Capturing that emotion has many factors, including having the right dancers. While you can have believable sets, ideal locations, daring director, and dynamic shooter, when it comes to a dance movie, the bottom line is that you've got to nail the dancing. After all, dancing is at the heart of it all. And great dancing takes great choreography, which involves creating an experience as opposed to just planning a dance. So it definitely needed just the right touch - and the right pair of choreographers.
Tracy Phillips and Dominic Carbone started choreographing together in high school and have been turning heads together ever since. It was their show in Los Angeles that caught the attention of Make It Happen producers, who instantly knew they were the right choreographers for the film. Producer Anthony Mosawi explains:
"There's a very well known group of clubs called the Forty Deuce Clubs. Tracy is one of the first burlesque dancers at that club, and she left there about two years ago and started her own club called Aqua. So we went there and we saw her show, and it was fantastic. The moment we saw what Tracy was doing, she was delivering an experience.
"She was dancing in the show, but not just that. She chose the music, she looked at the costumes and she made creative use of the club so that you weren't always directed to the front. You would have dancers spring up behind you, you would have explosions overhead - it was a real experience. She made the heads of the audience move all the way through the show.
"So we brought her in and asked her, how can we make a dance show where you have all these individual performances that we don't want the audience to get bored as they go from performance to performance? And she came up with these dance routines which were very thematic. She showed us ways of doing every single dance that would be completely different from the last one. Her and Dom were great on that - Dom is her professional partner and they work as a team and they both bring very separate things to it."
Director Darren Grant also checked out their show at Aqua, and didn't take much convincing either: "So when I went to their show, it was like a little bit of tease, a little bit of theatre - the lights go out, they come up, outfits change, they dance on chairs. So it was like 'wow, they're doing Flash Dance live'.
"It had this retro rock modern edge going through it to their routines, and I just thought it was really, pretty groundbreaking. I was like, okay, these are the people that should be doing this movie cause they can take what is a burlesque scene and turn it into something completely different. And so we've done that so much now that the movie really isn't even about burlesque.
"It's not about girls wearing pasties and running around the stage. This is about very sensual, beautiful women, doing their routines at night, and the crowds go crazy, and it's a nice crowd. So Tracy and Dominic, they completely got that. There's definitely a love connection with myself and the choreographers cause they got exactly where we were trying to go 'cause it is a fine line. It's sexy and not sleazy, that's always what I try to do."
Tracy Phillips and Dominic Carbone drew from their arsenal of dance experience, passions, and specialties, to create the dance sequences for Make It Happen: "It was the kind of film that encompasses everything that we were already doing, and everything that we were really interested in, and everything that I think we're really good at, which is helping women find their sexy.
"Just the style of it, it's something that we haven't seen on film in a long time. I think the burlesque element is done in such a way that I hate to call it burlesque because it's not really truly burlesque. It's just something fresh and new, and something that you really haven't seen.
"The dancing in this film is sexy and powerful, it puts the women in a position of power as opposed to being just objectified. I think it's classic and fresh at the same time, you know, old and new, which is maybe why it's hard to define exactly what it is. There are so many different styles of dance in this film. We've run the gamut cause it goes from hip-hop to burlesque to jazz dancing to some ballet technique to acrobatics. We really threw it all in."
When it came to the women who would be dancing on-screen, Phillips and Carbone looked at what each one offered in terms of ability, and developed the choreography using their strongest assets. When it came to the film's star, they had lots to work with.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead, who plays protagonist Lauryn, was chosen for the role not only because of tremendous acting skills, but also because of lifelong training as a dancer. Director Darren Grant offers his impressions:
"Mary Elizabeth Winstead is perfect for this role, because she is a girl who I think is kind of like a chameleon. She's beautiful, she's cute, she's sexy, she can play a tomboy and she can be from the Midwest. She just had to be real relatable, but still obviously beautiful and different levels of beautiful. It's all in her eyes, and in her face, you know, she says so much. She's the perfect person for this role.
"And she can dance. She has years and years of dance experience, which was obviously an asset because you can't fake that. And so she does a lot of her own dancing in this."
