When the Coen brothers come calling what goes through your mind?
Well, the first thing I felt was blown away because I was such a fan of theirs. I was just bowled over. I have literally seen every one of their movies and to get to be a part of one blew my mind just a little bit. So when I was told what the movie was and what my participation would be in it, it was truly a dream come true. To get to be a part of something that was so connected to that golden age of the movies and to help create the kind of detail they were going to put into it, it was more than I could ask for.
Any particular favourite Coen brother’s film of yours?
God, there’s so many. I love Fargo a lot. And The Big Lebowski, of course.
Did you have any input developing the song or the scene of ‘No Dames!’?
Yeah I did, and it was a complete operation. When I got the script from them it was originally just a one paragraph explanation saying that it was “A dance sequence on a big battleship with sailors and a mop.” In my head I thought it was going to be a 30-second snippet of Channing [Tatum] doing a couple of moves on a ship. But then the more we developed it we started to question the original song and wanted to work on something new. Because of schedules and whatnot we changed the setting from a Battleship to a bar. It was a really incredible collaboration between me, Henry Krieger who wrote the song and the Coens. Coincidentally Joel and I both worked with Henry on different projects so we pulled him in and it made it a really true team effort to get this up.
How does it feel to know that some directors are still willing to take five minutes out of their film to just indulge in the traditions of Hollywood song and dance?
Great question. I never really thought it would ever happen again. I’ve been a fan of that era of movies my entire life. I grew up on them. So to think that I was going to be a part of something like that is something I’m really proud of. I’m proud of the Coens for trusting that the audience would watch and enjoy the numbers and sustain that enjoyment for ninety minutes.
What films/dancers/styles did you take for your inspiration for the No Dames! Routine?
Mainly it was a lot of Gene Kelly’s work. We thought “How does Channing move?” He is just such an athletic dancer of course, that Gene Kelly came instantly to mind. So we watched a lot of ‘On the Town’ and ‘Anchors Aweigh’ and ‘The Pirate’. There’s a really great collection called ‘That’s Entertainment’ featuring musical number after musical number from that period. So we pulled a lot of inspiration from that compilation’s many different offerings. ‘Good News’ (a Peter Lawford picture) was another. The list was endless. In one of our meetings I told the Coen brothers about a moment in one of the specials where they show you Eleanor Powell dancing ‘Fascinatin’ Rhythm’, and then they do a split screen and show the making of the number side by side as she’s dancing it.
So, there’s a shot in our number where they show the stage getting pulled together. That’s what they used to do back then; they literally had crews pushing the stage floors in place so that the dancers could keep travelling and that the cameras could pan and still follow the dancers in one shot without having to cut and replace things. I think the Coens were really intrigued by that and wanted to incorporate that back into the dance numbers as well; to kind of honour even the way that they were crafted back then. That’s what made this – and I know it sounds cliché – but it really was a dream come true to be a part of this movie.
I’ve checked out a bit of your Broadway work, particularly Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me. Was it any easier creating a routine for a multi camera environment, than it would be for a live stage show?
It is in that for a stage show you have to tell the eye where to look in a really big space. Because it’s a bigger stage filled with people dancing you have to tell the audience where to look so they can track the story, follow the leads; you have to train their eyes to do that. But with film you can really let your imagination go wild. You can have the camera travel through the dancers, you can start close and pan backwards to make the number of dancers feel like its getting bigger. The options with different cameras and different techniques was just so much fun to play around with because you could get really great angles and really get inside the movement of the dance. Like when we show them dancing on the tables and watching the bartender pull the tablecloths out from under the sailor’s feet as they are dancing. Things like that made the shoot fantastic.
Do you hope that this might spark a revival of interest in cinematic song and dance? For instance, the Aqua-musical number that Scarlett Johansson got to perform doesn’t even exist anymore.
Esther Williams was the great Aqua-Musical star, and to do this number they had to reopen her pool. That was her pool that she did all of her numbers in. That was the pool. They only fill it with water now to do a boat scene or something like that. But what an honour to get to do something like that again. But yeah, I hope there is a resurgence because it seems like people really enjoyed those moments in the film. I think to just to stop and have five minutes of just pure entertainment is a great thing.
How did you get into choreography?
That’s a long story. I started dancing when I was eight and I fell in love with it. There was no YouTube back then, so a lot of it was just watching old VHS tapes of the classics and catching them on the TV when you could. I just immersed myself in them; I was such a fan of Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, so I’ve been watching them for most of my life. I moved to New York when I was 17 and just dived in, feet first. I switched to choreography in my mid-twenties and the snowball kept going from there.
It’s funny you mention YouTube because that’s where I believe the musical has migrated to. That instead of wrapping up our song and dance numbers in a narrative they now exist in isolation in five minute videos online.
Yeah. It’s interesting. I think that people are so accustomed to everything being so quick. Everything is quick now; everything is edited to within an in inch of its life. Cut, cut, cut, cut, cut. Go here, cut there. It’s all segments and clips now. It’s all just fast and flashy shots of pow, pow, pow, pow, pow. But the Coens, even in our number, said that – technically – we wanted to do this all in one shot. So we staged it and choreographed it so that if we wanted to, you could do this number in one take. You could pan back, you could put the camera through the scene. They wanted to honour the old films by creating one long take. I think you could feel that while you’re watching it; you can feel the craft of how it was done. These dancers back then were so well rehearsed – they had to be because they didn’t have the time or the money for do-overs. Hopefully this film will open people up to longer and fuller experiences.
Is there any subject or medium you would love to tackle in the future?
Wow, that’s a great question. I would love to do more film. This is my first one. It’s a whole new set of tools, so I’m hoping for more opportunities for film and TV because I’ve just had a really great time doing it. It’s fast and furious, and there’s something about the way that dance is being preserved in it.
HAIL, CAESAR! is available to own on Digital HD™ now and on Blu-ray™ & DVD from 11th July, courtesy of Universal Pictures (UK).