Writer and director Duane Adler, who rose to fame after his film Step Up, was trying to create a romantic sunset scene on the sets of his upcoming dance film in Mumbai recently. His movie, Heartbeats, which stars Tamil actor Amitash and American dancer Krystal Ellsworth, is slated for a mid-2017 release. The writer and director spoke to Guardian 20 about his fixation on dance movies, India and several other things.
Q. From a person who wrote dance movies to a director of these dance movies, how did this evolution take place?
A. Basically, I consider myself to be a storyteller, who loves writing. 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. So, the process of storytelling is way more elaborate as a director, so the evolution was natural I guess and it was wonderful because I had more tools to tell my story.
Q. All your movies have been around dance and now you are doing a Hollywood-meets-Bollywood kind of a film so will it be like the movies that we have here which are full of songs and dances?
A. Dances? Yes, we have fourteen dance sequences in the movie, some are westernised. By westernised I don’t mean exactly hip hop but with a slight touch of hip hop while the others are Indian folk and traditional fusion dance form. It’s just that I know the difference between Bollywood dancing and Indian dances. When I was briefing my choreographers, I asked them if they had watched the videos of people doing the Bollywood dance on Dancing with the Stars and So You Think You Can Dance. I don’t want that! Give me folk, show me something different. I didn’t set out to make a Bollywood movie, but a movie for the rest of the world using that influence. The music, composed by Jay Z’s Roc Nation, is again a fusion of Indian and western beats, giving it a nice fusion flavor.
Q. Is it your first filming in India and have you worked with an Indian crew before and how was the experience?
A. I first came to India three years ago to learn a bit more about the country. I had made a dance movie about an American boy and an Asian girl falling in love in New York, but I wanted to really explore a culture with dance as a big part of it. And so India it was. But for work, yes this is my first both filming in India and working with an Indian crew.
Work wise the experience was great, for my crew was really good, very professional and talented. Remember I was a wildcard, I had no idea how things will work in India but everything turned out to be just perfect. The actors that we have cast are again nothing short from spectacular. Be it my young discovery or Amitash who is experienced. Overall I must say the experience was amazing as people have been really welcoming and nice. By people I’m not speaking about the crew by the others too for I’m the director the crew will naturally be welcoming and nice but I didn’t expect the same welcome from others.
Q.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?
A. 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’m not a choreographer remember, I don’t say, “she spins on toes”. 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, I’m not a music director either, when the character breaks into song, and that’s what’s happening here.
Each time the characters 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. So it’s all really a collaborative experience, but it does all start with what I envision when I’m writing it.
I wanted to make the 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 characters expressing themselves.
“People pay me for not dancing in my movies. Now you understand why I need to hire choreographers for my movies. I can imagine a few steps here and there but nope can’t do it.”
Q. Your films have become a part of pop culture. Is there pressure to continue to raise the bar for every film that you write or direct?
A. 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 want to make you feel more intimate to each number.
Q. What inspired you to write and direct dance movies, why not something else?
A. I’m a 46-year-old filmmaker. And my love for dance comes from growing up in the 80s when MTV actually played music videos unlike today. It was this exposure to Michael Jackson, Madonna and Duran Duran. I didn’t know I would end up making a career out of it but yes that were my love for dance started or sprouted. Also, I feel dance is the best form of non-verbal communication. It is the most beautiful visual medium while music is the most beautiful when we speak of audio. It’s not like I don’t write anything else, I do, but it’s easier to get people to fund a dance film as my portfolio dotes of it.
Q. Is it true that you have attended 18 schools before you graduated to college?
A. Yes it is, I grew up in North Carolina and there were troubled times in my family. Due to which I had to study in eighteen different schools. And as a kid I hated it and rejected it a lot. Any kid would. I couldn’t hold friendships, the schools were very different. At one time I was in a school which had the total strength of 75 and after which I was moved to school that had the total strength of 2000. So you can imagine. But know when I look back I realized this experience made me strong and outgoing. It even today helps me draw a characters profile as I have met so many kinds of people with so many different kinds of problems.
Q. What do think of the dance movies that are made in India?
A. My first exposure to Bollywood came with Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge he said in an interview that he was trying to emulate Bollywood, and I got curious, and became a student. The first movie I saw was Om Shanti Om, and then Love aajkal, followed by Gajani and ABCD and several others. So as for me all these films are dance movies, ABCD is a bit more direct as compared to the others. And I really enjoy them to honest I haven’t watched a lot but the ones I saw were great.
Q. So what is Heartbeats about?
A. It’s the tale of a troubled young girl who is born and brought in Los Angeles, US, and is going to law school due to the death of her brother. She who loves dancing kills her love and starts doing something which she really doesn’t like to be a son to her family. But all this changes when she comes to India for a wedding and falls in love a boy completely unlike her and realizes and regains her passion and love for dance. I know there are a lot of crossover movies on a similar subject. As for me I haven’t watched many crossover movies but I have tried to make a movie that will appeal to Americans back home. It’s showcasing the best of India without stereotyping it. Even if you take out dance from it, it will still be a great movie.
Q. So, are you a really good dancer too?
A. No, not really in fact people pay me for not dancing in my movies. Now you understand why I need to hire choreographers for my movies. I can imagine a few steps here and there but nope can’t do it.