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Steppin' Out
An Interview with Director Peter Chelsom
by Scott Holleran
Peter Chelsom
February 14, 2005

Contrary to prematurely dire pronouncements, director Peter Chelsom's Shall We Dance— featuring Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon and Jennifer Lopez—was a genuine hit. Just in time for Valentine's Day, the spirited, romantic ballroom dancing comedy gets a glamorous package for the DVD release, with Miramax adding features on ballroom dancing, a special about the movie's music and a behind the scenes story, besides the usual deleted scenes and commentary. Miramax is also releasing the Japanese original Shall We Dance? in conjunction with the remake.

Shall We Dance grossed $57.9 million domestically, more than had been projected, and it stomped on its heavily hyped competition, Team America: World Police. Shall We Dance earned more than Miramax mate and awards favorite Finding Neverland, and Chelsom's picture glittered overseas, bringing its total to more than $125 million worldwide.

During an exclusive interview in Los Angeles with Box Office Mojo, British-born Peter Chelsom, who directed such pictures as The Mighty, Funny Bones, Town & Country and Serendipity and such actors as Warren Beatty, Goldie Hawn, Sharon Stone and John Cusack, talked about remaking the original Japanese movie, making a musical and working with the fabled Miramax.

Box Office Mojo: How did you approach the concept of a remake?

Peter Chelsom: I looked at the original as I made my mind up to do it and, then, I [watched it] once more, to determine how long the dance competition at the end should be—to the second—to feel like it was a whole dance. I just wanted to get that right. Then, midway through filming [the remake], I looked at [the original] just before we went into the competition, and it was weird because it had changed for me. It was about watching a different film that I had moved on from. It had distanced itself from me. Yet there are a couple of times when I do very similar things to the original because there wasn't anything better to do. There are a couple of shots in there that are very close [to the original]. And there are moments in there when I had to acknowledge the original.

BOM: While some shots are almost the same, the remake is more uplifting in tone. How did you achieve the lightness?

Chelsom: It had to be so. You have to be realistic. We were making a movie that cost $50 million, whereas the Japanese film cost very little. You have big stars, and you know that if you don't set out to reach a big audience, you'll pay for it later. You'll have an even worse post-production—there'll be more editors, more arguments, more reshoots. You have to be realistic about what film you're making. Having said that, I've always found ballroom dancing to be seductive and ridiculous at the same time. For me, if you're making a film about a man letting go—and I always wanted Richard [Gere] to be more expansive than he's been in anything else—isn't comedy the best vehicle? Especially if it's justified. I have a law: no gag on a whim. The laughs [must be] character based. They can be huge but they [must be] justified. [The comedy] is actually bigger and more coarse, but I tempered it in the end.

BOM: What was the principle by which you tempered the comedy?

Chelsom: I'll tell you what it wasn't: how much the audience loved it and laughed. I had laughs in there that they just applauded and fell about. [Shall We Dance] created higher [test audience] scores than any film [Miramax] had had since Good Will Hunting. Not easy to do. But we realized that the critics were going to have a problem. We had to keep the joint classy and be very careful not to detract from the depth [of the plot]. Audrey Wells' script was very close to the original, which is why I liked it. I have to give credit to Audrey because she had written the same film about a different thing, if you like. The way that she dealt with the end of the movie is the biggest single difference. At the end of the Japanese film, he doesn't take his wife to the party, which in a mainstream American romantic comedy with a budget of $50 million would be unforgivable. However, it's absolutely right. Richard's character is a man who has everything but is lacking something. The strongest point I love about the movie—which no one raises—is that there are times in life when you have to do something for yourself, by yourself and then bring that home. It's the bringing home of the new man and then moving on—the refueling of the marriage—which I think is nice. It was written well, and I think it was directed well. We tempered it a bit.

BOM: You're also interested in comedy as a springboard to that which one takes seriously…

Chelsom: Comedy, if it's done right, is art. For me, Funny Bones is that movie—it's about comedy because it's about how thin the line is between real, bleak depression and tragedy and hysterical comedy. Robin Williams called me one day and told me that Funny Bones is the best film about comedy he had ever seen in his life. So, the point of laughter and films and whether films become less serious because of laughter, people have that wrong. The reason is that films are asked to be in a category—drama, comedy, dramedy—but, to me, there's a place for the right kind of comedy in the most tragic stories. The most moving place in The Mighty is when Kieran Culkin, who is about to die, with tubes everywhere, calls his friend Max over and points to the guy who's in charge of the Intensive Care Unit—who looks like Spock from Star Trek—and he whispers: "That's Spock" and they both start laughing and crying. Comedy sometimes offers the best access you can get to an audience.

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