What actress doesn't dream of reliving Fellini's magic? Here, a head-spinning lineup of A-list stars join forces in Rob Marshall's movie-musical Nine. Plum Sykes visits them on set. Photographed by Annie Leibovitz.
Shepperton Studios, London, on a bleak December day. Shrouded in a freezing fog, the lot seems faintly neglected, as though abandoned. The various buildings—prop shops, costume houses—look like little more than sheds. A car drops me off at a side door to a soundstage, where a harried but friendly publicist meets me.
Inside, it's as though a magician has waved his wand. Suddenly I am transported half a century back in time to the Italy of La Dolce Vita. To my left is an empty set-within-a-set of a Roman piazza, and to my right is a bustling re-creation of a 1960s movie studio. An intricate scaffolding of iron balconies and stairwells has been built in front of the corrugated walls of the soundstage. Nowhere, it turns out, could be more perfect for Rob Marshall to direct the song-and-dance numbers for Nine, his latest movie, because the bones of Shepperton have an uncanny resemblance to the Cinecittà of Fellini's 8½, the inspiration for Maury Yeston's 1982 Broadway musical Nine, on which this film is based.
Bang ahead of me, Daniel Day-Lewis, playing the lead, Guido, is dressed in a forties-style waistcoat, a white shirt, and beige pants. Nine is Guido's story—the tale of a legendary director who can't find a subject for his next film or a way to control the many women in his life. Day-Lewis is seated on a crane, "directing" a scene.
I stand and watch for a while. Well, actually, I stare in a fanlike manner, rather than a professional-Vogue-journalist kind of manner. Day-Lewis's cheekbones are as mesmerizing as his acting, and his performance is so intense he literally is his character. Suddenly an arm appears and gently repositions me about two yards to the left. "Could you please move out of Daniel's eye line, Miss Sykes?" asks a crew member. I am politely informed that since Day-Lewis is a Method actor, he doesn't like to see anyone besides cast and crew while he is working. Nor would I, if I were taking on a role originally played by the iconic Marcello Mastroianni. (On Broadway, Guido was played by Raúl Juliá in 1982 and Antonio Banderas in 2003.)
No matter; there is plenty else to look at—and what a show it is! Behind Day-Lewis, the scaffolding is peopled with 100 extras and 24 dancers, immaculately choreographed and dressed in glittering gradations of white: Dancers in flapper dresses preen on the stairwells; girls in corsets flirtatiously drape themselves over the balconies; buxom ladies in bustiers and hot pants twirl giant fluffy ostrich-feather fans. This is the spectacular, over-the-top ensemble number "Folies Bergeres": Guido's imagination come alive.
One by one, six of the seven leading ladies in Guido's life appear through a doorway high up in the rafters and slink down the stairs, positioning themselves languorously around the set. First, to the grand orchestral music of the "Overture Delle Donne," the singer Fergie, who plays Saraghina, a prostitute, appears in a gray, corseted frock, all cleavage and russet hair, her eyes kohled into a smudgy, sexy mess. She is followed by Kate Hudson, perky as ever, in a white fringed sixties minidress and go-go boots, her blonde tresses teased into tumbling curls. The outfit perfectly suits her character, Stephanie, a Vogue journalist. Next, Judi Dench, playing costume designer Lily, appears clad in black and smoking a cigarette. Then comes a saucy Penélope Cruz, as Guido's mistress, Carla, in a polka-dot cocktail dress that gives her the silhouette of a fifties pinup. Nicole Kidman follows, striking a powerful pose in a nude-colored strapless, sparkling gown as movie star Claudia, Guido's inspiration and obsession. Finally, an astoundingly well-preserved Sophia Loren, playing Guido's mother, makes her entrance, leaning over the balcony and shooting a stern but loving look toward Guido far below. (Marion Cotillard, who plays Guido's long-suffering wife, Luisa, is not in this scene.)
"You could call it an iconfest," I scribble in my notes. Then, rather unimaginatively, I add "razzle-dazzle-pizzazz musical great antidote to misery-gloom-doom of credit crunch" before, thankfully for the reader, I am diverted by the whisper "Ciao! Plume!" from behind me. I turn to see a vision of toffee-colored Loro Piana cashmere before me—Mr. Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti.
