Written by: Trevor Goodyear, Special to CC2K
The musical A Chorus Line manages to do a remarkable thing. It takes a seemingly inconsequential slice of life experienced by select few and turns out something that intelligently addresses issues that affect many: age, race, sexism and homophobia. It’s like The Breakfast Club, except the girls are in leotards and not everyone is white.
With Every Little Step, directors James Stern and Adam Del Deo undertook to cover the audition process for the recent revival of "A Chorus Line." Previously Stern and Dell Deo created the documentaries So Goes the Nation about the state of Ohio during the Bush/Kerry election, and Year of the Yao, about Yao Ming's first year in the NBA, including his unexpected close friendship with his translator Colin Pine. (An aside: I would recommend Year of the Yao to anyone before I recommended Kobe Doing Work. I haven't seen the latter, but I much prefer projects that document people who aren't jerks, and Yao seems like one of the truly good guys in the NBA.)
Every Little Step covers the strains of the nearly 5 month audition process, including the physical toll the dancing takes on performers, the impossibility of reproducing an exact performance after 4 months, the egomaniacal resolution it takes to not be shattered by years of rejection, and the elation of people who are given the chance to do exactly what they've wanted to do their whole lives.
Every Little Step is currently out in limited release. CC2K talked to the directors in March.
CC2K: How did the documentary come about?
JS: …John Breglio (the executor about Micahel Bennett's estate) is the producer of the revival and ultimately the executive producer of this film. He had seen our previous films – really, really loved [them]… So I had met John and he said “…when Michael Bennett first thought about doing this he had thought about it as a stage documentary. He really wanted a sort of companion piece for the show. Would you be interested?" I talked to Adam.
ADD: Jim called me and said we had an opportunity to make "A Chorus Line" and we were finishing "SGTN" and I wasn't quite sure, you know. I asked Jim how big of a deal this was, he said it would be a huge deal. That was pretty much it…
CC2K: What was your history with the show prior to this?
ADD: It’s a very small history. Hearing the soundtrack in my house growing up – my Mom used to sing along to it –
JS: You had the gold lamé, though, didn't you?
ADD: That's right… I did go over those dances when I was seven.
CC2K: You had a dream…
ADD: Yeah, when I got beat up on the playground, that was it.
CC2K: So when you were starting out, how much did you want to make a documentary about the history of the show and how much did you want to make a documentary about the audition process?
JS: Yes. In other words, I mean it’s a joke but, I mean, we wanted to do both. I think that it’s just that we don't want to do something that’s just another reality television thing. We weren't interested in doing that, nor were we interested in doing something that was academic. So we really wanted to do something that's right in the metric between the historical and the audition process. It took a long, long time, and we are really gratified when people who don't know the show say they love the movie and people who know the show very, very well said the same.
CC2K: …there was one particular scene that I remember, I don't recall the content, but [the camera was] peeking around the corner at an actress talking to one of the casting people, and it made me think about to what degree were you out in the open with what you were filming and to what degree were you trying to be more surreptitious?
ADD: We were pretty out in the open. Cameras were around and people knew something was going on, they knew it wasn't a reality TV show. They knew it was going to be a documentary. What happens is after 20 or 30 minutes, they have a job to do, whether it’s the director, actors, the casting director or someone else. That pretty much happens, when you spend an hour or two hours with someone, after a while they get used to it. We just try to stay out of the way.
JS: The advantage of shooting as much as we shot, people got used to us being there pretty early on.
CC2K: One thing I noticed when Jason Tam comes out – when he has the incredible audition – when he comes out of the room he sort of glances at the camera and then just moves past, he doesn't really stop and talk. I was wondering how you decided who you were going to talk to… did people just stop to talk?
ADD: We were around, we had producers around, they would ask, sometimes. Our staff, we couldn't have done this without them. They were really well trained and they were really diligent, they have a very good sense of when things are flat and when to ask questions and get people talking, and when great verité moments are happening, and you should leave it alone.
