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The making of Dancer

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Warning - plot spoilers

I've always been fascinated by stories of good people doing bad things: you don't necessarily have a villain just a normal person who makes a wrong decision.

That is what excited me enough to pursue the project.

Sadly hit and run is very common, but normally we hear the victim's story. I thought it would be interesting to look at the other side.

Poster for Dancer. We did not have a bad person but someone who has made a very stupid choice that comes back to haunt him. Jack is drunk but not terrifically over the limit. Alcohol plays a part when he panics: it helps him make the wrong decision. But I like subtlety so we cut a lot of pub sequences.

The title obviously indicates the victim was a dancer, but it has other resonances. It began as a working title but grew on us.

All in all took about 9 months to make. Writing the script did not need long as I think about ideas for a while before I commit anything to paper. I don't write anything down unless I know the beginning, middle and end. Shooting went quickly - a couple of weeks. We had to wait for one actress to be available but I was prepared to wait to shoot her scenes because she was so good in the auditions. We did have a few problems with the music and there was a delay while waiting for tracks to be written. We'd hoped to be ready for BIAFF 2010 but missed the deadline.

Finding the actors

We were very thorough choosing actors. We used Talent Circle, a free website for casting. You specify that you are willing to pay expenses, do a character breakdown, age, how you want the character to look etc. and then performers send their CVs. We did a couple of days of auditions over a weekend in an architect's office in Richmond. That had good facilities: a waiting area, somewhere to make drinks and it felt professional. We read the scenes through. We were lucky as there was very strong competition for the roles.

Some of older actors were more stagey than I wanted. Stuart Sessions (who appears in Martin Scorcese's new film The Invention of Hugo Cabret playing Adolf Hitler) arrived in character as the father and knocked us for six. He was clearly something special.

It was a learning process, because I had not done such in depth auditioning before. Two actors came from my last film Edge but everyone else we cast from the auditions. Now we've all become friends and that is one of the most valuable things I've taken away from the project. (Watch Edge on Vimeo here .)

Filming

I don't storyboard. I'm not a brilliant artist and trying to demonstrate a shot would just confuse other people. I do plan shots. I'm a believer in planning to a degree. We had such good actors on Dancer that to prescribe exact moves would not get the best from them. I had fall-back plans but waited to see what they would do and altered my plans to suit. A lot of the scenes were completely improvised. I think filmmakers sometimes restrict themselves.

Ben Wigzell as Jack.
Ben Wigzell as Jack
The key scene where Jack (played by Ben Wigzell) goes to the father was all set out in the script. I never wanted dialogue. For those characters I needed actors who could convey a lot without words.

I was very worried about this scene as it is such a difficult thing to achieve. We spent a lot of time getting it right and both of them were perfect.

A lot of people think he is going to the police and sometimes there is a gasp when they realise he is at the door of the father. It would be easier to confess to the police, but at heart he is a good person. Even the girlfriend, though she may come across as a bit of a pantomime villain, is worried about him deep down and the effect on him of the things he feels he must do.

When I write a script I have locations in mind. There were no tricky locations in this film. We used my old workplace and a local pub. Richmond Film Office were very good and did not ask for any money as they realised we didn't have any.

I quite like parks because they are filmic. I particularly wanted natural beauty round them when Jack tells his girlfriend what the problem is. I knew I wanted to begin with a shot to the trees. We shot the scene twice since the lighting changed constantly - rain then sunshine. At the beginning she thinks he is ending the relationship and then comes a moment of realisation. The actress, Amy Joyce Hastings, does it very subtly. It was also the first thing we shot because Amy was leaving for other work. Ben was still finding the character. But you have to work around actor's availability.

I do try to have a shocking moment in my films. At the first screening, when we showed it to the cast, we sat at the back and saw the audience jump at the accident. We had a very realistic dummy and smacked it against the car bonnet, because you need that horrific image in your head. Everything was planned shot by shot and I knew exactly how it would work. The rushes looked ridiculous because poor Ben is driving the car, looks round and goes whoop. Two and a half months later we filmed the insert just outside our house. The car wasn't even moving. Poppaea, my wife, just held the dummy and smashed it against the windscreen, while I was inside moving the camera slightly to imitate the car's motion. The neighbours thought we'd finally lost it. But the scene works. A lot of it is in the sound as well. It is that which really causes us to jump. It comes from nowhere. We spent a lot of time building up that sound from bass thumps etc. One of the joys of watching the film with an audience is the confirmation that the shock works so well.

