Interview: Carey Mulligan and the Creatives behind Maestro

Published 11:00 am Saturday, December 30, 2023

It is no secret that Netflix’s brilliant film MAESTRO is my favorite of the year. I have seen it three times now and each time I watch I discover something new. The film focuses on American composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein (Bradley Cooper) and his relationship with his music; but more than that it centers around his relationship with his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan). The film begins streaming on Netflix December 20 and I am already anticipating security officers to appear at my house to investigate whether they should be concerned by a household that keeps rewatching this film. 

I am excited to publish my interviews with Carey Mulligan, as well as many of the creatives that brought Bradley Cooper’s vision to life. I was able to sit down with screenwriter Josh Singer, producer Kristie Macosko, conducting consultant Yannick Nezet-Seguin, costume designer Mark Bridges, production designer Kevin Thompson, and production sound mixer Steve Morrow. If you can’t tell, I completely nerded out about getting to ask some of the questions that have been top of mind, particularly about the climax of the film, Cooper conducting as Bernstein in the Ely Cathedral.

In my opinion, Felicia’s story is the heart of the film; I think she is the real “maestro,” keeping the family intact, being Bernstein’s muse, and orchestrating a life that supported his genius. I asked Carey if she saw the film as a love letter to Felicia. 

Carey Mulligan: Yeah. I mean, I think, from the very first conversation, (Bradley) wanted to make a film about marriage. And when he said to the Bernstein kids… when he was looking to get the rights to the music, he said, I wanna make a film about your parents. And I think they sort of didn’t believe it, you know, because the obvious choice is to make a film about, you know, the classic biopic. But he really did, he wanted to make a story about the two of them. And I think the more we learned about them, the more we loved them and the family, you know? 

But yeah, I think it was a love letter to her. And I think the way, you know, that he talks about Lenny doesn’t ever change. He’s sort of the same person that you meet at the beginning of the end of the film. He’s still got that incredible lust for life and for music and for people. But she really goes through this kind of extraordinary journey and is a different person by the end of the film. 

INTERVIEW WITH KRISTIE MACOSKO (PRODUCER), YANNICK NEZET-SEGUIN (CONDUCTING CONSULTANT), JOSH SINGER (SCREENWRITER)

First I have to say what a masterpiece I think this film is. I was in my seat waiting for the opportunity to clap because there were so many times in the film that I wanted to. And then finally in the big cathedral number when the whole audience clapped, I was so excited to get my chance. So again, congratulations. For Josh and Kristie, what scene from the script were you most excited to see onscreen. And were there any surprises that you had in seeing Bradley’s vision come to life?

Kristie Macosko: Well, I’m going to say two scenes. The first one is that Bradley pitched me the opening scene, which is when Leonard Berstein got the call to do his first time conducting at Carnegie Hall. And he pitched it to me in 2018 when he signed on to direct the movie, beat for beat, shot for shot. And then four years later, we put it on film forever. And so that for me was like, oh, this guy knows exactly what he’s doing. He is thinking about this from sunup to sundown and actually all the other hours (laughs). He really just put himself into this movie. So that one scene for me is incredible. And then the other scene is the fight scene. I was always really excited. (everyone agrees).

When I read it on the page, I knew it was going to be something. And then what Bradley and Carrie brought to the scene was something otherworldly. It was really, really spectacular to watch that marriage sort of implode in that moment. But there’s so much subtext, and there’s so much emotion from the two of them that is just under the surface until it goes bananas, and then that Snoopy balloon was always in the script. We knew that was gonna float by, and you knew that it was gonna somehow break the tension in the room. But it was still… it was just incredible. And to watch that filmed was, for me, another highlight.

Josh Singer: I would say… you know, it’s funny. I would say the inverse of the fight scene, which is the scene early on where they go to the theater, and you see them walk into the actual theater. It was the playhouse on their first date. And they go down and they work on this show that was actually the show that Felicia was in. And we stole text from the actual production, from the actual script, the actual play, to use. And so I was excited to see how this queer man and this straight woman were going to come together. And so I love that because that’s the counterpoint to the fight later on. That’s the beginning of the pact, and the fight scene is when the pact is fraying. 

And then, of course, we always talked about the shark. Right? When are you gonna see the shark? And the shark is him conducting. And when are we going to see that? And Bradley was very clear that he didn’t really want see conducting full force until we got to Mahler (the Ely Cathedral scene). And so we had written it, and you can write that on the page, but it’s very different to write it on the page and then actually see what Bradley and Yannick are going to make happen. So I was not disappointed.

And now we have to talk about Yannick, your wonderful work. I think that you and Bradley did such a great job crafting the physicality of this character. Can you talk about that and how that might have changed over the years with the character specifically as he was aging?

