FROM THE STAGE BACK TO THE STREETS:
STEPPING UP TO A FRESH, NEW STORY
In the summer of 2006, theatergoers were ignited by STEP UP, a hip-hop fairy-tale that combined the heated rhythms of street dance and music with the story of a boy and a girl at an elite performing arts academy risking everything for each other and their dreams of dancing. At once rousing and romantic, the film, directed by Anne Fletcher and starring Channing Tatum, was a runaway instant hit at the box office grossing over $20 million in its opening weekend.
The success was so resounding, there was talk right away of a follow-up, but the producers who had set the first film into motion - Patrick Wachsberger and Erik Feig of Summit Entertainment and Offspring Entertainment's Adam Shankman and Jennifer Gibgot - didn't want to just tack a story onto STEP UP's fable-like ending. Instead, they made the decision to take an entirely fresh look at their setting - Baltimore's performing arts mecca for teens, the Maryland School of the Arts (MSA) - and create an even more dynamic experience for audiences who were captivated by STEP UP's combo of compelling drama and cutting-edge dance numbers.
If STEP UP was the story of how a young dancer made it from the streets to the stage, with STEP UP 2 THE STREETS the filmmakers turn the tale around. The new story digs deep into the fairy tale's roots, taking MSA students from the polished halls of their school back into the heart of Baltimore's ultra-creative underground dance scene. In the gray zone between these two seemingly disparate worlds, they'll face the conflicts of love, ambition and loyalty that will help them become the young men and women they want to be in life.
With a new slate of dance films, including Shankman's acclaimed 2007 hit "Hairspray," heating up the screen - and an increasing American fascination with the thrills and expressiveness of dance competitions - there was an imperative to give the new film its own electrifying style and sense of authentic storytelling.
The producers recruited a young but already promising director to helm the project: Jon M. Chu - a 2004 graduate of USC's School of Cinematic Arts and a former dancer himself who had won numerous awards for a series of short films ("Silent Beats," "While the Kids Were Away," and "Gwai Lo" ["The Little Foreigner"]) that drew acclaim and attention with their unique mix of sharp storytelling and innovative choreography.
Chu had just the energy the filmmakers were seeking. Recalls producer Jennifer Gibgot, "When Jon came in he already had so many original, unique ideas. He was ready to show off all his assets - his love of dance, his inventiveness and, most of all, his passion for storytelling."
Adds executive producer David Nicksay, "Jon was trained as a dancer himself, and more than anything else, he understands the culture of the streets. He gets what's going on with the people who feel they have to dance no matter what else is happening in their lives. He understands what makes individual dancers motivated and also, what makes dance movies great."
Right away, Chu put a new spin on STEP UP 2 THE STREETS, pushing it out of the school rehearsal halls and into the down-trodden, often invisible urban neighborhoods where an illicit battle known as "The Streets" is waged between dance crews hoping to dominate this hidden, underground world. His aim was to give the film a whole new feeling - an edgier, more aggressive posture, yet with just as much humanity and hope as the first film.
"I wanted to step things up a notch because the dance in the first movie was so beautiful. This time, we wanted to use a different, grittier style, taking it out to the streets, where we could incorporate a lot more diversity of movement, everything from tap to double dutch, to salsa, to popping, locking and breaking," Chu says. "That also opened the door to a lot of new characters."
Chu was drawn in by the screenplay, written by Toni Ann Johnson and Karen Barna, which sees the MSA school in a time of turmoil and transition, having lost its identity and its once inspiring connection to the city of Baltimore's steely beauty. The screenplay also introduced two new characters with riveting stories: Andie West, a free spirit and rebellious hip-hop dancer who is still reeling from the death of her mother when she is pushed into going to MSA, where she must fight to fit in; and Chase, the school's most popular student, yet one who has his own doubts about the direction of the school's future, as well as his own.
Andie is an outsider. Chase is a star. Yet they find themselves sharing the same passion for the tough, creative street-style dance moves forbidden at their school - a passion that brings them together as competitors and friction-fuelled partners as they vie to take part in the all-out dance battle of "The Streets."
