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.
Question: How did this project come to be? What was the development process for it?
STEVEN ANTIN: I've been involved in burlesque for a really long time and I've always been really interested in burlesque, and I was writing musicals for different studios. I wrote a musical for Disney that was actually greenlit the same week that Burlesque was greenlit. The studio was aware that I was writing musicals for other studios, and I had written a musical, called Mash Up, 10 years ago, for Columbia, that actually never got made. That was in the vein of "Meet Me in St. Louis," where people broke into song.
So, there was a lot of awareness that I wanted to explore this world of musicals. Screen Gems and Clint Culpepper said to me, "Write this movie about the world of burlesque. You keep saying you want to write a movie about it, so write it." He kept pushing me to write it, but I wasn't sure what the story was. Once I came up with the story, I pitched it to him, wrote a treatment and gave it to him. I wrote the script on spec for the studio. I wasn't even paid for it. I really believed that this was a movie that should be made, and the studio really believed in it and they greenlit it, which was great.
How difficult was it to get Cher and Christina Aguilera to sign on? Were they the only two people you wanted for these roles?
ANTIN: It wasn't that they were the only two people I thought could do this. They were the only two people I really wanted in the movie and I knew they could do it. I really wanted them. Christina came on board first. It was a long process, getting Christina to say yes. It was many dog-and-pony shows, on my end, and auditions for me. There were discussions of story, and walking her through the entire world of what the movie was going to look like. I had endless amounts of references, all over my office walls, and I had storyboards, books and images of what the photography and lighting would look like because that was so important to me. It was a long process, and I had to do the same thing with share. Christina loved the idea, she loved the world and she was really interested, but she wasn't 100% sure. She had said no, many times, to movies. Through great perseverance, she finally said yes. And then, I did the same thing with Cher. It was not without a lot of just refusing to take no for an answer and persevering.
As the writer as well, were you open to making changes and collaborating with them on their characters?
ANTIN: Yes. This is such a cliche, but I feel like filmmaking is a collaborative experience. I'm not Shakespeare. I have no delusions of who I am, as a writer. I wrote a simply beautiful script that's a fun-filled, joyous fantasy, and I was fine with making changes for the actors that made them comfortable. Nothing was that incredibly dramatic, as far as the changes went. The story was the story, and the characters were the characters. Often, actors have thoughts about character and what makes them comfortable. I wanted everybody to feel good about what they were doing and I wanted them in the movie, so it was a collaborative experience, all around, with everybody.
Was it intimidating at all to walk on set with Cher and Christina Aguilera for your first feature film?
ANTIN: Yeah, but by the time I walked on set the first day, Cher wasn't there for the first month of shooting, and I had gotten to know Christina very well. I had many meetings with them, and I had been in many dance rehearsals and acting rehearsals with Christina. It wasn't like I didn't know either of them. I knew them. We had a good working relationship and I had their support. I never knew what was going to happen when I was behind the camera and said, "Action!," but they were really malleable and incredibly supportive of me and what I wanted, and I was incredibly supportive and malleable with them and any ideas that they had to interject.
Having worked so closely with both of them, are there things that you think people would be particularly surprised to know about Christina Aguilera and Cher?
ANTIN: Personally and professionally, Christina is very private, but an incredibly nurturing and soulful woman who's a mom. Seeing her hold her baby in her kitchen and make a cup of coffee moved my spirit. She's very, very, very, very easy to work with and really open to suggestions and ideas, and really threw herself into my hands and completely trusted me 100%. Of course, she had a lot of ideas along the way, which I was always open to, and I had a lot of ideas and changes, and we would just work through them. It was different than I thought it was going to be.
Cher is the same way. Cher is really down-to-earth, very nurturing, incredibly funny and fun, a great storyteller, and creates a great environment on the set. She was really supportive of me, as a director and a filmmaker, and was supportive of my vision. Whatever I wanted or needed, she was really willing to go there, so that I was happy. She often said to me, "Did you get what you want?" And I'd say, "Yes, do you feel good with what you did? If you didn't, let's do it one more time." They would say, "No, I feel good. Do you feel good?" I'd say, "I'm happy," and we would move on. We really had that, quite a bit.
Was it difficult to find the men to play opposite such strong women?
ANTIN: Yes, it was. There was a big question mark about who they were going to be. I knew of Cam Gigandet. I had seen him in several movies. I wanted somebody who was a great actor, was capable of comedy, had a lot of charisma and was criminally sexy, and that was Cam Gigandet. When he came in and I met with him to talk to him about the movie, I had to convince him to do this movie and that this role was right for him. We had some changes in his role too, but I know he's so happy that he did it now. He came up and hugged me after he saw the movie. Christina did the same thing. She jumped on me and jumped into my arms after she saw the movie, she was so happy. All the actors are really happy with the movie, and I'm so relieved and happy about that.