There are more problems if you are working with lighting but a much of the time we had just natural light. You can't always predict exactly how light will bounce off something or come through trees.

It is important to have the confidence to deviate from your plan and trust your instinct. It is more electric watching something unexpected in the viewfinder.

Setting up a shot.
Setting up a shot

The camerawork changed in the scene where Jack was stressing at home. It became very fluid and handheld to reflect his emotional turmoil. We do use a variety of styles but as the film progresses it becomes more and more handheld. I love how it looks with the depth of field. I looked at a music video I shot recently and realised my style is voyeuristic: filming through bushes etc. It's not meant to be someone watching but I really like having something out of focus in the foreground. I feel I've found a style that started in Commitment and has developed further in Dancer. (Watch Commitment here and read about making it here .)

Music

I'm not in any way musical so finding someone to work with requires a degree of trust. We used two people here, Michael Sadatmousavi and Christan Foden. One I'd met through music video work and the other I found though Myspace. Facebook has replaced Myspace for social networking but it is great when you are looking for music. There are some talented unsigned artists on there and I found the film's opening song there. I took the beginning of the film, edited it to the song and it all came together. I was happy with it at last. The song at the end is also original.

Edit

I do an initial edit and when I have identified suitable music I re-edit to fit that. I guess that is thanks to my music video experience. I've been making those for three years.

I also took a breather - which I like to do with all my films - so I can come back and look at it with new eyes. We cut 6 or 7 minutes as a result of that break. We removed a lot of material to keep the story punchy.

Originally the funeral scene was twice as long. We cut five minutes including a beautifully played scene where her father breaks down and calls her his tiny little dancer.

Two long scenes at the beginning seemed to work in the script and gave the audience lots of information but I prefer people to bring their own thoughts to characters and their background. Besides I didn't want the audience to get to know a character who immediately gets killed. I radically changed it all and chopped bits of those scenes into the titles. It works as well because it sets up the non-linear aspect of the film - eases people in.

We also cut the funeral scenes to focus on the emotional punch in the speech. These cuts had nothing to do with the acting - they were all about pace.

Funeral service.
Funeral service

I do not test films out on my family as they'd always say it was nice. I prefer reactions of hate or love. You get confidence if you test screen to people whose opinions you value. You need that because after a while you don't know if it's any good any more. At first you love the process and enjoy doing it, but after a while you begin to resent it and can't regain perspective.

The Team

Jamie Hooper (Director of Photography) and I have been making films together since we were 16/17. We're both 30 now. We work in slightly different ways but we know each other well and don't really have to explain things.

Dancer was great because we brought in new people like Samara Deen on lighting. She is now part of the Fingercuff (the production company) family. I compare it to filmmaking clubs because we all help each other. I've edited show reels for some of the actors to help them out. I owe them. We pay them with lunch and travel but that is very basic way to repay their work. Dancer owes so much to them.

Some cast and crew.
Some cast and crew

What next

In general my approach was to make this as professional as possible. I find watching my previous films difficult. All I see is the mistakes, but I try to learn from them. It's too easy to ask friends and family to be in your film. We did call-sheets and had a producer, Robert Bertrand, found from Talent Circle. It is non-commercial but professionally made. The only thing we didn't do was use a clapperboard. But I got one for my birthday - so maybe next time …

I want to move to larger projects but my next movie will be another short. I am casting now. The working title is Three. It is about the lives of three people during one day and how they affect one another. It is not a new idea but we're doing it in a different way. It is more ambitious than Dancer. It will be shorter but has more actors. I am finding them thorough casting call and since Dancer, word is getting round among the actors and their friends. Ultimately I want to get into features. That's been my goal my entire life. If you want to raise a couple of million to make a debut feature it will be a long and difficult road. Anything's possible if you approach it in the right way.

I should add that I'm lucky that my wife Poppaea is as passionate about film as I am.

James Webber, October 2010


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Page updated on 28 December 2013
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