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Les Choristes

The French confection Les Choristes is now available on a skimpy, movie-only DVD —Matt Anderson (DVD review...)

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The Japanese charmer Shall We Dance was released in 1996. Inevitably, the American remake would follow, but how would it get made, and by whom? Peter Chelsom, who has been directing films for fifteen years, was in Denver recently to tell the story.

“I had seen and I had loved the original which is why I originally passed on this project. I lied to Miramax. I said I had read the script when I hadn’t. I said it was not for me.”

That’s how Chelsom recalls his first reaction to the American version of Shall We Dance. Of course, Chelsom’s story doesn’t end there, because he did end up directing the “American” remake (although Chelsom is a Brit and the film was largely shot in Canada).

Peter Chelsom in Denver
Chelsom explains how Shall We Dance? came to be

“A year later they sent it to me again. I was told there’d been considerable rewriting and improving (there had been no rewriting). I read it and phoned them and said I thought it was much, much better. The fact is it had always been good. I thought Audrey Wells did a good job moving it to America.”

Getting into Gere

In the original film, some Japanese men sign up for ballroom dancing, in spite of that culture’s taboo on men dancing in public.

“The taboo it relied on was ballroom dancing — the taboo on that per se — couples expressing themselves in that way in public. But I think the taboo in our film is more about, if you’re Richard Gere’s character, and you have everything, the taboo is that there’s a certain shame in raising your hand and saying ‘I’m not happy - there has to be a bit more.’

“I film a bit more about the marriage, I would say. In the simplest terms, at the end of the Japanese movie, he goes to that dance without his wife. And I don’t think that for an American mainstream audience on a budget of nearly 50 million dollars that would have washed. But there you see I think that was the right choice.”

“Richard [was cast] first. It wasn’t so much that from Chicago you could tell Richard was capable of dancing — it was that I could see that he could work really, really hard.”

J. Lo Enterprises

Next up was the female lead. Jennifer Lopez was ultimately cast in the part, but if she had refused, where would Chelsom have turned?

“I swear to god it’s hard to think. Because in the film I don’t cheat with the dancers at all. Every body part is that person’s body part. And therefore, with Jennifer, I had to have someone who really could have conceivably been this champion ballroom dancer. There’s very few who can dance and act that well — and I do think she’s a good actor. She has a great presence on screen.

“It’s daunting. You think you’re employing Jennifer Lopez Enterprises, she has so many lives. You think ‘which one am I going to get?’ But the person who walks on the set in the morning, on time, is a very committed, focused, concentrated actor. Far more than most, actually. Quite amazing.”

Pass the Tucci

Stanley Tucci hams it up as the experienced Latin dancer. If you didn’t know better, you might say he was trying to steal the show. It turns out, however, that Chelsom encouraged him.

“Stanley’s very worried about this. He thinks this is a career-ender for him. He’s worried about the excess that he went to. He used to continuously say to me ‘are you sure you want me to do this?’ He was worried, but he’s fine. It was a bold stab. But then, why not? It’s about a guy that’s a ballroom dancer — a closet Latin ballroom dancer. Believe me, the real thing is twice as big.”

The Blackpool Connection

Chelsom grew up in Blackpool, England, an entertainment city like some cross-breed between Coney Island and Las Vegas. “It’s all of those things. It’s becoming more Las Vegas, like everywhere is. Atlantic City. The Catskills, whatever,” says Chelsom.

Chelsom’s early films were set in Blackpool and, coincidentally, the ballroom dancing championships mentioned in Shall We Dance? are held there as well. The connection, he says, is a coincidence.

“I’d vowed never to have anything to do with Blackpool again, because my first three films were Blackpool stories. There was a little film called Treacle. It’s a short film which got a BAFTA nomination and did really well. And Hear My Song was actually a story entirely from Blackpool, but I set it in Liverpool. And then Funny Bones was the third of the three Blackpool stories.

“I didn’t become a filmmaker because I saw some Truffaut movie at the age of nine. I became a filmmaker because I saw comedians. And if you know and like Funny Bones, you know there’s a scene in there where Lee Evans climbs a swaypole to light a cigar and sways over everyone’s heads. That’s based on an act I saw in Blackpool when I was nine. I was consumed with the feeling that — I can only now say — was ‘Oh my god I think this is what they call art.’ Because to me when comedy is right, it is art. It’s beautiful.”

  • MIchele Lusack: From the photograph on this site I think I am right but is Peter Chelsom the same person who acted in A woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford?

    Michele January 10, 2008 reply
  • Simon Higginson: Yes, Michele. Peter Chelsom was in "A Woman of Substance". I was only half watching the film which my wife had bought, one eveneing, and all of a sudden spotted someone on screen I was at school with! February 5, 2008 reply