Q & A with Writer-Director Steven Antin

Cher as Tess in “Burlesque”

Cher as Tess in “Burlesque”

As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with leading filmmakers Martin Grove talks to writer–director Steve Antin about his musical “Burlesque,” opening Nov. 24 via Screen Gems.

“Burlesque” was produced by Donald De Line and executive produced by Stacy Kolker Cramer and Risa Shapiro. Starring are Cher, Christina Aguilera, Eric Dane, Cam Gigandet, Julianne Hough, Peter Gallagher and Alan Cumming with Kristen Bell and Stanley Tucci.

The Story (official synopsis – no major spoilers):

Ali (Christina Aguilera) is a small–town girl with a big voice who escapes hardship and an uncertain future to follow her dreams to LA. After stumbling upon The Burlesque Lounge, a majestic but ailing theater that’s home to an inspired musical revue, Ali lands a job as a cocktail waitress from Tess (Cher), the club’s proprietor and headliner. Burlesque’s outrageous costumes and bold choreography enrapture the young ingénue, who vows to perform there one day.

Soon enough, Ali builds a friendship with a featured dancer (Julianne Hough), finds an enemy in a troubled, jealous performer (Kristen Bell) and garners the affection of Jack (Cam Gigandet), a bartender and fellow musician. With the help of a sharp–witted stage manager (Stanley Tucci) and gender–bending host (Alan Cumming), Ali makes her way from the bar to the stage. Her spectacular voice restores The Burlesque Lounge to its former glory, though not before a charismatic entrepreneur (Eric Dane) arrives with an enticing proposal.

STEVEN ANTIN developed “Burlesque” at Sony’s Screen Gems for several years, writing the script, choosing songs for the soundtrack, designing musical numbers, and actually writing the lyrics to one of the film’s major songs, “But I’m a Good Girl”. Having written live burlesque shows earlier in his career, making the film was a natural progression.

Antin has directed music videos for such top recording artists as The Pussycat Dolls, Paul Van Dyke, and Girlicious. He also executive produced the hit CW Network reality series “The Pussycat Dolls Present: The Search For The Next Doll.”

Antin moved to California from New York City as a child and was discovered as an actor at the age of nine. He had memorable roles in several feature films, including Jonathan Kaplan’s “The Accused,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies” and Boaz Davidson’s “The Last American Virgin.” Antin also appeared as a recurring character on the series “NYPD Blue.” He was nominated for an ACE award as Best Actor in a Dramatic Series for the HBO telefilm “Vietnam War Story: The Last Days.”

Following a successful acting career, Antin shifted his focus to screenwriting and producing. “Inside Monkey Zetterland,” which Antin wrote, co–produced and starred in, was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Antin also created and executive produced The WB’s series “Young Americans,” which launched the careers of Kate Bosworth, Ian Somerhalder and Michelle Monaghan.

Q: Why did you want to make “Burlesque” as your first feature?
A: I’ve been wanting to make a musical for a very long time. I was trying to make musicals 10 or 12 years ago and the climate didn’t seem right to get a musical made in Hollywood. It just didn’t seem like there was as much of an appetite for musicals. I have always been interested in musicals and the world of burlesque/ When (Screen Gems president) Clint Culpepper asked me to write this movie for a long time based on my interest and involvement in the world of burlesque and kept on me, I kept saying, “I’m not sure what the story is.” I finally came up with a story and wrote the movie and they greenlit it.

I was actually writing a musical (“Mash–Up”) at the same time for Disney Studios that was more of a high school marching band type musical and that actually got greenlit the same week as this. It was like lightning in a bottle that week. I have no idea how it happened, but it was one of those weird moments where two movies got greenlit at once that I had written. I chose to do this one, which I think was a wise choice. It was a movie that I really felt very passionately about and really understood the world and really knew how to make. And also I was excited about the possibility of Christina and Cher, of course.
Q: When was this great week?
A: It was two years ago around now. It took about a year to get Christina and Cher on board and the script in shape. A lot of work was done on the script and a tremendous amount of pre–production (was done) preparing musical numbers. We had to build an entire club. We occupied at one point four soundstages at Sony Studios. We built an enormous burlesque lounge. We had another soundstage that was a full mockup of the stage in the lounge for rehearsals. We had a bar that Christina worked at in Iowa. So we really shot so much of the movie on the Sony lot.
Q: How many years would you say went into getting to the point where they gave it a green light?
A: It was probably about 2006. Maybe 2005 sometime I started writing the treatment and flesh out the story. But I have drafts dating back to 2006 and 2007.
Q: When you wrote it did you know you were going to direct it?
A: Yes. That was the deal. That I would write the script if I was attached to direct it. I did a first draft and that’s when Donald De Line, our producer, came on board and started developing the script with me and with Clint. And then, of course, the studio — (Sony Pictures Entertainment co–chairs) Amy Pascal and Michael Lynton) — got involved. It was a big movie for Screen Gems so Clint wanted the support of Sony, also. They really got involved in the process. We all worked out the script and the details and then actually some other writers were brought on during the process and they would rewrite and I would rewrite them. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen.
Q: I’ve talked to a lot of filmmakers who have done films for Screen Gems and they all tend to say great things about working with Clint. Were you in the same situation?
A: Yes because Clint’s support and passion for this project has just been unparalleled. He was so passionate about it and so invested in it. It was an inspiring experience and a very difficult experience, too — very, very tough in terms of the amount of work that was put into it and the preparation and the rewrites.

