DANCE MOVIE FEVER: MORE ABOUT BURLESQUE and CABARET
READ MORE ABOUT THE DANCING, THE CAST AND THE FILMMAKERS
ON THIS PAGE: WRITING AND MAKING THE FILM
One day while driving down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, film producer Anthony Mosawi got an idea.
With his production company, The Mayhem Project, looking for its next horror project, he had read 600 horror scripts and watched countless horror movies. He essentially 'marinated' himself in horror for the previous 18-month period. But that day in the car, it struck him.
He wanted to make a movie about dancing.
"I was getting so sick of horror. At that moment I thought, the dance film, there weren't a lot of dance films in the market then. It just felt like something that was fresh for a different demographic," recalls Mosawi from the set of Make It Happen during its 2007 production in Winnipeg, Canada.
The film tells the story of Lauryn, a young woman from a small town who moves to Chicago with dreams of entering the Chicago School of Music and Dance. But after rejection and a series of misfortunes she finds herself working in a burlesque club. The club proves to be a place of conflict and self-discovery, helping Lauryn to realize that even though plans may change, dreams never do.
It's the kind of theme that Mosawi envisioned before the story even took shape: "With everything from the political climate to the economic climate, I think the idea of someone having dreams and going for them just felt like the right time for it.
"We had to think about it and ask 'what really could we deliver which in the dance landscape hasn't been seen before?' And we thought something which could really capture dance from the people who go and see Chicago and Moulin Rouge, to the people who would go and see Step Up as well. And then it's got to be about a particular sort of dance, and burlesque is something which has really grown.
"What we're doing is timeless. So even when the burlesque trend may play itself out, we still think there's something here that appeals to the audience because the dance itself is very classy."
DEVELOPING THE IDEA
With the idea to make a dance film firmly in place, Mosawi and producing partner Brad Luff set out to develop the story in-house. Mosawi explains: "Usually what happens is a writer comes to you, they'll pitch you the idea or they've already written the script and they send it to you - and if you like it, you buy it and develop it with them and make it into a film.
"This one was our own idea. We grew it, and then we spoke to Dwayne Adler, who is the man who has written pretty much most of the largest grossing dance movies of the last ten years. So we wanted to deliver something which was a dance movie but really could target a lot of different sections rather than being focused mostly on a younger female audience.
"Dwayne really understands dance film. He understands the architecture, so it's really like building a house. You go to Dwayne and Dwayne knows exactly where everything needs to be. He knows where the load bearing walls are. You know, you change the furniture from house to house, and you have different designs, but you want a story where you believe in the character.
"And dance movies are like sport movies, you want them to be about dreams and the dream is gonna be very similar for most of these movies. But Dwayne delivers something unique every time. He's incredibly talented."
Brad Luff explains how Adler got involved: "I've known Dwayne for about 11 or 12 years. I've read his writing before he wrote Save The Last Dance and been a fan of his.
"When Anthony approached me about doing a dance movie, I said I know the perfect writer. Dwayne had just written another dance movie that was very successful, and I felt he would understand this world and these characters. We wanted to work with somebody who could help take our ideas and bring their own ideas to it as well."
Someone else integral to bringing ideas is the film's director. To undertake this creative task, Luff and Mosawi chose Darren Grant, a director from a different place - the world of video.
"Darren's background is music videos; he's done 130 music videos. What he does differently from what a lot of the music videos are doing is that he focuses on women very well, he lights them beautifully. What we saw in every one of his music videos was they all had a narrative in them, so even though they were obviously trying to match lyrics and trying to match the storylines of the actors, they still had a unique story in every single one," says Mosawi.
Brad Luff agrees: "We thought he would be the perfect choice for this movie. Creating the dance sequences is a very difficult thing to do, and understanding the pieces - where to cut, how to put it all together, the vision for the clothing - I would say for the dance numbers and music choices, his background was extremely helpful."
TELLING THE STORY
Director Darren Grant, whose first feature Diary of a Mad Black Woman garnered much industry acclaim and box office success, was brought on board to bring the characters and story to life. He talks about why he wanted to make the movie:
"What attracted me to Make It Happen was the fact that I could really just incorporate a lot of styles that I had done over the years. I've done one movie, I've done a bunch of music videos, and this was kind of a combination of both because you have the dance element, and each little dance routine was going to be like its own little music video. And so I said 'oh this is perfect'.
"I really had the opportunity to just shape it into exactly where I thought 'hey, this is gonna be new and fresh' and we worked a lot on the dialogue. To me, that's what really attracted me, that I had the opportunity to really just shape it into something special and I had all these elements."
Grant's award-winning music video career has taken musicians like Mya, Aaliyah, Destiny's Child, Wyclef Jean, Jay Z, and Jewel to the 'little' screen. The experience he acquired seems the perfect fit for Make It Happen.
"The video background helps me a lot because I was able to create these little mini-worlds for each girl's routine. I think the second way that it helped the most is that I have a short hand in directing the music videos and the performances, so I feel like I was really able to move through them quickly, you know, on such a tight schedule. It's the imagination that goes into music videos is what really allowed me to take this film and take it to where it is.
