Susan Seidelman returns to the big screen with the Musical Chairs a love story set in the world of wheelchair ballroom dancing. It’s got something for everyone. It’s got class issues, gender issues, issues reated to disability, race issues all wrapped up in a deeply felt star crossed love story.
Women and Hollywood: What drew you to Musical Chairs?
Susan Seidelman: I think the idea which is a theme in all my movies – overcoming obstacles. It goes back to Desperately Seeking Susan feeling like there is more in you than what appears to be on the surface. That is something that has appealed to me. The kind of underdog character that has to overcome something to become who they want to be. In this case the idea of a dancer who can no longer dance but has to get back in touch with her inner whoever she is appealed to me. Also the idea of making a movie in NYC that was about diversity and could use the city in an interesting way. I filmed in so many parts of the city. A lot of the time it was downtown in Manhattan but the idea of filming in the Bronx or Washington Heights where I’ve never worked before was also a big appeal.
WaH: In this film you work with actors of different abilities. How did that challenge you as a director?
SS: It wasn’t that it was a challenge the thing was to try and make it authentic. So we really went out of our way to try and incorporate as many disabled performers as possible. The great thing about the internet these days is that you can do all this research and find people that you wouldn’t normally know about or have acces to. For example, Auti Angel who plays Nikki- I read about her online. She had been a hip hop dancer who had a car accident around the age of 20 and became paraplegic but still was a dancer. She started to do hip hop wheelchair performances and I saw footage of her online and she was the real deal and an amazing dancer. Another one of the dancers a guy named Nick Scott who we also found online was a former high school athlete a football player who had gotten into a car accident. He was a wheelchair body builder who then took up wheelchair ballroom dancing. We brought him in from Kansas. We found out about a small wheelchair dance company in Philadelphia and found a guy named Matt Carp who was an amazing dancer and had been in a wheelchair his whole life.
WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making this film?
SS: Quite honestly it was not make it seem maudlin or melodramatic. When you have a story about a dancer who has an accident and has to rediscover her love for dance it could have been really melodramatic and I didn’t want that to be the case. I also didn’t want the movie to be depressing. I wanted it to be more joyous and also have humor because again it could have really been sad. So it was trying to find the tone that dealt with the issue of being in a wheelchair seriously but also have humor as well as to capture the spirit of NY and spirit of dance.
WaH: You were basically part of the birth of the indie film business. A lot has changed a lot in the last 30 years. What has been the most shocking change for you?
SS: I think that one of the things that’s hard is not so much getting independent films made — of course we now have to look at different financing sources. It used to be there were a lot more smaller companies and indie production companies that had access to money that could finance movies. A lot of those companies have gone away. So now it is often about trying to find individual investors that have a passion for a certain project and are willing to put up the financing themselves.
The other big challenge is that the distribution system has changed so much and again a lot of the smaller indie distribution companies have disappeared so now it’s hard once you make your movie to get it out there and generate awareness for it. It’s challenging especially if you don’t have millions of dollars in marketing and advertising money. You have to find a target audience that you think will like your film and market to them and hope the word of mouth will spread.
WaH: Focus on the niche.
SS: Yes, exactly. In the case of the film I did a couple of years ago, Boynton Beach Club which was all about older people falling in love again afer age 60 we targeted audiences in Florida because we knew there was a large older demographic there and we hoped that we could get them excited about the movie then it would spread to their neighbors up north and their children and grandchildren. When we initially released that movie we didn’t market it to young people because we knew that they weren’t the target audience we were going for. I think that is happening more and more these days. Find that niche and then expand outward.
WaH: The last couple of films have been tough for you to make. What have you learned in the struggle to get the last couple of films made and what advice could you share.
SS: The advice I could share is just hang in there don’t give up. The film I just finished shooting here in New Orleans called the Hot Flashes took four years to find the financing but eventually we found because my producer partner Brad Hemming found a group of middle aged women who loved basketball and related to the story. We could have given up after a year or two but it took us four years to get it going. With Musical Chairs the idea for that story began with the producer Janet Carrus who had been involved with ballroom dance as well as charitable work with the disabled. She’s involved with the Center for Discovery which has a big facility in Hudson Valley that deals with people with severe physical disabilities so she combined her love of dance with her interest in the disability community. It took her 6-8 years to get to get the financing, the script and the production team – so it’s really about tenacity. Independent filmmaking is a lot about sticking to it and if there is something you believe in just keep pursuing it.
WaH: Did you ever imagine your career would be like this? What were your expectations if there were any?
SS: I never knew what my career was going to be. Everything has always been a surprise to me. I never knew that Smithereens would go to the Cannes Film Festival, I never knew that Desperately Seeking Susan was going to be a hit, I never knew that I would then be doing a bunch of TV movies for Showtime. The one thing that I did know is that there is nothing else that I want to do other than direct movies and so I feel in some ways thankful — even though my career has taken ups and downs and side turns — but I’m still here 27 years later having just made another movie. So I feel blessed that I am able to do the thing I want to do.
WaH: As one of the pioneering female directors why do you think the numbers of female directors is not growing.
SS: Let’s face it. It is still a boy’s club. Hollywood has changed so much particularly in the last ten years or so and the kinds of movies they are making are in the price range of $100 million comic book or action movies or sequels, and because it is a boy’s club the members of that club get to direct those kinds of movies. It has always been hard for women. When I started out in the 80s there were more character oriented movies and I was able to make the kind of movies I wanted to make because studios were making those kinds of movies. More modestly budgeted movies that were character oriented. They don’t make those kinds of movies anymore. Cable TV took over those movies for while which is why I was working for Showtime because they were making the movies that Orion used to make 20 years ago.
It’s been the case for women and probably for other minorities that we’ve always had to make our own opportunities. When I got out of film school in the late 70s I was very aware that I was not going to get to go to Hollywood and knock on some doors and then get to direct a movie. That wasn’t going to happen and I was very realistic about it. I thought if anyone was going to hire me, I’d have to hire myself to make a movie so I had to pull together my financing, story, crew, cast – do it the way most independent filmmakers have been doing it for the last 30 years. And I think that is still the case. There more women directing movies than there were in 1982 when I did Smithereens. There were none basically. But we have to make our own opportunities which means producing as well as directing or aligning yourself with another producer who believes in you and will give you that opportunity. We can’t go the traditional route most of the time.
The film opens today.