"We're here to see Sophia," explains Giammetti. "She said to me, 'It's the best movie I've ever done.' " Mr. Valentino adds, "She said, 'It's the most expensive movie I've ever done.' " From the rear, producer Harvey Weinstein, dressed in a white shirt and black pants, booms, "Judi Dench said to me, 'I have to make Ten and Eleven!' " Just then, Pedro Almodóvar walks by, plus entourage, in search of Penélope Cruz's dressing room. I scrawl "icon overload" on my legal pad.
A few minutes later I find myself climbing a very steep ladder up to a small stage where Rob Marshall has been perched for most of the last twelve weeks. Dressed in dark jeans and a navy sweatshirt, Marshall, 49, is good-looking—and dead serious. He has four screens to monitor and multiple cameras, and is shouting directions at the actors, who are repeating the scene over and over. The only line in the scene comes at the end, when Day-Lewis says, "Action!"
The pressure doesn't faze Marshall, who is thoroughly enjoying himself. "I was born in the wrong time," he says, sighing. "I wish I'd lived in the MGM era, when they churned out musical films one after another." An ex-dancer and choreographer whose exhaustive résumé includes codirecting, with Sam Mendes, a revival of Cabaret that won four Tonys, and directing the movie Chicago, which won six Oscars, Marshall is in his element. "One of the joys of working on a musical is that you rehearse for two months. You actually get to create a company, which you never do usually in film," he says.
Still, even a multiple-Oscar-winner cannot escape the provenance of Nine and the expectations that it brings. Fellini's 8½—so called because it was, literally, Fellini's eight-and-a-halfth film—which was released in 1963, is extraordinarily iconic to moviemakers because of the surreal and beautiful way it dealt with the subject of creative procrastination. To the fashion crowd, 8½ is simply a diabolically stylish movie that defines 1960s European chic. The curvaceous women of 8½ are clad in shockingly sharp shift dresses, demure gloves, and enormous, veiled hats from under which their immaculately lined eyes gaze blankly out. Shot in cool, grainy black-and-white, 8½ starred the sexiest actresses of the day, including Anouk Aimée and Claudia Cardinale. "This movie is not a remake of 8½!" exclaims Marshall nervously. "I could never remake that movie in half a million years. I could never touch Fellini and the brilliant, genius masterpiece of all time."
A break is announced, and Weinstein escorts me back down to the set to meet the actresses, who are chatting while they wait for the next take, Penélope and Kate dwarfed by the ethereal-looking Nicole in her glittering gown. Her hair, colored a beautiful shade of palomino, is curled and immaculately pulled back from her forehead, and her clear blue eyes and pillar-box-red lips are like exclamation points against her alabaster skin, showing off the enormous Chopard diamonds around her neck to perfection. I tell her I cannot believe she had her baby, Sunday Rose, only six months ago. "My baby gives me energy. I don't feel tired," says Nicole. Claudia was played by Claudia Cardinale in 8½. I can't resist asking Nicole how she feels about being a movie icon playing a movie icon who was once played by an Italian movie icon. "No!" she insists. "I'm not playing Claudia Cardinale. Even when I played Virginia Woolf I didn't take the real woman into account." Nevertheless, Marshall says he picked Kidman for the role because "when Claudia comes on, she has to be the iconic film star, and Nicole has really attained that in her life."
Nicole turns to Kate, who has covered her costume with a white terry robe. Her feet are now clad in a pair of UGG boots. "Kate should be on Broadway," says Nicole. "She should be the lead." Kate's eyes sparkle with excitement when she talks about her number "Cinema Italiano," which was written especially for her by Yeston. "I spent most of my childhood singing and dancing and just never had the chance to do it professionally. So when I got the chance to work with Rob, I was so excited, I was out of my mind."
Hudson tells me that rehearsals felt like "being at summer camp," although she adds, "I don't think there is any actress who looks forward to missing those days with her kids. But at the same time there is no one who wants to stop acting." Nicole admits, "I had no desire to work after I had my daughter, but to lure me back, this movie was the only way."
