Alan Brown’s first film, O Beautiful, won the Future Filmmaker Award at the 2002 Palm Springs International Short Film Festival, and was an official selection of the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. His debut feature, Book of Love, which stars Simon Baker, Frances O’Connor, Greg Smith, and Bryce Dallas Howard, was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival. His second feature, Superheroes, starring Dash Mihok and Spencer Treat Clark, won numerous prizes, including the Feature Filmmaker’s Award at the 2007 Avignon/New York Film Festival, the Maverick Spirit Award (top prize) at the 2008 Cinequest Film Festival, Special Jury Mention at both the 2008 Austin Film Festival and the 2008 Ashland Independent Film Festival, and both the Narrative Feature and Best Film Awards at the 2008 Brooklyn International Film Festival. Alan’s next feature, Private Romeo, won a Grand Jury Prize at the 2011 Outfest Film Festival in Los Angeles, and was a Critic’s Pick of The New York Times. Alan is also the author of the acclaimed novel, Audrey Hepburn’s Neck, which won the Pacific Rim Book Prize, and has been translated into eight languages. He is the recipient of many writing and directing awards, including National Endowment for the Arts, Fulbright, and New York State Council for the Arts Fellowships, and numerous residency fellowships, including those to the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the Edward Albee and Ucross Foundations. He spent eight years living in Japan, first as a Fulbright Journalist, and then creating radio programs for the BBC, and writing for numerous publications. His journalism assignments have taken him from the Antarctic to the Himalayas. He now lives in New York City. Five Dances, Alan’s fifth feature film, which has garnered awards and honors at festivals worldwide, opens theatrically in the U.S. on October 4.
Five Dances is a very brave film for many reasons. What led you to tell the story through dances?
I was a huge dance fan and dance-goer for many years. And though I don’t attend many performances anymore, I have deep feelings for the art form. When I made my second feature film, Superheroes (2007), I threaded three women dancers through what was otherwise a very grim and “male” story of an injured Iraq War vet. My longtime cinematographer Derek McKane and I both loved shooting the dance. And that’s when I started thinking about setting an entire film in a dance studio. It was a way of returning to an early love. And I loved the extreme formal and creative challenge. I hadn’t seen it done before on film. (Coincidentally, we ended up shooting Five Dances in the same studio we used in Superheroes.)
Have you had any dancing experiences yourself?
None. I am not built for dance. It wouldn’t be a pretty sight. Though I have been a dedicated and serious yoga practitioner for about fifteen years now, and I did find that helpful in making the film. Yoga asanas are not unlike dance phrases. So I feel I understand something about how bodies move, about physical discipline, and about what it feels like to be barefoot and sweaty in a studio.
Why structure the film through five dances? Was this, perhaps, informed by the structure of your previous film Private Romeo, a close retelling of Shakespeare’s play?
I know it may sound absurd, but I’ve been kicking around the idea of this film for so long, I forget where and when I first got the idea for the structure. I can tell you that it was originally titled Seven Dances. And that I am a fan of Michael Winterbottom’s film, Nine Songs. So that was surely an influence. Also, the film really started out as an experiment. So the numerical title and the formal structure appealed to me. It seemed and sounded very most-modern and minimalist in all the good ways. In Private Romeo, I very much enjoyed being challenged by having to work within a structure – in that case, Shakespeare’s play and language – that I myself hadn’t created.
I was honored to have Jonah Bokaer create the dance for the film. I’ve known Jonah personally for about a dozen years, since he was a dancer with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. And I greatly admire his choreography for its rigor and beauty and intelligence – and its level of difficulty, which is very high. Jonah is always so busy creating and touring, that I never thought he would be available, so actually I emailed to ask him to recommend a choreographer. When he said he was interested, there was never any question in my mind. It was a very special experience, and it meant a lot to me to have him onboard. We came to the project with mutual trust and respect, which is a huge advantage. And I learned a tremendous amount watching him choreograph on our cast. I watched the entire process – silently, I should add. I sat in the corner all day everyday and didn’t say a word. It was amazing.
Was the choreography mapped out before or alongside your writing?
The choreography was completely separate from the writing. I was always clear that I wanted an abstract piece that would exist on its own. Jonah never saw the script or even a synopsis. We did work out together that the dance would be in five sections. And I asked for a technically challenging solo for “Chip”. And also for a duet that both the two men and the two women would learn. And because there would be a fictional choreographer character, “Anthony”, we also discussed how much, or in how many sections he logically would dance. Otherwise, I really left everything up to Jonah. He created the piece the week before production. And once it was done, Jonah left it our hands. He never came to set, and never came into the editing room. He didn’t see the film until it was finished. So I felt a great responsibility to honor both his work and his trust in me.