"I would describe Make It Happen as one woman's journey from a small town and her journey into the big city and coming out of her shell and really finding herself. What's gonna make this film stand out amongst other dance movies is that we took a more theatrical approach. We have a little bit of what the kids like, which is kind of an MTV quality to the film.
"There's a lot of set design, and some things they are familiar with. And then also there's a good street-edge to the movie as well, and the story is real - there's a love story that happens, and some elements in there that they can relate to."
Something the 'kids' will be able to relate to is the performance element. Set in the world of burlesque flavored with modern cabaret, the film features a blend of music and dance that can only be described with a brand new word coined by Grant:
"My take on the movie is that I felt it should be less burlesque, traditional burlesque, and more of something as like a modern version of cabaret. We're gonna do a little bit of theatricality, and kind of combine it, and it becomes this kind of caber-esque thing, you know… Whatever you want to call it…Caber-esque??
"I think I just made that up. But I think it's good."
MAKING THE FILM
Helping the Director to tell the story is the Director of Photography. For Make It Happen, Grant went with a sure thing in choosing to work with long time collaborator David Claessen: "I've worked with David since I was a PA and an electrician, and I always liked the way he lights.
"In film school they talked a lot about the Dutch masters and David is Dutch, he's from Amsterdam, so he really can paint with light. I've loved that. We've done music videos that have been amazing and every frame is like a portrait or a picture."
Producer Anthony Mosawi jokes about why they chose Darren as DOP: "David is Dutch, and we were looking for Dutch men basically. So that was it. What's the next question??"
"No, really, David has worked all of Darren's videos and what David does is he shoots in a storybook quality. He lights things in a very magical way. You want to feel that it's believable, but you want it to look like a movie - and David is fantastic with that."
There was no question for Darren Grant about bringing Claessen on board, not only for his talent, but also because of their comfort with each other: "I brought David in because I just knew he was gonna nail it - and he did. I really like his style and his patience and attention to detail. And the way he frames things. And he knows me, I know him. I really wanted to have someone that still kind of complemented my eye and my style, and David does that perfectly. David and I have been a team for quite a while."
When Darren Grant told David Claessen about the film, David shared in his excitement: "When Darren told me how he wanted to do it and what his vision was, it was much different than the other dance movies that I had seen. So I was like 'wow, this is a great wonderful opportunity to try and do something a little bit different' you know. To take a genre that's very popular and take a little different spin on it.
"Darren is a great visualist. His idea of the emotional world, as he'd done in his music videos before, he was always the only director that I've ever seen in the music video space that actually could create a beautiful emotional space with music. And I felt that he was gonna take that quality to the film as well - that he could actually get the most emotion out of young characters and keep it modern, not make it something that was just telling a story.
"We knew that he understood the sentiment of a new generation and how to make these emotions come to the top. Plus of course he knew very well how to create dance."
Claessen goes on to explain the synergy between himself and Grant when it comes to blending their styles: "When we work together we create a style that is kind of a very fun mixture of a European style of looking at the world, and bit of a hip-hop emotional sense that Darren brings. So we've created a short-hand through the years that we're trying to now embellish on and to make better."
When it came time to bring on the Production Designer, while there were many impressive ones out there, to Grant, none of them seemed the right fit: "I was meeting with several production designers, I met with about 10, and I just said 'man, you know, there's some good ones, but I don't know if they have the vision'. We're trying to feel like we're doing something groundbreaking. We're trying to create something that hasn't been seen in a while, and that has the theatricality of the bigger movies, you know - how can we do this? Who's really gonna push the envelope?
Grant, based in Los Angeles, eventually had a conference call lined up between him and Ray Kluga, a production designer based in New York. But when he found this out, Grant had little expectation: "I said 'how am I gonna hire this guy on the phone?' It's not possible. I didn't even want to line the call up."
Kluga followed up with an 8-page email, and it was that correspondence that instantly caught Grant's attention and made him a believer: "The guy sold me on the phone. He's just so calming, reassuring, has great ideas and his vision for the project, he just took it somewhere that I never even imagined.
"That's what I look for in a production designer - you don't want to duplicate what I'm giving you, you want to take the seed of my idea and really just let it blossom and go somewhere else with it. His initial idea, just over the phone, it blew me away. So when he came to LA, we met, and I was like, absolutely, you have to hire this guy."
SHOOTING THE ACTION
Having the right look to the film was imperative to the producers and their creative team. In a way, it meant having sets capable of taking on a life of their own - especially the key location. Producer Brad Luff explains:
"We wanted to do something which was focused on this bar, and so Ruby's is the bar that the character Lauryn finds herself in. Obviously you want to do something which is real. We didn't want to do one of those stylized films where you're seeing things which couldn't actually happen in that bar. All the dancers that the audience is seeing are real, there's authenticity to them.
