Sitting amidst the sophisticated sound mixing and sequencing equipment of the music room in his Hollywood Hills home, Jeffrey Hornaday is clearly losing his patience. He has exuded nearly awesome diplomacy when discussing the artistic compromises of choreographing the long-awaited, $30-million movie version of “A Chorus Line.” He has embodied state-of-the-art grace under pressure when confronted with reviews blaming him for helping to trash a Broadway classic. No longer.
Now, as his interviewer resurrects the standard critical litany of his sins--the use of stunt dancers and editing tricks to reduce dancing to nothing more than vulgar special effects, for instance--Hornaday at last drops the boyish charm and impenetrable tact.
With the authority of someone accustomed to testing his ideas in front of mirrors, cameras and audiences, he dismisses the whole subject as “nothing but a crock.” “I’ll use whatever tools are necessary to re-create what I feel if what I feel says something positive,” he emphasizes. “What’s wrong with using any device or effect to create emotion? The way I think is contemporary, and the technology I use is contemporary. Sometimes the live experience just isn’t enough.”
Indeed, Hornaday may be unique in the minor part that “the live experience” has played in his career as a dancer and choreographer thus far. Starting with his experiences as an L.A. gypsy dancing on TV specials, extending through three years directing and choreographing music videos in Mexico City and culminating in his “Flashdance” breakthrough in 1983, Hornaday formed his vision of dance entirely through the camera’s eye.
With this background, he can compose dances directly for film, rather than adapting stage conceptions to an alien medium. And, along the way, he has come to believe that “dance can’t be literally translated to film and get the live impact. It’s a different kind of experience.”
“I remember when we were filming the opening sequence of ‘A Chorus Line.’ I was up in the balcony with the camera. And to see 120 excellent dancers go into movement--the visceral heat and power of 120 live bodies--was unbelievably impacting. I thought ‘This has got to be wonderful!’ There was such force and sheer scale.”
“And we tried to be true to that: We said, ‘Just set it up and shoot it.’ But when we saw the dailies, it was flat, dull and evoked no feeling. So now it’s a high, real slow crane shot.”
“It’s funny: Once you become oriented with the frame, no matter how interesting the action in the frame may be, it goes flat and you experience it objectively .” (He says the word with distaste.) “But if you can get inside and cause just a moment of disorientation, it creates a sense of excitement.
“That was real tough with ‘Chorus Line’ because the (screen) format was so wide. The format was a decision made early on--I don’t know if it was by the director of photography or Richard (Attenborough, the film’s director) or who--but in order to get a head-to-toe view of anyone, you had to get so far back that it was really a passive effect to watch.”
For a more involved feel, the “Chorus Line” cameras were placed close in, frequently amputating the dancers’ feet in Hornaday’s numbers--a decision that the critics have attacked. Hornaday partly agrees with them, just as he concedes that it was a bad idea to interrupt Charles McGowan’s solo (“I Can Do That”) for a dramatic scene set elsewhere in the theater.
“It was a structural problem,” he explains. “The way it was written, there were four lengthy cutaways in the number--and Richard and I just started whacking them out. But we had to leave the last one in because it was literally a matching problem; we had nowhere to cut back in.”
Hornaday calls the lack of control over his work “the ultimate frustration for someone working in a collaborative medium where you don’t have final say or final cut. What you do is reinterpreted and, to a certain degree, manipulated or even changed. That frustration I’ll take kicking and screaming to my grave.”
He admits to being initially intimidated by the project. “I didn’t want just to adapt or imitate Michael Bennett’s (original stage) choreography. And I had to be real rooted in my reasons for doing the film because it was so apparent up front that it was a no-win situation. Even if you did a brilliant job, people would go, ‘Of course. It was a brilliant show; you’r e not responsible.’ And if, God forbid, you changed it, they’d go ‘How dare you touch this?’
“The way I finally got over the hurdle was instead of listening to the original music--which brought back all the images of the show--I found a great young keyboard player and worked with him and a drummer to break the ‘Chorus Line’ songs apart and rework them in terms of musical feel. Once they felt new, they at last inspired me to do something.”
Currently, Hornaday is involved in the final editing of Michael Jackson’s “Captain Eo,” a 15-minute " 3-D short for Disney directed by Francis Coppola. (He describes it as “a mini-musical: ‘Star Wars’ meets ‘The Wizard of Oz.’ ”) And he is preparing other projects--film directing projects--along with thinking about at last becoming involved with concert dance, a form that has never interested him much, either as creator or spectator.
“I don’t respond to dance,” he declares with a laugh. “I get impatient. I get bored. I like to do it. I like to make it. I like the activity of the process.”
But during the shooting of the opening number in “A Chorus Line,” some of Hornaday’s dancers kept inviting him to an underground performance-art club. He resisted--"I didn’t want to go somewhere at two in the morning to see some ridiculous homemade production!"--but says he was “blown away” when he finally checked it out. And he wonders what he might achieve under similar conditions.
At 29, he’s caught in what he calls “a big transitional state.” He found the “Chorus Line” opening in New York the ultimate Hollywood fantasy come true--"Radio City, 5,000 people in tuxedos driving up in a million limousines, the audience loving it, the attention, the pats on the back.” But, later that evening, he sought out a friend of his who had given up a successful career as a chemical engineer to immerse himself in the East Village music scene.
“We stayed up to about six in the morning talking about how once you actually get what you set up for yourself as the end of the rainbow--the validation, the material rewards--it just isn’t enough,” he remembers. “So I’ve started looking at the reasons I had been working my whole life. And I’m finding they’re not valid for me any more.
“Working on a film can be frustrating because by the time it’s done, it’s a year later in your life. The stuff I started to get interested in while I was making ‘Chorus Line,’ the performance art, that’s what’s important to me now.
“There’s wonderful music that I’m just starting to learn about--a band called Everything but the Girl and an English band called the Cocteau Twins. Their music is speaking to me, and I haven’t gotten off on music in a long time.
“Being in New York opened my eyes to other possibilities. I’ve limited myself to a great extent with where my focus was for so long: making it in movies. I gained a lot out of that and I think I’ve learned what is and isn’t valid for me. But now it’s time to start deciding what the hell I want to do.”