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Susan Glatzer is no stranger to the world of independent film. From being an executive at the October Films – once the indie arm of Universal – to rising to become the Senior Vice President at Paramount Pictures, she has been involved with the acquisition or production of dozens of films like “Traffic,” “Napoleon Dynamite” and “Breaking the Waves.” Yet after a long career in which she worked with directors like Robert Altman, Mike Leigh, David Lynch and Lisa Cholodenko, Glatzer has come to SXSW to premiere her first film as a filmmaker herself.
“Alive and Kicking” is a documentary about swing dance. While the film explores the dance competition world, it’s more a film about the culture and the positive influence dancing has had on its subjects’ lives. Indiewire recently caught up with Glatzer to discuss her film and to get her take on the ever-changing indie and doc landscape.
Your film is about the profound effect swing dance has on people’s lives. I’m curious what your relationship is with swing and what effect has it had on your life?
I have been swing dancing for 18 years. It’s a joy and a passion. When I was at Paramount, I also served on the board of the IDA and had the idea for somebody to make a documentary short on a very specific story within the swing world. No was interested and I had day job and life went on. And then I was at a swing event in New Orleans a couple years ago and it just hit me, this is a feature and it’s not just the one little story, because swing has had such this profound effect on people’s lives.
I get the sense that your film is structured differently than other dance docs we’ve seen in recent years. Did you have to film over a long period of time to capture how swing made an impact on your subjects’ lives?
It would have been very easy to structure this as a competition film. You follow a bunch of people and follow their lives and they end up at this one big competition. It would have cut a year off making the film if we had done that. You see this even with films outside of the dance world, like spelling bees, it’s become almost the competition genre.
Within the swing world, competions are fantastic, but the stakes are low. It’s not about winning the competition like in ballroom, or like that movie “First Position” where their whole lives came down to that one moment. Swing isn’t about that. People will throw down at the competitions, but then it turns into a social event. That was one of the hardest things for us: How do we tell the story where it’s not about leading to that one event? We needed to film over a longer period of time so that things could happen in these people’s lives and we could see the effect swing has on people.
People in the industry know you from your career as a film exec, but has this desire to be filmmaker always been there?
Not at all (laughs). It’s funny, “Oh, I’m a studio executive, but really what I want to do is direct.” In fact, I never even expected I’d direct this movie. I had the idea for it, I thought I’d produce it. A good friend of mine, an Oscar nominated documentary filmmaker, was who I was going to get to direct it. I took her to some events, she loved it, but she was working on a project and wanted to wait two months.
The problem is the swing community has these events, either competitions or camps, or strictly a social events, but it’s on a calendar that is very similar to the film festival circuit. “Well, if we don’t do this now we’ll miss Sundance, then we’ll miss SXSW and Berlin.” I thought I could wait for her, but let me start shooting because I didn’t want to miss certain events.
After awhile it became clear her schedule wasn’t going to clear for quite some time and I had started. I kind of got pregnant with it. I was enjoying it, but I realized there were some things I wanted to say beyond capturing the swing community and it gave me an outlet to make statements about certain things in life that I wanted to say.
At October and Paramount, you spent so much time with directors and their films thinking about how to bring them out into the world. How did that perspective shape things for you as a director?
It definitely shaped my thinking from the very beginning, even before I thought I was going to direct it. There are so many ways of tell this story, everybody could come to this with a different perspective on it, I just knew with my background as an executive, I knew I didn’t want to make a celloid trophy and I knew I didn’t want to make something that was just for the swing community.
I really wanted to introduce this to the rest of the world. They didn’t need to know anything about the music or the dance. I didn’t want to make the kind of a documentary – and I have nothing against these films – that educates people about this subject. I didn’t want to be explaining things, I wanted people to experience it. I knew I needed to make this more of a populist film, so that it could be marketable.
The indie and doc landscape has changed in so many ways over the last ten years. Technology has made it so you could shoot a documentary like “Alive and Kicking,” but at the same time a studio backed entity like October doesn’t exist anymore as Hollywood no longer funds these smaller films. For all the up and coming filmmakers that also have films at SXSW, do you think it’s harder or easier to be starting a career as filmmaker now compared to when you started in the business?
I think this conversation has been going on for a couple of decades, except that the technology is different. Every time there’s a new technology it shifts everything. I remember when all the indie studios were being bought by the big studios. I was at October when we got bought by Universal and people thought, “Oh, this is going to be the end of that.” I think that it’s just the specifics are changing, but the concepts are the same.
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