You’ve probably heard Duane Adler’s name come up every once in awhile, most probably you’ve seen one of the movies he’s written. The man is a dance king, so to speak, having penned much beloved films such as Save the Last Dance, Make it Happen, and all of the Step Up movies. This time around, he’s taken a new seat in the director’s chair and took the time out to talk to me about his experience directing, working with professional dancer Derek Hough and Korean pop sensation BoA, and what inspires his writing.

You can read the entire interview below.

This is your first dance movie directorial debut. What was that experience like in comparison to writing?

It was wonderful because I had more tools to tell my story. And I wasn’t at all one of those jaded writers who had seen my work messed up, it wasn’t about that. I was very fortunate that Save the Last Dance and Step Up turned out as good as they did because they had great directors. So it wasn’t that I was on the sidelines going, “aw, man, I could’ve done that better.” I was more watching as a student, going, “hmm, why did they make that choice?” And as I was developing Cobu at the time, for Make Your Move, the more I felt like I was the right person to direct it.

And as an experience, it was amazing because as a writer, you have your imagination, anything you can put on the blank page. But really the only tool you have is the word. And as

a director, I’ve got an endless amount of tools. I’ve got everything from the way I imagine the movie looking with lighting. And I get to work with and collaborate with amazing, wonderful artists.

You said that you felt you were the best person to direct this movie. Was there another director attached to the project at any point in time? 

No. This was something I pitched. I wanted to do an East meets West story. An American boy and an Asian girl. And I felt like tap dance was underutilized as an art form in movies. There hasn’t been a tap dance movie in years, probably since Tap in the late ’80s. I was kind of watching what was going on in Tap and there were some tap dancers and I watched what they did and I was like, “this is really cool!”

It’s very edgy and raw and urban. So I knew I wanted the lead character to be a tap dancer. I was looking for something for my love interest that would really have a percussion element to go along with the tap dancing and something that’s unique to Asian culture. And I thought, “what about taiko drums? Those are really cool, I love those things.” So I Googled tap dance and taiko drums just to see if anybody had done something or was doing anything with those instruments, and I found this group in New York called Cobu.

They were these Japanese-American girls who had married tap and funk dance to taiko drumming. And they’d incorporated both into the routine. And I watched some of their stuff online and I was blown away. So I contacted and met with the founder. I didn’t have a story at that point or anything, but I really liked what they’re doing and wanted to turn the idea into a movie. And she agreed. And that was the start of it.

I think that was one of the unique aspects of the film is the tap dancing and drumming. And I think you mixed in the tap, the drumming, and urban flavor into a very intriguing Cirque de Soleil-type club.

We wanted these clubs to feel alive. We wanted them to be characters and we wanted each dance performance to be its own personality and flavor. So this was a lot of fun to then work with these ideas and see what the production designer would come up with and what the stage would look like. And of course, wonderful collaboration with the choreographers and the sound people.

As a director, how was it working with first-time actor Derek Hough and with BoA in her first English-speaking role? 

You know, as a director, I couldn’t have asked for more from both of them and I couldn’t have felt luckier because they were both workaholics. Neither of them had done a movie before. Derek was on the West End when he was 18, but never been in a movie before. But obviously from being on the show [Dancing with the Stars], he was very camera-savvy and very used to working with a lot of people around.

And BoA, she’d grown up around the spotlight, so that part of it was easy for both of them. But the challenge for both of them, and was something that they both embraced, was the work that it takes to be relaxed on camera and to not feel the pressure of having to be perfect every time. Both in the dance numbers as well as the acting. To be able to know that this isn’t live television and that we can take two or three takes. They can warm up into this. They both just went with it and trusted me and trusted the process. We asked an enormous amount of them. They started dance rehearsals five weeks before we started shooting. They lived in the dance studio with the choreographers and the dancers. And they embraced it all and were ready to go.

When you sit down to write, coming from a dance perspective, do you imagine the dance scenes in your head as you’re writing certain scenes?

Yeah. Yeah, I do. When I write a dance scene, I do write on the page a lot describing it. I don’t try to describe the dance moves though. I don’t try to say, “she spins on toes in a three-spin pirouette.” I don’t get into the technical terms, but I try to take the reader on an emotional journey. I ask myself before I  write any dance numbers, “what’s the story of this dance?” And that’s where I start. What are the characters trying to express? What are they trying to say? Not unlike how a musical would work, when the character breaks into song, and that’s what’s happening here with our characters.