When it came to Mary Elizabeth's dancing talent, choreographers Tracy and Dominic liked what they had to work with: "She's very flexible and she has really long lines because she has long limbs, so those are great assets for a dancer, you know. She has long legs. And pretty feet.
"Mary came in with a lot of facility already to work with, she had some LA training before, and dance training before, so she kinda had some technical things to offer. And she was a quick learner, so we could throw all that out at her. She worked really hard."
One of Hollywood's brightest young stars today, Mary Elizabeth was thrilled - and a little shocked - to be offered the role of Lauryn: "I actually got offered the role kind of out of the blue. It was a big surprise to me, getting the script. And I was extremely excited because it's a dance film and dance has been a passion of mine for a long time, especially growing up, so it was just a really great opportunity.
"I started dancing when I was about four years old, and my older sister was a dancer, and I really wanted to be like her, so I followed in her footsteps. By the time I was about ten I was dancing every day in ballet and you know, going on point, and dancing in productions, it was really my passion as a child. I really wanted to be a prima ballerina and so I worked really hard at that.
"By the time I was 12, I was studying in summer programs in New York and ballet school and things like that. And then I started acting right around that time as well, so it kind of veered off into a different direction, but dance has always been something in the back of my mind that I wish I never gave up and I wanted to continue. So doing this film, it was kind of a blast from the past and it was really great to get back into it.
"To kind of live out this little fantasy of becoming a dancer has been really fun." It was also hard work under the tutelage of Tracy and Dominic, and Mary Elizabeth describes it like this: "It was really tough the preparation. They kind of threw me into it immediately, 10-hour day rehearsals. In the first couple of days I really thought I was gonna die. I just thought they were going to kill me. I didn't think I would make it through, because they really treated me like a dancer.
"They didn't cut me any slack, they just taught me. I learned like two routines in the first two days. My character is supposed to be really kind of tough and athletic and strong, and that's one of the differences between me and Lauryn, I think, when I started the film. My background is ballet, I'm not hip-hop at all, so to try to get me to have that kind of strength and power was really tough.
"The first couple of weeks, once I made it through that, then I was like, okay, I think I'll live, I think I'll make it. But it was tough, it was really tough."
Alongside Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Tessa Thompson was cast as Lauryn's friend and fellow-dancer Dana. Director Darren Grant talks about why she was chosen: "Tessa plays the warm, bubbly, naïve, young friend of Lauryn's who is also kind of vulnerable. Tessa was the perfect fit - she just plays it right; she has warmth that comes from her, just as a person, and she's also an amazing dancer. She's very skilled and catches on really quickly."
Tessa Thompson was attracted to the opportunity to be in Make It Happen partly because of the opportunity to train at dancing: "I'm not a trained dancer. I've just danced my whole life because I enjoy it, so I was really attracted to having to train for something. That was something that was really interesting to me, and challenging.
"I guess I'm not a drop-out because I actually got kicked out… so I don't know what that would be - I'm a ballet school kick-out. I haven't really ever studied formally. I think dance is something for me that just feels really free, you know. It kind of feels like you can just do whatever you feel like, and so the situations where I've actually been in a class and had to do something on a certain count, it didn't really mix well with me."
Despite the lack of formal training, Tracy and Dominic saw a lot of inherent talent in her: "Tessa's a great dancer naturally. She really has a lot of style naturally and a lot to offer in that way. She's really musical, and she has a really great eye for detail. She notices all the detail, so in her number, we gave her a lot of little subtleties and details because she's really good at noticing those things, and getting them just right."
Another cast member, Julissa Bermudez who plays the role of Carmen, also needed choreography. This posed a bit more of a challenge for Tracy and Dominic: "Julissa came in without ever having danced before. She was the only one that came in, who had just never danced, so it was a whole new thing for her. But she is like a sponge. I mean, we worked her so hard, and bless her heart, she worked really hard.
"She just took it all in and remembered it. It was actually a good process for us, because whatever we showed her it was a clean slate. Whatever we showed her, she did it exactly that way. She had no bad habits to break. It was just like 'here you go, this is what it is' and we didn't have to change anything about her dancing, which was nice actually."
