A writer observes the making of her friend's movie: watching Moze Mossanen's Canadian dance film, Roxana, come to life.

Location: Ontario, Canada

A Canadian writer, story editor and teacher of film and theology. Looking to integrate spirituality and the arts in a celebration and love of visual and written language.

Monday, November 28, 2005

designing creative spaces

As we all count down the three days left to Day 1 of principal photography on Roxana, I took some time out to e-chat with Rhonda Moscoe, the movie's Production Designer. Production designers and art directors are crucial to a filmmaker because the entire visual look of the film is laid in their hands (and those of the cinematographer). This is probably the busiest week of her schedule, so I was grateful to Rhonda for sending me her thoughts. No stranger to the commercial and independent filmmaking industry, Rhonda has helped to design major Hollywood projects like Marvin's Room, Amistad and Finding Forrester, while still finding time to rack up a Gemini for her work on the Canadian indie Stormy Weather: the Music of Harold Arlen produced by that Canadian wunderco. Rhombus Media. Rhonda worked with Moze on his last film, From Time to Time. Here's what she had to say:

What was the most unique aspect of designing this project and what considerations are unique to a dance project?
I would say creating the look of the 1950's and 1960's through 'Roxana's' eyes. As well the whole idea of designing spaces to incorporate dance choreography. The main consideration is space. Dancers need space as well as good floor surfaces to perform their art. My job is to help bring the vision of the director alive, through design with careful consideration to the choreographer and his dancers. It also helps that I am a lover of the art of dance so each day is only a treat for me.

What, so far, has been the greatest challenge?
One of the greatest challenges so far has been finding locations which help tell the story of who Roxana is. Together with our talented Locations department we are finding a few gems, even in Hamilton. Myself and my talented team, then complete the vision with more detailed design through construction, scenic treatment, set decoration, props, and graphics, to help reveal the characters and tell a story which happens to take place in the 1950's and 1960's.

(This picture that Rhonda sent me is of an old abandoned theatre that the locations team discovered in Hamilton over a Chinese restaurant. It has the markings that are perfect for the Chez Paree opening sequence of the film. Rhonda and her team will have a lot of work to do to transform it into the burlesque house, but as Moze says the location has "great bone structure")

What do you enjoy most about working with Moze?
Working with Moze is a very creative process. You get the opportunity to incorporate all your wildest imaginative ideas. Because Moze has also written the script, he is very in tune with the characters. It is wonderful to discuss the characters and help reveal who they are through their surroundings to the most minute detail. He is also a pleasure to work with especially during the shooting as he is so excited about the dance. It is also so gratifying to see his face as the sets come alive with the dancers in them, on shoot days.

You have also worked with Costume Designer Debra Hanson before. What vision of this film do you and Debra share in terms of design? Are there any distinctive (complementary) differences? (Debra Hanson is a veteran of Canadian theatre and film and was for a time the Head of Design for the Stratford Festival.)
Debra Hanson is one of the most creative and gifted costume designers I have ever worked with. I believe Debra and I have a similar sense of conceptual design in that we see the piece Roxana, as a theatrical piece and in order to reveal that goal we need to push the envelope of design through the sets and the costumes. Lets face it, in the real world we don't have people dancing out their lives.

Last words?:
This is a wonderful opportunity to collaborate with other people who appreciate the arts and as a bonus to get paid for doing what you love to do most!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

duets and trios

Tuesday was pure joy. Rejoining the rehearsal process, I once again found myself in the company of Roberto, Greta and Christopher, this time joined by actress/dancer Sheila McCarthy, at the National Ballet studios on Queen's Quay. In the enormous, brightly lit rehearsal room, they were quietly going over the very last sequence of the film which takes place on a departing train. Roxana must choose between lifelong friend and confidante Amy, and her lover, the Pawnbroker. These two characters represent the greatest influences in Roxana's life story and both love her with the same urgency. Watching Roberto's gorgeous choreography, the emotion of the scene was both subtle and huge, inviting interesting musings on how the camera will observe such wonderful diversity.

During the time I was there, the dancers were focussed mostly on the two women aspect of the trio. The dynamic of having an actor who dances and a dancer who can act is rich - the language of bodies and faces provides a natural compatibility and sense of completion. The power of Roberto's choreography is that it offers emotion through gesture as well as dance and his long fluid lines mean that emotion is almost continuous. Luckily, it is also graded beautifully. As a result, Roxana's dilemma is left unresolved but her connections to both characters are deeply felt.

In a break, Roberto and I stepped outside so I could check on my car (!) Sure enough a nasty parking notice was pinned to my windshield miraculously in tact in the gale force harbourfront winds that were otherwise ravaging everything around us. In the shadow of the building and with the sparkling lake in the distance, we traded thoughts on the emotion of the piece and the values and properties of a static camera vs. a moving one. I have learned on this production that everyone is fascinated by aspects of film production! The dancers talk about camera like old pros, wondering where it might be in any given moment. (Moze was busy all morning with the other demands of production.)