Says producer Jennifer Gibgot, "This movie is almost an inverted version of the first movie. It's really a movie about underdogs and misfits, about the people who nobody wants or believes in. Without really trying to, Andie changes the school and opens the director's eyes to accepting new forms of dance. And like STEP UP, it is ultimately a story about love, hope and believing in yourself."
Adds Chu: "This movie is a real fun ride but it's also about owning the world you're in, celebrating what makes you different, what makes you special. We all get lonely, or feel out of place, or feel we don't fit in at times. I don't think that ever goes away, no matter what age you are or where you are from, but sometimes you just need someone to remind you that there's a lot of life ahead of you and the world is what you make it."
Most of all, in approaching these themes, Chu hoped to infuse the film's dance numbers with the intense and wide-ranging emotions of these characters, who are experiencing everything from anger and doubt to love and the ecstasy of discovering real belief. In every step, stomp, flip and pop, a part of the lives and yearnings of these characters is expressed
Explains Chu: "What I love most about the characters in STEP UP 2 THE STREETS is that when words aren't enough, they are able to speak from somewhere else. Their bodies do the speaking, and that's the common thread amongst all of them -- and it's the driving force of the movie."
Producer Erik Feig echoes that sentiment: "We are deeply proud of the STEP UP franchise at Summit. The movies create an instant party, and make you leave the theater in a better mood than when you first walked in -- rarer and rarer these days. Jon Chu has pushed himself and this movie more than we ever could have imagined -- the dance leaves you breathless, these characters are deeply relatable and likeable, and the music is insanely 'off the hook'."
MEET THE CHARACTERS:
ROBERT HOFFMAN IS CHASE
There's no doubt about it, Chase is MSA's star student. He's got the charisma, the smarts and the skills to be a big-time professional performer and he knows it. But that doesn't mean the pressure's off, because he doesn't want to just be technically good; he wants to be different, he wants to stand out, he wants to find the strength to be his own person. Ultimately, he must stand up against his brother Blake, the school's rigid, classically trained director, to change things up and restore creative freedom to the place he loves.
The filmmakers of STEP UP 2 THE STREETS knew that casting Chase would be key to forging their entire ensemble, as well as to setting off the sparks that heat things up between Chase and Andie, so, as production kicked into high gear, he was their number one casting priority. A search led them to Robert Hoffman, who began dancing way back in kindergarten, mastering every form, from tap and ballet to jazz and all the way to hip-hop as he grew up and, much like Chase, winning all kinds of awards and competitions.
Hoffman went on to become one of the break-out stars from MTV's hit series "Wild 'N Out," made his motion picture debut in "You Got Served" and then lined up a major role in "She's The Man," starring with Amanda Bynes and Channing Tatum. It was clear from his audition that he was on the cusp of something big.
"Robert is just so natural and so real," observes director Jon M. Chu. "He has that school-boyish charm quality to him, yet he's also a really special dancer. I knew he was the one who could pull this role off."
Hoffman was able to nail the character of Chase so closely in part because he could instantly relate to him. "Chase is the guy at MSA who has it all going for him, but the one thing he's never had, which is actually very much a parallel in my life, is someone to tell him to believe in his own voice as a dancer, to tell him to dance how he wants to dance, from the inside," explains the actor. "When Andie comes to the school, it's through her that Chase gets rejuvenated. He finds his passion for dance again. She shows him what it's like to dance from your heart, to really be an individual, and that changes everything for him."
He continues: "As someone who grew up as a dancer only wanting to learn from people who inspire me and then to inspire other people - the whole experience of being part of this movie has been a dream come true."
For Jon M. Chu, Hoffman's real magic is worked when he starts to break out and follow the beat that's in his heart. "When you see Robert as Chase really pour it out on the floor it becomes clear that hip-hop is an art form and even his brother can see the art in it," says Chu. "Robert makes that transformation happen."
