"The idea to sneak it was pretty clever," Chelsom said during a telephone interview. "Opening on fewer screens was a good idea—we're increasing to 500 more screens this weekend—and it's timed really well. It's not going to change the world but there is a cynicism [in today's movies] and [Shall We Dance] is a change."
Not everyone is doing the foxtrot. After its better-than-anticipated opening—snapping at Team America's heels—MSNBC's movie reporter, Dana Kennedy, prematurely pronounced Shall We Dance another Jennifer Lopez bomb.
Chelsom is unfazed.
"The film's heart is so wide open and some people have a problem with that," he said. Chelsom, who said he's re-teaming with Hear My Song writer Adrian Dunbar for another movie, admitted that Shall We Dance wasn't an easy shoot.
"Technically, bringing together different styles of dance—training amateurs as dancers, but making sure we charted the progress of the dancers as they learn to dance in the movie—this movie was hard to make," he said. "I've never made a film where one third takes place in one room and you have to make that interesting."
Chelsom explained with pride that he didn't use what he called cheat shots—stand-in dancers for the movie's stars. Instead, to establish authenticity, he said he studied movie musicals made in the 1940s.
While he said he's happy with the result, Chelsom confided that he wasn't always satisfied. "It's possibly a little too slick for me," he said, "and that's my doing. But it's not Strictly Ballroom, which is more cartoon-like in style. It's more direct [in its romanticism]."
Working with three stars—Richard Gere, Jennifer Lopez and Susan Sarandon—posed few problems, according to Chelsom. Aside from accommodating Lopez, who was shooting Lasse Hallström's An Unfinished Life, during dance rehearsals, Chelsom claimed his cast was the least of his problems. "At one point, I was worried Richard was getting too good," he said, "but I knew that the man I had seen in Chicago was prepared to put the work in. Richard's a complete gentleman."
Oscar-winning actress Susan Sarandon helped to anchor the movie in reality, Chelsom said. "There's a very short list of actors who can play both comedy and sadness. Susan Sarandon has that range," he commented. "With Jennifer, you do worry about what you're going to get because she's had so many lives [as a celebrity in the news]. But she comes to work prepared. People notice [Lopez's Shall We Dance instructor] Paulina, not Jennifer Lopez, Inc. and, gradually, she wins over her audience."
Peter Chelsom's hoping the same holds true for his toe-tapping movie. Early returns suggest that audiences may be ready to rumba.
• 10/19 Puppets Can't Dance
• REVIEW: Shall We Dance
• CHART: Shall We Dance vs. Team America