Penélope also plans to work less in the future. She says that she is so often cast in tortured-female parts that she needs to put in more and more energy and time to play them. "Luckily I don't have to identify with my roles, because if I did I would be dead by now!" she says with a laugh. "I've been working since the age of seventeen, and I really haven't stopped. I want to balance it a little more. Instead of making three or four movies a year, I will do one."
Still, it isn't as though the girls haven't had fun. Penélope loved living in the same apartment building as Kate and Fergie. "I've had some very long dinners with Kate, because she loves eating," she says. "I mean four-hour dinners. We are exercising so much we don't feel guilty at all." Fergie then walks over and adds that because she had to gain weight for her part, she stopped working out and "started eating crap. I ate everything fried."
Later I visit the wardrobe department, which turns out to be an entire floor of another building. There are so many racks of forties frocks, sequined gowns, and beaded dresses that I literally can't see where they end. Costume designer Colleen Atwood, who won an Oscar for Memoirs of a Geisha (directed by Marshall), had a fashion challenge on her hands with Nine: The film is set in the sixties, but the women in Guido's life go back to the mid-twenties, so the costumes had to reflect all the different eras. Colleen used vintage clothes for the extras but created all the period looks for the principals because they had to sing and dance in them—350 costumes and 200 pairs of shoes in all. She sewed couture-like corsets for Nicole Kidman to give her the silhouette of a goddess and was inspired by a print from a sixties Pucci purse to make a blouse for Kate Hudson. "We have given you a major fashion moment," says Marshall. Even the period lingerie for the women was handmade, whether it was frilly garter belts or satin-and-lace bras.
In the makeup studio, I meet Peter Swords King, Oscar-winning hair and makeup designer, who has a team of 28 working with him. The walls are covered in inspirational black-and-white photos of sixties stars like Monica Vitti, Brigitte Bardot, and Julie Christie. "Those girls always looked like they just got out of bed—in a good way," says Peter, confiding that authentic bedroom hair is achieved by running your fingers through your hair instead of brushing it, after you curl it. "I was completely inspired by the Italian New Wave-film look—Sophia Loren and Claudia Cardinale." As for the makeup, think false eyelashes, eyeliner, and pancake foundation. "There's something incredibly sexy about the dark eyes and the pale lips," says Marshall. "That era worshipped the beauty of women."
A few minutes later Weinstein picks me up in a chauffeur-driven car. En route, he tells me, "I've made more than 100 movies, but I've never, ever made a movie like this. I've been working on Nine for nearly five years," he says. "It's been a real passion of mine since I saw the original with Raúl Juliá." When we arrive at the office the first clip I see is Penélope performing "A Call from the Vatican," which she sings wearing a white satin-and-black lace teddy and fishnets. It's sexy and fun. Kate Hudson's go-go-dancing turn is more than a little reminiscent of her mother, Goldie Hawn, in the sixties comedy-sketch show Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In. Finally, I see Marion Cotillard singing "My Husband Makes Movies" while performing a dazzlingly chic striptease. When I talk to her by phone a few weeks later, Marion, who speaks with a delightful French accent, tells me, "It's been my dream to do an American musical. When I was a child, Annie was my favorite. I just never thought I would get to do it." Of playing opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, Cotillard says, "It's easy to work with such an amazing artist." Because he was always in character, "it gives an energy to the crew. He creates this desire in everyone to be at their best."
At five o'clock, I go back to the set, where it's a wrap. The soundstage is littered with the debris of moviemaking—giant wind machines, a double-decker bus, bunches of cables, a child's bed, lampshades. Actors rush for their coats and bags. A troupe of good-looking extras dressed as priests in white cassocks say goodbye to one another, looking slightly deflated now that it's all over. Sophia Loren walks alone to her dressing room, a fat mink coat draped over her costume against the cold. A dancing girl covers herself in a dull green mackintosh and heads home. The spell is broken—I am reminded of the bleak London day outside, and venture out into the mist.
"Prima Time!" has been edited for Style.com; the complete story appears in the November 2009 issue of Vogue.