TCFF 2019 Film Spotlight: ‘Only Dance Can Save Us’ – Interview with writer/director John Kaiser

Hello FC readers. It’s Ruth here. Today we’ve got another MN film and MN filmmaker whose film Only Dance Can Save Us is premiering tomorrow at 7:20pm.

I got to see the film last week and I’m really impressed! Kudos to John Kaiser on his feature film debut–it feels like a personal film which highlights the artistic process and the struggle of an artist. Even more impressive that he chose dance, which apparently is an uncharted territory for him, yet he’s able to capture the beauty of that world.

Larissa Gritty as Sophie

I like that that the film didn’t spoon feed everything to the audience, it’s not drowned by exposition. The pacing could’ve been improved a bit however, but overall it’s a terrific film that gives me an insight into the world of dance that I’m not familiar with. As someone working in the creative world, I can relate to the challenges of making a living as an artist.

Matt Bailey as Alan

The acting, especially Larissa Gritti (Sophie) and Matt Bailey (Alan) are strong and believable, which is important in a dialog-heavy film. The dance sequences by choreographer Berit Ahlgren are lovely to watch, and it works wonderfully with the music by Sarah James Elstran. The dynamic camera work by DP Tim Schrader also highlights the dance sequences beautifully.

It’s one of the most unique and creative indie films I’ve seen at TCFF, worth seeing on the big screen so don’t miss the screening tomorrow at 7:20pm! Get your tickets here.


Synopsis: Following the death of her estranged mentor, contemporary dance choreographer, Sophie Florence, seeks to make sense of their relationship through her art. As she faces her past, she can’t help but be influenced by her present. By weaving performance and narrative, Only Dance Can Save Us creates an interdisciplinary portrait of the artistic process.

 

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Interview with John Kaiser

1. The film explores the ups and downs of the artistic process. Was the story inspired by your own journey by any chance?

As an artist it’s impossible not to infuse a little of yourself into your work, nor should you ever resist that urge. For this film in particular I wanted to incorporate that sense of insecurity that we artists feel around our work. Those questions of, “Why are we doing this?  Should I be doing something else with my life?” Like our protagonist Sophie, I definitely have had those moments of self doubt. We all have.  Maybe a project doesn’t turn out how we thought, or we get rejected from festival after festival, and we question why we’re dedicating so much of ourselves to art.  Then we have another great idea and we’re pulled right back into that cycle.

2. You’ve written quite a bit of shorts and a few features, including DARK CLOUD that I covered last year. What made you decide to direct this story in particular for your debut?

For this project I really wanted to explore that artistic process. That self-doubt, that inspiration, how the world around us shapes our work. The key was finding the right medium to explore on film. Dance was an uncharted territory for me, I’ve grown to appreciate it over the years and it felt like the perfect vehicle to showcase that process.

Having written and directed a couple shorts, I knew I wanted to try my hand at a longer narrative. With all films, sometimes things just come down to timing, finding the right project at the right time. This was a story that had been bouncing around my head for awhile and felt like the right project to apply for a Jerome Foundation Artist Grant with. Low and behold, much to my surprise and delight, they liked the project and funded the majority of the production costs.

3. I love the dance sequences. Can you talk a bit about the process of casting those dancers, in addition to casting the actors for the film?

When it came to casting dancers, I leaned completely on our choreographer Berit Ahlgren. I gave her carte blanche to bring in anyone she thought would be a good fit.  In this case some of our restrictions acted in our favor. Due to some scheduling issues not everyone was available every day. So Berit developed pieces that required only a handful of performers and other pieces that required a lot more. She herself performs an incredible solo at the beginning at the film, so it’s a little like you never know who’s going to show up in the sequences. As the film progresses we see the pieces grow and become more complex, with more and more dancers joining in.

In terms of casting our actors, one of the challenges with some of the roles was finding individuals who could both act AND dance. This requirement really helped narrow our field and gave us a more strategic pool to focus on. And we were lucky in that we had enough talented people express interest that we didn’t have to sacrifice quality on either front.

