Directing through a new light

Times Staff Writer

While directing her first feature film, "Take the Lead," Liz Friedlander learned many things. Like, no matter how many music videos or commercials you have directed, nothing quite prepares you for how physically taxing it is to make a film, how it will completely consume your life for months, possibly years. And when you think you are done, you are not because publicizing your film will lead you through weeks of premieres and junkets that are utterly bizarre (though it isn't nearly as hard on the director as it is on the lead actors). And reading the first set of reviews, especially when they are very mixed, can be emotionally draining.

But most surprising was the simple fact that, after all the time and effort, fretting and celebrating, there comes a moment when the film belongs to the audience and suddenly there's nothing left for the director to do.

"It is very weird to work on something for years and then have it be over," she says. "You spend 24 hours a day for weeks with these people, and suddenly you're not talking to them anymore. Very unsettling." Which is why many filmmakers often turn immediately from one project to another. In the wake of "Take the Lead's" April 7 premiere -- it has been doing modest business at best, taking in about $14 million thus far -- Friedlander is reading scripts in search of her next movie. Still, she says she feels a bit unmoored -- a mood not enhanced by the fact that New Line, the studio that released "Take the Lead," booted her out of her West Hollywood office a few weeks before she expected.

"I don't know quite what I'm going to do," she said a week before the movie's premiere. "I'm not the sort of person who can work from home; I'll spend all day throwing a tennis ball for the dog."

At 35, Friedlander is young and slight and pretty, with a very Industry by way of the Valley look. Which is to say neither blond nor cosmetically enhanced. At least not noticeably. In many ways, she is the very model of the modern young filmmaker. She's a local girl, so local in fact that when asked where she grew up, she answers "Calabasas," then adds, "well, what is now Calabasas but then it was Topanga." When she was younger, she wanted to be an actress, but after a few acting classes during a Carnegie Mellon summer session, she realized she couldn't take the rejection. So she quickly decided to direct.

"If someone says they hate your film," she explains, "it's not so bad. I mean it's still your film. But when you don't get a part, it's more like they hate you."

So off she went to UCLA film school, from which she launched a career in music videos, first as a production assistant, then as an editor. One of those lucky breaks for which the industry is so famous launched her as a director -- Fred Schneider, the leader of the B-52s, who was a friend, asked Friedlander if she wanted to direct a music video. "I told him yes, of course, but I'd never get the job because no one knew who I was," she says. "He went back to them and totally lied. When I got the job, he said, 'I told them you were huge in Europe.' "

One thing led to another, and soon she was directing music videos for headliners including U2, Celine Dion and REM, a thriving career she augmented with commercial work, a career she says she has no plans to abandon no matter where feature films take her.

"I hate it when people talk about music videos and commercials like they're just killing time or something to be ashamed of," she says. "It's a great career, you get to work with great people and I really love it." But still in the back of her mind was the desire to "work in a longer form." She tried writing screenplays, which went nowhere, and kept reading every single one of the half-dozen feature scripts her agent sent her every week in the hopes she would find one good enough for her to want to do but troubled enough that she might have a chance. She spent her time in development purgatory with a few projects, but nothing took off.

"It really is a miracle any films get made," she says, echoing the sentiments of many Hollywood veterans. "Much less any brilliant films. When you're a first-time director you get two kinds of scripts. The ones that are just brilliant and they don't want to meet with you, and the ones you hate that you could probably get."

"Take the Lead," she says, was somewhere in the middle. The story of an actual New York dance instructor who teaches ballroom dancing to a group of sullen, detention-bound high school students, it had enough cinematic shorthand -- "Fame" meets "Stand and Deliver" -- to keep the studio interested. The characters felt real to Friedlander, but the script needed a lot of work, which gave her hope. And it was a dance movie, right up Friedlander's alley.

"Besides," she says with a laugh, "this was in 2004, before 'Dancing With the Stars' and 'Mad Hot Ballroom' took off. I'm sure they figured let's just let the girl do it.' " Which they did.

Friedlander quickly decided that Antonio Banderas was the only actor who could play dance teacher Pierre Dulaine in a believable fashion and make the dancing look lovely and effortless. But Banderas was busy filming "The Legend of Zorro" and said no. So Friedlander waited until he was done, asked again and he said yes.

"After Antonio signed on, things happened very quickly," she says. "Because he only had a small window to film." She wanted six weeks to rehearse the cast, and she got a month. Before she could quite catch her breath she was in Toronto, walking onto a set filled with cameras and cable and craft services and many, many expectant faces, some of whom had never made a movie before -- several of the detention/dance class members had been cast for their look and their attitude rather than their resume. Fortunately, she says, she was working with leads like Banderas and Alfre Woodard, who set the bar for professionalism very high.

"The hardest thing is realizing that you are truly the captain," she says. "You have 100 people looking at you every day, wondering what are we doing next?" Although video work had prepared her for much of the mechanics of directing, there was still a pretty steep learning curve when it came to the art.

"You're the one who has to keep ahold of the big picture," she says. "Actors and technicians are great in the moment, but you have to contextualize. It's seductive to get caught up in the moment, but you have to make decisions not about the moment but about the film. If nothing else," she adds with a laugh, "I learned to have a new appreciation for some of the shots you see over and over in movies. Like the over-the-shoulder? I thought I would do all these experiments, but you know for bonding both the characters and the audience, nothing really beats that over-the-shoulder."

After the film was finished, there was the next leg: marketing. Friedlander, used to the relative anonymity of directing music videos, had to learn a whole different set of skills, including how to do 85 television interviews in one day. "I don't know how Antonio does it," she says. "He had it much worse than I did and I was exhausted. You swear you're going to answer every question uniquely, but then you get asked the same question 15 times and you start going for the sound bite."

The questions she was asked most? "The woman thing and the music video thing. Explaining the difference between making a feature and making a music video is boring even for me. As for being a woman director, it isn't something I think about until someone asks me, and then if I were going to give a coherent answer, it would take longer than any of us has time for." Inevitably, of course, came the morning after, when the film hit the theaters and Friedlander had to deal with the reviews, many of which were not positive.

"It was hard," she says. "People either liked the movie or they didn't get it. I think some of the people who reviewed it wanted to go see 'Capote,' and it's a dance movie. It's supposed to be fun and make you feel good. They seemed to need more from a film than I do when I go to the movies." She took heart from the positive reviews and the response of young audiences.

"In the middle [of all the reviews] I went to a screening for about 400 high school students, and they went bananas. Yelling and screaming ... I was almost crying. Because in the end, we made it for them."

Now Friedlander is finishing work on another music video and trying to decide which film she wants to do next. She's been sent pretty much every script with a dance number in it, but she's not really interested in doing what she's already done. Instead, she's looking at adapting a book called "The Clarinet Polka," about a man who comes back from military service in Guam and falls in love with a 15-year-old.

"Very different, I know," she says. "But I am very drawn to coming-of-age stories, narratives in which the characters undergo tremendous change. Besides, now that I know how hard it is to make a movie, I might as well make one that I want to see. If you're going to give up years of your life, if you're going to obsess constantly and bug all your friends, it better be something you can sink your teeth into."

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