If you’re not a fan of Broadway musicals, you might not see the point of a documentary like Every Little Step, though it’s quite an achievement, being the first time that cameras have been allowed to capture the entire audition process for a high-profile Broadway revival while at the same time dissecting what made the original production so popular. The musical in question is “A Chorus Line,” created 35 years ago by choreographer Michael Bennett after gathering a group of New York dancers to discuss their lives and the audition process. By 1983, “A Chorus Line” was the longest running American musical in Broadway history, and by the end of its run, it had been seen by more than 6 million, grossing over $300 million in the U.S. alone.
In 2005, plans began to revive the musical on Broadway and word spread fast and wide that the producers were looking for new dancers to form a modern incarnation of the cast. Filmmakers James Stern and Adam Del Deo (So Goes the Nation) were there to capture the entire process on film. Besides being an amazing look at the history of this influential musical, including never-before-heard audio of those initial workshop sessions done by Bennett with the original cast, it’s also the type of movie that fans of competitive reality shows like “American Idol” and “Dancing with the Stars” can enjoy without feeling guilty about it.
A few weeks back, ComingSoon.net sat down with the filmmaking duo, who are also prolific producers responsible for festival buzz films like Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, Stephan Elliot’s Easy Virtue and Lone Scherfig’s An Education.
ComingSoon.net: You guys have done a couple of documentaries together now, but did you both have experience on Broadway?
James D. Stern: No, I have experience on Broadway and Adam did not, which I think is the real strength of our partnership, which is that he’s a great counter-balance for me being too inside with him being too outside. I think that it works really well, and I think that’s been the case with the other two docs also is that we have a really good meeting of the minds.
CS: Why did it take so long for you to make a film that dealt with Broadway, considering that you had produced shows and been involved with it for so long?
Stern: Well, I think you have to do the right stuff, and I’m fortunate that I have a lot of passion and interest, Adam does as well. There have been other documentaries about Broadway, but they had not been about anything as iconic or as emotional as “A Chorus Line” or they had been about multiple shows. I think that what happened was that the multiple show documentaries get a little diluted and doing a show that’s not as resonant with audiences means that you have less opportunity to actually really speak to people. So “A Chorus Line” was a very unique opportunity.
CS: Adam, can you talk about how the two of you first got involved with this? Did you go to the producers of the show and suggest it to them or did they come to you and they said they want to document the whole process?
Adam Del Deo: No, Jim had an old associate, John Breglio, who was the executive producer of our show that reached out, he had seen “So Goes the Nation,” our doc, and Jim’s history on Broadway–there are not a lot of candidates who meet that criteria–so he talked to Jim and Jim called me and we talked about the show and the potential for the movie. I said, “Do you think this is going to be a big deal?” and he said, “Yes, it’s going to be a huge deal” so even though we hadn’t completely finished “So Goes the Nation,” John had seen an advance cut of the movie and we decided to jump on board and get going with “Every Little Step” as well. But you know, what really loved about the film creatively was that there was an opportunity to create a documentary that was able to mirror what the show was. So we were going to follow thousands of dancers struggling to get a job on Broadway, on the line, and “A Chorus Line” was about dancers struggling, examining their lives to get a job on the line, so there was a real natural mirror there and to be able to play with those layers and use Michael Bennett’s original audio tapes to help stitch everything together. There were a lot of elements that we were very drawn to, to want to jump in and try and create something that we felt could be really interesting and people would like.
CS: So you both immediately realized the irony of making a movie about the auditions for a show about auditions.
Del Deo: Yeah, it was Fellini’s “8 1⁄2” on Broadway.
Stern: That’s what makes it so interesting is that you’re able to have a box within a box within a box.
CS: I’m curious about the time frame. When did you actually start? When were those auditions?
Del Deo: I mean, they cast the show, the final callbacks was like February or March of ’06.
CS: How far in advance did they let you know that these auditions were happening? Did they already realize what a big turnout would show for auditions? At what point did they contact you so you could film them?
Del Deo: It was pretty close to when auditions were going down.
Stern: We jumped in fast when we jumped.
CS: Did you have any sort of gameplan before going in with camera crews and trying to capture as much as possible?
