Dance Academy is the latest film to transiting from the small screen to the big screen and I recently spoke with director Jeffrey Walker about the experience…
Matt: You were directing episodes of Neighbours, Home & Away and Blue Heelers when just 22 years of age. Given how tough it can be to break into the director profession, what’s the secret? How did you open the door so young?
Jeffrey: I had an extremely unusual set of events that played out. I started acting as a 7-year-old in different television shows and films in Australia. I developed a real love for the camera and all things behind the scenes when I was about 13-14 years of age. I then started to make little short films on the weekends.
When I finished high school, I hadn’t decided what I was going to do with my life. I had a wonderful producer, Jonathan Shiff, who took me under his wing and he trained me for two years as an on-set shadowing director. At the end of that, he thought I was ready so I got my first job directing an episode of Neighbours when I was 20. I know I’m very lucky and extremely grateful that bizarre set of events occurred.
Matt: I think you’ve been directing episodes for more than 20 different TV series across a whole mix of genres – All Saints, City Homicide, Angry Boys, Rake and Modern Family. Do you look back on your older work? Has your style changed a lot over the past decade?
Jeffrey: I haven’t look back out of fear as to how terrible some of the early stuff might have been. Given that I’d spent so much time on sets as an actor over 10 years, I had a good knowledge of running a set. I’d watched enough terrific directors to learn from what they did scene-to-scene. What I didn’t have at the age of 20 was a unique voice. I didn’t have anything that I could infuse on stuff I was working on. When I did develop a voice, I started to feel that a bit more of my DNA was in the final product and those things are more fun to rewatch.
Matt: I know you were involved with the Dance Academy TV series but this is a rare chance for you to direct a feature film that will be released in cinemas. What are the major differences between the two mediums?
Jeffrey: As a director, to be able to zero in on one particular story is great. In television, you’re given a single episode or a series of episodes and you don’t get that total sense of storytelling. I’ve always seen film as a director’s medium and TV as a producer’s medium. With film, a producer will still help you come up with a lot of creative ideas but you have to go out there and execute it. No one is going to be leering over your shoulder telling you how we make this show.
Just before I started Dance Academy, I worked on another film with a similar budget called Ali’s Wedding that’s due to come out a little later in the year. I did an enormous amount of learning on that and I was able to use that experience to come in and hopefully make the best choices I could on Dance Academy. I’m now experiencing the release of a film for the first time which I’ve had no experience in whatsoever. My native terrain has been television for such a long time now and it makes this both exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Matt: How did this film come about anyway? The show finished up in 2013 and I admit it wasn’t something I was expecting to hear from again?
Jeffrey: The amazing thing that has sustained with Dance Academy is that it’s never stopped being on air. It’s had big sales overseas and there are major territories such as the U.S. that only discovered it a couple of years ago. Oddly, it’s still as relevant as it was when we made it. The interest is not just there from the fan base in Australia but there are 10-year-olds coming to it now from around the world. That wide audience is the major reason that we were able to come back and revisit it.
The great gift of this film is they didn’t resurrect these characters as 15, 16 and 17 year olds. We see them now in their 20s and they have new dilemmas that hopefully our maturing audience can relate to. Their struggles are real for young people trying to find their identity in life and we’ve tried to dramatically explore that.
Matt: You have been involved with the TV series but how do you get your own insight into this world and these characters? Do you talk to a lot of dancers? Do you have contacts with the Sydney Ballet Company?
Jeffrey: When I did the TV series for the first time, I knew extremely little about elite ballet. My sister was a dance teacher who had grown up through dance schools but I had no idea except for the fact that the characters were extremely relatable to me. I felt a kinship from being an aspiring actor and that gave me a sense of the pressures these characters went through. When you’re pursuing something at an elite level, your entire identity is wrapped up in that. When you wake up in the morning, you’re a dancer. You’re not just a dancer when you step on stage. You’re a dancer from the moment you wake up. I felt that as an actor and I now feel that as a director.
With the film, we wanted to explore what happens when that’s taken away from someone. What’s left of them? How do still feel you have a contribution to make if you don’t have that passion?
In terms of just spending time immersed in the world of dance, I’ve done that a great deal over the last few years more out of choice and enjoyment than what I had to do at the start of the TV series. Back then, I spoke with choreographers and dancers about what it’s like. Many of them come out and say “oh, it’s just a joy” but the reality is that it’s hard. You’re in pursuit of a completely unobtainable dream for perfection with your entire life as a dancer. That’s a hard thing to reconcile and it’s another theme I wanted to explore.
Matt: Dance movies are a staple of American film culture. There’s iconic stuff like Flashdance, Footloose, Dirty Dancing and then more recent stuff like Centre Stage, Save the Last Dance and the Step Up franchise. Do you look back on films like those when trying to come up with something of your own – to see what works and what doesn’t?
Jeffrey: For me, the film that was the game changer in that genre was Black Swan. It introduced a thriller element to a genre that I thought was exhausted. Even though this film is aimed at a teenage audience, I think many people will be surprised that it doesn’t play out as expected. I remember in Black Swan watching director Darren Aronofsky take the camera in hand-held mode and stay with the dancers on the stage so you can hear them breathing and the hard sounds of pointed shoes hitting the floorboards. That changed the way I looked at making a dance film. I realised you didn’t have to conform to the clichés of the genre and you can shake it up.
Matt: There are scenes in this movie shot in New York City and in particular around Times Square – one of the busiest places in the world. I’ve always been curious to know – what’s the process for being able to shoot in a public location like that? Can you just do it? Or is there a lot of planning and paperwork involved?
Jeffrey: It was described to me in two ways. There’s the way Sam Raimi does it when he makes Spider-Man and there’s the way I do it with Dance Academy. You turn up with a skeleton crew and it’s so busy and chaotic that no one cares that you’re even there. We were always permitted but we couldn’t disrupt traffic and we always had to be using steady-cams or hand-held cameras. You can’t have anything like cranes that would obstruct views. It’s “guerrilla” style which makes it noisy and hard to work. You ultimately choose the shots in the edit where you have the fewest passer-bys who are looking at the camera and there’s also a lot of looping of dialogue. It’s hard but hopefully the results for the audience make it all worthwhile.
Matt: Just like the TV series, there’s a big soundtrack here too. What was the process behind picking the right songs for the movie?
Jeffrey: There were three key tracks that we reached out to get – one each from Sia, Flume and Taylor Swift. Australian films have notoriously low music budgets when compared to the United States. Our producer, Joanna Werner, had to be as hard edged as she could in going to the representatives of these wonderful artists and describing how we loved their songs and thought we had a fantastic way in which they could be used in the film. There were barriers but ultimately we did get a lot of positive answers. I hope that audiences don’t get the sense that they’re watching a small film with a small music budget. We think this provides a big cinema experience.
Matt: I’ll finish up by asking what are you working on at the moment?
Jeffrey: I’m in New York doing the third series of a show called Difficult People where Amy Poehler is one of the executive producers. She’s a funny but also a beautiful, smart, gentle person. I’ve directed nearly all the episodes across 3 seasons. It’s got Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner in the leading roles and it’s been a heck of a lot of fun.