Interview: Laura Terruso on Opening Up the Dance Floor to All in “Work It”

Even with just three features under her belt, it’s become a hallmark of Laura Terruso’s wonderfully irreverent comedies to underline how the craziest of situations often are a result of the most human behavior, which is why as silly as the premise of her latest film “Work It” might seem, she had been keen to push it to be even more absurd. Joining the long line of dance movies to concoct crazy reasons to get its stars up and on their feet, “Work It” sees its heroine Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter) forced to move from backstage as the head of the A/V Club at her high school to the front when a college admissions officer (Michelle Buteau) suggests that showing some initiative would look good on her application, leading her to start a dance squad when the one at her school, led by the impervious Julliard Pembroke (Keiynan Lonsdale) refuses to let her in.

“I think the reason the movie is landing in such a way is that I really did put my heart and soul into it and I made it my own,” says Terruso, days after the film topped Netflix’s Top 10 the week of its premiere.

This is a rare instance where the filmmaker isn’t kidding around, having once engaged in a quixotic pursuit while in high school that was not all that unlike Quinn attempting to dance her way into Duke by corralling a ragtag group of hot-steppers including her best friend Jasmine (Liza Koshy) to compete for a regional championship. Working from a script by Alison Peck, Terruso doesn’t limit the twists and flips to her dancers, cleverly subverting the expectation of a climactic competition into showing what Quinn has overcome within herself to confidently lead her team out on stage, using the time she volunteers at the local nursing home to work on her moves and feeling good enough about herself to take the hand of her team’s consultant Jake (Jordan Fisher) when he wants to waltz under the moonlight.

In these dark days of 2020, “Work It” offers a rare bit of sunlight and with the film now streaming safely into homes the world over, Terruso spoke about making a comedy that could resonate across generations and nationalities, bringing her distinctive voice into a genre with well-established conventions and how she connected her own experience in high school to Quinn’s.

How did this come about? I know this comes from Alloy, the same producers as your last film “Good Girls Get High.”

It really was through the strength of that relationship with the producers at Alloy that we built up making “Good Girls Get High.” So when they had this teen dance movie, they sent it to me. I pitched on it and I put together a really compelling presentation that took what was there and really built on it. Normally with dance movies, it’s common for producers and studios to hire choreographers to direct, but I really connected with the character of Quinn because when I was in high school, I had a very similar experience. I was a total musical theater nerd in middle and high school. I could sing and act but I couldn’t dance, so I took ballroom dance lessons my senior year so I could land a part, and it became about so much more than getting the part for me — for the first time in my life, I felt comfortable in my body and was more confident. So I could identify with Quinn’s journey and I really wanted to create something that was fun, uplifting, easy to watch and enjoyable, and I had no idea that we’d be releasing it in the middle of a pandemic where I think a movie like this is even more necessary.

I just love musicals. I’m the person who, within the first five minutes of “The Lion King,” is just weeping. I think there’s something primal about music and about dance. Over the past week with the movie being released, I’ve been getting DMs on Instagram from teenagers all over the world, telling me how much they love the movie in Paraguay and Brazil…all these places that I’ve never been, but would love to go someday, so there’s something really powerful about dance and the way it transcends language.

With a dance film, there seems to be certain expectations built in, but at the same time, you don’t want it to be formulaic, so how much do you want to lean into those genre conventions? I’m thinking of the wonderful scene at the beginning where you break into a spontaneous dance battle, which is both unexpected and at the same time acceptable because you know the reality this is taking place in.

Alison’s script was well-crafted in terms of these are the things that happen in dance movies and then it became my job to make them feel fresh and funny. For example, in the initial draft, the character that Keiynan Lonsdale plays was written as this girl named Foster and she was the queen bee. I don’t love mean girls, so I was already trying to figure out how to subvert that, and our casting director Rich Delia sent the script to Keiynan for [consideration as] Jake and he came back and said, “I don’t want to play Jake, but I am interested in the Foster character,” and I turned to the producers and I’m like, “That’s it. That’s so good.” He came in and he read and he took something that we had seen before and made it fresh, so I rewrote that character for Keiynan and worked with him to make sure that we were doing it justice.

He’s just hilarious in the movie and I really appreciate how he — and the whole cast — was always so game to try things. I throw a lot at my actors — I throw lines at them and tell them to try something crazy. It’s not like, “We’ll shoot these four pages and then the day’s over.” I’m throwing a million different things at them like, “Now try this, now say this line…” I make it an athletic experience for my actors and we had so much fun making the movie. I think you really see that and feel that on screen.

That definitely comes through and one of things I’ve loved throughout your films is how you can really feel there’s a sense of teamwork between your leads, particularly the central duos in each of your films. You don’t sense there’s a hierarchy, but these people genuinely know each other and can get the most out from one another. Is there something to getting that feeling?

I think it comes out of casting and I feel like I just have instincts around the people I cast as friends. I’m really proud of the fact that Sabrina and Liza are super-good friends and similarly with “Good Girls Get High,” Abby [Quinn] and Stefanie [Scott] are besties and that is about casting good people who are smart and funny and thoughtful and who you know are going to love the people they are working with because they’re also smart and funny and thoughtful. So I feel like I’m two for two here, having them become actual lifelong friends. [laughs] There’s something really satisfying for me in seeing that because I really do think Liza and Sabrina will be friends for the rest of their lives and they’re going to have long, incredible careers and the same with Abby and Stefanie.

