Please tell us a little bit about how you became interested in cinema and the beginning of learning this art. How did you start your career? And is When We Dance your most recent work?
I’ve been interested in cinema and becoming a filmmaker as long as I can remember. As a young kid, I would make movies starring my friends and family using my home video camera and would edit everything in camera. Growing up, I was Blockbuster’s best customer. I would watch every movie I could get my hands on and study how films were made; this is something I still do today. I went on to take courses in film history, production, screenwriting, and acting throughout my undergraduate and graduate studies at Stanford University and I continue to learn from the great directors and new filmmakers.
When We Dance is my most recent directorial work. I also have a feature film that I wrote and produced that is coming out next month with Paramount Pictures titled Margaux.
At the beginning of the film, you mention Russia's attack on Ukraine, and the title of the film is written in Cyrillic on the poster (underneath, the English title is visible). Did the idea for this film (which is basically about war) come into your mind when the Russian attack on Ukraine started, or did you have it in mind before?
This film came about as a response to the war breaking out in Ukraine. What’s happening is a tragedy and a humanitarian crisis and I wanted to offer support and awareness in the best way I know how. In my case, that meant making a film sharing stories from people directly affected by the war. Everyone who is part of this film came together with the shared purpose of trying to help this horrible situation. If our film could help just one person in this war then that would be considered a win for us all.
At the very beginning, let's mention one of the important, outstanding aspects of your film, which is photography. What was your strategy in working with Michael Greenwood? Did you prepare a storyboard before filming?
I had the pleasure of working with Michael on a few projects before When We Dance and have always been impressed with the quality of his work and his professionalism on set. With this film, I had a a visual style, particular compositions, and pacing I was looking for and I presented a story board to Michael. Along with my co-producer, Igor Michailov, Michael and I were very thorough in pre-production to ensure the shoot would go smoothly. We visited the warehouse location a few times prior to filming and focused on how to best utilize natural light and blocking for the various dancing shots. Michael is a master of composition and camera movement, which is showcased in the wide handheld shots of the dancing in the film. I look forward to working with Michael again.
Please tell us about the process of choosing these people and how you met Karina Smirnoff?
I was first introducd to Max Sinitsa and shared with him my idea for a film with dancers that could shed light on the war. Max invited me to a dancing fundraiser for Ukraine that he was hosting with Karina where I watched stunning dancing and spoke with dancers, many of whom are in the film. After speaking with the dancers and hearing their personal stories from this war – all very nuanced – I knew there was a compelling film to be made. From the beginning, Karina was not only receptive to being part of the film but was instrumental in helping me connect with other dancers for the project. Karina is a powerhouse in the dancing world and a very considerate person who is a joy to work with.
Tell us about the problems you faced while making this work as a director and how you found ways to tackle them. This topic is probably interesting for other filmmakers.
I’m a firm believer in preparing as much as you can before filming to ensure your time on set goes as smoothly as possible. I put a lot of time into pre-production before this shoot, everything from storyboarding to pacing out each sequence and having the score already set. With that being said, things inevitably came up that we could not predict but, due to our diligent planning, we had a fairly seamless day nonetheless. However, for the most part things went very well thanks to the planning beforehand. The most difficult part of this film turned out to be editing the interviews. I had hours of interview footage and all of it was very moving. Of course, for the sake of time and crafting a cohesive film, I had to trim the interviews. The dancers share very raw, personal stories and I wish I could include everything each of them said in the film. I felt as if I was reading someone’s personal diary so having to choose what parts of their stories to include in the final cut was quite challenging.
Along with images, music also plays a decisive role in your film. How long did the post-production process take?
This goes back to the amount of time I spent conceptualizing the narrative and planning our shot list before filming. Since I had a strong sense of what the film should be before going into the editing room, the post-production process was pretty quick. We had a polished cut of the film within a month after we wrapped. It was important to me to get the film out into the world as quickly as possible, given the ongoing war.
Your film is a combination of dance scenes, interviews, and of course documentary footage. How did you arrive at this form?
The big picture idea going into this film was to provide a platform for the dancers to share their stories from the war with a backdrop of their beautiful dancing. I knew that the contrast of the heartbreaking war stories with the mesmerizing dancing would work well as a storytelling mechanism, so then it just became a question of how to best edit these together. I always tend to favor simple editing in films and with this film in particular I wanted to keep everything as basic and raw as possible. I did not want to manipulate a story out of anything or try to create something flashy that felt disrespectful given the very real and horrific subject matter. The structure of the film came from the goal of letting the dancers – and the dancing – speak for themselves.
The final dance scene is very attractive. How much practice did you do for such impressions?
Honestly not much. I was fortunate to be working with some of the best dancers on the planet so the final dance piece in the film, while gorgeous, was a walk in the park for them.
What role do festivals play in the visibility of independent artists' works?
Festivals are crucial in finding an audience for independent films. With so much content being made these days it can be difficult to cut through the noise and garner an audience for your film. Festivals are a great way to bring filmmakers together and share their work with each other.
If possible, please tell us about the work you are making or the initial idea you are considering.
I have a few scripted feature films across different genres that I am putting together now. In fact, one film I am working on now is set in Italy. I am fortunate to be able to partner with likeminded producers to help bring the projects to the screen.