An Interview with "Dance Academy" Director, Jeffrey Walker
Dance Academy: The Movie is an upcoming continuation of the Australian teen drama series of the same name. For the uninitiated, the story of Dance Academy is told through the perspective of Tara Webster (Xenia Goodwin), a newly accepted first year at the National Academy of Dance in Sydney, which also functions as a high school for dancers. Throughout the series Tara has to perfect her dancing technique in addition to dealing with the usual headaches of growing up.
Directed by prolific multi-award winning Australian director Jeffrey Walker (Angry Boys, Bones to name a few), the film picks up eighteen months where show left off. We were lucky enough to briefly chat with Jeffrey Walker, a guy who's been a part of the entertainment industry in one form or another since he was 6 years old.
Note: this interview has been condensed.
Rhys: How did Dance Academy come about?
Walker: We made the television series in 2009, I believe. The show went on to do three seasons here in Australia, but fortunately it was hugely loved around the world. We were lucky to create such interesting characters that people were really curious about.We were compelled to revisit these people in the future, to see them as young adults. So we were able to get back together and tell the story again.
Where do we find Tara Webster at the beginning of this movie?
Walker: Tara is in an unusual terrain; she's broken her back, and she's been told she'll never dance again. And if she chooses to dance again, it's a huge, huge physical risk. The sad thing for her, given that she's spent her entire life as a dancer, is that she's terrified of who she'd be without it (dancing). But she continues to pursue it at the highest level, against her better judgement, and that leads her to New York. So for her it's also about working out what her identity is beyond her dreams and aspirations. And we also get to re-meet the other characters and their different stages in life, too.
Were there any challenges in keeping Dance Academy as a continuation of a series with sixty plus episodes, and as a film which can stand on its own?
Walker: I think a huge amount, really. A bad move would've been just to, you know, make the next episode of the series. I think that would've been a mistake, it would've arrested these now 20 somethings. It's important that this film occupies its own themes, although there're more than a few easter eggs for the fans. But my hope was that as a young person, in watching this film, that you would relate to the stakes and what Tara and her friends are going through, regardless of just, to be completely frank, one's interest in dance. We come from the idea of “character first” and if the dances are done well, it's because you care about the characters in that moment. And for a feature film, you have to level up in every regard: music, production, direction – you have to get better and make it worth the trip to the cinemas.
Would you say that, having started acting at a very young age, that that has been beneficial to your directing ability?
Walker: I think what it taught me early on was just life on-set. Just how the set was run by the directors, cinematographers, the people who bring that set together. When I started, I didn't come at it from directorial craft, but from the expectations of what everybody should be doing on set. As I matured, and it didn't take too long, I thought more clearly about my own role, about what I could channel. And in directing this feature film, I really had to consider what I could bring to it, what could elevate it beyond the structure of television. Although I can't imagine acting now in my 30s, I like to think that I have an enormous amount of empathy for the actors and what their process is in delivering their performance.
What're the differences, either positive or negative, between directing a feature film and directing an episode of a tv series?
Walker: If you're directing an episode of television, like say Modern Family, the expectation is that I just slide in and make a very good episode of Modern Family. They're not interested in me coming in there and being like “Hey! I think we're gonna change things up this week.” When you come into a feature film, you're given a blank canvass, a script that you all agree on in a philosophical sense. And you really consider how you're gonna visual it, how you're gonna cut it, how you're gonna direct your performers. The other important thing is you identify and understand the themes. I don't know that you have to completely believe or understand the themes of a television show to be able to execute it well. But you absolutely do for a feature film, because there's nowhere to hide as a director of a feature film. Whereas television is more of a producer medium.
What's your favourite part of the directorial process?
Walker: Good question. A friend of mine described it like this: If it starts well, it gets better and better as it goes along. In pre-production, you gotta carry entire scenes of the movie in your head and it's quite stressful. So if someone walks in the room and asks “In scene 73, what colour hat is such and such wearing?”, that's a question you need to be able to answer on the spot. When you're shooting, you just have to focus on the one scene, and that's beautiful – you forget about everything else and just do the best job on that scene you can. But, to be completely frank, the real joy is when you've completely assembled the film, and you're ready to send it out to the world. And if it's being received well by your distributors, bosses, networks, whoever, and you know that you're not at loggerheads, that's great. And it's great to watch it with an audience.
Who're your main influencers?
Walker: I go a couple of ways on this. The artist in me has contemporary filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coen Brothers, who deliver absolute knock-outs film after film every other year. Spielberg, Lucas, these were guys just making break-out blockbusters and changing movies. As a young person, you see them – like as a young person, had I not watched Raiders of the Lost Ark, I wouldn't have been an actor. Also Stanley Kubrick films, Woody Allen films, they're films that get your heart pumping a little. You realise so much of what has bought you to this point is actually the reason you want to keep doing it.
Any films you've seen recently that have stayed with you?
Walker: Well, I'm a huge documentary fan. I consume documentaries on Netflix, Hulu, and HBO – all a complete godsend for me. In terms of films, Lion. Usually I see a film and I might cry once, but Lion got me in increments and it hit me deep. La La Land, it was amazing to see such a daunting project so successfully executed and fun to watch. And Moonlight, of course. That really low budget film, and in addition to being made in such a short period of time, is so inspiring and kind of intimidating. I have so much respect for film and anyone out there willing to give it a go, because it's a really tough craft.
What's next for you?
Walker: I'm currently directing a series in New York City called Beautiful People, which I also exec-produce. I'm living in New York until May making that series, so I'll be very busy with that.