Diligently working to create a lasting legacy in any area of art can be a challenging process for anyone. It can become an even more difficult experience for creative artists, who are willing to sacrifice everything in their lives in order for the skill to be recognized. Much like the title character in the new biopic, ‘The Dancer,’ director Stéphanie Di Giusto diligently worked hard, and found success in, bringing her dedicated vision to audiences.
The French filmmaker made her feature film directorial debut on ‘The Dancer,’ which is based on the novel by Giovanni Lista, and chronicles the career of modern dance pioneer, Loïe Fuller. The drama also marks Di Giusto’s feature writing debut, as she co-scribed the script with Thomas Bidegain and Sarah Thiebaud.
‘The Dancer’ is set to be released tomorrow in select theaters in Los Angeles and New York City by Pacific Northwest Pictures. The movie’s American distribution comes after it was chosen as an Official Selection of the Cannes Film Festival, where Di Giusto was nominated for the César Award for Best First Feature Film.
Set in the early 20th century, ‘The Dancer’ follows Loïe Fuller (Soko), a young dancer who swiftly becomes a sensation in Europe. But she’s just as quickly swept aside when a greater talent emerges on the scene. Loïe was raised in the American Midwest by her French father, Ruben (Denis Ménochet), until he was killed in their home in 1892 by bandit cowboys. So she moves to Brooklyn, where she reunites with her fervent, Temperance Movement supporting mother, Lily (Amanda Plummer). While in New York City, Loïe decides to make a career for herself as a theater actress, during which time she turns a wardrobe malfunction on stage into a crowd-pleasing dance by swirling her loose skirt around.
The happy accident leads Loïe into rapidly creating a dance routine that helps garner attention for her stage presence and talent. During the experience, she makes an acquaintance with a fellow Brooklyn resident, Count Louis Dorsay (Gaspard Ulliel). Aided by Louis’ financial support, Loïe decides to board a ship to Paris, as it’s more accepting of dancers like Loïe than Brooklyn
Once Loïe arrives in France, she fights to gain the attention of Folies Bergère’s manager, Marchand (François Damiens), and showcase her dance to audiences in the famous nightclub. Aided by Marchand’s assistant, Gabrielle (Mélanie Thierry), Loïe develops more elaborate and revolutionary routines that continue to amaze the crowd at the Folies.
While Loïe’s classical dance movements helped lead to Futurism’s admiration of motion and speed, she’s soon replaced in the dance world by Isadora Duncan (Lily-Rose Depp). The up-and-coming dancer secretly uses her growing connection with Loïe to further advance her own career. So Loïe must do whatever it takes to maintain her relevance in the spotlight of the dancing world.
Di Giusto generously took the time recently to talk about writing and directing ‘The Dancer’ through the help of a translator during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how she was drawn to make her feature film directorial debut on a biopic about Fuller, because she overcome her inhibitions to become one of the most famous and iconic dancers in Paris. Di Giusto also revealed that she feels Soko was the perfect casting choice for the role of Fuller, as the actress has a unique femininity and stage presence that perfectly captured the dancer’s demeanor.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote and directed the new biopic, ‘The Dancer.’ What interested you in making the drama as your first feature?
Stéphanie Di Giusto (SDG): What especially interested me was that I discovered the destiny of a woman who no one knew about. It’s the story of a little farm girl from the Midwest, who had absolutely nothing goinng for her that would allow her to succeed in the world of dance. She wasn’t born in the right body or setting.
But she was able to turn her inhibition into a gesture that would allow her to travel across the world. She would become one of the most famous and iconic dancers in Paris. I really liked the idea of this woman who became famous by hiding herself behind veils.
She was a real revolutionary and avantgardist. This was at a time when women still wore corsets, and had only two possible fates: to become a prostitute or a housewife.
SY: Along with Thomas Bidegain and Sarah Thiebaud, you co-scribed the screenplay for ‘The Dancer,’ which is based on the novel by Giovanni Lista. What was the process like of penning the script for your first feature, along with Thomas and Sarah?
SDG: I couldn’t conceive of writing the script for a biographical period film without knowing everything about the time and Loïe’s life. So my work for the first year was to do journalistic and archival research, and document the period.
I met two very important people who helped me in my research. One was an academic, and the other was Jody Sperling, who’s a choreographer in New York. She has been dancing Loïe’s dance for several years.
After that process, I wanted to tell this story in a very personal manner. For me, telling a story is done more through gestures than words. That way, e can really feel the energy of this woman.
SY: What kind of research did you do into Loïe’s life as you were developing the screenplay? Did you rely on the book to inform the movie’s development?
SDG: No, I didn’t use the novel much-I did my own research as much as possible. What I forgot to mention, which was very important, was that Loïe had written her autobiography, which is called ‘Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life.’ That was very import to my research.
SY: How many liberties did you take in staying true to Loïe’s life while you developed the film’s story?
SDG: I did have to adapt the story in a few ways. For instance, I wanted to work with the French actress, Soko, but didn’t want her to have a problem speaking in an accept. So I allowed myself to take the liberty of having the character’s father be a French immigrant to the United States. The other thing is in truth, Loïe’s American mother followed her to Paris, but I had her stay in the U.S. in the film. Every else was true.