This is a musical that seems evenly focused on the performance numbers and the acting. Was that intentional?
ANTIN: Yeah, we spent a lot of time on both. But, I didn't have very much time to shoot this movie. I shot 136-page movie in 71 days, which is very tight. I couldn't go over, and I only shot five-day weeks. We had to tech musical numbers on Saturday and Sunday, so we weren't shooting then. I had five very tight days of the week with which to shoot, and I couldn't shoot 17- and 18-hour days. The studio wouldn't let me and the actors wouldn't have survived it. It was a grueling shoot that was really, really difficult.
With as big a part of the story as the club is in the film, how important was it to you to have The
Burlesque Lounge be its own character and for it to have the look that it does?
ANTIN: It was so enormously important, I can't tell you. An incredible amount of time went into building, designing and developing that space. There was drawing after drawing, and many models were made. We had endless samples of paints. There was a specific way I wanted the floorboards to be laid. I wanted the sides to be herringbone. I wanted the floor of the club to be a railroad in another direction, and then I wanted the stage floorboards to go in another direction. We talked about all of the colors and glosses on the walls, the aging on the walls, the curtains in the club, the lightbulbs, the chandeliers, all of the different backdrops and textures, how big the thrust stage was going to be and what the detail around that was going to look like. We went through endless amounts of research. Even the tables and chairs in the club, the trim around the tables, the sheen on the tables and every single lamp on the tables was discussed. There was an incredible amount of detail. The design for this movie was incredibly detailed, and had to be detailed, finished and worked out before we started production because I had a really tight production schedule and I had to stick to it. I pre-lit everything because we were on soundstages, so I was really ready to go, at the beginning of every day. That helped me get through the day, make those beautiful shots the way I wanted to make them, and tell the story of this club with this beautiful club being a character in the movie.
In doing a first feature like this, with so many different elements, did it help that you have a background in acting and know how to deal with actors to get the performance that you're looking for?
ANTIN: Yeah. In a huge way, everything that I've done in my life has helped inform my ability to communicate with actors and direct them, and have that dialogue. It's specific, and each actor is so different and requires a different dialogue. A huge part of it is wanting to do it. I love actors. I love working with actors. I really enjoy the process. I love having those in-depth discussions about the interior of their character, and actors really love to discuss that too. I could talk about that for days with them. They love that, and I love that. I love the exploration. For me, it's an exploration into the human spirit and what makes us tick, and it gives us a better understanding of the character, who we are, who the character could be and the potential for the character.
When you were acting, had you always known that the goal for you was to get behind the camera?
ANTIN: I knew it from pretty early on, yeah. I always wanted to direct. I always saw myself as a director. I know that I've definitely found what I should be doing with my life. In my life, as far as my career goes, I always felt, as an actor, that it was something that would just be a temporary thing that would get me to what I wanted to do next. That's what my acting did. I really feel that I'm a much better director than I was an actor. Everything that I've done in my life has become a dictionary of information and has helped inform what I do next. The experience of Burlesque informed so much, as did all the music videos I've done and producing TV shows and movies, and just being involved in the entertainment industry and really being a sponge for information.
Of the stories that have circulated about the production of Burlesque, some of them focus on the two of you and your personal relationship. What do you say to those rumors?
They're really not relevant. It's just sort of funny, really, because the stories are far more juicy and salacious than the truth. The truth is that there just are not that many interesting stories to tell behind the scenes on this movie. Under the best of circumstances, there's all sorts of drama in making a movie and it's very intense. There's a lot at stake for everybody, so tensions run high. People are extremely passionate about what they're doing -- hopefully! And that was the case here. There was a lot of passion in making this movie. A lot of relationships and people who knew each other pretty well. But again, under the best of circumstances it's really tense. We had some of the best circumstances and some trying circumstances on this movie, and I think every movie does. Because it's Christina, it's Cher -- it's ripe. It's a movie because they're such colorful characters, but I think people want to say, "What happened behind the scenes? It's actually not them, there's more to tell!" But it's just inaccurate.
What was your relationship with Cher like before making Burlesque?
We didn't know each other that well many years ago, but we'd met several times and hung out. There, oddly, were some pictures taken of us that seem to have surfaced
Yes, there's a photograph of you, Cher, and David Geffen all out together years ago.
I was like, where did that come from? I don't even remember taking the picture, and I don't think she did either. We weren't best friends that many years ago, but we knew each other. She was really nice to me, and I was really nice to her. I've always been a huge fan of hers but we had to get re-acquainted during this process.
