Friday, August 28, 2009

Film feature: West Coast swing hits Lake Park in 'Love N' Dancing'

Amy Smart and Tom Malloy in Love N' Dancing.

By Hap Erstein

The still-fledgling Mos’Art Theatre, Lake Park’s independent art cinema playhouse, has a double coup this weekend. Not only is it presenting the South Florida premiere of Love N’ Dancing, a romance set amid the West Coast swing dance craze, but tonight and Saturday afternoon, producer Sylvia Caminer puts in a personal appearance to field moviegoer questions about the film.

Love N’ Dancing, shot in 2007 in Albuquerque, N.M., doing a credible stand-in for Philadelphia, opened in June in Los Angeles. But in the crowded summer release logjam, it never got sufficient attention -- or audience -- to receive much national distribution. In short, an ideal Mos’Art film to showcase.

Caminer, speaking by phone from her home base of DeLand, says that she never thought of going the film festival route with it “because it’s such a light, entertaining film. I go to a lot of festivals and think they should play more entertaining films where people come out happy, but they usually don’t."

Nor does she see Love N’ Dancing as a message film, though the main character Jake Mitchell (screenwriter and co-producer Tom Malloy) is a former swing dance U.S. Open champion who is deaf. In the film, he struggles to compete again, while also battling not being defined by his lack of hearing.

“I do like the fact that it is about someone with a disability, who kind of overcomes it,” says Caminer, who coincidentally is working on a documentary about people with developmental disabilities.

The character of Jake is a composite of real people, Caminer notes. “There have been world champion dancers that are deaf," she said. "Tom was never a professional dancer, but he had studied West Coast swing before and was impressed by a dancer that he then learned was deaf. And he thought, ‘What a fascinating concept for a film.’ ”

Directing the film is Robert Iscove, who made the 1999 Freddie Prinze Jr. film She’s All That, after an early career boost choreographing the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Handling the choreography on Love N’ Dancing, however, is Robert Royston, whom Caminer calls “a legend in the West Coast swing dance world. The fact that he was involved, I knew that at least the dance would be authentic and very high-caliber, and he would get the true professionals in the movie.”

In fact, the dance sequences far outshine the story line in Love N’ Dancing. The plot involves a middle-school teacher named Jessica (Amy Smart), who has lost her enthusiasm for her work and is engaged to an unappreciative workaholic (Billy Zane) who might as well have a sign around his neck proclaiming, “Bad Choice.” When she signs them up for dance lessons to prepare for their wedding, he balks at the idea while she becomes hooked on the liberating dance steps and on her instructor -- yep, Jake.

Improbably, Jake asks Jessica to be his partner for the U.S. Open competition and the introverted duckling grows into a swan before our eyes. The story is strictly Lifetime cable quality, but the dance is astonishing and there is plenty of it.

Smart (best known for such movies as The Butterfly Effect and Just Friends) comes off as a natural swing dancer, an impression that took a lot of work. “She had done some ballet as a child, so she had had a love of dance, but she didn’t know anything about West Coast swing,” says Caminer. “She studied for eight weeks with Tom and with the choreographer and she’s fantastic.”

Additionally, the producer says, “She couldn’t have been nicer to work with, so professional, so down-to-earth.”

Through dogged persistence, Caminer was able to sign an impressive handful of recognizable performers in supporting roles, including Gregory Harrison, Caroline Rhea, Rachel Dratch and Betty White. When White’s name came up to play the cameo of a senior dancer, Caminer became determined to persuade her to be in the film.

“We got her the script and I think she thought it would be fun, and then we sent the choreographer to her home to give her a quick, 30-minute dance lesson,” recalls Caminer. “And she just thought, ‘Why not?’ ”

Adding to the authenticity of the dance sequences is the casting of actual competitive dancers, including the current world champions of West Coast swing and a former winner of TV’s So You Think You Can Dance?

“It’s a great community, the dance world. We had people flying in on their own penny, flying to New Mexico from all over the country. They put themselves up just to help us out and to come for a big dance party that we held to get extras.”

OK, but why in the world was the film shot in Albuquerque?

“We had an investor initially with the condition that we shoot the movie in New Mexico,” says Caminer, echoing an oft-heard refrain of the independent filmmaker. Eventually, that investor pulled out of the project, but by then shooting had progressed to the point that they continued there.

“And we really didn’t want the movie to seem country-western, because West Coast swing is being done in urban cities across the nation, not just in country settings," explains Caminer. Scouting Albuquerque, Caminer determined that it could pass for the East Coast, “but there’s only a few blocks in the entire town that would work. There was no way we could make it look like New York, but Philadelphia, we could get away with that.”

Ultimately, she says, Love N’ Dancing was made for about $6 million and with its release on DVD in October, she expects to break even. “On a movie like this, it’s really all about the video.”

If nothing else, Love N’ Dancing will be a worthy calling card for Caminer when she begins raising the money for her next feature film. “It sure looks good, it has high production values and the performances are strong,” she says.

As to moviegoers who attend this week, Caminer adds, “I think you’ll come out snapping your fingers and maybe tapping your toes and wanting to take a West Coast swing dance lesson. And there’s a lot worse things you could do after a movie.”

LOVE N’ DANCING, Mos’Art Theatre, 700 Park Ave., Lake Park. Opens today, with Caminer Q&As at 7:40 p.m. tonight (between the 6:00 and 8:25 p.m. shows) and 3:35 p.m. Saturday afternoon (between the 2 and 4:15 p.m. shows). Call: (561) 337-6763.

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