Read an interview with writer-director Steven Antin
In writer/director Steven Antin's finger-snapping, eye-popping and atmospheric musical Burlesque, a time-honored tale of showbiz aspirations fulfilled - and the hallmarks of a classic form of live entertainment - get a dazzling, fun movie makeover.
For Ali (Christina Aguilera), a small-town girl with a big voice, there had to be somewhere her dreams could be fulfilled, rather than remain an empty goal.
Enter the world of burlesque.
Leaving behind hardship and an uncertain future for the entertainment capital Los Angeles, Ali stumbles upon The Burlesque Lounge, a majestic but ailing theater that is home to an inspired musical revue. Talking herself into a cocktail waitress job from Tess (Cher), the club's glamorous and forthright proprietor, headliner and starmaker, Ali becomes a wide-eyed sponge to The Burlesque's captivating acts. The outrageous costumes and bold choreography hold the young ingénue enraptured.
That stage is where Ali was meant to be, so she vows to herself she'll be on it someday.
But first she has to navigate the theater's many interpersonal relationships, for better or for worse. She builds a friendship with a featured dancer (Julianne Hough), finds an enemy in a troubled, jealous performer (Kristen Bell), and wins the affection of Jack (Cam Gigandet), a handsome bartender and musician who takes Ali in as a temporary roommate to help her get her financial footing. Eventually, with the help of a sharp-witted yet sensitive stage manager (Stanley Tucci) and the club's gender-bending host (Alan Cumming), Ali makes her way from the bar to the stage. Her spectacular voice and showmanship returns The Burlesque Lounge to its former glory, giving hope to Tess that she won't have to entertain the demands of her ex-husband (Peter Gallagher) that she sell the place to a charismatic entrepreneur (Eric Dane) with an enticing proposal.
As Ali's star rises, it becomes thrillingly clear that the Burlesque Lounge lives to titillate, fascinate and make dreams come true. But are its days - and colorful, sexy, music-filled nights -- numbered?
Burlesque was produced by Donald De Line. The executive producers are Stacy Kolker Cramer and Risa Shapiro.
The crew includes costume designer Michael Kaplan, music by Christophe Beck, music supervisor Buck Damon, editor Virginia Katz, A.C.E., production designer Jon Gary Steele, director of photography Bojan Bazelli, ASC, and choreographers Denise Faye and Joey Pizzi.
Welcome to Burlesque:
When it comes to the vibrant, timeless world of burlesque and its recent pop culture renaissance, writer-director Steven Antin had the kind of intimate connection impossible to ignore: his sister and Antin had recognized there was a rich story in the art form, its fans, and its performers. Encouraged by Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper, Antin used his knowledge of burlesque to chart out Ali Rose's incredible journey from a bar in Iowa to a club on the Sunset Strip.
One objective for Antin was to remain true to the spirit of the art form, noting that a popular misconception about burlesque is that it is synonymous with stripping. Antin explains: "Burlesque only became associated with striptease in the United States in the early twentieth century, and that was inspired by the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s in Paris. Previously, burlesque was defined by comedy shows with singing and dancing, storytelling and parodies. It was considered risqué and funny and appealed to the mass culture.
The risqué elements of Burlesque, though, never venture beyond a cheeky suggestion or a delicious double entendre. "Burlesque is sometimes risqué, always sexy, but never sexual," Antin continues. "Everything we do in this movie, like with original burlesque, is intended to be something enjoyable. It's a big, friendly, bawdy, fun romp. Burlesque was entertainment for the masses in its original form, and it still is today in Burlesque."
Antin's screenplay imbues the Burlesque Lounge with its own rich personality and history. His desire was to present a somewhat magical space that could transport its inhabitants to an alternate reality. "When Ali Rose walks into the Burlesque Lounge, she's falling down the rabbit hole, not unlike 'Alice in Wonderland,'" says Antin. "She descends this staircase and the first person she meets is Alexis, who looks suspiciously like The Mad Hatter."
With the script in place, Antin and Culpepper set out to find who would populate the world of the Burlesque Lounge.