An engaging television personality from BET, Make It Happen is Bermudez's debut film. She was picture perfect for the role according to producer Anthony Mosawi:
"We were looking for someone who was very sassy for Carmen, someone who not only danced but had a persona that matched it, 'cause Carmen is the juiciest role in the film. She is the alpha girl who basically rules Ruby's. And Julissa came in and we saw her first on tape. We had a wall in our office and Brad Luff had pinned pictures on the wall of all the candidates, and ironically, Julissa's was the only one we ever pinned up for Carmen. So right from the beginning, we knew it was her."
While some might think it risky to hire a newcomer both to dancing and acting, Julissa was happy the producers and director saw something special in her: "I think I've taken literally one dance class when I was younger and didn't really consider myself much of a dancer. And now I'm like, you can put me in a dance class and I'm gonna rock it after this because I've learned so much!
"I love everybody for just taking a chance, for letting me take these dances and make them my own and just do my thing. And the acting - I've done more hosting than acting. So I was really excited they took a chance."
Make It Happen is the debut feature film for another cast member - Ashley Roberts. Coming from Pussycat Doll fame, Roberts brought her 'A game' to the table says Director Darren Grant: "She popped up and I was like, bam, you guys nailed it! And then by being in the Pussycat Dolls, she has a performance background. She can dance her ass off!"
Tracy and Dominic also found lots to work with when it came to choreography for Ashley Roberts, who they already knew - and who did all of her own dancing in the movie: "Ashley came in, and we had worked with her before. She's just a great dancer, she is a great performer, she is easy to work with, she's fun to be around, I mean, she's just professional. There isn't anything she can't do as far as dancing goes. She's in her element for sure, and I think she brings a lot of strength to the performance, you know, she's a real strong performer."
Having Ashley on set was an inspiration to the other girls. Tessa Thompson describes how having her on the cast helped them discover their 'sexy':
"We'd been in rehearsal for like four or five weeks before Ashley came. And between me, Julissa and Mary, we would say 'we need to find our inner Pussycat Doll' just to pull off the kind of sexiness because this movie is about dancing, but it's also about young women being comfortable in their sexuality.
"So we would talk about 'yeah, we need to find our inner pussycat doll' and then suddenly in walks a Pussycat Doll!
"It was great because she just brought up the bar, you know, and just has the natural ease at doing this and is so good at it. It's fun and free and young and Ashley is all those things. We can just be who we are, and celebrate it, and that is actually more sexy than the other approach."
Ashley Roberts, meanwhile, after a lifetime of dancing and singing, was excited to be adding some acting experience to her resume as an entertainer:
"Growing up and being in the arts, I always kind of went to the artists who, like Janet Jackson, was an artist, but would go off and do film, or J.Lo. And Flash Dance was just so huge in my mind - it is one of my favorite past dance movies, and I don't think there's been a dance movie in modern time that's really lived up to that.
"So I loved entertaining, and anybody who could entertain in all different kinds of aspects, I was like, wow, that's cool. They can act, dance and sing. That's awesome, and that's what I've always wanted to do."
Amongst all these talented women in the film, there also has to be a guy. Russ is the DJ at Ruby's and aspiring musician. He is played by Riley Smith, who finds many interesting parallels between Russ and the character of Lauryn: "Russ is a nice guy, he's going through some of the same things as the lead role, Lauryn, is. Their storylines are kind of parallel - his with music, hers with dancing. And it's got a cool little love story to it.
"Russ is a real laidback free-spirited guy who, is just kinds going through life DJ-ing and I think put all his dreams and aspirations on hold, and now he's just kinda going through the routine of being a club rat DJ. He's looking for something more, but you know, he just needs the motivation."
Director Darren Grant thought that Riley truly embodied the character of Russ: "Riley's a guy that, he's been around. He's been to some good parties, he's been to a couple of clubs. He's a great actor, but he also understands the scene, you know, the scene around town a little bit. You gotta be a white guy with a little bit of swagger, with a little bit of flavor, and Riley was able to nail it. This guy is Russ. He's completely Russ. Like, you could just call him Russ."
