On September 20 and 23, the Tony-nominated American in Paris floats into cinemas across the U.S. with a capture from the London production of the musical, featuring original stars Robbie Fairchild and Leanne Cope in the production from director and Tony-winning choreographer Christopher Wheeldon. Propelled by dance, the musical was not an easy one to capture for the big screen. Wheeldon and his co-director Ross MacGibbon had to balance the dramatic close-ups common of film with sweeping shots that still conveyed the theatricality of the piece as a whole. Here, Wheeldon discusses taking on that formidable task and why he believes audiences actually gain something they could never achieve in the theatre with this new movie. You can purchase tickets at anamericaninpariscinema.com
Tell me about capturing the movement and the big pictures that you see on stage and all those little moments of acting. How do you choose your moments?
Christopher Wheeldon: One of the most reassuring things for me as director, was knowing that Ross MacGibbon was directing for camera on this piece, just 'cause we've worked together a lot at the Royal Ballet, he's an ex-dancer, he has captured a lot of my ballets at the Royal Opera House. He's used to filming dance. The goal was first and foremost to tell a clear story, obviously, and one of the nice things about the camera is that you can direct the eye exactly where you want it to go. Our goal, actually, was to create as much of that dynamic sweep as possible on screen, but by the same token, make sure that those little details weren't lost.
You do have to sacrifice. You have to accept that. You do have to sacrifice the bigger picture, but what you gain is that beautiful moment of surprise and delight in her eyes that you may not have seen when you're sitting in Row DD of the orchestra. You accept that you're gonna lose perhaps some of those big picture moments, but what you're gaining is clarity of storytelling, and emotion, and that's what I love about this film. I feel like we lose nothing really. If anything, we gain from having those moments. It just makes the piece feel more connected, more emotional.
Were you ever worried about the audience response to having such extended sequences in that way?
I wasn't. I mean, there were those around me that were. Those that kind of consider themselves to presume to know what a Broadway audience might want to see. If you don't love dance, then you might have a problem with show, but I think what we learned was that more people were brought around to loving dance through the show, and we've shown that there is a great deal of power in storytelling through movement, but it doesn't always have to be done through the voice.
My personal favorite number in this show is “Fidgety Feet.” Talk to me about the choice to anchor it to chairs.
That was a number I had to sort of, in a way, fight for the most because everyone sort of questioned its validity within our story, and how do we make that work as a story number? Does it really fit there? I was like, “You know what guys? It's OK for us to have one number in Act II that might feel a little bit of a stretch.” [Ultimately it gives] this moment of joy in an otherwise rather stuffy kind of situation. The chairs really just emerged from the fact that they were sitting there watching a ballet performance, and chairs were the props that we had in the room, and so, we sort of built the number around them. Plus, I loved the fact that it's a relatively unknown Gershwin song. I wanted to balance out the kind of well-known standards in the show with some unknowns.
This capture showcases that gorgeous set and Natasha's incredible lighting, and the way it's all integrated with the full story, the choreography—how did you ensure that that came across on film?
The animated elements to the scenic design helped us a lot on camera. It kind of almost created this sort of sense of like a live-action animation film. The cameras are so good they capture all of that really clearly. It feels very present and vivid, and the colors feel very strong. And not having any of the distraction of the walls of a theatre around you, or heads in front of you, in a way, it almost feels more immersive, like you're pulled even more into it.
I think also Ross' sensitivity towards making sure that all of the transitions were really clearly captured. Keeping all of that very simple, allowing us to establish those pictures, and then once the scene is fully formed, then zooming in and focusing on the individual dramatic moments.
Robbie and Leanne’s performances are now immortalized on film. What is it about them as a pair that you think works so well?
I didn't know that it would work that well actually when I cast them. I think it was all a bit of a shot in the dark really. I knew they both had an incredible raw talent, but I don't think any of us were quite prepared for how much they threw themselves into learning these new skills. They have great chemistry. They loved working together. Chemistry is a very difficult thing to predict, and I think in this case, we were very lucky and they were just very well suited, well matched.
Justin Peck said in the Tony press room he wants to emphasize more theatre with a strong dance basis.
I'm right there with him on that. I think audiences respond very well to dance. I think we've both sort of proven that now with both between Carousel and American in Paris audiences are never given enough credit. Audiences actually love dance and Broadway musicals and want more of it.