BRIANA EVIGAN IS ANDIE
The heart of STEP UP 2 THE STREETS is Andie, the young woman from the same tough neighborhood as STEP UP's Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) who must try to find a way to transcend her troubled past and fit in at MSA, while still staying true to her roots on Baltimore's streets. As with Chase, the filmmakers knew they would need to find someone who had both the dancing skills and the acting chops to make her journey come alive. This led them to a brand-new face: Briana Evigan, who at the age of 7 started dancing with hip-hop choreographer Shane Sparks (television's "So You Think You Can Dance?") and has gone on to appear in several music videos and independent films.
It was when Evigan first read with Robert Hoffman - and the temperature in the room soared - that the filmmakers were sold that she was their Andie. "When they read together it was magic," recalls Chu. "Briana came alive and she and Robert fed off each other's energy just as we hoped."
Adds David Nicksay, "Briana brought a deep, soulful quality to Andie. She comes off as very authentic, organic and moving. She's also incredibly funny and a smashing dancer."
Evigan, too, was grabbed by the strong affinity between her own struggles as a young actress and dancer and those of her character. "Andie might start the film having lost a lot, but she's got a goal and dream and she's not going to let anything get in her way," Evigan says. "Her mother has died, she has no father figure, and she's a little unsure about men. But slowly she learns that sometimes you have to put some things aside to let what you want really come to you. By the end she falls in love with the guy she's been pushing away the whole time And she learns about the importance of not only belief but of respect."
When it came to the demands of the dancing, Evigan took a new approach - trying to emulate the strength and fury of street dancers. "I had to drop the whole sexy thing that I had developed and break away from that for a more hardcore approach," she explains. "It was challenging but I loved it and learned so much. I also loved the way the members of the dance crews each had such strong personalities so that the dancers and their personal relationships stand out much more than they do in other dance movies I've seen."
Most of all, Evigan was inspired throughout by Andie's unbreakable spirit, which brings her to a place she never expected. Sums up the actress: "When times are really tough and everything is falling apart and you feel like you don't belong anywhere, Andie shows that you just need to stay strong and keep going and never let anyone step in the way of your dream."
CASSIE VENTURA IS SOPHIE
When Andie arrives at MSA, she finds herself in a rivalry with one of the school's most promising and confident female talents: the "triple threat" actor, singer and dancer, Sophie, who also happens to be Chase's jealous ex-girlfriend. For this key role, the filmmakers chose another newcomer to the screen, Cassie Ventura, the R&B recording artist who makes her feature film debut and also contributes a song to the soundtrack.
Although, like her character, Cassie is a natural singer, she turned out to be the only member of the astonishingly accomplished cast who had no real dancing experience. But this turned out to be only a minor hitch for Cassie, who honed her natural talent in intensive rehearsals. "I think I was the only untrained dancer in the production," she admits, "but I knew that if I put my heart into it, people would feel that - and so I just went for it."
Jon M. Chu was impressed not only with Cassie's bravery in jumping into the role but with her strong presence that captures Sophie's intensity and fury. "When Cassie walks into a room, right away it feels like she really owns the space," he notes. "And I think she really enjoyed playing a kind of bad guy role, because she herself is so sweet. She also really understood that Sophie has her own arc in the story. She's not really a villain because, deep down, she's a lost soul, too, and eventually she is pushed into doing something nice for the first time in her life."
Cassie loved taking Sophie through major internal changes, from self-centeredness to seeing the bigger picture. "In the beginning of the story, Sophie is a very strong-willed, focused girl, almost like a machine," she observes. "She has shut down her emotions but her relationship with Andie forces her to rediscover her feelings and the importance of other people."
MEET THE DANCE CREWS:THE 410
Andie might find herself dancing in the rarified world of the Maryland School of the Arts, but her heart is back in the streets with the legendary underground Baltimore street crew she has long dreamed of dancing with: The 410. This rag-tag crew is made up of a group of strong, flashy personalities whose completely original skills and hard-core passion for hip-hop make them among the city's most creative and coolest dance teams - and the ones to beat at "The Streets" competition.
