Steppin' Out
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.


BOM: Why is a question mark sometimes used in the Shall We Dance title?

Chelsom: Let me explain. There should not be a question mark. At one point, I even photocopied from the American grammar bible that the phrase "Shall We Dance" is called a polite request, not a question. When you say, "would the audience please take their seats," it is not a question. I tried to get the question mark taken out. The question mark was, however, in the Japanese original [title]. Like everything you ever have to do with Miramax, you don't get something for nothing—there's always a bargain. The compromise was no question mark for the film—question mark for the poster. It seemed like that was the deal. The marketing department felt the question mark should be there because it was cheeky, provocative—"shall we dance" or "shall we not dance?"—blah, blah, blah. I will raise my hand until the day I die and say it should not be there. I'm a big snob about grammar. The 1930's film with Fred Astaire did not have it.

BOM: Are you pleased with the final cut?

Chelsom: I think Harvey did the right thing in asking me to temper it, and I want to make that very clear. I think Harvey was right. I'm not sure I agree with all the tempering.

BOM: Was the big budget—with higher star salaries—an impediment to bigger box office?

Chelsom: No. Why not $100 million [domestic gross] instead of, say, $60 million? I don't know. I wish we had opened on more screens, because the per screen average was so high. I think Miramax should have opened wider because there was a window—there were only a few weeks before the next army was on the horizon with all those films coming out. We were always going to be a target because we were doing a remake of not only a film but also a very revered and special original. We were always going to be the Americanization, used only in a derogatory sense, of a sweet, perfect Japanese gem. We were always going to have that against us. I do wish it had been released three weeks earlier. There was a lull in there when nothing was happening.

BOM: Is there a wide enough audience for uplifting movies?

Chelsom: It was interesting seeing this movie with an audience. I was there with some friends on our opening weekend—you can't resist going and checking it out—and watching them come in and look at the options [of movies to see]. I asked what films they were going to see, and you could see that their attitude toward Shall We Dance was that they were going to have to do a bit of [mental] work and that's not what they wanted to do, not after work on a Friday night. It's the sense that, if it's got Richard Gere in it, it's going to be classy and they don't want classy—they just want to be taken out of their head and their heart. I would say 99 percent of the people who saw Shall We Dance thought it was better than they thought it was going to be. Some people were dragged there kicking and screaming by a girlfriend or a wife. So, on the one hand, the element of being pleasantly surprised is nice.

BOM: Why is there an aversion to movies that are seriously themed and light?

Chelsom: I liken it to the news—to people not wanting to watch the news. They want to be told what they want to hear. If you revisit those escapist movies [of Hollywood's Golden Age] now, they always seem to have a philosophy and a depth. There is escapism, and then there's [counterfeit] escapism. You can be funny and have real meaning.

BOM: The premise of the original Shall We Dance? involves the repressive Japanese culture. How did you tackle taking the Japanese culture out of the plot?

Chelsom: It's about a glitch in the marriage—it's not really a crisis movie. In other words, it's the idea that you can be someone who has everything but is lacking something. It's not only feasible, it's justifiable. But the Japanese film seems to be about depression, and that's why it's a depressing story, and I don't mean that badly. I would say that Richard Gere's character is clinically depressed at the beginning of the movie. The difference is that the life of the Japanese character is extremely limited. Whereas the life of Richard Gere's character is limitless. It's the metaphor of dance as life.

BOM: Do you dance?

Chelsom: Yes.

BOM: Did you dance growing up in England?

Chelsom: Yes. We were sent to ballroom dance class at the age of nine. It was the thing. It was how you met girls. I think I snogged—not to be confused with shagged—my first girl when I was twelve. Snogging means passionate kissing. I love dance. My wife and I learned to tango to "Santa Maria," the music track that Richard Gere and Jennifer Lopez tango to in the late-night dance lesson. I actually heard that music long before I ever did this film.

BOM: It's rare to see a married couple depicted in a movie as a loving, sexual couple—the last one I remember was Rob Roy

Chelsom: It's nice not to need to have a crisis in a marriage relationship in a film to redeem it in some way. Why does the best sex always have to be after an argument?—it's just not necessarily true. It's why people like Shall We Dance, the innocence of all the characters; nobody's doing anything wrong in this movie.

BOM: Did you watch Strictly Ballroom?

Chelsom: Just once. It's the same choreographer [who choreographed Chelsom's picture, Moulin Rouge!, William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet]. But that's a very, very different film. It's more like a cartoon, and it had to be so. That was a ride of movie.

BOM: Did you study other movies?

Chelsom: Some. I studied dance movies, in particular Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly movies. What came out of that was the need to stand back, watch the dance and not get too cutty and go in too tight. We were making a film about amateurs. I wanted to show them warts and all, the mistakes and the imperfections. With dances like the waltz and the quick step, the real beauty is standing back and, when I watched the old Astaire and Kelly movies, I couldn't believe how little they cut. Some dances were done in one take. Though there is no cheating in Shall We Dance, the reason I didn't do an entire dance in one take is that it would have seemed way too old-fashioned. Ironically, because of MTV and the pop video sensibility, and the way dance is covered, if I had stayed wide, it would have seemed like you were getting a fraction of the dance. In order to achieve the right energy and the right tension, you do have to go in and cut. But if you look at the competition [scene], my intention was always to make it look like a real event. There's a lot of wide there and at times Shall We Dance has an old-fashioned feel.

BOM: Is it true you had to film Shall We Dance out of sequence due to Jennifer Lopez's schedule?

Chelsom: No. She was under a great deal of strain and I just found her remarkable—that she can walk out on the set on time and be as prepared as she was. She was really a bit of an example.

BOM: Did you feel her celebrity overshadowed the movie?

Chelsom: The so-called Bennifer crisis was really unfortunate to both parties. When we came to publicize Shall We Dance, Miramax was tentative. At a screening in New York, somebody said how surprised they were by how good they thought Jennifer was in the movie. I asked [for a show of hands] if Jennifer being in the movie [had been a deterrent to seeing the movie] given the climate on Jennifer. I'm not going to tell you how many people raised their hands, but I will tell you that, when I asked those who had raised their hands if they had changed their minds completely as a result of seeing the movie, over 90 percent raised their hands. So this is definitely a movie in which Jennifer seems to re-emerge.

BOM: Why did you include a scene from Fred Astaire's The Band Wagon in Shall We Dance?

Chelsom: It's one of the greats. I personally think Cyd Charisse is very underrated.

BOM: Would you like to make an old-fashioned musical?

Chelsom: That is very up my street, and I could and maybe should do it. If you look at some of my films, such as Hear My Song, which is about a singer, they often feel like musicals. I'm not sure that the world is ready for the musical in cinema. It's the closest it's ever been to coming back. If I did do a musical, it would probably have to be with a predominance of actors who sing really well as opposed to singers who act because I think that the effortlessness of singing and the interpretation of the song would matter more now than ever. There would be the need to have conversational singing, where you don't feel you're being sung at, but being spoken to, in song. It's a subtle difference.


REVIEW: 'Shall We Dance'

• Tango and Cash: Peter Chelsom on Making 'Shall We Dance' and Its Opening Weekend

• Sunshine Cracks Through Dark 2004


10/19/04 - Opening Weekend Analysis


Peter Chelsom

'Shall We Dance' Movie Page

'Shall We Dance? (Japanese Version)' Movie Page

Buy 'Shall We Dance' on DVD

Buy 'Shall We Dance? (Japanese Version)' on DVD