JS: Sometimes you want to let it breathe, and if we just, if we would have stopped and asked Jason a question there its an absolute certainty he would not have come up with a beneficial answer. Because his performance was so rich with what we saw, it was much better to leave the talking to the people behind the table and to leave him coming back to just being a person from being that actor, just letting that speak.
ADD: It’s an incredible moment. It could be my favorite. Coming after the thousands of performances we had seen so far, and he just boom came back to real life, getting ready to dress and move onto the next thing. It was genius, incredible, but its just acting, "I'm just acting."
CC2K: On a bit of a sort of meta level, you're making a documentary about an audition process for a musical about an audition process. Even –
JS: (to ADD) *NOW* you can talk about Fellini. (to CC2K) He's always talking about 8 1/2.
ADD: I think it's because there was that opportunity when Jim called me and said should we do this and yeah it's a big deal. I said "Aha!" It's like this interesting take, you have this Fellini angle where you're making a film about what the show already is. There's this whole mirror around it. It was great.
CC2K: So… the play, even in and of itself is sort of as close to documentary feel as you're going to get. Set inside a theater, actors playing actors. In what ways do you think documentary serves as a better vehicle for the play and the sort of mission of the play, and in what ways do you think it can't touch the original medium.
JS: Well, I think that the best thing it can do is, it can show you that this comes from a very real place, and that the experience of A Chorus Line, not only was it real for the people who created A Chorus Line originally, and it was their stories, but it continues to be real, and therefore you sort of see that in fact Broadway is very much of a constant constellation of change, so I think that that's quite wonderful. I think that the magic of actual live stage is that. . .that immediacy of being in the theater with those people, and sort of losing yourself into those people you can almost touch in the flesh, its very different.
CC2K: So the longitudinal, in terms of time, in the film you can see 1975 vs. present day…
JS: There's that, but there's also just stage. You know, just, stage is stage and film is film. There's an immediacy about the stage which is different. The other, I think, does something which the stage can't do, which is it shows you how this came to be and how true to life the story is.
CC2K: What do you think are the differences when doing documentaries when you're involved with part of establishments? With Year of the Yao, obviously you're part of the huge establishments of the Rockets and the NBA, in "So Goes The Nation" its slightly less organized but there's the establishment of American Politics vs. working with, say, a small family or working with an individual?
ADD: I've never thought of it in those terms. Its part of establishments, yeah, but I think what we really look for in a documentary is – is there an organic scope to the idea, and if we do our job well do we create a film that works? Is there an audience for it? Also we look for films that have emotional truth, and not necessarily working with establishments, I don't know…
JS: I do, though, and its interesting because what I think is if you don't establish yourself as part of a kind of familial setting with your subjects, you're never going to let them loose of the camera. So I think that it's helpful to be part of the framework of, part of the fabric of their lives, you know, you get a lot more. I think that when we're somewhere shooting, and I think Adam in particular has been really, really skillful about disappearing into the woodwork and I think that everything you do you have to absorb yourself in. We say that when we work, when we make a movie, when we make a show, we always have a new family. You're on the road, its the producers, you're working, its just your family. It’s a bit weird. You're out there every night, all day long, they know all about you. Everybody, especially in this world, is dysfunctional enough to keep talking. So everybody has the sort of weird transitory relationships and that transfers over.
CC2K: So how was it different working within the framework of Broadway vs. National Basketball.
ADD: Its very different, one is male driven athletes…
JS: Who are used to – whose articulation is physical. Our movies often metamorphize, I think with A Chorus Line actually less so. It was actually very much the movie we thought we wanted to make at the start. Year of the Yao was totally different. We never dreamt that there was going to be some translator we were going to be following. The fact of the matter is that Yao was a 21 year old Chinese young man who basically never had to actually think about feelings or thoughts or opinions about the world makes for a very sealed subject. So you have to sort of find other ways where he's expressing himself in surprising ways. With A Chorus Line, Broadway, everybody talks all the time. So they're very different. That being said, there are similarities too. These people are operating on borrowed time, where they're going to face complete different careers when they get to be 35 as opposed to what they've done their entire lives.