4. I also notice that the music seems to appear in the dance sequences, while it’s mostly music-free in the dialog scenes. How was the process of incorporating music into this film?

I often joke that when characters in this film aren’t talking, they are dancing. And that was sort of the approach with the music as well. I personally like to let the dialogue (and there’s a lot of dialogue in this film) speak for itself and not compete with the score. I like to find a rhythm and pacing with the actors that feels musical at times.

This also gives our dance sequences their own energy and feel when we finally do add music into the film. The dances and dancers are there to act as a Greek Chorus of sorts and really portray Sophie’s mental state. We were incredibly lucky to have Sarah James Elstran (The Nunnery) contributing the music. Her work sounds like nothing I’ve heard and that’s what jumped out to me when I was exploring composers. It’s haunting at times, celestial at other moments, but it’s also incredibly catchy and upbeat when it needs to be. It really gives the film its own unique sound.

Larissa Gritty w/ supporting cast Jessie Scarborough Ghent + Alex Galick

5. The film practically takes place in a single building, save for a couple of scenes. What has been the biggest challenges of setting a film that way?

As a writer it’s always a fun challenge to create something with as few locations as possible and this piece for the most part takes place not only in one building but one room for the majority of the film. So it’s this fun little challenge where you give yourself limited resources to work with.

As a director though, focusing your story on one particular space presents a different set of challenges. Namely, how can we keep that space fresh for the audience. We were able to do a lot with lighting, playing with the time of day the scenes are set in. I also wanted each corner of the room to feel more like it’s own space. There’s a space for socializing, one for business, one for reflection, then of course a big empty space for the dancers to move in.

6. When I first noticed the dancers’ costumes, I thought I noticed the specs of blood in them. Is that just my imagination thinking that perhaps it’s hinting at the ‘bad blood’ between Sophie and her recently-deceased mentor, or just a coincidence?

Oh that’s a very interesting observation. I hadn’t thought of that before, but that’s the fun thing about getting this film out in front of an audience. Everyone brings their own interpretations to things. Part way through the production I noticed the blood-like spots. For me that represented the dedication and passion these artists have for their craft.

The costumes themselves were created by the incredibly talented Caroline Sebastian. She and I shared vision boards and had several discussions about what these pieces should look like. We wanted something that made them stand out from the rest of the world. We drew a lot of inspiration from dancer costumes of decades past.  In particular we were both drawn to those used by the choreographer Merce Cunningham in the 1970’s and 80s. Caroline had the brilliant idea of adding this tie-dyed pattern which gave the outfits a texture that stands out in the space and on film.

7. How excited are you that your first feature is premiering at TCFF, on its 10th anniversary no less?

I’m ecstatic. TCFF has always been a great supporter of the local film community and it’s always fun to play to a hometown crowd. There’s just a different energy when you know your friends, family, collaborators, and colleagues are in the audience.  It gives the screening a Sunday dinner kinda vibe.

8. What’s next for you? Would you share about some of your current/future artistic endeavors?

The next thing on my agenda is to breathe and to unplug for awhile. This project has been my life for the last year and a half and now it’s out in the world. We’re hopefully going to focus on taking it around to other festivals across the country and get it in front of as many eyeballs as possible.

Beyond that, I’m writing for the fun of writing. Playing with new ideas and seeing what the next story to take root in my mind will be.


Set Visit – Fall 2018

I had the privilege of visiting the about a year ago in St. Paul MN, thanks to writer/director John Kaiser, executive producer Jay Ness, and producers Ellie Drews & Kirstie House for arranging the visit. Jay, Ellie and Kirstie, plus DP Tim Schrader + costume designer Caroline Sebastian were actually part of the crew of my own film Hearts Want). I really enjoyed the visit and meeting some of the cast/crew, here are some pics from the fun visit:


Thank you for chatting with me, John!


TCFF screening times of Only Dance Can Save Us:
Tuesday October 22nd 7:20 PM


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