Is it true that Geffen was the one who helped you convince Cher to come out of semi-retirement as an actor to be in your film?
Yes. I had actually been having conversations with Cher's manager about Cher and she had talked to Cher about the movie. We wanted to send Cher the script but we were still working on it, revising it and changing it. Christina was already on board but we realized we needed to do work on the other character, Tess. We'd already been discussing Cher, but while we were doing the work, Clint sent the script to David just to read it as a friend - I was unaware of this - and David read it and said, "Wow, you should get Cher!" Clint said, "Steven loves the idea of Cher! We all want Cher!" I think he actually sent her the script, or an email or a text, and Cher called her manager and said, "I hear that they want me to do this movie, Burlesque…" One thing led to another and it took quite a while, but we finally met with her. It was a long process getting her on board.
What made you think that Christina Aguilera and Cher would make the perfect duo to carry the film?
Christina and Cher were always in my head while writing and developing the movie. I knew Christina was right for the role of Ali. I wanted somebody who could obviously sing, who had a spectacular voice and could hit it out of the park and was appealing, who could really land the role as an actress. When I saw Christina on Saturday Night Live doing those skits, she was so funny, I knew she had the chops. I met with her and we had many conversations and I just fell madly in love with her. I thought, "I know this woman could do this." And my instincts were right about her. It was the same with Cher. She plays Tess, this woman who in the face of great adversity pulls herself up by her bootstraps and rises like a phoenix. That's Cher. I wanted a great actress, someone who could sing, and someone you really believed would run a burlesque club, and Cher embodied those things more than anybody.
There are directors who can somehow manage to make the most lovely actresses look not-so-great, but in Burlesque everyone is luminous.
I'm so happy that you noticed! Not that many people have said that to me, but I paid such excruciating attention to that detail. I love shooting women. I love women. I love making women look beautiful, and I think women like Christina and Cher -- and all women -- love to look beautiful. I had endless conversations with Bojan Bazelli, our director of photography, about how we were going to shoot this movie. The lighting is key. There are lots of lights in this movie, and it makes the sets very hot, but it's a lot of beautiful backlighting, soft fill, tricks, and smoke and mirrors -- so many elements went into creating a beautiful world and making sure the women looked beautiful. Also, Kristofer Buckle is a genius make-up artist. We had Martin Samuel and Cindy Williams, the make-up, the hair, the costumes. But it's about film stock, camera lenses, lighting, a lot of smoke and mirrors and tricks that lend themselves to making women look beautiful.
Did that make Burlesque more complicated than the average production?
It took a lot of prep. It couldn't take time during the making of the movie or slow us down, because we had a really tight schedule that I had to stick to. There are stories floating around that I went over-schedule, and that's not true -- we went one day over, for additional photography. I had to make my days every single day; I did between 50 and 70 set-ups a day, which is almost unheard of. It was a really long script! A hundred and thirty-six page script, and I shot it in 70 days.
Is it strange that coming into Burlesque, many folks don't realize that you've done so much before -- like your previous acting roles or the series that you created, Young Americans?
A lot of people don't. Every now and then there are people like you who saw it and loved it. But stylistically, Young Americans was a staggeringly beautiful show, and a lot of attention was paid to detail in creating a beautiful world and environment.
The other thing that an entirely new generation may not realize they have to thank you for is introducing the world to Ian Somerhalder, who made his acting debut in Young Americans.
Oh yeah! I found Ian Somerhalder. He had never acted before, but his picture came across my desk and I said, "Get that kid in here! I think he could play the role of Hamilton." I just liked the way he looks and I wanted to see if he can do it. He was a Guess model at the time and they kept saying, "He's doing a shoot for Guess," and kept cancelling. I said, "But I want to meet him for a TV series!" Finally he came in and I took him to the network and coached him. I actually shot him myself in my office and went through a long process of helping to get him on TV.
Was he not already sold on transitioning into acting at the time?
He was sort of thinking about it, exploring it, and he was going out for things. But he hadn't done any [acting]. He was just a model. Not just a model -- he was a successful, beautiful young model, but I knew when he came to my office that there was something special about this guy.
Does that mean you keep up with him on The Vampire Diaries?
I do sometimes, because Ian's like my son! I feel like his dad. I love it. He's great, such a charming, lovely, fabulous guy. You would love him. He's also an incredibly bright, thoughtful, earthy guy. Really smart. He is really one of the most beautiful specimens I've ever seen in person. He's so staggeringly beautiful that it's jaw-dropping. You know what they said to me at The WB? "You're putting too much make-up on him, there's too much blush on his cheeks." I'm like, "He doesn't wear any make-up. That's his f***ing skin." He's one of the most beautiful people I've ever seen, and he's a fabulous guy.