Casting the members of The 410, as well as the rival MSA crew, was a blast for the filmmakers because it gave them a chance to witness some of the amazingly diverse and magnetic dancing talent out there today. The audition process began with massive open calls in Baltimore and New York, during which 500 hopeful dancers were whittled down to just a handful of stand-outs under the demanding eyes of the filmmakers and the choreographers. Authenticity was at the heart of every decision - the focus on dancers who could relate to the material with their hearts as well as their skills.
The uncompromising leader of The 410 is Tuck, the intense street dancer who has his own feelings for Andie that get shaken up in the mix. For Tuck, The 410 is more than just a dance crew - it's a kind of street family who stick together through thick and thin, and Andie's departure to attend MSA, or what he dubs "that prissy ballet school" leaves him feeling both betrayed and jealous. Playing Tuck is Black Thomas, a Miami native who cut his teeth as a dancer in the FAMU Connection, a hip-hop dance troupe at Florida A&M University, then went on to appear in such movies as "Stomp The Yard," "Dreamgirls" and "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry."
Like the rest of the cast, Thomas felt a deep empathy for his character and his love of dancing in spite of his emotional confusion over Andie. "What I liked most is that this movie says a lot about how you view yourself, how you represent," says Thomas. "The 410 is all about attitude. It's all about unity. It's all about strength and power. It's not just about kids dancing, it's about kids expressing themselves."
The filmmakers were impressed with Thomas' ability to evoke Tuck's strength and belief through both his dance moves and his dialogue. "As Tuck, Black has the power to be at once vulnerable and scary," notes Chu. "We wanted the audience to feel the friction and the threat of the character and Black had it all. Plus, he's an amazing dancer."
The 410 crew's female leader and Andie's former best friend, Felicia, was equally vital to the story and the filmmakers found themselves drawn to Telisha Shaw, a rising young dancer who herself received a sought-after scholarship to the Dance Theatre of Harlem that kicked off her career dancing on tour with such artists as Christina Aguilera, Janet Jackson, Green Day, Kanye West and Beyonce.
A playful chorus of "Telisha plays Felisha" echoed throughout the production but the filmmakers were very pleased with the serious work Shaw brought to the performance. "Felisha is such a hard role," says Chu, "because she's Andie's friend in the beginning, then turns on her quickly, only to come around again at the end. When Telisha came in, she read the scene where she tells Andie, 'it's not what you want, it's what you got' - and she turned it into one of the most memorable auditions I've ever been in. She read it in a way that I'd never even imagined that scene, in a way that made me want to cry for her. Telisha portrayed the character as someone who wants to believe in Andie, but everything in her life has shown her something different. She has to come to realize that the way you live your life is a choice you make."
Also joining The 410 are a number of young stars from authentic hip-hop backgrounds who bring their own trademark tricks, moves, humor and style to the proceedings: Kejamel "K-Mel" Howell, a dance legend on You Tube and Myspace who also serves as Hi Hat's assistant choreographer, is K-Mel; Rynan "Rainen" Paquio who is part of the renowned Jabbawockeez crew, is Kid Rainen; local Baltimore b-boys Jeff "Rapid" Ogle and James "Cricket" Colter are Rapid and Cricket; Donnie "Crumbs" Counts, a world-class athlete and dancer with hundreds of popular videos on the internet is Crumbs; and acclaimed b-girls Shorty Welch and Alison Faulk are Shorty and Alstar.
Danielle Polanco, a Bronx native who began dancing at the Alvin Ailey School as a youngster and was on tour with Jennifer Lopez when she was cast in the film, rounds out The 410 crew as Missy, who brings a salsa touch to her dancing and is the only other person who dances with both The 410 and MSA crew. She too found herself deeply relating to what her character goes through in the film.
Says Danielle: "Missy is the kind of person who tries to make the best out of everything. When everybody else is arguing, Missy just enjoys life and looks at the boys. Jon lets us all ad lib and add a little of our own flavors to the character and that made it so much fun."
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