Having a studio head involved with your project at this level is a great vote of confidence for the movie and is inspiring while you’re in that development process because you feel like, “Wow. The studio’s really invested.” And everybody was — Clint, Donald, Amy — everybody was very invested and really bullish on making this movie. But still it depended upon script and upon casting. There were a lot of things that were factors in getting this movie made.
Christina Aguilera as Ali in “Burlesque”

Christina Aguilera as Ali in “Burlesque”

Q: Did you write any differently knowing that you were going to be directing what you were writing?
A: I have directed before. I’ve directed music videos. And I’ve produced a TV series before as an executive producer. I think that my approach as a writer is that I have a pretty good feeling of what’s actually going to play on the stage. I have read scripts before where I thought, “This is okay on the page. It’s not going to play on the stage.” And, “How is this stunt going to get pulled off?”

Particularly with this movie, Clint wanted to see so much on the page. He really wanted the script to convey exactly what was going to happen in this movie as far as the musical numbers go. I was asked to describe the musical numbers in great detail — what exactly they were going to be with lyrics and with costumes and with production design and with transitions. And that got pared down later because it does really make the script a long read. But it was there through the process just so everybody could understand exactly what I was going to do.

But then I would go in and I would pick out the scenes. I would do it with Clint. I did it with Donald De Line. I did with Amy. I did it with Clint a lot. I was like, “Here’s the idea for the scene and this much of it is on the page. This musical number, for instance, is going to start here. It’s going to transition out of the dressing room and we’re not going to realize we’re onstage until the camera’s come full circle on dollies around Christina or Cher or whomever and it’s going to be a seamless transition into a musical number. I really had to articulate all of that on the page just so they knew exactly what my plans were and that I was prepared to execute it.

In a way that made sense because sometimes on the page all of that doesn’t exist, but it was required. The studio really required me to do that. And I was fine to do it because really it was a great exercise for me because it made me so acutely involved and aware of how everything was going to work. Then it graduated to the next level where it was a conversation with choreographers. We set up the musical numbers and some of them changed a lot and evolved during the rehearsal process. We would shoot some of it just on small video cameras just to see how it was going to look in rehearsals and do mock–up editing. We had a lot of show–and–tells.

Every single musical number was a series of show–and–tells. Clint would come in and want to see them. Donald De Line would come in and want to see them. Then we had bigger show–and–tells for everyone at the studio. The marketing department and publicity would come in and see musical numbers and say, “Oh, wow, this is great, but can you tweak it like this?” Or, “I’m not sure about that. Maybe this needs guys dancing. Or maybe this shouldn’t have guys dancing. Or maybe there’s too many girls. Can you make it smaller?” Or something like that. It was definitely a process. It was like making a feature film with 15 music videos at the same time.
Q: I’ve heard filmmakers say that shooting musical numbers is one of the most difficult kinds of moviemaking to do.
A: It’s incredibly difficult for a myriad of reasons. There are many cameras involved so it’s not unlike shooting an action scene. You don’t have much time to do it and you need your performers to do it over and over and over and over. So it’s an exhausting process for the actors and dancers. It’s also an incredibly time consuming process because the preparation involved is unparalleled.

You start out with a skeleton crew before you actually bring your crew in. We had our choreographers and associate choreographers that would work it out with me in the room. That would be our skeleton crew. Then we’d bring in a few more dancers and we’d keep adding to it and then we would sometimes show the number without Christina or without Cher. That would be the show–and–tell just to get the sign–off on the number and then they’d have to learn the number and then we’d have dress rehearsals and tech rehearsals on the set because all the lighting had to be perfect and (it’s especially difficult) if there are moving parts in a scene. Sometimes we’d have walls that move in and out of a musical number or dramatic lights that change or curtains that come up and down.

