Cinematographer Dion Beebe, ACS and director Rob Marshall marry theatrical and cinematic techniques on Chicago, a stylish and sexy adaptation of the high-kicking stage musical.

Murder, jazz, period. If this was the front page and you were in Prohibition-era Chicago, the newspaper was as good as sold. You knew it, the newsboy knew it, and Billy Flynn, the slickest trial lawyer this side of the Loop, knew it too. So did Maureen Dallas Watkins, the ex-court reporter who created Flynn for her 1926 play Chicago.

The musical stage adaptation of Watkins’ work, made famous in the 1970s by legendary choreographer Bob Fosse and revived in 1995, shines a spotlight on the fame, dames and crime that dominated popular consciousness during the Roaring Twenties – a combination that continues to fascinate today. We have Monica Lewinsky and Johnnie Cochran; Chicago, in its latest incarnation as a Miramax motion picture, has Roxie Hart (Renée Zellweger) and Billy Flynn (Richard Gere). In the city’s smoky speakeasies, where jazz is second only to gin as the night’s guiltiest pleasure, Roxie eyes celebrity chanteuse Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and dreams of taking her place at the top. When both women land in the clink on separate murder charges, Roxie suddenly finds her star on the rise, thanks to the tabloid-savvy Flynn.

Chicago tells its tale through a string of elaborate, vaudeville-style musical numbers. However, the sexy arrangements that led Miramax chief Harvey Weinstein to option the show’s rights turned out to be the very thing that kept the film in "development hell" for years. Unlike most musicals, in which characters sing to each other within the context of the story, the characters in Chicago sing directly to the audience, as they would in a real vaudeville revue.

This concept didn’t translate well to cinema’s "fourth wall," and the project languished until director/choreographer Rob Marshall, who had just filmed Annie for Disney, mentioned his interest to Weinstein. Marshall’s idea was to braid Chicago’s musical numbers into the narrative by staging them in a theater called the Onyx, which represented the world of Roxie’s fantasies. Weinstein approved, and Marshall spent the next year writing the film’s screenplay with Bill Condon (Gods and Monsters).

Director of photography Dion Beebe, ACS became involved through a fortunate coincidence. "I was in London on a production, and I went off to see Chicago one night," the Australian cameraman recalls. "I was literally on my way into the theater when my agent called and said, ‘Do you want to shoot Chicago?’ I thought, ‘This is a sign.’"

After seeing the show, Beebe was skeptical about the chances of remaining faithful to such stage-bound material. All the same, he says he found it "completely intriguing to consider shooting a musical. It’s just not something you often get the opportunity to do, or even speculate upon." Any lingering reservations he had were dispelled once he read the script and understood Marshall’s strategy for incorporating the stage numbers.

The device of the Onyx Theatre, as Marshall puts it, "embraces the fact that all these numbers take place on the stage, instead of trying to disguise it." Beebe therefore knew that the transitions between the "real" world and Roxie’s fantasies had to be sufficiently cinematic. "In my first conversation with Rob, I said, ‘This is going to make or break in the transitions,’" he recalls. "To just cut hard to the stage each time was not going to be satisfying. For example, the transition for the number ‘Funny Honey’ uses a flashlight that a district attorney shines in Roxie’s face. As the light burns into her, we cut behind to her silhouette and start to move around her. Through a lighting fade we reveal that we’re now in the theater, that she’s slipped into her fantasy world."

The fusion of cinematic and theatrical techniques that the filmmakers used to create these transitions – including storyboarded camera moves, live lighting cues, match cuts and scrim walls – became the guiding ethos for the entire production. Toward that end, Bebee and Marshall brought theater-lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer on board to collaborate with Beebe on lighting the film’s musical numbers. According to Beebe, the Tony Award-winning team provided "a theatrical language that Rob understands and wanted to incorporate into the film’s language."

Fisher explains that unlike film sequences, which are often built from individually lit shots, "a musical number is lit from beginning to end. If it lasts for three minutes, then there are three minutes’ worth of lighting cues that are constantly changing with the actors and the music’s tempo. Musical theater draws on this moving light – it’s part of the energy of the show." Adds Eisenhauer, "The audience’s perspective doesn’t move in theater like it does in film. Instead, the movement of the light is like our ‘camera eye,’ our perspective-changer."

Miramax allotted Chicago’s filmmakers 12 weeks for preproduction, almost triple the amount of time most feature films get. But then, most features don’t attempt to mount a full Broadway show on top of an already-complicated film production. Drawing on Marshall’s knowledge of theater architecture, as well as the paintings of Prohibition-era artist Reginald Marsh, production designer John Myhre built the Onyx from scratch in a Toronto warehouse, complete with a 60'x60' suspended truss system that could accommodate both film and theatrical lighting demands.

Beebe, whose feature credits include Praise, Charlotte Gray and Holy Smoke, admits that the prospect of working in a theatrical idiom "terrified the hell out of me." Moreover, his preferred soft sources for key and fill light were ill suited to the Onyx. "The marriage between [my lighting style] and the theatrical was always tricky, because theatrical lighting is by nature rigged up high, coming down at very steep angles," he explains. "My problem was that I couldn’t key with standard HMI fixtures because we had so many cues in a number. I couldn’t switch on a 4K and dowse it, or color-scroll it, or manipulate the iris on the fly."

Fortunately, Fisher and Eisenhauer were able to help with an innovation from the world of theatrical lighting. For keying the Onyx’s numerous numbers, the lighting duo used 32 Vari-Lite Series 2000 automated luminaires (supplied by Toronto’s William F. White International). Fixtures of the music and theater industries for years, Vari-Lites allow a lighting designer to change the beam’s color, diameter, brightness and quality on the fly. They can also pivot and rotate nearly 360 degrees, as well as hold a cucaloris inside the can. "We think it’s a natural for film work," says Eisenhauer. "Once the cinematographer realizes how quickly the lighting can be changed, it’s very appealing."

Beebe spent a considerable portion of the prep period testing and matching the output of the Vari-Lites to that of his supplemental film lighting. "Their color balance is geared more toward theatrical use and their glass-gelling system is different," he says. "We kept them as our key and repositioned them for closer shots. We could do a wide shot to establish the mood and feeling, but we’d always have to make adjustments as we went closer, like diffusing the lights or bringing them into eyelines."

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© 2003 American Cinematographer.