Each time Derek and BoA dance, we’re furthering the story and they’re saying something to the other person that they’re not saying in words. So I’ll put that on the page and might write

a page and a half, a page, describing that. And then I’d share that with the choreographers and the music department. And Derek actually wrote one of the songs with that in mind. He co-wrote the “Let Me In” song when they do the beautiful duet in the studio. So it’s all really a collaborative experience, but it does all start with what I envision when I’m writing it.

What I didn’t want to do with this movie is make it a dance battle movie. I wanted to make these dances in this movie much more intimate. Much more storytelling. I didn’t want the movie to feel like it stops for a dance number. I wanted the dances to be dramatic and sensual and romantic. Just two characters expressing themselves.

The dance in the studio between them, which I call the “pre-love scene”, that was my favorite of the film because it was so sensual. And I haven’t seen something so sensual like this in a film in a long time. That was very beautifully done. 

Thanks. We’re all really proud of that one.

And you always write with the underdog in mind. It’s all about the underdog story. Two people rising up and getting their act together to be able to accomplish their goals. What influences your writing when you sit down to write these characters? 

That’s a great question. I think the answer is kind of in what you said. These dance movies are ultimately inspirational films. At least that’s how I look at them. They’re all different versions of Rocky, if you will. The odds are stacked against the characters and dance happens to be what they do. But through love, they kind of transcend what their problems are. And dance and music are just beautiful international languages. Dance is the most beautiful form of nonverbal communication there is, and music, you can view as the most beautiful form of oral communication, auditory communication. When you put those two together, they just lend themselves to sensuality and romance and storytelling. Every culture dances, every culture plays music and they do both in times of immense celebration, in times of mourning, in times of sadness and happiness and joy.

And I like those tools to take the audience into an inspirational story. And I feel like we forget sometimes as filmmakers, that there’s always someone in the audience, and not just in dance, but in any genre, that did not grow up on Dirty Dancing or Save the Last Dance. There’s someone walking into that theater for the first time and getting their first experience watching a dance movie. And you want them to feel inspired when they come out. So that’s always exciting. Inspirational stories and finding the heart of the character, it’s what I try to set out to do. Whether it’s Save the Last Dance, Step Up, and now for Make Your Move. 

Your films are generally well-loved. They’ve become a part of pop culture. Is there pressure to continue to raise the bar for every dance film that you write or direct in the future? 

I think it’s just to continue to challenge yourself and to show the audience something they haven’t seen. I don’t think it’s so much the pressure as much as it’s an opportunity, you know? I think we tried some really cool things in this film. I hadn’t seen a dance movie that incorporated many elements of live performance, with the percussion, with the drums, with the tap and brass band, and elements of dub-step. We just tried to get really creative and have each number keep its intimacy. Because we could put 50 dancers on the stage, we could’ve done that, but then where’s the intimacy? Who’s up there dancing that I care about, that I’m invested in? So I think that was our big goal with this movie, to kind of separate ourselves a little bit from what Step Up has gotten so good at, which is taking 40 or 50 dancers and just wowing you with every moment. We wanted to make you feel more intimate to each number.

Are you looking to continue directing in the future? 

I sure am! As we all are in this business, we’re freelancers. As soon as we’re done with one movie, we’re off to the next. I am working on something now that, knock on wood, will be my next directing project. It’s kind of a Bollywood/Hollywood fusion. It takes an American girl to Mumbai, where she falls in love with a boy there. She’s a very troubled American girl and she goes to India for a family vacation, really to just try to escape her problems here. Blending elements with Bollywood music with our Western music and influences, it’s exciting. We went on a research trip last year, and we’ve got some actors from India who are interested, and we’re trying to package the movie right now to shoot late this year.


About Author

Mae is a Washington, DC-based film critic, entertainment journalist and Weekend Editor at Heroic Hollywood. A member of the Washington, DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), she's a geek who loves discussing movies and TV. She is also a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. If she's not at the movies, she's catching up on her superhero TV-watching, usually with a glass of wine in hand.

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