Who's In the Spotlight:
To give Burlesque the marquee pizzazz they envisioned, the filmmakers knew that only a megastar would do. It meant that they pursued Cher tirelessly before the Oscar® winner agreed to end a seven year hiatus and return to the big screen. (They even paid a surprise personal plea to Cher when she was on the Sony lot doing an ADR session for MGM's animated The Zookeeper.) The filmmakers believed that Cher would respond to the role of Tess because the character is both familiar and contemporary, somebody with a lot to give who's in danger of having her dream taken away. Antin notes: "Tess is one of a zillion people losing their shirt. That's a very real thing happening right now and I thought it was an interesting thing for this character to be experiencing." Read more
The Look of Burlesque:
Creating the faded opulence of the Burlesque Lounge required imagination, ingenuity and a team of skilled, dedicated artists. Production designer Jon Gary Steele, art director Chris Cornwell and a tireless construction team moved into Sony's Stage 23 and commenced an arduous six-week process of erecting the Burlesque Lounge. In order to make the set as fully functional and realistic as possible, the offices, hallways and dressing rooms were all connected to the club and the stage. There were no flyaway walls or separate sets to break the illusion that the Burlesque Lounge was anything but an operating nightclub. Read more
Though the Burlesque Lounge provided new creative relationships, many members of the cast and crew had collaborated previously. The Burlesque Lounge reintroduced Peter Gallagher with his "Guys And Dolls" co-star (and Burlesque choreographer) Denise Faye. Gallagher and Cher enjoyed a brief cinematic encounter when she had a cameo role as Larry Levy's date for an event in Robert Altman's The Player. Costume designer Michael Kaplan had his first job as an assistant on "The Sonny and Cher Show." Theatrical lighting designers Peggy Eisenhauer and Jules Fisher previously collaborated with choreographers Denise Faye and Joey Pizzi on Rob Marshall's Chicago, and with Alan Cumming for his Tony Award-winning turn in "Cabaret." Christina Aguilera took dancer Paul Kirkland on the road with her for two of her tours.
The first few weeks of production were divided between filming big musical numbers ("E.X.P.R.E.S.S.," "A Guy What Takes His Time," and "I Am A Good Girl") and quiet, often intimate scenes between Gigandet and Aguilera. Gigandet praises his co-star for her commitment. "She came to play. She really did," Gigandet enthuses. "She jumped into the deep end of the pool as quickly as possible. It was a crash course. She was open-minded and willing, throughout the whole movie. It was kind of an exciting journey to see how she was on the first day to where she is now. It was special to be a part of this because you could see her grow."
Furthermore, Gigandet notes that director Steven Antin devoted as much of his attention to the film's smaller moments as he did to the breathtaking musical numbers: "He was so focused on simply the story, the acting, and the relationship that these two were going through. I feel like that's rare, especially on such a big movie. When it came to those details, he stepped up and didn't let all the distractions get in the way, which is great."
Director of photography Bojan Bazelli helped Antin capture Burlesque's wildest, most romantic and most thrilling moments. Bazelli comments: "Color is a big player in this movie. It has vibrancy. Burlesque, in my mind, is red. We played where we added lots of red tones in the entire musical. Any time there is a number, there is a significant amount of very rich, saturated red."
Bazelli aimed to set a distinction between Ali's Hollywood and her world inside the club. "Any time we enter the club, the club is vibrant, its colors are vibrant," Bazelli says. "The contrast is stronger. Whereas when we are in the streets -- and not that Hollywood is not a vibrant place -- but we tried to keep it a little less colorful. The tonality is monochromatic. It's representing two worlds: One would be Cher's world, one would be the world of Christina, a new arrival in town."
Bazelli worked seamlessly with Eisenhauer and Fisher to create an active, bold vision for the lounge's musical sequences. Peter Gallagher observes: "Bojan creates a world that appears real, that we're living in and acting in and telling the story in, and Peggy illuminates this heightened reality and helps tell the story of these musical numbers. There's an extraordinary amount of cooperation and coordination in their two separate worlds."
