, do something you haven’t done before, scare yourself a little.

And I thought, listen, if anyone can do this, let me be the one that tries. Let me give you the one that attempts to do it. I went back to the Hans Christian Anderson tale, and I thought it was so profound, I have to say. I found it very moving and very contemporary and modern: this young girl who feels displaced and wants to be part of another world and is not afraid of someone that’s different than her, in her case the human world. And so I just felt like something about that felt so contemporary to me, so timely – not being afraid of people that are different than you across a border, across a wall, that kind of thing. And breaking down those walls and barriers to reach those other people and build that bridge.

And it was a real reminder to me while I was working, a subtle reminder, that we’re all one. And so there was something deep in it and I thought, You know what? This is the one, let’s do it. And I just really started crafting how. With my team – I had the team from Chicago – I literally had the best people that I’ve ever worked with. I needed the A team all around me. And we just literally started figuring it out with storyboards and pre-visualization, which is like a little mini-movie, so we could understand how we could get everybody to be weightless and literally be moving through space. And that’s what we did. It was literally piece by piece by piece.

Something you said kind of hit me, because breaking down boundaries, which is such a big part of the original movie and this movie. Halle Bailey is so great in this. But when certain people were doing the performative bullshit, “Oh, how dare you cast her.” It’s like those people never saw the original movie. Like, what are you talking about?

I completely agree with you. I mean, first of all she’s a mermaid, so she’s ultimately this ethereal creature. Number one, so you just start there. And the truth is, just to be 100 percent transparent, there was no agenda of casting a woman of color to play this role. Not at all. I mean, literally we saw every ethnicity. We just started looking for Ariel, period. And there was a lot to ask of that character. She needs to have an angelic voice, sing beautifully, but then also be incredibly strong and passionate about what she wants. And vulnerable and somewhat naive, and also ethereal. I mean, there was so much the character needed to be. And Halle, when she came in, it was sort of like, “Wow.” She had checked all the boxes. And she set the bar very high, as we continued to see people. She came in many, many, many times with other actors. Listen, my goal, always, as a director is if it really works, you don’t even have to make a choice, it’s made for you. I mean, she claimed the role and that was it. I didn’t have to make a choice, it was so obvious.

I am curious though, because these people seem do that every time a person of color is hired for a role previously played by a white actor, did you have to tell her, “Hey, this is going to happen, because they do it every single time. Just be ready for it?”

It’s funny, honestly… maybe I was a bit naive. I thought…it feels so archaic to me. It feels like from literally another century. I did that Cinderella with Brandy and Whitney Houston in the ’90s. It’s like, “Really? Are we still talking about that?” I mean, seriously, this is 2023, what are we talking about? When I saw, of course, you sort of roll your eyes and go, you know what? Here’s the thing. Go see the film. Go see the film! She’s Ariel! You’ll see why it’s not “woke.” It’s not “stunt casting.” It’s just casting somebody brilliant in the role. That’s all it is. And I was so happy to find her. I mean, it’s not easy, like I said, to find that character today.

Speaking of challenges, in the original movie, Ariel loses her voice for like 20 minutes of runtime. In this, because the movie’s longer, she doesn’t have her voice for around an hour. Is that why Sebastian’s role was increased?

Well, in a way I almost feel like it sort of falls to Eric in a way. I mean, the one thing I was able to do, which I was excited to do, was give Eric some agency and feel like he has a full story. So we created the character of the Queen. And then, for me, the falling in love and the whole kiss of it all is not just sort of kissing a cute guy or kissing a pretty girl. It’s really about the fact that they were kindred spirits. I wanted them to fall in love with each other for who they were and who they are. When Ariel first comes on the ship, she can’t even see him, she just hears him. She hears, she connects with what he’s talking about.

And she connects that he doesn’t feel he fits in, he feels displaced. He doesn’t feel he’s being listened to. And what he wants is different than what his mother wants or Grimsby wants. It’s sort of connecting on a deeper level. When they find each other in that whole library scene that’s completely created, they finally have similar interests and excited about exploring. And that’s love. That’s love. That’s deep love. So, I have to say, Halle’s so good at expressing things without her voice. You could feel that connection, there’s chemistry right there. And we knew at the moment we actually screen-tested them together. That was really helpful, to see that there was this wonderful friendship and connection from the very beginning. And that’s really, to me, what we were able to flesh out.

I am curious why there’s the extra rule added, not in the original movie, that she doesn’t remember that she has to kiss him.

I love that you asked that. I didn’t like the idea that she knew that she had to kiss him because it feels very superficial. I like that it actually makes what I call the three amigos – our three amigos, Scuttle and Sebastian and Flounder – I love that they have to do the work then. It’s all on them because they have to stage-manage how that will happen. That’s why they get them into the boat the way they do so they can try and get them into a romantic air. They’re constantly working to save the girl that they love and their friend. So I just felt like then it could be really true love. It can’t just be… I never liked that rule. If she knew that, it just feels, I don’t know, very superficial to me.

Here’s what I’ve noticed with that run of the late ’80s, early ’90s Disney run, and now the live-action versions: people maybe a little bit younger than me, have a very deep affinity for these movies. And I’ve noticed, almost on principle, they don’t like that they’re being remade. That’s what I’ve noticed at least. So how do you win those people over?

Well, I have to say, this was a classic tale long before 1989 animated film. This is Hans Christian Anderson. It’s like a great opera or a great play, you can re-imagine it in so many different ways. And that’s what we’re able to do. We’re able to take that classic, timeless piece and actually breathe new life into it in a different way. And by the way, this is a completely different genre. This is an opportunity. There are things in an animated film that you just can’t do in a live-action, and there are things in a live-action you can’t do in an animated film. So it’s really a re-imagining. I mean, I will say Disney was so great. They did not want a frame-by-frame remake. They were not asking for that. They said, “Take this beautiful tale and breathe new life into it, expand it.” We have three new songs. We have new characters. We have a fuller, bigger, more expansive, more emotional story that we can tell with so much humor and it’s fresh. So yes, it’s in there and all those pieces are in there. But this is something new, this is something different.

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