We had (top theatre and film lighting designers) Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer from New York come out. They did “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls.” They’re so incredible. They had to work with our director of photography Bojan Bazelli. It takes days and days to tech a number. On Saturdays and Sundays we’d have to tech and sometimes they’d be teching while I was shooting and I’d be running back and forth to the tech just to make sure all the lights are happening the right way and the levels are right. Again, there’s so many moving parts so the preparation is a terror.
Q: How many cameras would you have shooting?
A: It varied. It was never less than three and some days I had five. It depended on the (musical) number.
Q: Were you looking at video screens?
A: Yes. I would have a bank of monitors that I’d be sitting in front of and I would have a mic. I would know what each camera was going to do before the shot. Sometimes one of the cameras might be locked off and not moving. Sometimes there’d be a technocrane so the technocrane would rehearse and the other cameras maybe on dollies would rehearse. Sometimes during the shot I’d communicate with the operator and say, “Can you go in tighter? Can you pull out? A is tighter. You’re on the same shot as A now, so you need to go wider.” Or, “Can you swing around to the right?” It’s pretty complicated.

Sometimes you just let the eagle fly and if the cameras see each other you figure, “Oh, well, in a moment they won’t. They’ll get out of each other’s way.” And sometimes they do and sometimes they don’t. But there’s a lot of choreography involved with just the cameras. You want each take to be as meaningful as possible and you want to have as much footage as you possibly can that isn’t blocked by other cameras. That’s part of the mathematical equation — how do you choreograph that? You do it sometimes for a day and sometimes for two days over and over and over.
A scene from Screen Gems’ Burlesque.

A scene from Screen Gems’ Burlesque.

Q: In the heyday of the great MGM musicals did they shoot in a similar way?
A: From what I know, they didn’t have as many cameras. If you look at the old MGM musicals there weren’t as many angles and they wouldn’t do anywhere near as much cutting. The modern style of filmmaking, particularly with musicals, is you need more angles and you need more cutting because that’s what we’re more used to seeing — and more process and insert shots. Sometimes it would take hours and hours just to do insert shots of feet stomping or hands snapping or heads turning.

We would storyboard all the numbers first. I’d get together with a choreographer (to discuss) what are the parts of this number that we have to get inserts on, that we have to cover? I would have really extensive shotlists with my storyboards and I’d say, “Here’s my coverage that I’m gonna have to get today of close–up insert shots.” Besides (getting) my hero shot of like Cher if she’s doing the number or Christina, I’d have to do several sizes on them. But I would also say, “Wow, Cher had a spectacular moment here in rehearsal that I’ve got to get.” And those would go on my list of specifics or specialty shots.

So things get pretty broken down and at the end of a long day it gets pretty hairy. And that’s much different than the old style of moviemaking in terms of musicals because we’re so programmed now to see so much more. And part of the approach here was that in a lot of the musical numbers I really wanted it to be through the audience’s eye. I wasn’t very religious about that, but for the most part I wanted the audience watching the movie to see it through the audience’s eyes in the house. Now I did use technocranes and I got sort of fancy and was all over the place, of course, but often I needed my shots that were from the audience’s perspective. But that would be dozens of angles.
Q: How long did you shoot?
A: We shot for 70 days and then we did some additional photography just as pick–up shots and some scenes that we figured we needed more there. We did an introduction to Cher’s musical number. She does a solo in it. We did additional photography on just the beginning of the number before she gets on to the stage. We actually changed the way she gets on to the stage and we created a scene there. So there were a few days of additional photography here and there.
Q: I know this was a very big picture for Screen Gems. Can you give us an idea of the budget?
A: I don’t even really know. I know that it’s a big movie for Screen Gems, but in terms of how it compares to other musicals for what it looked like — Screen Gems makes movies for less than other studios do. What this musical would have cost at any other studio was considerably more, I’m sure, which made it that much more difficult to execute because the stakes are really high in terms of the glitz and glam and the beautiful shots and the spectacular musical numbers and we needed that. So the challenge was upon me as to how do I execute this for less money in a faster amount of time? I feel like it compares to any of the big musicals that have been done in the last decade. (Note: Published reports put the film’s budget at $55 million.)
Q: Can you characterize the budget or put it in ballpark numbers?
A: I don’t want to say something that’s wrong, so I’d rather not. Here’s the truth — I don’t want to know. It’s too scary!
Q: Costumes must have been a big expense.
A: Yes, the costumes were very elaborate and incredible amount of work went into the designing and the building of these costumes. (Costume designer) Michael Kaplan built all of the costumes. They were made from scratch. We turned the old schoolhouse (on the Sony lot, which years ago was the MGM lot) where Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and everybody used to go to school at MGM into a whole factory where Michael Kaplan had seamstresses and racks and racks of clothing built. It was really, really amazing to watch all of this happen. And everybody said, “Wow, people don’t do it like this any more.”

It was a huge undertaking. Michael even made shoes, which nobody does anymore. He would do show–and–tells, too, with the early stages of a costume. Sometimes he and I would meet and I would say, “Here’s the concept” and he would say, “Oh, well, here’s my concept” and we’d try to morph the idea together. Then Clint would come in and then the choreographers would come in and Donald De Line would come in and we’d have big, huge meetings about it and then Michael would start to make them and we’d all look at it at the early stages on a girl and we’d say, “Well, can we do this?” or, “Can we change that?”

Things evolved constantly. It was an interesting process and a very difficult movie to execute in terms of the costume designs just because of the volume of costumes and that everything was handmade. But I have to say, they’re as beautiful in person as they are on film. The girls were freaking out over them.
Burlesque — In Theaters Nov. 24th

Burlesque — In Theaters Nov. 24th

Q: When it came to casting, I’ve heard you had Cher and Christina in mind from the start.
A: I always wanted Cher and Christina. Somehow the stars were aligned and the gods were smiling and I got them. And it wasn’t a small task because these are two women who don’t say yes so easily. There’s a whole process involved in convincing them and getting them on board. Cher is not only an Academy Award winning actress, she’s been doing this for a long time and she really knows what’s right for her and what’s not. She knows what she’s comfortable doing and what she’s not comfortable doing. She hasn’t done a movie for a while and it’s not from a lack of offers. It’s because she hasn’t felt anything was right for her.

And the same thing goes for Christina. Shes never done a movie before, but she’s been offered movies before. So there was a process involved. For me it was a constant dog and pony show and a show–and–tell. I showed them elaborate storyboards and images and photographs and books and movies and clips and went through every musical number and scene. They had a lot of rewrites and things that they wanted changed, also, and I addressed all of their notes and other writers came in and addressed some of their notes.

So it was a process getting both of them on board. Once they were on board they were there a hundred percent and continued to be involved with the process all the way through the making of the movie. There’s always ideas being exchanged. Cher had ideas for every scene she was in. Sometimes the morning of she’d come to the set and say, “Oh, I was thinking about this scene last night. Could I try this?” Or, “Could I change that?” Or, “Would you consider this?” Or, “Can I ad lib this part?” And I’d be, “Let’s do it” because I would know something great was going to happen and it did.

And the same with Christina. She had a lot of thoughts and notes and ideas about who the character should be and what she was comfortable doing and what she wasn’t comfortable doing and the kind of character she wanted to play. So it was a big process.

Clint was very involved with that process — helping me get the actors on board. You know, ultimately the actor has to feel comfortable with the director and believe that the director can actually manage the ship and execute this very large vision. They ultimately felt really confident in me and my ability to do this based on how prepared I was. But it wasn’t without the help of Clint, Donald De Line, the producer (and) Amy Pascal. There were a lot of people involved in helping put this great task together. You know, you never know where a good idea is going to come from. So it really felt like a very collaborative process in that way.
Q: I’ve heard talk that at one point you had been considering Lindsay Lohan for the role of Nikki that went to Kristen Bell. Is that true?
A: Not really, no. I mean, I love Lindsay Lohan. I think that she’s a really talented girl. But I really wanted Kristen Bell to do it from very early on. I think Lindsay was going through a lot of stuff at that point so I don’t think it was the right time for her to be doing a movie like this.

But with all due respect, Kristen was somebody that I thought was really right for this role and I hadn’t seen her do it before. So I was really excited about the potential of her playing this bad girl because I hadn’t seen her do it. I knew Kristen could pull it off and bring some levity to it. She's just great in the movie.
Q: Looking back at making “Burlesque,” how would you sum it all up?
A: It was an incredible experience. I have to say it was a remarkable experience. It was a great experience. Was it difficult? Unbelievably difficult. Very, very, very tough. Under the best circumstances, it’s really tough to make a movie. There’s a lot of glitches in the process of making any movie and a movie that complicated with this many people and big stars in it and to do it with somebody like me, it has its own set of potential glitches and problems. But I have to say that it was an extraordinary experience. Incredibly exhausting and challenging and so difficult. It was the toughest thing I’ve ever done. But I had a lot of support from a lot of great people that really helped me through this and everybody wanted me to win — and I did.
Q: Looking ahead, the project that you had that was greenlit at Disney — is that “Mash–Up?”
A: Yes.
Q: When are you going to start that?
A: I have no idea. I don’t know if it’s still going to get made. I really don’t know. I don’t know the status of it because I’ve been so in the world of “Burlesque.” I’m looking at other scripts and I probably should get over there to Disney and talk to them about it at some point. But up until the last minute, we’re adjusting and tweaking the movie and there’s so many things to do that I haven’t really been able to think about what I’m going to do next — except take a very long nap.