Occasionally, the production would leave the stage to venture out into practical locations. There were some obvious logistical difficulties in bringing two music icons into the middle of Hollywood. Nevertheless, Antin had a dream to shoot a scene on Hollywood Boulevard. He comments: "I grew up here. The sun sets almost right in the center of Hollywood Boulevard and creates this incredible light that blasts down Hollywood Boulevard, and it reflects off those terrazzo, slick, Walk of Fame sidewalks. I'd seen it so many times and I always wanted to shoot it, and I got to shoot it in this movie. I had no idea that it was going to be as crazy as it was. There were mobs of people. I felt like we were in Times Square. I've never seen it that crowded."
Another outdoor scene, a confrontation between Nikki and Tess, required Bell to dive right into one of her most dramatic scenes mere moments after meeting Cher. "Shooting the parking lot scene was kind of bizarre because I hadn't known Cher at that point," Bell recalls. "We both knew this was a pivotal point in our relationship, so it had to be good and it had to be real. We sat down and talked first and we said, 'Obviously we're best friends. We've had a million movie nights where I've burnt the popcorn and you've made gin and tonics and we've painted each other's nails and you're my idol and I'm your protégé and this has been going on for years and this is how it works and tonight's the night of our break-up.'"
Despite the level of fame Cher and Aguilera brought to the production, Bell found her work environment to be exceptionally supportive. "They're both so down-to-earth, which I hate to say is surprising, but it was," Bell recalls. "You don't know what kind of personality someone's going to have when they're that iconic, but they're both lovely and so much fun to work with and so blunt and easy to be around. It's become like a really nice family, kind of like these girls actually have at this burlesque club."
Christina Aguilera did more than just act, sing and dance in Burlesque; she also co-wrote three of the songs that appear in the film: "E.X.P.R.E.S.S.," "Bound to You," and "Show Me How You Burlesque." Aguilera offered to write the music and Antin graciously accepted. With a caveat, though. "Christina said, 'Does that mean if I write one and you don't like it, it's not in the movie?' And I said, 'Yeah,'" Antin jokes. "That's basically it. She's not afraid of a challenge, a girl like Christina Aguilera. She went out and wrote song after song after song, and it was spectacular. We talked a lot about what those songs were. I wrote treatments for the songs, about what story those songs tell in the movie and what the subject matter is, and what the tone of the songs might be." Antin did write one of the key songs that Christina performs in the film - "But I'm a Good Girl."
The expertly choreographed dance numbers took shape months before production. Antin, whom worked very closely with choreographers Joey Pizzi and Denise Faye, describes the process: "Denise Faye was here for months with me, conceptualizing and looking at movies and music videos that we loved, and referencing everything you could possibly imagine from the last several hundred years of dance, and burlesque and vaudeville, and opera. We had a whole wall that we had all the numbers up on with different ideas. We would just pare them down and pare them down. She and Joey Pizzi brought their choreography team here: Tara Hughes, Aisha Francis, Melanie Lewis and Jaquel Knight. The six of them would get into a room after we would conceptualize something, and they'd bring me in and say, 'Here's the rough bones of it.'"
Each member of the team added his or her own bit of expertise to the film's choreography. Jaquel Knight explains: "Denise, Joey and Tara worked together previously. They had this chemistry already among themselves with such a great talent and technique behind it. Aisha and Melanie and I brought a kind of commercial side to the whole project. My style personally is very funky, very street, very underground. It's inspired by whatever you see at the moment."
Aisha Francis, a member of the choreography team and featured dancer, describes her favorite number: "'Something's Got a Hold on Me,' but I wasn't in it, thank God!" Francis laughs. "They were about to die! That was like running a ten-day marathon at full speed. I felt so awful for the girls. It was like thirty seconds between each take, but they look so amazing. They're so professional and they're just hot."
Antin also relied on Pizzi and Faye to provide some of the film's comedic touches. "I kept saying, 'You know, this number has to be funny,'" Antin says of Kristen Bell's euphemism-filled dentist visit romp, called "Dr. Long John." "I kept pushing them to mine the comedy out of the song. Denise and Joey are really funny and they understand musical comedy and musical theater. They found the fun and the comedy and sexiness in this number."
The dancers of Burlesque might as well have been stunt performers, given their numerous battle scars. "I come down on this metal beaded curtain and I'm all wrapped up," Hough remembers of shooting "Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend." "I've got nothing holding me up. The bad thing about that, though, is that it looked like I had rug burn because I had all these marks all over my body from the metal beads. It hurt so much. But it's a fabulous number and pain feels good when you know it's going to pay off."
