The new musical Burlesque, about a small-town girl looking to make it big, has been a passion project for writer/director Steven Antin. Wanting to remain true to the spirit of the art form that he loves so much, he gave the film’s Burlesque Lounge a rich personality and history of its own, with a playfulness and sexiness befitting of the era it became famous.
To bring Burlesque to life on the big screen, with all of its songs, performances and flash, the filmmaker knew it would take megastar Cher and someone with the talent of Christina Aguilera. In this exclusive interview with Collider, Steven Antin talked about collaborating with both women on the development of their roles, being involved with designing everything from the costumes to the look of the club to the song-and-dance numbers, and his plans for extended and deleted scenes on the DVD. Check out what he had to say after the jump:
Question: How did this project come to be? What was the development process for it?
STEVEN ANTIN: I’ve been involved in burlesque for a really long time and I’ve always been really interested in burlesque, and I was writing musicals for different studios. I wrote a musical for Disney that was actually greenlit the same week that Burlesque was greenlit. The studio was aware that I was writing musicals for other studios, and I had written a musical, called Mash Up, 10 years ago, for Columbia, that actually never got made. That was in the vein of “Meet Me in St. Louis,” where people broke into song.
So, there was a lot of awareness that I wanted to explore this world of musicals. Screen Gems and Clint Culpepper said to me, “Write this movie about the world of burlesque. You keep saying you want to write a movie about it, so write it.” He kept pushing me to write it, but I wasn’t sure what the story was. Once I came up with the story, I pitched it to him, wrote a treatment and gave it to him. I wrote the script on spec for the studio. I wasn’t even paid for it. I really believed that this was a movie that should be made, and the studio really believed in it and they greenlit it, which was great.
How difficult was it to get Cher and Christina Aguilera to sign on? Were they the only two people you wanted for these roles?
ANTIN: It wasn’t that they were the only two people I thought could do this. They were the only two people I really wanted in the movie and I knew they could do it. I really wanted them. Christina came on board first. It was a long process, getting Christina to say yes. It was many dog-and-pony shows, on my end, and auditions for me. There were discussions of story, and walking her through the entire world of what the movie was going to look like. I had endless amounts of references, all over my office walls, and I had storyboards, books and images of what the photography and lighting would look like because that was so important to me. It was a long process, and I had to do the same thing with share. Christina loved the idea, she loved the world and she was really interested, but she wasn’t 100% sure. She had said no, many times, to movies. Through great perseverance, she finally said yes. And then, I did the same thing with Cher. It was not without a lot of just refusing to take no for an answer and persevering.
As the writer as well, were you open to making changes and collaborating with them on their characters?
ANTIN: Yes. This is such a cliche, but I feel like filmmaking is a collaborative experience. I’m not Shakespeare. I have no delusions of who I am, as a writer. I wrote a simply beautiful script that’s a fun-filled, joyous fantasy, and I was fine with making changes for the actors that made them comfortable. Nothing was that incredibly dramatic, as far as the changes went. The story was the story, and the characters were the characters. Often, actors have thoughts about character and what makes them comfortable. I wanted everybody to feel good about what they were doing and I wanted them in the movie, so it was a collaborative experience, all around, with everybody.
Was it intimidating at all to walk on set with Cher and Christina Aguilera for your first feature film?
ANTIN: Yeah, but by the time I walked on set the first day, Cher wasn’t there for the first month of shooting, and I had gotten to know Christina very well. I had many meetings with them, and I had been in many dance rehearsals and acting rehearsals with Christina. It wasn’t like I didn’t know either of them. I knew them. We had a good working relationship and I had their support. I never knew what was going to happen when I was behind the camera and said, “Action!,” but they were really malleable and incredibly supportive of me and what I wanted, and I was incredibly supportive and malleable with them and any ideas that they had to interject.
Having worked so closely with both of them, are there things that you think people would be particularly surprised to know about Christina Aguilera and Cher?
ANTIN: Personally and professionally, Christina is very private, but an incredibly nurturing and soulful woman who’s a mom. Seeing her hold her baby in her kitchen and make a cup of coffee moved my spirit. She’s very, very, very, very easy to work with and really open to suggestions and ideas, and really threw herself into my hands and completely trusted me 100%. Of course, she had a lot of ideas along the way, which I was always open to, and I had a lot of ideas and changes, and we would just work through them. It was different than I thought it was going to be.
Cher is the same way. Cher is really down-to-earth, very nurturing, incredibly funny and fun, a great storyteller, and creates a great environment on the set. She was really supportive of me, as a director and a filmmaker, and was supportive of my vision. Whatever I wanted or needed, she was really willing to go there, so that I was happy. She often said to me, “Did you get what you want?” And I’d say, “Yes, do you feel good with what you did? If you didn’t, let’s do it one more time.” They would say, “No, I feel good. Do you feel good?” I’d say, “I’m happy,” and we would move on. We really had that, quite a bit.
Was it difficult to find the men to play opposite such strong women?
ANTIN: Yes, it was. There was a big question mark about who they were going to be. I knew of Cam Gigandet. I had seen him in several movies. I wanted somebody who was a great actor, was capable of comedy, had a lot of charisma and was criminally sexy, and that was Cam Gigandet. When he came in and I met with him to talk to him about the movie, I had to convince him to do this movie and that this role was right for him. We had some changes in his role too, but I know he’s so happy that he did it now. He came up and hugged me after he saw the movie. Christina did the same thing. She jumped on me and jumped into my arms after she saw the movie, she was so happy. All the actors are really happy with the movie, and I’m so relieved and happy about that.
