Sarah Adina Smith and Jonako Donley on Taking Flight with “Birds of Paradise”

There can only be one in “Birds of Paradise,” a point made crystal clear by Madame Brunelle (Jacqueline Bisset) to the dancers at the Paris Opera Ballet School she presides over when a decision must be made about which pupils can graduate to join the full company. Even with the number of blind leaps Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers) and Marine Elise Durand (Kristine Froseth) have been asked to make at the professional academy, neither can say this is one of them, yet the two of them have formed a friendship anyway as they compete against each other fiercely for the lone spot at the Paris Opera Ballet, earning one another’s respect even after the clear disparity in their backgrounds is ever-present with Kate only in France because of a scholarship created in the honor of Marine’s twin brother who died, and whose talent could very well deprive Marine of the career she – and more prominently, her well-to-do mother (Caroline Goodall) – had invested so much time and energy into securing.

That the relationship is fraught with a feeling of danger and mutual respect would seem to be fitting for writer/director Sarah Adina Smith and producer Jonako Donley, the pair behind the ferocious adaptation of A.K. Small’s novel, though their partnership has never involved competition, only daring one another to do things differently — together. From their very first shorts “Madura” and “The Sirens” on, the duo (along with Smith’s cinematographer and partner in all things Shaheen Seth) have defied whatever expectations an audience may have had walking in, thinking nothing of throwing a wild ‘60s musical number into a psychological chiller like their first feature “The Midnight Swim” and pushing Rami Malek towards the end of the earth as a man believing he’s racing against the apocalypse in their follow-up “Buster’s Mal Heart,” in spite of what limitations may have been imposed by a modest indie budget.

Armed with the ability to dispatch as many camera set-ups as they want for dazzling dance montages and a story that insists all is fair in love and war, Smith and Donley’s latest collaboration is positively electric as Kate and Marine duel it out, testing the limits of their bond but freeing themselves of any others in their life. Bouncing between the hallowed halls of the ballet school and an underground lair known as the Jungle where the ballerinas’ darkest fantasies can be performed, the film presents the most intimate personal expressions as big as they feel for Kate and Marine, practically exploding off the screen to the point that one is compelled to dust their own shoulder off after an entire dance-off is covered in glitter. Shortly before the film arrives on Amazon Prime, Smith and Donley spoke about their most ambitious film to date, which included overcoming a production shutdown due to COVID-19 last spring, working emotional beats into the steps designed for the dancers with choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall and the one time the two have disagreed on set over their 15-year collaboration.

What got you interested in this?

Jonako Donley: A lot of the films that Sarah and I have done have skewed more arthouse and independent, and we were really looking for a project that appealed to a little bit of a broader audience. This book [“Bright Burning Stars”] was brought to us, and it was such a fun, juicy and delicious read, but still had a lot of depth and heart to it, so it just seemed like such a cool opportunity to throw in some Sarah Adina Smith magic.

It seemed particularly cool that while there is a rivalry, this subverts the idea of competition when these two women are friends for much of the film. Was it tricky to figure out a satisfying narrative given what audiences expect from something like this?

Sarah Adina Smith: At the end of the day, this is a messy love story and a messy friendship and a story about obsession and betrayal, and ultimately, hopefully that helping hand towards redemption, so even though the genre of the dance movie is that competition narrative, we didn’t want to be beholden to that in a way that overshadowed the more human story. And I really love a dense, rich story that people can watch multiple times. It’s particularly because this was geared for this younger generation that I think are so media savvy, and their attention spans are different than ours, [I thought] this could be a fast-paced movie with a lot of layers going on, and a fun chance to design for this generation of movie watchers.

As I understand it, the jungle isn’t a part of the book, but it becomes such a huge part of the film.

Sarah Adina Smith: Yeah, I feel so lucky that the author really let me run with the adaptation and gave me a lot of creative of freedom. The jungle was not part of the book, but I told our production designer Nora [Takacs Ekberg], “Make me something that feels almost like a sterile science laboratory, something that is almost this light box where every flaw and mistake can be seen” for the main ballet studio, and [then] I wanted to contrast the more kind of perfectionist rigid world of traditional ballet, with something that was feral and wild and organic and free, so that’s where the jungle motif came from.

Given how wild I can imagine some of Sarah’s ideas can be, has it been fun to scale up to the point over the course of your collaboration where, Jonako, you may not have to say no to things as much as you might’ve before?

Jonako Donley: Yes, for sure. [laughs] And I try not to say no to Sarah, because I know when she asks for things, she really needs them and Sarah always has a very producerial brain and knows what is achievable within what budget, which makes my job a lot easier, so I don’t have to crush too many dreams…

Sarah Adina Smith: In my memory, Jonako’s only said no to me one time. When we were making “Buster’s Mal Heart,” we were in a dangerous situation because we were shooting in a real cave, and there was a storm coming in. Everyone was freezing, and the road was going to get locked, and we legitimately needed to get out of there, but I needed to finish one more shot to finish the movie. If I didn’t get it, we weren’t going to have a finished movie, and it was like the first time I’ve seen Jonako as a producer, just be like, “I’m cutting you off. This has to end right now.” And I think I turned around, and I was like, “Roll camera.” And Rami [Malek] threw himself down the hill, and in my mind, I was like, “As long as I don’t call cut, I can keep rolling, because we’ll just keep going.” So we only got one take of it and as soon as I was done with that, then I gave in, and we called it. But it was the one time. And Jonako was in the right. We needed to get out of there before the storm came.

That was the one moment of little rebelliousness on my part, but in general, we’re both on the same page when it comes to understanding where to put the production value on screen. And it’s true this is our first studio film, so it was our first chance to cut our teeth together on a studio film with some more resources, which was such a delight.

The shoot actually started pre-COVID and then had to be reassembled later — was there actually a silver lining in that as far as having some of the film in the can and looking at what it could be?

Jonako Donley: Yeah, COVID shut us down a week before [the end of production]. We had seven more shoot days left, so we were so close to finishing the film when COVID shut us down, and we had saved all of our big extra days and set pieces for the end, so we had to really reconceive all of that before going by back in to complete the film. But what we got feels very intimate. We had to go back to character. It’s about how you tie up the story between these two girls, and we had to distill it down to that where we couldn’t distract with a big dance number, which would’ve been really fun, but really just what is the essence of this story and how do we complete that story? The COVID of it all really forced us to hone in on that.

Sarah Adina Smith: Yeah. It made us even more rigorous in our storytelling, and I like to believe that the movie’s better for it. We were one of the first movies and projects to go back actually, and the protocols hadn’t really been fully written yet, so we were learning as we were going, and I will say the silver lining to a COVID-safe set from a director’s point of view is that the scenes actually become so much more intimate. It actually feels kind of like getting back to your indie roots, where you don’t have 125 people buzzing around you all the time because you create these extra safe red zones for COVID safety, so every scene feels more like a closed set, and it’s just a quieter, and I think oftentimes more efficient way to work. Also, we had seven shoot days left, but because of COVID, we were given nine, so we could move a little bit more slowly and deliberately, which is such a luxury. At a moment where our schedules are just being squished further and further down, it helped us really achieve some of the best stuff in the movie because we were able to take a little bit more time.

The dancing is incredible and you worked with Celia Rowlson-Hall, not only a great choreographer but a great filmmaker in her own right. What was it like figuring this out with her?

Sarah Adina Smith: Celia’s a total visionary and a really brilliant person. She’s like the female Jodorowsky, and she and I connected the moment we started talking because I think we share a similar language of working from the inside out and not being afraid of very visceral, raw choices, so it just felt like a match made in heaven. If anything, my only regret is that the world won’t get to see the beautiful climactic dance piece that she created. It’s really astounding, so while I have no regrets about how the movie has now ended up becoming the movie it became, because of COVID, I will say Celia’s dance piece was pretty out of this world.

Jonako Donley: It was so cool.

Now it just exists as this imaginary thing, it’s going to take on even greater legend.

Jonako Donley: That’s true. And some rehearsal tapes. [laughs]

And you’ve got the glitter dance in there, which may be a showstopper that can’t be topped. What was that like to pull off?

Sarah Adina Smith: I wanted this movie to be so fiercely and unapologetically feminine, I was just like, “Let’s make it like a fucking glitter dance to the death.” And we had obviously planned all the choreography and the glitter on the bodies very carefully, but what we didn’t plan that was such a gift was the way the glitter was spraying off of them as they were dancing. The art department kept trying to sweep it up in between takes, and I was like, “No, no, no, leave it.” And the more it builds up, the more it looks like they’re dancing on this like rainbow cloud, which was just such a gift that was unplanned and such a beautiful surprise.

“Birds of Paradise” premieres on Amazon Prime on September 24th.