Stern: First of all, that is the gameplan. There’s a wonderful moment in the documentary where one of the auditioners reduces the table to tears in his audition. The only way you can capture that sort of thing is just to be shooting everything, so on a documentary like this, you don’t really get strategic and tactical until you’re in the edit room.
CS: How many camera crews did you end up going in with for the first batch of auditions?
Del Deo: It depended, but we had a lot. It was day to day depending on the amount of people, but it was anywhere from 3 to 4 up to 7.
CS: When you have a big cattle call like that and so little time to prepare…
Del Deo: Yeah, you have to have a field producer with every camera and you have the whole team meet every day and Jim and I would talk to the crew about what we were trying to capture and what moments, and then we were locking onto certain individuals throughout the process that we thought had a higher chance of making it than others. We shot as much as we could, it was a lot of work.
CS: At what point did you get the Michael Bennett audio tapes? Was that something that very early on you knew you could use as a framing device?
Stern: Very early on, John Breglio, who was not only the producer of the revival and ultimately the executive producer of the film, he was also the executor of Bennett’s estate, so he had those tapes. When he first broached the movie to us, that was part of the attraction of doing the film, was to have the tapes that nobody’s ever heard – not in a museum, not anywhere. When I first heard them, I had chills, because they were the stuff of Broadway legend.
CS: When you’re doing a doc like this, we’ll call it the “competition doc” where you’re following a competition and seeing how it turns out, at what point do you say, “Okay, we need to spend more time with individual people” and figure out who you want to spend time with?
Stern: Getting that metric right, it was like a trifold decision, which is to say, “Who do you want to spend time with among the auditioners?” and then how do you juxtapose that against the historical footage that you have and the story of how the show is created. All that was going to the mix and it was really trial and error. We had several versions of the film before we ended up with the last one.
CS: Did you end up doing your own separate interviews or auditions at least to talk to some of the people auditioning and finding out which ones had interesting stories to follow?
Stern: We did all of our interviews, we always do. We wanted to make sure that we had some verité moments so when someone auditions and they walk outside the audition room, in certain cases, you want to follow them because that’s going to provide you with verité moments, which is what people don’t get to see when they’re watching something on television.
CS: At what point did you decide to have Jessica be the person to follow?
Del Deo: Listen, there’s a natural… she’s the Cinderella story that was a non-equity actress to actually get the role on Broadway, that’s every dancer’s dream.
Stern: She is the epitome of that story going all the way back to “All About Eve.” The great talent who comes out of nowhere, and down to pure meritocracy succeeds, that’s another part of a documentary goal. You hope that something like that will happen and that we got lucky that she actually had archival footage of herself to cut that against. That gives you resonance to her story, but we didn’t know we were going to follow her to that extent until the edit room.
CS: As we know, there’s never been that much expansive coverage of the audition process for a Broadway musical before, maybe because it might be deemed intrusive. How did that work with them to make sure the movie didn’t get in the way of the audition process?
Del Deo: John Breglio, he initially started the dialogue with Equity and then Jim and I were woven into the conversations once we agreed to make the film and we wanted to make sure we were going to have the access, and they wanted to make sure we knew what we were doing and respected the process. There was a tremendous amount of respect. We wanted to be as benign as possible, non-invasive wherever we could, and to a very large extent, I think we were. The other thing and the other point I’d like to make is that the dancers all had the decision to participate or not but to the 99.9% level, they participated, signed a release to be a part of this. It was historic and they trusted the union had vetted the process out. They’ve seen the film, Equity has, and they’re really happy with it, and I think everyone’s glad it happened.
CS: Did John at any point say, “I’d like to see it and give notes” or did he just let you do whatever you wanted or needed to do in making the film?
Stern: Yeah, we had total control. Right away we said, “We’ll do it but we have to have total control.”
CS: I always ask this of documentary directors, but about how much footage did you end up having to go through?
Del Deo: We shot over 400 hours. It’s all logged in and transcribed in a very detailed manner, and that’s all on a system where we can search for keywords and that helps us track shots down to give us the most time in the edit room actually editing.
CS: Did you shoot anything after the show actually opened?
Del Deo: We did follow-up interviews.
CS: And will some of that stuff be on the DVD?