This is a musical that seems evenly focused on the performance numbers and the acting. Was that intentional?
ANTIN: Yeah, we spent a lot of time on both. But, I didn’t have very much time to shoot this movie. I shot 136-page movie in 71 days, which is very tight. I couldn’t go over, and I only shot five-day weeks. We had to tech musical numbers on Saturday and Sunday, so we weren’t shooting then. I had five very tight days of the week with which to shoot, and I couldn’t shoot 17- and 18-hour days. The studio wouldn’t let me and the actors wouldn’t have survived it. It was a grueling shoot that was really, really difficult.
With as big a part of the story as the club is in the film, how important was it to you to have The Burlesque Lounge be its own character and for it to have the look that it does?
ANTIN: It was so enormously important, I can’t tell you. An incredible amount of time went into building, designing and developing that space. There was drawing after drawing, and many models were made. We had endless samples of paints. There was a specific way I wanted the floorboards to be laid. I wanted the sides to be herringbone. I wanted the floor of the club to be a railroad in another direction, and then I wanted the stage floorboards to go in another direction. We talked about all of the colors and glosses on the walls, the aging on the walls, the curtains in the club, the lightbulbs, the chandeliers, all of the different backdrops and textures, how big the thrust stage was going to be and what the detail around that was going to look like. We went through endless amounts of research. Even the tables and chairs in the club, the trim around the tables, the sheen on the tables and every single lamp on the tables was discussed. There was an incredible amount of detail. The design for this movie was incredibly detailed, and had to be detailed, finished and worked out before we started production because I had a really tight production schedule and I had to stick to it. I pre-lit everything because we were on soundstages, so I was really ready to go, at the beginning of every day. That helped me get through the day, make those beautiful shots the way I wanted to make them, and tell the story of this club with this beautiful club being a character in the movie.
Do you already have plans for extended and deleted scenes for the DVD?
ANTIN: Yeah, you’re going to see it all. There’s going to be extras on the DVD that are great. There’s a number that Alan Cumming did, that so sadly didn’t make it into the movie. I’m so sad about that. He’s so fabulous. Wait until you see him do this musical number. He sang “That’s Life” on the bar with the bartenders, and it was so great. We couldn’t make it work within the body of the movie, but on its own, it’s so beautiful and spectacular. We had to cut things from the movie ‘cause the movie was getting really long. There’s also musical numbers in their entirety, that you don’t see in the movie. Kristen Bell did “Dr. Long John,” and you’ll see that whole number in its entirety. You’ll see different dance pieces that never made their way into the movie. You’ll see Christina Aguilera doing “Something’s Got a Hold on Me,” all by itself, without the inter-cutting of the burlesque girls. There’s a lot of stuff.
In doing a first feature like this, with so many different elements, did it help that you have a background in acting and know how to deal with actors to get the performance that you’re looking for?
ANTIN: Yeah. In a huge way, everything that I’ve done in my life has helped inform my ability to communicate with actors and direct them, and have that dialogue. It’s specific, and each actor is so different and requires a different dialogue. A huge part of it is wanting to do it. I love actors. I love working with actors. I really enjoy the process. I love having those in-depth discussions about the interior of their character, and actors really love to discuss that too. I could talk about that for days with them. They love that, and I love that. I love the exploration. For me, it’s an exploration into the human spirit and what makes us tick, and it gives us a better understanding of the character, who we are, who the character could be and the potential for the character.
When you were acting, had you always known that the goal for you was to get behind the camera?
ANTIN: I knew it from pretty early on, yeah. I always wanted to direct. I always saw myself as a director. I know that I’ve definitely found what I should be doing with my life. In my life, as far as my career goes, I always felt, as an actor, that it was something that would just be a temporary thing that would get me to what I wanted to do next. That’s what my acting did. I really feel that I’m a much better director than I was an actor. Everything that I’ve done in my life has become a dictionary of information and has helped inform what I do next. The experience of Burlesque informed so much, as did all the music videos I’ve done and producing TV shows and movies, and just being involved in the entertainment industry and really being a sponge for information.
ANTIN: I just don’t know yet. I really don’t. I need a day to clear my head and think about it ‘cause I haven’t been able to think about it. This train has been moving so fast. But, I want to do something that lays on the page really well. I know that. I want to do something where the script is there. That doesn’t mean that I won’t need to come in, or be asked to come in, and help develop something. Things can always get better. There’s always room for improvement. But, I want to do something that’s the best version of whatever it’s supposed to be. The script will be really important. I want to tell beautiful stories. I know I want to tell stories that appeal to a large audience. I want to make movies that appeal to mass culture, for now. At a certain point, I’m sure I’ll go off somewhere and make my little wonderful, beautiful art film, but right now, I want to make big movies that appeal to a lot of people. That’s satisfying to me.
What happened to Mash Up? Is that something that you might still do?
ANTIN: Disney was kind enough, thoughtful enough and believed enough in me, as a director, to wait for me to be available. Now, it’s been two years and it’s still in the pipeline there, so let’s see what happens with it.