If you’re a fan of the Step Up films, you love great dance and performance numbers, or you’re just looking for something inspiring and aspirational to watch, you should check out Step Up: High Water, streaming on YouTube Red. In the 10-episode first season, Sage Odom (Ne-Yo), the legendary founder of Atlanta’s famed High Water Performing Arts School, has returned to find dancers for his upcoming world tour, while the students pay their dues to prove they have what it takes to live out their dream. From creator/showrunner Holly Sorensen, the series also stars Naya Rivera, Faizon Love, Lauryn McClain, Petrice Jones, Jade Chynoweth, Carlito Olivero, Terrence Green, Eric Graise, Kendra Oyesanya and Marcus Mitchell.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Step Up: High Water executive producer/pilot director Adam Shankman, who also produced the films, talked about how a Step Up TV series came about, the desire to take it back to what was so special about the first film, the goal for the dance aspect of the series, how grueling the casting process was, the biggest production challenges, what they’d like to do in future seasons, and what made the first Step Up film, with Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan, so special. He also talked about how things are coming along with the Enchanted sequel, Disenchanted, why it’s been in development for awhile, and what he’s looking to do with the music, along with two other TV series that he’s currently developing.
Collider: Usually when you have a franchise around as long as Step Up has been around, you have to start talking about taking the franchise into space or something crazy like that, but instead you’re taking it to TV. How did Step Up evolve into a TV series?
ADAM SHANKMAN: This new incarnation has really reinvigorated the entire narrative of the Step Up universe, and that makes me super happy.
Had you ever talked about or thought about making a TV series for Step Up, at any point during the movies?
SHANKMAN: The first movie was meant to be a one-off film that we made, like any other movie, where there was no intention of anything further happening. How the series happened had everything to do with the cost vs. the performance of the movies and how the fan base continued to grow. It really is actually a story about the power of the internet because what couldn’t be ignored was the internet presence of the Step Up world, all the way back to the MySpace family. It was one of the biggest movie MySpace pages in history.
Susanne Daniels, who’s now running YouTube Red, through other incarnations of her career and other places that she ran, had always wanted the title. I had seen her at various places and she had mentioned it to me, and I was like, “Sounds great!,” but it was one of those things where we weren’t actively trying to develop it. And then, she landed at YouTube Red and, from what I’m led to understand and from what I know to be true, one of the top five things, if not top three things, that is clicked upon at YouTube is dance. There was a very quick decision that this was a perfect fit for YouTube Red, as a platform, because it was very on brand.
So, they approached Lionsgate, and then Lionsgate approached me and my company, and my sister Jennifer [Gibgot], who’s one of the other producers who’s been on since the beginning, our big mandate was, “Sounds great, but in order to create a continuing organic narrative for the characters to be able to dance, we want to go back to the first model, which was the Channing [Tatum] and Jenna [Dewan] movie, with an institution at the center of it. One of the things we felt happened with the last three movies was that the context with which the characters were dancing started to get a little outrageous. We wanted it to be more aspirational in an Earthbound way. So, when we were talking to different showrunner/creator types to run it, Holly Sorensen came in with what we found to be the most interesting take on what that world and institution could be. That’s how we ended up with the show.
To be perfectly honest, what happened was that they bought the show, put it forward, and then said, “Now you guys have to figure it out.” They committed to ten episodes of a show that didn’t exist, with no showrunner and no script, which was crazy, but awesome. Then, we had to figure out what the show was gonna be. It wasn’t like they were gonna just say yes to anything. We had to figure it out in a way that made sense, but that is how it all happened.
It’s one thing to put together enough impressive, death-defying choreography for a 90-minute or two-hour movie, but it’s another thing to put together enough exciting choreography for an ongoing TV series. What was your goal for the dance aspect of this?
SHANKMAN: The goal for the dance aspect is to be credible and aspirational, in terms of how you feel, as a dancer, and the work that you put in. As a dancer, you’re an athlete and need to treat it as something you have to practice and perfect and go after, in the exact same way that any athlete would have to go after excellence in their field. That’s the credible part. And then, the aspirational part is with the performance element, and it has a little bit more sparkle on it. That’s how we tackled it. We didn’t even think about it like, “Okay, there needs to be a requisite three numbers per episode.” We said, “What does each episode call for?” We knew there had to be dancing, but the dancing was based on what would naturally be happening and what we thought would be fun.
You have known cast members, like Ne-Yo, Naya Rivera and Faizon Love, but the dancers are fresh faces to most of your audience. How grueling was the casting process for this?
SHANKMAN: It was a very grueling process. I’m very proud of our casting director, Tamara-Lee Notcutt, who really did a deep dive into the world. We went for dancers first, and found dancers who could act, as opposed to actors we could turn into dancers. It’s not just that we think the dance element is more important. What I think is really important is that they have the heart of a dancer and they can communicate what that energy is properly, and that there is a dedication and a fierceness in how they approach the work.
As the director of the pilot and an executive producer on the series, overall, what were the biggest production challenges in pulling this off?