Del Deo: We haven’t created the DVD special features yet; somebody’s working on it now, so I don’t know what’s going to be on it or not, but potentially…
CS: It seems it could be interesting to see where some of the cast is a year later and after leaving the show.
Del Deo: It’s a good idea actually.
CS: This is kind of hypothetical, but having seen all these auditions, did you think that there were a lot of the new people trying to emulate the originals in their auditions?
Stern: Well, those kids never saw the originals, so you have to remember there’s no tape that exists of the original cast. We did a lot of research, but what they do know is that there are certain ways in which the cast falls into certain performance places. Cass is X and Val is going to do Y and Paul is going to do this, but beyond that, they were just doing the best they could.
CS: How has the show been doing since it opened?
Stern: It did very well, but it closed. The show on Broadway closed, which is due in part to the stage hands’ strike, but the show did very well.
CS: And did most of the leads cast during this movie stay on for the whole production?
Stern: Well, mostly on Broadway, people stay for a year and they start to do other things, which I think sort of happened on “A Chorus Line.”
CS: This musical has had a lot of resonance with audiences for so many decades, but I wondered if you might have some insight into why that is besides the obvious one for actors and dancers, because it’s about their lives, but how about to other people?
Stern: I think it’s about following your dreams, not settling, keep on getting up and trying, and having to put yourself on the line, no matter what it’s for, and be honest. I think it’s about all those things, and there’s a reason why the show was one of the longest running American musical ever. The initial incarnation played to 16 million people and then think about high schools and colleges and the revival after that, so it’s a beloved, very inherently American show.
CS: Why do you think it’s a good time now for this documentary to be out there, especially considering that the show is no longer on Broadway?
Stern: I think it’s actually more ideal that the show is not on Broadway. First of all, you get this fabulous sense of what the show was and why the show was important, and second of all, I think that in these difficult, difficult times that we’re having, the idea of watching these young people who are auditioning against impossible odds, being one of 19 roles out of 3,000, and yet putting themselves on the line. Somebody asked me, of the people who do not get a role, of those 2,880 people who do not get in, how many of them do you think walked away and went home and how many of them got up the next morning and went to another audition? I said, “Every single one of them went the next day to another audition.” I think as a message of today, that probably resonates as much as in any other time.
CS: How hard is it making a movie like this but then also doing what you need to do in order to oversee some of the other movies you’re producing? It seems like it would be hard.
Del Deo: Well, it’s a lot of work. Listen, John Wells writes features and directs and has TV shows.
Stern: There’s a lot of time that I was getting into the edit room around 5 or 6:00 and staying until pretty late, and when you throw two kids into the mix, there’s definitely not a lot of extra time. I don’t think I could do it without Adam.
Del Deo: Yeah, likewise.
Stern: We work seamlessly together and we’re the greatest of friends, and I think that’s what… Adam puts up with me and all my craziness and that’s what makes it possible. Otherwise, there’s no other way to do it.
CS: Do each of you feel that you have a strength in a certain area where you can take the lead?
Stern: Yeah, we do. I think they overlap. Look, documentaries are made, at the end of the day, in the edit room, and that’s where we’re pretty much doing that together. At the end of the day, Adam’s going to take a lead in terms of shooting, and especially on a film like this that is incredibly critical how a dance is shot. I’ll probably take a lead in terms of doing the interviews.
Del Deo: Jim has an overall sense. He’ll say, “Listen, there’s conceptually the conceit, there’s something here on the big broader sense of how this can play out in the marketplace.” Where I can be more like “Oh, this is really cool, let’s try it” and “Well, it may be cool, but where’s the interest level? How’s it going to work?”
CS: Have either of you thought of directing a dramatic feature as opposed to producing them?
Stern: Well, we met on a feature. We met when Adam produced a feature that I directed.
Del Deo: Directing a feature, we have talked about that.
CS: Anything interesting in the production line? I know you have “An Education” and “Brothers Bloom,” which I’ve seen on the film festival circuit, and “Easy Virtue” coming out. Anything else in the works?
Stern: So much, like five films.
Del Deo: We want to do a film on Steve Jobs.
Stern: Yeah, for us personally that would be something we would love to do.
CS: Is that a matter of getting him to agree to it or just starting behind his back?
Stern: No, we’re moving down the road.
Every Little Step opens in New York and L.A. on Friday, April 17.