The music was spot on! Did you have the songs selected before or alongside the choreography?
Jonah choreographed in silence. No music at all. All the songs came during the editing. My editor on this film, Jarrah Gurrie, has terrific taste in music. And we experimented a lot in the editing room. We started out with well-known songs – Joni Mitchell, Jeff Buckley, everyone and anyone, just so we’d have something to edit the dance to, and to get a sense of the mood we were looking for. Once we found the actual six songs that we ended up using, we did work backwards and edit the dance sections to fit them. Our gorgeous score was composed after we locked picture by Nicholas Wright, a brilliant young composer who did my last two films, Private Romeo and Superheroes as well. He’s endlessly creative, and we communicate beautifully. We had a lot of fun – and ate a lot of pizza – working together on the score.
The choreography was quite complex! Were there any injuries in the making in the film?
None. Fortunately. Though you’re correct – it was quite complex, and very challenging physically. It wore the dancers out.
It was, as each film has been, a new and different challenge. My cinematographer Derek McKane and I did our research. We watched most of the commercially available dance films, and also sat through a lot of dance footage at the Lincoln Center Library for the Performing Arts. And ultimately we came to the decision that we would approach the dance just as we would approach any other action or drama. We focused on our characters. We did of course have to “learn” the dance and accustom ourselves to its language, as, later, in the editing room, my editor Jarrah Gurrie and I had to. It was challenging, but it was also a tremendous adventure, and a lot of fun working with these astonishingly talented dancers, and with Jonah’s choreography.
Although the film’s plot revolves around the preparation for a 10-minute performance, we never get to see the finished product. Essentially, the film encapsulates the performance. Was this decision made on purpose?
Actually, you do get to see the finished dance, but divided into its five sections, and only in the rehearsal studio. Seeing a finished “performance,” danced for an audience, with lights, costumes, etc., was never an option. But I was always intent on preserving and documenting Jonah’s choreography. The dancers, Derek and I all felt so privileged to be able to film his work, that we all wanted to make sure that a record of the entire piece existed.
I will admit that casting was a challenge. I wasn’t at all prepared for how difficult it would be to find dancers who could also act. I should have been. They’re such completely difficult talents. Also, I was specifically looking for “downtown” contemporary concert dancers, as opposed to Broadway dancers, and it was harder to get the word out in that world. And the acting requirement scared a lot of dancers away. It was also very important to me to cast a credible ensemble – five dancers whom a choreographer, in the real world, might bring together for a performance.
Fortunately, I work with a wonderful casting director, Stephanie Holbrook (who also cast Private Romeo and Superheroes). And Jonah Bokaer, our choreographer, was present for the auditions. For the first auditions, I had everyone come in with a three-minute dance piece, and then a three-minute “monologue” of any sort. It didn’t have to be text. Most of the dancers chose to simply tell stories from their lives. Then for the callbacks, I worked entirely on acting. I have developed my own casting method over the last few films, which is like a workshop, and it suited this situation. I mixed and matched dancers, had them read different roles in a scene I’d prepared, to see who was comfortable with improvising, with following direction. And who had untapped acting talent. Everyone tried so hard. And of course we taped everybody, so I could see what they’d look like on film. Having Jonah there was a huge help, as together we were able to choose dancers who would work for both our needs.
As in Private Romeo, you kept a very small cast. The extensive use of close-ups help to hone in on them, as does the very minimalist setting in a small dance studio. Why focus on only five characters?
The decision was a mix of the creative and the practical. I’m a fan of minimalism, (my film Superheroes focused entirely on two characters), and always like the focus to be on the actor – or in this case, on the dancer. The original idea was to shoot almost the entire film in one dance studio. Derek McKane, my cinematographer, and I wanted to challenge ourselves, and we felt strongly that we could shoot the dance in a way that would hold the viewer’s interest. Confining the film to one room automatically limited the size of the cast – and the crew. One wall of the dance studio is totally covered with mirrors, one with windows, and one was “production” – crew, equipment, holding, etc. – so that didn’t leave much maneuverability. Also, as this film was an experiment for me creatively, the number was manageable and justifiable time-wise and budget-wise.
How did you manage the film’s tight focus without it feeling claustrophobic?
By focusing in so tightly on the dancers’ bodies and faces as they moved, we opened up our world psychologically and emotionally. Sort of a “depth” vs. “width” approach. It helped that location had that wonderful big wall of windows to establish that there was a world outside the studio. The mirrors too added a sense of space. And my sound designer Julian Evans and I worked very hard to keep that outside world alive, however subtly, so that the studio doesn’t feel too insular. Finally, though we don’t spend a lot of time outside of the studio, those street and subway and apartment scenes help a lot. My editor Jarrah Gurrie and I spent a lot of time creating the right balance.