Dancer Sean van der Wilt felt the pain from another source--the gold chain dresses in the finale. "When the girls slide down my arms, I cut myself on the chains on their dresses," says van der Wilt. "It's been brutal, but the movie is going to be all worth it."
Dancer Paul Kirkland got to see a very different side to Christina Aguilera, who he worked with on the "Stripped" and "Back To Basics" tours. "Usually, she's worried about her vocals because it's her show and it's all about her voice," offers Kirkland. "It's really nice to see her perform as a dancer and kind of get a taste of what we do. I've always experienced the music side of things for her, so now I'm seeing her grow and become a movie star and become the amazing person that she is."
"The main girls were here every day and we pushed them very hard and some were moving into areas that they weren't used to," choreographer and dancer Tara Hughes says. "It was rigorous and those girls put in their time. You fight hard and know that in seven months you'll rest. We had two months of pre-production and two months of rehearsals with the dancers and actors, then three months of shooting."
Bell held her own with Aguilera and Hough and the team of seasoned dancers. "They danced with Michael Jackson and they dance with Beyoncé. These girls are the best of the best. You would think that it might be a giant catfight with this many women, but it's not. It's such a supportive environment. I'm very much trying to keep up with them in the dance department. I can pull one aside and say, 'Can you show me that step again?' They're ready and willing to make it the best it can be," Bell says.
Alan Cumming's first day on set was Georgia's wedding scene, filmed in downtown Los Angeles. "I had him dancing with Julianne at one point, and they had just met ten minutes before," Antin remembers. "He said to Julianne, 'Darling, can you manage a twirl?' And she sort of looked at him, and because she's so sweet, she said, 'Yeah. I think I can pull it off.'"
Above all else, the cast embraced the enthusiasm of their director. "Steven Antin is phenomenal," Hough says. "He's such a ball of energy and you always feel so beautiful when you're around him because he makes you feel that way. He understands women and obviously the musical aspect of things, so we're definitely putting our trust in him and it's well-deserved."
Aguilera says she and Antin bonded from day one on the movie. "There's something about him that I felt I'd known my whole life," says Aguilera. "He was involved with every aspect, and he cared about it like it was his baby. It makes you not want to disappoint him even more. He was great."
All in all, Aguilera says audiences for Burlesque can expect a fun song-and-dance ride from beginning to end. She adds: "It was a really beautiful thing to be a part of, and I think it shows onscreen. Audiences will see how much heart we put into this picture."
STEVEN ANTIN (Writer-Director) Filmmaker Steven Antin's numerous talents converge with his feature film directorial debut Burlesque, starring Christina Aguilera and Cher, set for a November 2010 release by Sony / Screen Gems. Antin developed Burlesque at Sony/Screen Gems for several years, writing the script, choosing songs for the soundtrack, designing musical numbers, and actually writing the lyrics to one of the film's major songs, "But I'm a Good Girl". Having written live burlesque shows earlier in his career, making the film was a natural progression. Next for Antin is the feature film musical "Mash-Up" that he wrote and will direct, currently in development at Walt Disney Studios.Antin has directed several music videos for such acclaimed performers as The Pussycat Dolls, Paul Van Dyke, and Girlicious. He also executive produced the successful reality series for The CW Network: "The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search For The Next Doll."
Originally from New York City, Antin moved to California as a child and was discovered as an actor at the age of nine. Antin had memorable roles in several feature films including Jonathan Kaplan's The Accused, Richard Donner's The Goonies, and Boaz Davidson's The Last American Virgin. Antin also appeared as a recurring character on "NYPD Blue" and was also nominated for an ACE award as Best Actor in a Dramatic Series for the HBO telefilm "Vietnam War Story: The Last Days."
Following a successful acting career, Antin shifted his focus to screenwriting and producing. Inside Monkey Zetterland, which Antin wrote, co-produced and starred in, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Antin also created and executive produced The WB series "Young Americans," which launched the careers of stars Kate Bosworth, Ian Somerhalder and Michelle Monaghan. He currently resides in Los Angeles.
THE ART OF ORIGINAL FILMMAKING