"So we wanted to give the audience the idea that you're sitting in this bar watching these things happen. So the camera's far back, and what you are seeing is what's actually happening on stage, which meant that the stage itself and the bar had to be really credible for us. What Ray has done is fantastic."
Ray Kluga had a definite vision, and succeeded at creating an authentic and believable world for the film. He describes the feel he was going for: "It's a gritty place, with this bohemian life, with this bar that we're creating.
"I think setting it in Chicago allowed us a freedom to go places that if it were set in LA or New York, you kind of know what those places are. So setting it in Chicago just had a different feel and people don't know quite what Chicago is. That gritty quality that I associate with Chicago was something we could play on, the architecture."
For Make It Happen, the City of Winnipeg, Manitoba, in Canada, would double as Chicago, and offered a great mix of locations: "Here in Winnipeg there's some fantastic turn-of-the-century architecture, which is very much like Chicago - masonry buildings and everything. Chicago is, for me, all about arches and architecture.
"Darren and I both talked about wanting to create something that was more universal than specifically Chicago but had this texture and this gritty feel - this bohemian world that these dancers live in. So we were able to find it here."
Ruby's bar is the primary location where much of the action, and just about all of the dancing, takes place. They remained on location at an actual Winnipeg nightclub for two straight weeks to shoot the scenes in Ruby's. Finding the right location was one of the biggest production challenges for Producer Brad Luff:
"Ruby's is central to the movie, and we had to find a location that embodied what we were looking for. And then creating the stage at Ruby's, which was fantastic, and Ray did a great job of helping us create that stage - I think that was one of the biggest challenges of the movie.
"We chose the Empire Cabaret here in Winnipeg because it just lent theatricality to the movie. We wanted the dance numbers to feel much more theatrical and not just like they could be performed at any club or bar."
Kluga describes how he and Darren Grant shared the same vision for Ruby's: "Ruby's has a semi-circular bar that turns itself into a stage. We talked about ideas for burlesque numbers, about the bohemian world of our characters, the world of the other clubs we see. The more we talked, the more interesting it got for me, because Darren wanted to go to the places that I wanted to go."
While Grant and Kluga shared the same vision, Grant's style and sensibility required Kluga to take a different approach to his work: "I started designing differently for this movie, because Darren has this fluid camera. He thinks of the camera as being this fluid thing that moves. And the scenery elements, I started to sort of free up.
"You'll notice how we're always capturing something that contrasts with something here, and foreground and background. We were able to move things in to create those frames. So sometimes our room didn't make sense if you walked into them, but they made perfect sense on camera."
Kluga discusses how Director of Photography David Claessen's talents enhanced the feel of the sets: "It was extraordinary that there was a lot of communication and ideas flowing from a lighting point of view. One example is in the dressing room. I had this idea of wanting to get this burlesque world into it, and you see outside the dressing room windows an old sign for Ruby's when it was a burlesque house.
"So we just did these cut-outs and then David came and put these colored lights on it and blacked it out, and suddenly there was this shadow-box of an old-time Ruby's outside the window that was really evocative of something else. It appears in the back of some of the frames and it was just a wonderful way to work - all thinking on the same wavelength."
While his work added new dimensions to what Kluga envisioned, David Claessen also had some specific thoughts on what he wanted to achieve - including which kind of camera to actually shoot the film with: "One of the first techniques that we decided upon is that we're gonna shoot it in the old anamorphic style, which gives us the beautiful, two-three-five format, but also it compresses the image much more than spherical lenses do. That was one of the choices that we made to make this film ricer in tone.
"The second thing I wanted to do is create a lot of layers. I wanted to create a lot of layers so that things are happening in front of things, and things are in front of other things, especially for Chicago where most of the picture plays. To make it richer in tone and very sparkly, and very fantastic, almost more fantastic than real - a bit of a fantasy world. And then for contrast, of course, the Indiana part, we played it really simple, very plain.
"We also took every dance sequence and treated them with a different cinematic approach because the characters were all different. Every character has its own function and every dance was very different, so we kind of make the emotion the centre part of how to shoot this. The main thing was the emotion of the scene - it was always at the core of bringing that across."
THE FINAL WORD
With all the exciting elements and tremendous talent being poured into Make It Happen, Director Darren Grant has no doubt it will take audiences along for the ride:
"They're gonna see a film that is familiar to them in the storyline, but I think the dancing and the theatricality of it all and the set design, the wardrobe, you know, the makeup, the hair, the environment that the movie takes place in - I think it's something warm and fun and different. It's about this world that we created called Ruby's, and it's really like a caber-esque - it's not cabaret, it's not burlesque.
"It's just a good time, it's a good show. I think they're gonna see that, it's gonna be color and hot and sexy, and it's gonna be a ride. They're gonna get the love story and they're gonna love all that edgy kind of grimy street stuff that we have as well - it's got a little bite to it. They're gonna understand this girl's journey in the movie, and they're gonna be there for the ride.
"It's gonna be a well-rounded film, and something for the kids, something for the adults, something for everybody. And a good date movie!"
THE ART OF SPORTS FILMS
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING