Q&A with Producer-Director James D. Stern on “Every Little Step”

Every Little Step Producer-Director James D. Stern

“Every Little Step” Producer-Director James D. Stern.

Executive produced by John Breglio and by Douglas E. Hansen and Christopher C. Chen, the film revolves around the casting of the 2006 revival of “Chorus” directed by Bob Avian. Avian co-choreographed the original 1975 production that the late Michael Bennett conceived, directed and co-choreographed. Baayork Lee, who played Connie in the original production of “Chorus”, restaged the choreography for the revival. The musical was written by James Kirkwood & Nicholas Dante (book), Marvin Hamlisch (music) and Edward Kleban (lyrics).

After opening May 21, 1975 at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre, “Chorus” moved one month to Broadway’s Shubert Theatre and went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and nine Tony Awards. Its run of 6,137 performances was seen by more than six million people, making it Broadway’s longest running American musical ever.

The revival of “Chorus” that opened Oct. 5, 2006 on Broadway at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater was a huge success and recouped its $8 million investment in just 19 weeks. The documentary takes its title from the song "One" with its lyric, "One singular sensation, every little step she takes…" “Step” was an official selection at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival and Berlin Film Festival.

“Step’s” cast of characters during auditions for the revival includes Yuka Takara, Deidre Goodwin, Alisan Porter, Mara Davi, Jessica Lee Goldyn, Chryssie Whitehead, Jeffrey Schecter, Jason Tam and Charlotte D’Amboise, all of whom were cast in the production. Others who wound up being turned away, but who put their hearts into trying, are also part of the film’s passing parade.

Q: How did you come to make the movie?
A: The movie came about because (of) John Breglio, who is the executive producer of the film and the producer of the revival and also the executor of Michael Bennett’s estate. Michael and he talked a lot about “A Chorus Line” and Michael always thought of “A Chorus Line” as a kind of documentary on Broadway. He always said if there ever another Broadway production of “A Chorus Line” that he wished that there would be a documentary (about) the show, itself. John had seen Adam Del Deo and my prior film "So Goes the Nation" and loved it and since I’ve produced some 16 shows in New York myself I was really the perfect person (for this project).