Yannick Nezet-Seguin: That’s very interesting. I think it’s as Bernstein was aging… one example is the very first Carnegie Hall, this famous downbeat rest that he talks about. There’s no stick. There’s no baton. Because Lenny, in a search for authenticity, which was really something very important to Bradley and the whole movie and the whole team, he was not using a baton at the beginning when he was young. Then he used the baton later on, and we had to make these differences. Also, the baton sometimes held like a cigarette because he was holding a cigarette so much. So we see a little bit of that when he conducts the choir also in the rehearsal a little later. And then all of this with the shark, the Mahler…this was where most of the work went into. And I must say, Bradley had it figured out completely in terms of the mimics of Lenny. Because he’s a well-documented conductor and Bradley studied it so intelligently and smartly.

But he nevertheless needed to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra and chorus and in one of the biggest pieces ever written, Mahler’s Symphony. And he needed to be technically secure. I needed to help him do that while not being away from the real emotional power of Lenny’s conducting, which is really what this movie is about and what Lenny was about, frankly. I think he’s the most admired conductor ever, at least from my perspective, because of the emotional abandon he brought to the podium. So we needed to stay committed to this, and that’s not easy to do. It’s not easy to do for a professional conductor, let alone an actor. So it’s mind blowing what Bradley was able to do.

It truly is. And again thank you all so much for this film. I absolutely loved it, and congratulations.

INTERVIEW WITH MARK BRIDGES (COSTUME DESIGNER), KEVIN THOMPSON (PRODUCTION DESIGNER), STEVE MORROW (PRODUCTION SOUND MIXER)

I just wanted to tell you guys, I think this movie is a masterpiece. I was in my seat last night just waiting for the opportunity to clap. So just thank you for the film. I loved it so so much. So something I wanted to ask you guys, is there a difference in the black and white and color scenes between the props and the costumes? How did that work? 

Kevin Thompson: Yeah. I think Mark, the costume designer, and myself had the cinematographer do some camera tests to see how certain colors would react in black and white film. And we used that as a guide and then we would consider things like textures and blacks more and the shading of things because you want it to read like the period, but you can’t use color to do it. 

Mark Bridges: Because there’s a middle range of colors that you very definitely can see the difference, but when it’s translated to black and white, they all look the same. So you have to be strong and and rely on using contrast.

Thompson: Right. It’s contrasting textures. And then and then when we would go to color, we suddenly have a brilliant 1970s color palette in the Dakota apartment.

Bridges: And it’s also late 60s, early 70s, so there were more vibrant colors. Men wore colored dress shirts, just subtle things like that to tell the passage of time and to introduce us to color.

Wow, that’s brilliant. Of course, we have to talk about the cathedral scene because I think that that is the most powerful scene in the movie. And so Steve, can you talk about the explosiveness of sound that you created for that because it’s a knockout.

Steve Morrow: Yeah, from Bradley’s… from the beginning of his discussion about making the film, he always wanted those scenes to just explode out of the screen. And to make them as authentic as possible, we actually had the London Symphony Orchestra and the London Symphony Choir perform it live. And so we recorded it in Dolby Atmos, and it’s a process that you spend a lot of days, months, weeks thinking about. But once you’re able to to achieve it, then we can put the audience in the middle of it all. And with the brilliant mix, tou can you can feel like you’re right there.

Thompson: How many microphones were there? 

Morrow: About 60-62? There were a lot. From a very high ceiling (everyone laughs). The opera singers were singing. I mean, it was the real deal opera singers. 

Wow, and how many takes did you do? 

Morrow: What’s in the movie was one full take. It came around and that was the take that you’re hearing. There’s some insert shots that we did separate from that. But basically, it’s… we were there for a few days. But with Bradley, sometimes something just itches the back of his head saying it’s not quite done yet. We’re not quite done yet. And he said, do me one favor. Put the camera back here, and let’s just go all the way around and then end up over Felicia’s shoulder. Reveal her at the end. And we were all thinking, ‘Okay. Well, we’re already done. We shot that scene.’ So we did it one more time, him all the way at the end, and the dolly grip did a perfect move right over her shoulder just to end the song. And that was it. I mean, that’s what made the movie. And so that little itch in the back of his head, which happens a lot, where he’s like, there’s something we can do a little bit more here… 

Thompson: Bradley’s process was very alive and breathing and organic. I mean, we would work and work and work, and he’d think about how to do a scene. And then you can’t be afraid to just throw it away and then at the end of the day, go with the new thought. And quite often, you get an amazing result from something like that. You can’t be afraid.

Morrow: I mean, the Snoopy scene, that was supposed to be a standard scene. Wide shot, medium, close-up, close-up. And it’s one master. 

Thompson: It’s one master and the camera just sits there on them. 

Morrow: We shot two takes. And after the second take, he says, that’s it. We’re not shooting anything else. We’re not going in for coverage. The scene is done. And the crew was like wow. That’s leadership. It takes guts, and that’s how he was… in tune to every piece of it.