Over the past couple of weeks, we at IDA have been introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, which runs from July 30 through August 19 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Greg Vander Veer, director of Keep Dancing.
Synopsis: After celebrated careers, legendary dancers Marge Champion and Donald Saddler became friends while performing together in the Broadway Show Follies in 2001. When the show closed, they decided to rent a private studio together, and they have been choreographing and rehearsing original dances ever since. At age 90, they continue to pursue their passion for life through their love and mastery of dance. Keep Dancing seamlessly blends nine decades of archival film and photographs with present-day footage to tell a story through dance of the passing of time and the process of aging.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Greg Vander Veer: I was always interested in documentary film but was unable to attend film school; I studied history instead. After graduating I moved to New York with the desire to get into documentary filmmaking, but I did not really know where to begin. I spent two years watching every doc film I could but always felt a bit inadequate because of my lack of film knowledge. But then in an act of desperation, I wrote a long, wine-inspired letter to Albert Maysles. It was about eight pages long, and six months later I got a phone call from his assistant asking me to come in for an interview with Albert. He hired me as an intern, and I spent over two years at Maysles Films shooting, assistant-editing, making photocopies and watching everything that Albert ever shot--which is a film school within itself.
IDA: What inspired you to make Keep Dancing?
GVV: I was originally hired on this film as the cinematographer but unfortunately after about seven months of shooting off and on, the original director/producer decided to quit. I had established a very close relationship with the subjects, Marge Champion and Donald Saddler, and felt that their story was incredibly inspiring, so I decided to continue making the film along with the producer, Douglas Turnbaugh.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
GVV: The biggest challenge was in the fact that I was dealing with two subjects, with two different life histories and completely different personalities. Marge Champion has spent her entire life in front of the camera, and was more than willing to be filmed anytime, anywhere. Donald Saddler, on the other hand, is a wonderful yet very private man who was only really comfortable being filmed inside the studio, and he talked only about his professional life. Seventy percent of the footage ended up being of Marge, and early cuts of the film were very lopsided. It took a lot of time, and the cutting of a lot of great scenes, to make a balanced portrait that treated both subjects equally.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
GVV: From the beginning, I was certain that I did not want this to be a "typical" biographical film about entertainers. I did not want people talking about them and their accomplishments. I thought the story was in front of us: It was their lives and the relationship that they had formed through their dancing. All along, though, Douglas Turnbaugh and I thought we were making a feature film. I shot over 100 hours over a span of two and a half years. I tried to film rehearsals at least once a week, and also documented them doing everything, from cooking meals in their apartments, going to the doctors, parties and the list goes on and on. As we started to edit the film with the editor, Elisa Da Prato, a lot of the early cuts seemed wrong. There was a decent feature film to be made but it didn't seem to capture the feeling that we were going for. It felt redundant and lacked the poetic mood that I thought was appropriate for this subject. And so we just started cutting out scenes, good scenes, and cut out one after another, and mashed everything up and made it into one long dance, between the past and present. It was very difficult for Douglas and I to accept that we now had a short on our hands. Everyone was expecting a feature, and it seemed that we had been working too hard and long to simply have a short film. Shorts do not get the same respect and recognition, and certainly would not make us the same amount of money. But we all really liked the film at 21 minutes, and we finally accepted our lot in life and released it as a short film.
IDA: As you've screened Keep Dancing--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
GVV: The audience reaction has been great. Everyone seems to really enjoy it. The only criticism we get is that they all wish it was longer. The biggest question is always, "Why isn't this a feature film?"
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
GVV: Albert Maysles, Richard Sandler, Ross McElwee, Barbara Kopple, Steve James and everyone else who spends their lives searching the world for beautiful stories. My partner in this film, Douglas Turnbaugh, who has lived an amazing life, also serves as a great inspiration for me, and I am truly grateful for having been able to make Keep Dancing with him.
Keep Dancing will be screening August 13 through 19, as part of the DocuWeeks Shorts program, at the the ArcLight Hollywood in Los Angeles.
To download the DocuWeeksTM program, click here.
To purchase tickets for the DocuWeeks Shorts program in Los Angeles, click here.