DARREN GRANT - DIRECTOR
With the breakout film Diary of a Mad Black Woman and a catalogue of over 130 music videos and award winning commercials, Darren Grant has unquestionably made quite a name for himself in the world of filmmaking.
The inevitable transition from music videos to feature films is one that has the Hollywood community buzzing, in recognition of Grant's exceptional gift of narrative vision. In a very short time, Grant has been recognized by film and record company executives for his innate ability to capture and present aspects of an artist's personality that hadn't been fully recognized before on film. Although well versed in the mechanics of directing, what makes Grant truly stand out is his personalization of each project and the rich cinematic quality that he brings to the screen. He has become one of the most viable and highly sought after young directors emerging in feature films, specializing in the genres of comedy and drama.
Currently residing in Los Angeles, Grant has been able to remain on top of the constant and ever-changing trends in lifestyle and fashion for both the film and music industry. By remaining in touch with diverse styles, he is on the cutting edge of savvy techniques, marketable imaging, and has gained an intrinsic expertise in delivering the artist's message and persona to the viewer. Grant has worked with many notable entertainers such as Mya, TI, Tamia, Aaliyah, Destiny's Child, Vanessa Hudgens, Wyclef Jean, The Coors, Monica, Jermaine DuPri, Jay Z, and Jewel. Grant has also done several commercials, with projects for Budweiser and McDonalds under his belt, as well as an edgy award-winning anti-smoking PSA entitled Hitman.
Born in Seattle, Washington, Darren was introduced to the film industry at a very early age. His independent filmmaker mother exposed him to the unique world of film festivals, shorts, and other film events. After graduating from high school, he headed towards California in a VW Bug purchased for $300. But three hours into the trip, the engine blew. Refusing to give up, he hopped on a bus and arrived an undeclared undergrad at San Diego State University in the fall of 1989. Grant was soon lured towards majoring in Film and admitted on a creative option into SDSU's highly competitive Film School. Two years later he once again packed up his bags and transferred to LA-based Cal State Northridge, where he earned his BA, completed his formal education in Film, and was honored with the distinction of Most Likely to Succeed by the Black Student Union.
Grant jumped head first into the world of film production, and began by working as a delivery driver for Propaganda Films. A few months later, his serious work ethic was recognized and he was promoted to freelance production assistant. Grant seized the opportunity to learn hands-on the fundamentals of music video and commercial production. During this time, he worked with artists such as Janet Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Madonna, Toni Braxton and Prince.
Grant's career took a life changing turn when he broke ground with his first of many music videos. Over the next two years Grant would direct over 30 videos. In 2001 his hard work paid off when he was recognized by MTV and earned the VMA (Video Music Award) R&B Video of the Year for Destiny's Child smash hit video Survivor. This video helped propel the album to multi-platinum status.
Over the years, Grant also received an NAACP Image Award (Outstanding Music Video) in 1998 for the hit video Stomp with Kirk Franklin. He earned two Billboard Music Video Awards for Best Dance New Artist Clip and Best R&B New Artist Clip in 2001 for the popular Craig David video Fill Me In. During 2002, Grant was acknowledged by his peers when they awarded Jewel's Standing Still video the prestigious MVPA (Music Video Production Association) Adult Contemporary Video of the Year. With this track record, Darren Grant has become one of the most highly sought after directors in more than one right.
In 2004 Darren became a client of the William Morris Agency. Six months later, in 2005, Darren made his feature film directorial debut with Diary of a Mad Black Woman, which debuted at number one and smashed box office records with grosses exceeding $50 million domestic and over $70 million on DVD. The film has since garnered several awards including NAACP Image Award, BET Comedy Award for Outstanding direction in a Theatrical Film and WSIWG Award for Film of the Year. His proudest moment was the 2005 Alumni Cinematheque Award from the Department of Cinema and Television Arts (California State University Northridge).
ANTHONY MOSAWI - PRODUCER
Anthony Mosawi qualified as a UK barrister and California attorney. He worked as an executive for Paramount Pictures before becoming chief operating officer for Paramount-based Mutual Film Co. He is the founder and chief executive of Mayhem Entertainment, which was launched in 2005.