The man himself arrived as I finished chatting with Roberto. When I told him how beautiful it had looked he happily recounted the rehearsals yesterday that laid the groundwork for what I saw today. May I just add that Moze is the only human being I know who can stand in hurricane winds and still look fabulous. Not a piece of clothing ruffled, while my hair was whipped into a frenzy. I got into the car and realised that one of my sunglass clip on shades was missing. I wondered how long I had been sporting my pirate look!

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

production bee hive

Last Friday, a rainy grey day, I dropped into the Roxana production office on Carlaw Avenue near Dundas. A series of first floor rooms on a long corridor are now the hub of pre-production, with a staff of about eight to ten people hanging about. Production Co-Ordinator Jonathan Pencharz showed me around. (That's a picture of him hard at work, eating his lunch.) The inauspicious gathering of rooms looked like a toned up version of a dugout or a bomb shelter, with cable running in all directions. Producer Stephen Traynor I had run into only a half hour earlier in the CBC eatery Oooh La La, having a post-production meeting on a film that is going to air in the new year. I continue to be amazed by these people who can keep four balls in the air at once!

But speaking of Stephen, what was that swan in his office? No one seemed to know for sure. I think it's an early set piece, said Jonathan. Or maybe for rehearsal. I searched my memory of the script for a swan reference and drew a blank. Maybe that will be explained in time!

Elsewhere, I intruded on a production design meeting, and in the background, art director Martha Sparrow graciously allowed me to take pictures while she worked on some drawings. Sketches and collections of research pictures adorned the walls around her. Rhonda Moscoe, the Production Desiger and costume designer Debra Hanson are responsible for bringing to life a very particular era -- in many forms, from the burlesque house to a pawnbrokers to a tony art gallery and posh Diefenbaker era establishments. We will check in with them again to see how it's going.

Meanwhile, I had to run out before my badly parked car was towed. This production so far has given me some of my most memorable parking challenges! Can't wait til we get on location.... !
Eight days til principal photography begins!

Thursday, November 17, 2005

anticipation... and waiting

Well, illness has kept me a bit out of the loop, but I am on the rebound and ready to return to Roxanaland. No rehearsals this week, while featured dancer Greta Hodgkinson (Roxana)and others perform in Swan Lake with the National Ballet Company of Canada. Sipping my chai eggnog latte and reading the Globe yesterday, I discovered that Greta and others have been doing press for the ballet this week - how on earth do they fit everything in - Greta is recovering from illness herself!? I can't imagine having to get through a day of sniffling and coughing as I've been doing and then running off to dance for two hours in a demanding role. The life of performers!

Though the production team is still very busy, there is a sense of anticipation and waiting... that moment just before pushing off the top of the ski hill. Everyone's concentration and focus are intense. Here are Moze's notes from Monday of this week:
Every day brings us a step closer to shooting…, It was interesting to see a rough draft of the shooting schedule drawn up by our First A.D., Maria Popoff, with all the pieces of the script carved up into little shooting blocks. I looked at it and thought about the two-page proposal I wrote almost two years ago where the whole thing was just a sketch. And here we are today with a team of designers, planners, managers, financiers and technicians working against the clock to make it all happen. How I wish I could know what Defoe would’ve made of all this. (His book is dearer to me now than ever as I’m constantly going back to the original text to solve certain problems pertaining not only to the story but design issues as well.) How is the overall theme of the film manifested in colour and shape? How much do I need to cut without losing the essence of what it’s all saying? Will I be able to pull this off?
Back to Hamilton again tomorrow to see some new locations and revisit ones we’re still considering. We all return next Monday for the last and final week of creating dances before two days of run-through on Thursday and Friday.

It's odd to get the feeling at once of both chaos and stillness: people rushing to attend to the details, while others stand in the wings, waiting for their cue. I'm sure there's a physics term for that kind of simultaneous contrasting energy. For now, we'll call it creative combustion!

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

rising to the unforseen....

Productions the size of this one inevitably have their challenges and unforseen circumstances. This week, dancer Greta Hodgkinson has fallen ill and another dancer has had to leave the company. On a movie shoot, or any show for that matter, the unexpected is treated like fuel for the imagination: now... okay, how can we turn this into a plus? The unexpected is even expected in some ways - the question is not will something come up, but what will it be? And how will we handle it? In this case, rehearsal schedules are being adjusted and Roberto himself is going to step in and perform for the departing dancer. No one seems to have blinked. Moze says by far the hardest challenge of his day is deciding what to wear..... now that's a dilemma!