CC2K: How do you react… when you see something like the moment at the end of the movie with Tyce where he's talking about "Everyone's doing it. Everyone's becoming a big star. Everyone's making millions of dollars." When you have someone who is, on the one hand so delusionally egotistical, and yet at the same time is so sort of pathetically naive, what do you do? Do you jump at that?
ADD: He really was the anomaly. For me personally it’s just really entertaining. I got a kick out of it.
JS: First of all, it’s another great question, I mean, Adam's 100% right. On the face of it, it’s really entertaining, and you want to make sure the film doesn't take itself too seriously. It’s really important that we don't let ourselves take ourselves too seriously… But what's interesting is that Tyce is, while delusional and egotistical in some ways, he also has given himself the shell that he needs to succeed, which in this world is essential. I mean, when I was spending ten years being unsuccessful, before I started doing, you know, 50 plays and movies, I was delusional as Tyce, and if I had not been that delusional, I don't think I would be here now. So I think that it’s comedic and its great for us, and it sounds absurd, of course, but at the same time, it’s also what you need…. What separates student athletes? Some guys hit the shot and some guys don't. Now cut to the summer league, it’s a pick-up game, and they're all hitting shots. It’s the delusion, you know? I think we have a president who had an UN-believable amount of delusion to fall back on and that's why he became president.
CC2K: But do you think that's untrue of anyone who's ever sought the presidency?
JS: I think that being a black man from a single white mother growing up being raised by his grandparents in Hawaii and Indonesia and all these crazy places had to have more delusion than George W. Bush whose great-grandfather was a Senator, whose father was George. It’s something that could grab a-hold of. I think Ronald Reagan is more like Obama, he went to Eureka College in Illinois, you know? It’s a little bit more far afield than, say Franklin Roosevelt whose uncle had already been president.
CC2K: So as opposed to the normal hubris of being president, to be able to think that one person can fix us, Obama sort of had a special shell that allowed him to ignore the other strikes against him.
JS: That's right.
CC2K: Before reading the bios for this I hadn't been aware of Baayork Lee's DC acting cred. She's done a fair amount of work at Arena, had a couple of DC Theatre award nominations, and it got me thinking about the theatre world…. How hard to you think it is to get that kind of show up in New York, and to what degree do you have the impression of the theatre world becoming flatter, in a way, with artists sort of being forced to stretch out geographically.
JS: If by "flatter" you mean less centralized, I think there is less work on plays that will gravitate to other places in order to pay more. I think that the commercial theatre has always been cyclical in conjunction with the economy. The film business is kind of reverse cyclical. It’s simply a matter of you can spend $12 and go to a movie and you can spend $120 and go to Broadway… There were years when I was working in New York where it was like "Broadway is essentially dead." And it wasn't dead, dying. And then everyone is like "Oh my god, it is here to stay! We're never going to have another problem the rest of our lives!" And I thought "You guys are still wrong because it’s just the economy…" I think that this coming season is going to be a very rich season for the coming shows. Spider-Man is going to be the most expensive production in history and its opening against the Addams Family which is going to be another big show, and I believe there's going to be at least one or two others, and that's in the face of this economy. So we'll see. But I think that it’s an indigenous American Art form that is not going to go away, and I intend to be producing more shows on Broadway. Do I think that it’s harder? I think that as the money goes up it always gets a bit harder. But the thing about Broadway is that it’s the same to today as it was in the 30s. We do the same things. You get a bunch of people together, you get a little amount of money. Nothing has changed. Whereas in film you're looking for funding in hedge funds or from the French or the Germans or the Japanese, but Broadway's the same.
CC2K: And have you guys heard anything about what the future holds for the NEA in terms of the stimulus packages?
JS: Well, there's going to be $156 million as part of the stimulus package as I understand it. I think its vitally important and I think there needs to be more. I think that art is bulwark of any great nation. I think that its been a centerpiece of all great societies to have art performed, written, painted, sculpted, shown in museums and as you devalue that and all you value is finance or even infrastructure I think that's a chink in the armor of society.