Where are you from? Why dance? Why the Joffrey? How did you get here? What is your life like?”
Both Campbell and Turner spent an enormous amount of time with the company over the course of two years. Throughout the entire research and writing process, Campbell had been referring to the script as being “Altman-esque,” because she didn't want it to be about a single character but, rather, about an entire world. “I'd say ‘Bob is the best person at doing that--creating whole worlds in his films',” says Campbell. But she doubted that they would ever actually be able to secure Robert Altman as their director--especially following the success of Gosford Park . So the filmmakers were delighted to learn that Turner had known Altman for years.
“Barbara Turner called me and asked me to read a script that she had written,” explains Altman. After reading the script his interest was immediately piqued, but he was hesitant to take on the project, “I read it and I said, ‘This isn't anything for me. I don't know anything about dance.'” Altman had a change of heart, however, when he couldn't get the project out of his head, “I thought, ‘Why am I avoiding this thing? Why shouldn't I go into new terri tory?' At a certain point I just decided to jump into the river.”
In addition to Campbell and a large ensemble cast, consisting primarily of dancers from the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, the film also features Malcolm McDowell and James Franco.
Both of the actors admit that they were drawn to the project because of Robert Altman. McDowell and Altman have been trying to work together for several years. “You ask any actor, and they just love him,” says McDowell. “It's great to work with a man who is so sure of what he wants and gives you a lot of latitude as an actor.” For Franco, coming off the success of James Dean , it was a chance to work with a legend. “I would do anything for Robert Altman.”
All of the actors put time into preparing for their various roles. For her part as a dancer in the company, Campbell spent almost two years training for the difficult dancing she would be doing in the film. McDowell spent a week following and observing Gerald Arpino, the head of the Joffrey on whom his character Alberto Antonelli ("Mr. A") is loosely based. For his part as Josh, a sous chef, James Franco spent many hours training at the chic Chicago bistro, Marché.
It goes without saying, however, that the real star of the film is the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago. Founded in 1956 by Robert Joffrey and Gerald Arpino, the New York based Joffrey was originally an ensemble of six dancers which toured the country performing a repertoire created for them by company co-founder Joffrey. Joffrey's and Arpino's unique American vision of dance marked a break in the traditional American approach to ballet in which touring companies of the time would primarily perform reduced versions of the classical ballets. Now nearly a half a century later, the Joffrey is world renowned for its remarkable repertory of more than 225 ballets by 85 choreographers. In keeping with its tradition of supporting American dance, The Joffrey has commissioned the first ballets of such notable American choreographers as Alvin Ailey, Laura Dean, Mark Morris and Twyla Tharp.
Campbell had an especially close relationship with the Joffrey dancers, as she worked as one of them while preparing for her dance scenes. “The dancers were amazing,” gushes Campbell. “For me it was really intimidating to step back into the dance world, after a nine year break, and start training all over again. On top of that, it was with a company of dancers who had known each other for years and were familiar with the choreography that we were going to be doing. But they were unbelievably supportive.”
McDowell, who plays the leader of the dance troupe, wholeheartedly agrees, “I honestly can't remember ever having such a wonderful time with people on a set as with those dancers. Because they live in their own little world and it's so demanding, they don't really have that much time for life, so I think our coming in was a kind of lifeline to the world for them. It gave them a marvelous opportunity to get out of their routine and do something different.”
McDowell also hopes that this film will give the dancers an even more tangible benefit, “Dance is live theatre and yet it's never preserved except on grainy old tape. I think to have these gorgeous pieces shot for wide-screen cinema in beautiful color is something they will always treasure.”
Working with the dancers as actors presented a particular challenge for Altman. “All of the experienced actors had to adapt very quickly,” he explains. “They understood that I couldn't have the dancers acting like actors and so the actors had to look like real people, rather than actors so everyone would blend together.” Ultimately it was a very gratifying experience for the director. “The dancers are so disciplined, it was like directing one person. I could ask for the dancers and, in a flash, forty of them would be standing there. If I made even a little adjustment for the camera and asked them to stand in a particular place, they could do it perfectly every time. And they're not afraid. They're used to rehearsing while looking at themselves in the mirror. And they're natural performers. So it turns out they're excellent actors. There's not a weak one in the bunch.”
McDowell's role as the artistic leader of the company is a blend of dictator, father figure and politician. “I think Mr. A. has a history of being passionately in love with both the company and with each and every one of the dancers. He's a brilliant choreographer of course, but his time is spent less on the creative and more on the running of a company and all that that entails.” Campbell enjoyed her time working with McDowell, “His energy is just massive. He has found such a love for this company and for these dancers and for this role and it was really nice to see that excitement.”
Franco, who plays Josh, a sous chef who sweeps Campbell's character (Ry) off her feet, describes his character as “an escape for Ry from the intensity of the dance world.” Campbell admired his willingness to jump into one of the only roles in the film not directly associated with the dance company, “James is great, really talented. It's not a huge role, but he's an artist and wanted to step into it for a while and I admire that.”
Campbell was also pleased about the inclusion of the “Blue Snake” ballet in the film as its finale. She had seen the ballet performed by the National Ballet of Canada years before and that memory was with her while she was dancing it within the film. “The sets and costumes were brought from Canada and when I was trying on my costume, inside were all the names of the dancers that I used to look up to at the National Ballet of Canada when I was a kid. It was an insane experience. I almost couldn't grasp it. And then the costume fit, which was pretty great!"
Altman and cinematographer Andrew Dunne had previously collaborated on Gosford Park ,” but this was the first foray for both of them into shooting on High Definition Video. The technology allowed the use of multiple cameras with extended takes of vibrant live performances that helped to create the stunning look of the dances on screen. Dunne describes it as a stimulating process. “When Bob suggested it I was thrilled, because if I was going to actually shoot in High Def, I was going to do it with Bob. He allows you to push things to the extreme, as opposed to a studio, which might be more restrictive. Bob's way is just a much more exciting use of the medium.”
Dunne describes the shooting of the dance sequences as particularly thrilling. “Watching the dancers is such a spine-tingling experience for me, especially seeing it on a high definition monitor at close range. It's like I'm living the experience through the cameras.”
Principal photography on The Company started in the fall of 2002 and was shot entirely on location in Chicago, with a crew that was primarily local. Dunne describes the experience as gratifying. “ I think Chicago is one of the greatest cities in the world and the people here make the city a very special place. I also had the best crew imaginable, it was a great group of people to work with.”
Campbell feels it will be especially difficult for her to walk away from this project, as she has had such a personal connection to it for so many years, “It's been great to find dance again and I have to figure out a way to keep dance in my life from now on.”
Turner expects that audiences will have a visceral experience during the film, “I hope that people leave with a sense of what it's like to be in the world of dance, to be a dancer. The fact that these people are in pain all the time, that they don't get paid very much, that their lives involve a lot of sacrifices. But their dedication to dance is astonishing and their respect and regard for each other is extraordinary. And of course, the joy…their joy is amazing.”
For Altman, The Company represented a new style of filmmaking and he feels forever changed by the experience. “I found that I was able to approach this film in a different way than I had with any other film. It was a learning process from the first day. The further I pushed, the further I realized I could push, and delve into the truth of it. I don't know what my next film is going to be because I don't think I can go back and approach film the way I did before this.”
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