The film’s central protagonist is Chip, played brilliantly by Ryan Steele. We know very little about Chip except for his move from Kansas to New York, and his deeply troubled mother, who keeps calling him at odd hours. What led you to focus on him?
Unlike my other films, Five Dances didn’t have a finished, polished script. It was always meant to be an experiment, as I wanted to challenge myself to work within a looser structure. I was very fortunate to find Ryan. He was the first dancer I cast. And I pretty much hired him on the spot during his callback audition, which is something I’ve never done. That same day, he and I met up for coffee to discuss the project. It was a beautiful day, so we ended up taking a long walk on the High Line, talking about the film, about life, pretty much about everything. This was still a few months before production. And I went home that day and starting rewriting – and growing – his character. Besides being an amazing dancer, Ryan is a strong actor. He had no experience, but he was very comfortable with the camera, and has natural timing, great instincts, and a natural screen presence. He holds your attention. During production, I kept him around as much as possible, and I’d just invent things for him to do. It was very much “Go sit there. Go stand there.” And we’d shoot him, just so we’d have lots of footage of him. At night, I’d go home and write new scenes for his character, and email them to him, usually at around three in the morning. So it would be fair to say that the film and the story grew out of Ryan.
Chip seems fiercely independent for his age. Tell us about your research into this character.
Again, I would have to point to Ryan Steele as the total inspiration for Chip. My “research” was casting him. I was looking for a young, male dancer who was “born to dance” (to borrow a hackneyed phrase from the casting call breakdown), who could technically do anything. Someone, who when he was dancing, you couldn’t take your eyes off of. That was Ryan. Though none of the autobiographical facts are remotely real, that sense of fierce independence I drew directly from Ryan. Chip is eighteen. Ryan was only twenty-one when we shot the film, and he’d been dancing professionally and competitively since he was a kid. He came to New York at seventeen, right from high school, to create a featured role in the Broadway revival of West Side Story.
His mother is never shown in the film. Was this decision deliberate? Why? Chip’s father, also never shown, is mentioned as needing helping, and we learn that he has separated from Chip’s mother and moved home to Indiana. Yet Chip seems closer to him than to his mother. Why do you think that is?
The decision not to include characters outside the studio was a deliberate one. We wanted to contain our world. Theo and Cynthia also interact with others outside the studio, but in Theo’s scene, that character is a faceless, silent presence. And in Cynthia’s scene, we don’t see her husband, we only hear him. Katie refers to her ex-boyfriend, but he’s only a reference. Chip’s mother and father belong to another world, back in the Midwest. They are the family that all young, striving people who come to big cities left back home. To be honest, Chip’s mother’s character didn’t even exist during production. She was a voice that got added in post-production. Chip’s father’s story actually grew out of my desire to tell a story about Chip’s tattoo, which is actually Ryan’s tattoo. The story was a bit more elaborate, but got cut down in the editing room.
As one the film’s subplots, we witness the intertwining of the professional and private lives of two dancers. Are they, in your view, inseparable, particularly given the many hours that working on a production of this nature entails?
Obviously it’s not uncommon for dancers and actors to become emotionally and romantically involved when in production. As you comment, all those long hours working together. And there’s the intensity of the creative process, which creates a quick intimacy. But in my personal experience, everyone is so exhausted at the end of the workday, they generally just want to go home and collapse. I’m the director, so I’m working 24/7. I usually have no idea (and no control over) what my cast and crew do when they leave set. I just want everybody to show up every morning rested and not too hung over.
You’ve written in The Huffington Post, that Five Dances may well be your “Most interesting, and possibly [your] best, film.” Why is that?
I guess I always think my latest film is my best. And it’s certainly what’s most interesting to me at the moment. Also, I hope I’m growing as a filmmaker, and making better and more interesting films each time.
Having worked on Shakespeare, and now a dance film, what is next for you?
I just directed my first music video, Scott Matthew’s cover of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody,” which I loved doing. I worked with dancers again. The video was just released in late September. And I’m planning to shoot my next feature film in the late spring of 2014. It’s a musical – or more specifically, an “anti-musical musical” in the French tradition. It’s the story of a married couple. The husband has an accident, suffers TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury) and develops amnesia. He can’t remember his wife, and falls in love with someone else. It’s a love triangle. And the characters will sing. I’m really excited about working with songs and singing on this one.
Tom Ue is Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Doctoral Fellow, and Canadian Centennial Scholar in the Department of English Language and Literature at University College London, where he researches Shakespeare’s influence on the writing of Henry James, George Gissing and Oscar Wilde.