When John told me that he would give us full access to the legendary Bennett tapes of the fateful night when (a group of dancers Bennett had invited to come in) all talked about their lives, which became “A Chorus Line” Adam and I got very interested.
Q: Those tapes must have been a great treasure trove of material to have access to.
A: Absolutely. Hearing those for the first time I can say that I had goose bumps. They’d been in some sort of safe deposit box and John did not even know what shape they were in. He had not played them until we heard them.
Q: How did you get access to shoot during the auditions?
A: John had begun the process by speaking to Equity (Actors’ Equity, the union representing theatrical actors and stage managers). Equity had never given any filmmakers this much access before ever in its history. So once that was started we spent some time with Equity and talked to them about what we wanted to do and we were able to shoot all the auditions. That process was about eight months and then once the show was cast there was about a year of cutting (that footage into the final film). We had 400 to 500 hours of just the material from the auditions yet alone archival footage. It was a huge amount to cull through. It took us three or four months just to digitize the footage that we shot.
Q: How were you able to keep track of so much footage?
A: Well, it’s almost like what you do is create a mini-Google. You digitize all this stuff. You set it all up so that you can just type in like "exhausted dancer" and you’ll get like 25 shots and time codes of exhausted dancers or 75 shots or 150 or whatever it is. So not only to you have to digitize everything, but you also have to label it as specifically as possible so that when you want to call up an “exhausted male dancer” you can do that without going back through everything. Otherwise, you could never cut a film like this. I don’t know how they did it before Avids (for computer editing).
Q: Did having your cameras there during the auditions affect the performances that those actors and dancers were giving?
A: No. It didn’t affect them at all. I mean, "God, I need this job" (another lyric from “Chorus”) is much more important to them than cameras in the back of the room. They all signed releases so they knew that we were going to be doing this. Their focus was so much on the director and the producer and Baayork Lee and the casting people that this did not have any effect whatsoever.
Q: Did you use multiple digital cameras?
A: We were always shooting both the table (where Avian and his team were sitting) and the auditions. We shot with the light that was there. We didn’t bring in lights or anything like that.
Q: Of course, while you were shooting you had no way of knowing who was going to be cast in the revival.
A: It was not a small process, for sure. The process, itself, winnowed down the people that we were following because they were being winnowed down. So that ultimately helped. And then you get a sense of people who are doing better and people who are doing less well and so you follow along with them. There were probably 10 people who we had more personal access to in terms of their homes and things like that. Very little of that ended up making it into the film, but some of it did. It depended on whether that performer ended up going far enough along that it made sense. We followed one guy to Philadelphia and it shows him in Philadelphia making the train, but that didn’t ended up making it into the film because we didn’t follow that character.
Q: Were your hunches right about who was going to be cast?
A: Well, they were and they weren’t. They were mostly right, but, again, I’ve done 16 shows in New York, myself, so I have a good eye. I’ve been behind that (casting) table many, many times so I had a good sense of what they were looking for.
Q: Why didn’t you cover the rehearsals once casting was completed?
A: We had no interest in rehearsals. We were not going to cover anything that “A Chorus Line”, the show, did not cover. The show is about making a show so the movie was about a show about making a show. So conceptually we didn’t care about rehearsals because it wasn’t a movie about the rehearsal process of “A Chorus Line”. It was about this show that Michael Bennett constructed and how he put it together and how for the first time in history he used a workshop, how he revolutionized Broadway in that way, how structurally you can change shows through small things like changing how people feel about your show by changing one small part of the ending and things like that.

That’s what we were interested in and, also, obviously, how the people who are auditioning for the revival are then auditioning sometimes for the people that actually created the roles like in the case of Baayork Lee or who wrote the roles. Those were the things we were interested in. We weren’t actually interested in following the rehearsals of the revival.
Q: I understand you edited the film over the course of a year.
A: When you have that many hours of footage and that many people that you’ve covered and you have those many stories you can tell (there are many ways of cutting the film). I think we had four different movies that we tried to cut before we ended up with the film we cut.
Q: Of course, when you put the bonus features together for your DVD you’ll be in good shape with all that additional footage.
A: As you would put it, a "treasure trove" of them.
Q: Aside from having so much footage to go through, what were some of the other challenges you faced?
A: The challenge was to find the right metric between the historical footage (with Bennett), which makes it into a fully blown documentary, and keeping the pace going and making us care about the characters and the excitement of who makes the show and who doesn’t. So that’s a big challenge. I think the more we cut the more we adhered to Bennett’s own structure, which I think was in the best interests of the film.
Q: Some of the archival footage with Michael Bennett is very grainy, but I suppose you had to take what you could get.
A: That’s not taking what we could get. That’s what we wanted. Some of that came from the Lincoln Center library, which was never before seen. Grainy is good. Grainy alerts people to the fact that it’s rare footage and that it’s old footage. Too oftentimes we think everything needs to be in pristine shape, but in fact from a story standpoint there’s different ways to tell stories and there’s different forms to use in order to tell the story.
Q: How did “Step” come to Sony Pictures Classics?
A: We showed the film at the Toronto Film Festival and we had a five minute standing ovation. It was one of the great moments because Donna McKechnie, who had been reticent at first about doing an interview because she was worried about would it be serving Michael Bennett’s memory, got up on stage and said Michael would have loved the movie. It was a really beautiful moment and we had this five minute standing ovation. It was a huge night and we had five companies bid on the film.
Q: And how has it been working with SPC?
A: I love ’em. I love the trailer. I love the poster. I love the support. I like all the theaters we’re being booked in. I think they’re really smart and they get the movie. Honestly, I couldn’t be happier. They’ve been terrific.