SY: Speaking of Soko, ‘The Dancer’ stars a diverse cast; she stars alonside Gaspard Ulliel, Mélanie Thierry, Lily-Rose Depp and François Damiens. What was the casting process like for the biopic?
SDG: Soko, for me, was the only actress who could play Loïe. I needed to find an actress who was outside of the norm, and who you don’t see in every magazine. I think Soko has a femininity that’s outside of the norm.
What’s also very important is that Soko is an artist. She’s a performer and a singer, and also writes lyrics. So I knew something would happen between Soko and Loïe, and there would be a dialogue between them. What I really like about Soko is her punk side, which really needed to guide the character. Soko is also someone who never cheats. In the film, she never has a body double; it’s her dancing in every single scene.
SY: How did you approach rehearsing both the emotional and dance sequences with the cast, especially Soko?
SDG: The filming process was difficult for all the actors, because we didn’t have all the means necessary to make the film. So we had to shoot very quickly at several actual locations a day. As a result, the actors didn’t get more than three takes per scene.
But I actually really liked working this way, because I think Soko felt what dancers would really feel as they’re about to go on stage. So she trained for six hours a day for a month. When it was then time to shoot, she had to give everything every time. There was something that I really liked about that urgency.
SY: What was the process of choreographing the dances, especially since none of Loïe’s performances were filmed?
SDG: It would have been impossible to decide the choreography on the day of the shoot. So the choreography was determined and practiced for months before we began filming. It was also very complicated to coordinate the lights. So everything was done by teamwork.
That’s what was beautiful about Loïe’s performances-ithout her team, she was nothing. In fact, that’s part of the story of the film. On contrast, Isadora only needed her body to move people, but Loïe needed 30 technicians and crew members to help her do what she did.
SY: Paris, and then the rest of the world, recognized Loïe’s talent, but she was soon replaced by Isadora. Why was it important to you to show the differences in the way they approached their commitment to their dancing?
SDG: What’s really important and revealing about their differences is highlighted in their autobiographies. Loïe wrote her autobiography herself, and her words were quite clumsy and went off in every direction. Her antidotes are about the things that were important to her. It’s clear that her encounter with Isadora was so painful to her that she couldn’t even call Isadora by her name; she called her the American.
On the other hand, in Isadora’s autobiography, which she had written with the help of a famous writer, she talked about her encounter with Loïe with a great deal of contention. She said that Loïe’s company was just a group of crazy young girls. Isadora didn’t have the same vision of dance as Loïe. But you can still feel that she had a great deal of respect for Loïe. However, in her autobiography, Loïe said that when journalists asked Isadora sat she thought of Loïe after they met, Isadora allegedly said that she didn’t remember Loïe.
SY: Besides co-scribing the script for the drama, you also made your feature film directorial debut. What was your approach to helming your first feature?
SDG: For me, directing was quite easy, compared to the writing, which was the hard part. Directing the dance scenes came quite easily to me. The most complex thing was to put the actors in a room, and get the emotions going while we were planning the choreography. What I wanted was to have a feeling of Loïe being a character who was searching for herself throughout the film. That’s why she’s always moving in the movie.
SY: ‘The Dancer’ was shot entirely in real locations across France and Europe. What was the experience of finding the places where you filmed, and why was it important to you to shoot only in actual places?
SDG: That was very important-I don’t like reconstructed sets in period films, as they make the story feel very fake. I spent about six months to a year looking for the locations, and I think that contributes a reality to the story. There weren’t any scenes that were shot in a studio.
However, the shooting conditions for the film were very difficult. For example, when we shot one of the most important scenes at the Paris Opera, we only allowed to film there for one night, between 1 and 6am. We even had to build things during the night before we could shoot certain sequences.
SY: What was the experience of also choosing and creating the music and score for the drama, especially when Loïe was dancing?
SDG: It may be because of my Italian origins, but I really fell in love with Antonio Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons,’ as remixed by Max Richter. I really wrote the film listening to the remix.
We also did a tremendous amount of work on the sound of the silk and other fabrics. I really discovered how important the work on the sound was. I also worked with Soko as though she was a boxer. So all of the different sounds that the body made were very important.
SY: Speaking of the costumes, what was the experience of collaborating with costume designer Anaïs Romand, and the entire costume department, to create the look for Loïe, especially when she was on stage?
SDG: I did what Loïe did-I surrounded myself with the best technicians. I really prayed that I would be able to work with Anaïs Romand, who’s the best costume designer in France. She actually won the César Awards for Best Costume Design for this film. We recreated Loïe’s designs with the help of Jody Sperling, who gave us the secret recipe for the dress. We needed 350 meters of silk to make the dress. But working with silk, which is a very fluid fabric, was incredibly complicated.
SY: The drama was an Official Selection at the Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, Busan International Film Festival, Palm Springs International Film Festival and Miami Film Festival. What was the experience of bringing the movie on the film festival circuit?
SDG: It was a pure joy. This woman, Loïe, is completely unknown, and we were able to bring her story tot he greatest festival in the world, Cannes. You can imagine how happy and proud I was. I also discovered what it’s like to have an audience. People approached me with tears in their eyes, because they were so moved by Loïe’s story. I really discovered why I make films.