I’ve heard you were really looking for the best dancers first and shaping characters to them – what was that process like?

I read this quote that Penny Marshall, who is one of my favorite directors, gave to a reporter about “A League of Their Own,” which is one of my all-time favorite movies, where she talks about how every actress in that movie had to pass a baseball test. If they didn’t look like they could play softball or baseball, it was a non-starter. They weren’t going to be cast in the movie because already you had a major chasm in believability. So I felt like everyone in this movie needed to be a dancer. We weren’t going to take non-dancers and try to make it work. And in Toronto, we found great dancers. When I first heard we were shooting there, I was like, “Why Toronto?” It’s not known as a dance mecca, but it worked out really well because it’s actually a really diverse city and the dance community is very small there, so all of the dancers at around the age range we were looking at all kind of knew each other and there was a real sense of camaraderie and support.

We did a big dance call and it was so exciting because every single one of those kids had a special skill. There was part of the dance call where Aakoman Jones, our choreographer, [had everyone] do a choreographed routine, so they’re dancing to his choreography and then he’s like, “And then if anyone has any special skills, now is the time,” so people would just volunteer themselves and do something different to the [same] song. A lot of our [secondary cast] were people that raised their hand in that moment. Tyler Hutchings, the guy who played Robby the flipper, just flipped his ass off across the room a million different ways, [Nathaniel Scarlette, who plays] DJ Tapes, he did some amazing freestyle that knocked our socks off and Indiana Mehta, who played Priya, did a Bollywood bhangra routine to this Chris Brown song.

I was so inspired by those kids, I was like okay, they’re all professional dancers, but they’d been in a movie with lines before, so we had them come in and I had them improv, just to get a sense of who they were and who could work in front of a camera. I loved [Bianca Asilo], the girl who plays Raven. She was so sweet and had a kind of Disney quality, so I had the idea of pushing against that because she’s just so adorable, and turning her into this goth. So I essentially wrote their roles for them, leaning into who they were. It was figuring out how to get the most comedic bang for our buck in every possible way in the making of the movie.

That lady at the nursing home who breaks out some moves is something special. How did you find her?

I really wanted to feature a wide swath of dancers and I wanted everyone who’s watching this movie to see themselves reflected and represented in the film somehow, so every person could be like, “I’m that person.” And I thought how great would it be to have this woman at the nursing home bust out into a hip-hop routine, so we did a casting call in Toronto and we couldn’t find anyone. Finally, I took to YouTube and found this video of this woman Shirely [A.S. Clements], a dance teacher in British Columbia, and this was her retirement bon voyage, so she did this dance number with her students that went viral. It was in a gymnasium and it ended with her doing a headspin and I was like, “That’s the woman! We need her.” So we flew her in and I’m so glad we did because it’s just such a fun, uplifting moment in the movie. It was amazing to see the kids’ faces when she busts out in that routine, they were like, “Holy…” their reactions are their actual reactions. They could not believe it.

The dance between Quinn and Jake, played by Jordan Fisher, under the bridge is breathtaking in an entirely different way. What was it like figuring that out?

Oh man, that night was just electric. You could just feel that we were getting at something really special. The choreographer showed us the dance and then I was very clear with Rogier [Stoffers, the director of photography] that I didn’t want to cut up the dance. I didn’t want this to be like a music video. I wanted it to feel like a film and to see the dance and see Quinn’s transformation and see that arc and not have it become dance porn, even though it is. [laughs] But that scene we conceived as being a combination of two shots, so if you watch it, it feels like a [single fluid] scene, but if you watch it really closely, it’s two shots. The steadicam is essentially dancing with the dancers and we had to find the exact movements and just do it again and again and again and then the second part of the dance had to lead into the kiss [between Quinn and Jake].

There’s a lot of moving pieces there, and it was like 2 a.m. in the middle of Toronto in a practical location under a highway. (laughs) But everyone was really focused and it just felt really magical. Sabrina and Jordan have this incredible chemistry — we had them do a chemistry read and the minute I saw them together, I was like, “It’s them. It’s them. It’s them.” And they’d known each other for so long, so they have a longstanding connection and they felt comfortable with one another. I’m really proud of that scene.

You mentioned getting immediate feedback by virtue of having the film premiere on Netflix. This is coming out in strange times, but have you been able to enjoy this going out into the world?

It’s unbelievable. I’m blown away by Netflix and the fact that they have released the film in all these countries in all these languages. I’ve seen the movie maybe hundreds of times at this point because I’ve been editing it for months, so I know it by heart, so what I did on premiere night was toggle through all the different languages and watched a piece of it in German and a piece of it in Italian and a piece of it in Spanish. I will say this, if you too ever get to a place where you have this movie memorized in whatever language is your dominant language, the Jas/Julliard scenes are fantastic in French, the Quinn/Jake scenes just live in Italian and the mom/Quinn scenes are, of course, best in German. [laughs]

So that’s how I spent my premiere night. I’m in quarantine like everyone else, so you expect a red carpet premiere, but no, I ordered a pizza and watched my movie in five different languages, and you know what? That was great. And it’s so joyful to get these messages from people around the world who love the movie and who were inspired and who love dancing, but maybe they thought, “I wasn’t good enough, but your movie shows me I don’t need to be the best. I can just do it because I love it.” That’s so important to me that that’s the takeaway.

“Work It” is now streaming on Netflix.

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