Artistic challenges are the best kind: the opium of creative life. Here's Moze:
What Roberto and I are dealing with almost every day is how to embue the choreography with as much narrative elements as possible so that the musical sequences are as much about moving the story forward as the dramatic elements. Of course, this is the basis of any modern, dramatic musical entity – film or otherwise – but our task is to make the transitions as seamless as possible so that both drama and dance are unified and inseparable. Still, it was completely thrilling today watching the “nightclub dance” burst into fire with the spark that is Roberto’s choreography and the gasoline that is the dancers. There’s definitely something awe inspiring about simply watching bodies flying through the air in breathtaking patterns and combinations to wonderful swing music.
It helps to have been through this before - there is an underlying sense of confidence that can only come from experience.

As a different sort of challenge (and not unforseen), the music of gifted and acclaimed Canadian composers Alexina Louie and Alex Pauk, will be gorgeous, but added in mostly later. In the meantime, Moze and Roberto are using guidetracks: pieces of music that approximate the sound and rhythm the dances will have. The rescoring of the dances will present an added element for editor Jeff Bessner when the time comes, but not an unusual one. So the beat goes on. And the beat is pulsing!

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

team roxana

Good filmmakers the world over like to find a group of artists they trust, surround themselves with them and then create with those folks for as long as possible. Think of Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker (editor); Wong kar-wai and Chris Doyle (cinematographer); Woody Allen and Letty Aronson (producer). So it is with Moze, who has been working since 1988 on dance films in Canada of his own conception and direction. The choreographers and composers often change over because this is part of his vision - to showcase the country's best dancers and musicians. He continues to mine their riches wherever he finds them. Behind the scenes, however, a steady group of supporters, like flying buttresses of a cathedral, help keep the dance moving and the dancemaker's mind turning.

Choreographer Roberto Campanella was a featured dancer in The Year of the Lion and From Time to Time and is now choreographer on Roxana. He is also the Artistic Director and principal choreographer of ProArteDanza, which enjoyed a successful second season at the Betty Oliphant Theatre in October. Roberto was a principal dancer in Italy with two major dance companies before coming to Toronto in 1993 where he joined the National Ballet. His style is based on ballet technique but the dances themselves have a contemporary feeling. As it turns out, this was perfect for Roxana as Roberto's ideas fluidly engage Moze's vision.

The alumnus of other talent comes strongly pedigreed. Stephen Traynor came into Moze's professional world with From Time to Time, as did Emma Lu Romerein. Featured dancer Greta Hodgkinson, who plays Roxana, worked with Moze in The Rings of Saturn. The longest standing collaborators, however, are cinematographer Michael Spicer and editor Jeff Bessner. Spicer shot Moze's gorgeous lyrical six minute short The Golden City, the hypnotic Rings of Saturn, the passionately charged Year of the Lion and From Time to Time. Editor Jeff Bessner won a Gemini for his work on Year of the Lion. He also edited From Time to Time and will cut Roxana too.

So far the usual chemistry is working its magic. The creative sparks are flying - the good kind of sparks, out of which inspiration flies.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

lush and lifts

On Monday, the 31st, I went again to the 509, almost a week after my first visit. The company had moved to the larger studio space on the first floor where Roberto was putting a larger group of dancers through the development of the scene in which the Pawnbroker dances with Roxana at an art gallery opening and she steals the attention of the men attending. The sequence occurs about a third of the way into the film. With his customary exuberant gestures, Roberto marks through the sequence, displaying an energy and spirit that are irrepressible. I want it to be lush, he says to me later. Lush is my key word for this production.

Later in the afternoon, Producer Stephen Traynor showed up. While the dancers worked, he and Moze sat in a corner and discussed possible locations for a production office. In quiet whispers they mulled over the Carlaw space (has a parking lot) or the Labatt Avenue possibility. Each man had a preference but like good colleagues they weighed out the pros and cons. Stephen and Moze worked together on Moze's previous film, From Time to Time. Looking around the room, I saw another alumnus of that project, Emma Lu Romerein, whose lead role in the film garnered her a Gemini nomination.

The camaraderie among the group is high. Roberto and Moze have selected dancers who are an equal mix of those they know well and brand new faces. Moze points out a particular man in the company as someone he’s always wanted to work with.

Roberto takes the men through a particular lift in which Greta Hodgkinson is lifted over the shoulder and appears to do what looks to this laygirl like an upside down cartwheel, changing position several times on route.

After a full day of rehearsing it, Roberto runs the whole sequence. The experience of dance rehearsal is not unlike that of a movie set itself. Things happen in little increments - a minute here, a minute there, with lots of down time between. But just like a movie, when the combinations are put together, the effect is magnificent. Stephen, Moze and myself look up and are spellbound as the dancers move like lightning across the floor, swirl, lift and pass off to each other. I was fascinated all day by the geometic patterns of the dancers in the room, both unconscious and choreographed. Random and precise. A model of the flow of atoms or the movement of time. Accidental and beautiful. The final run-through of the sequence, though still just roughed together, was like a large wave approaching shore and crashing on it - the water pushing through as the new wave of dancers come from behind to repeat the pattern. Lush indeed!