NINE EXCLUSIVE "Channing Tatum" Stills from "Step Up," Below!
Everyone deserves a chance to follow their dreams, but some people only get one shot. Tyler Gage (Channing Tatum) is a rebel from the wrong side of Baltimore's tracks and the only thing that stands between him and an unfulfilled life are his dreams of one day making it out of there. Nora (Jenna Dewan) is a privileged ballet dancer attending Baltimore's ultra-elite Maryland School of the Arts - and the only thing standing in the way of her obviously brilliant future is finding a great dance partner for her senior showcase. When trouble with the law lands Tyler with a community service gig at Maryland School of the Arts, he arrives as an angry outsider, until his skills as a gifted street dancer draw Nora's attention. Now, as sparks fly between them, both on and off stage, Tyler realizes he has just one performance to prove that he can step up to a life far larger than he ever imagined. Featuring the directorial debut of leading choreographer Anne Fletcher, the film also stars R&B superstar Mario, Drew Sidora as well as rap legend Heavy D, Damaine Radcliff, De'Shawn Washington and Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Rachel Griffiths.
STARRING: Mario, Jenna Dewan, Channing Tatum, Rachel Griffiths
DIRECTOR: Anne Fletcher
STUDIO: Touchstone Pictures
Wild About Movies Grade: C-
Behind The Scenes
On the heels of executive producing “Mr. And Mrs. Smith,” STEP UP producer Erik Feig wanted to make the kind of classic, music-driven, character-focused movie that he and his friends had found so mesmerizing while growing up. Having been inspired by such entertainments as “Saturday Night Fever,” “Fame” and “Dirty Dancing” – and moved by recent films that ventured realistically into the hip-hop world such as “8 Mile” and “Save The Last Dance” -- Feig felt it was time to bring back the genre with a fresh, gritty take inspired by today’s youth issues and styles.
“This is an idea that I’d been thinking about for many years,” says Feig. “I remember that era when great music-oriented movies were not just aimed at girls but had a guy’s point of view, too, and that really interested me. There’s something so universal in the love of music, and I wanted to make a movie that would appeal to everyone, as much to men as to women. That’s why I liked the idea of setting STEP UP around a scrappy underdog who finds an unlikely dream and gives it his all to make it happen.” It was from a true-life, pivotal moment that the character of Tyler Gage -- who gets his one shot at a different future and an unlikely romance when he is forced to do community service at a performing arts school -- was born.
Along with his Summit Entertainment producing partner Patrick Wachsberger, Feig began to search for a director. It was then that Feig had a stroke of luck – running into renowned choreographer, director and producer Adam Shankman at his local gym. “Erik ran up to me and actually said these words: ‘Who’s the next you?’” recalls Shankman. “Why, I wondered, have I passed on? Am I done? But I came to realize that he was asking who was going to be the next great choreographer who wanted to breakout as a director, and if I knew that person."
It turns out that Shankman definitely did. He immediately had in mind Anne Fletcher, one of the contemporary film world’s leading choreographers who made her debut with the hit “Bring It On” and has gone of to choreograph key sequences for some two dozen film and television projects. "I've worked with Anne since 1990 and we were dancers together for Paula Abdul on the Oscars®. She has been one of my best friends and was my assistant when I was still a choreographer,” explains Shankman. “When I started directing movies, she sort of took over my choreography career. Then, she absolutely exploded artistically.”
He continues: “When Erik told me about STEP UP, I knew it would be perfect for Anne because it she has always been incredibly strong with actors, she’s deeply passionate and most of all, she’s a really good storyteller.”
Fletcher met with the producers and they were instantly won over by her rapidly flowing ideas and enthusiasm. Eager to work with his protégé in a whole new capacity, Shankman also came on board as a producer, bringing with him his producing partner and sister, Jennifer Gibgot.
Gibgot, who has danced all her life, fell in love with the story’s mix of music, romance and explosive cultural tension – and made a catalytic suggestion: to turn the story, then focused on a young musician, into a dance film. The final decision to do so was made in part because she felt it was important to draw upon Fletcher’s incredible knowledge of and enthusiasm for the world of dance. "I think love and dance will always be a winning combination,” she observes. “But this story also has a really modern, raw feel. It's a morality tale, a movie about a kid versus the streets, about a kid who has only one chance at a long-shot dream. I think it’s a story that appeals to both young and old because it’s about having hope and finding the strength to dig yourself out from the hole that you're in."
The filmmakers began to work with screenwriter Duane Adler, who earlier made his debut with the teen hit “Save The Last Dance” starring Julia Stiles. Also brought on board was co-writer Melissa Rosenberg, who the filmmakers sought out because of the hip, current style she had honed on the extremely popular TV series, “The O.C” – only to discover she was also an accomplished dancer herself.
Adler added his turbulent experiences growing up as an outsider to the mix. “My family moved a lot when I was a kid and I personally attended six different high schools as a teenager,” he explains. “While I wasn't a foster child like Tyler, I certainly felt misplaced and it was my discovery of the arts as a junior in high school that in many ways changed my life."
He related intensely to Tyler’s struggles to make it. Adler continues: “I always saw Tyler as someone who is very gifted but faces an uphill battle. The new world of Maryland School of the Arts school becomes his salvation, but first he has to prove himself and he also has to wrestle with his feelings of loyalty to his old friends and his old way of life, while realizing at any moment he could lose it all. That’s what makes him such a moving character to me.”
Meanwhile, Rosenberg, who majored in dance in college and danced with a small troupe before becoming a writer, brought a true dancer’s POV to the storyline. "This film was an amazing experience,” she says. “It was finally a chance to dance again, on the page if not on the floor.”
Adler and Rosenberg chose stark, urban Baltimore as the story’s location because both were familiar with it and it seemed to suit the edgier tone of the story. "It has a very rugged, blue-collar vibe, and lots of history with the old row-houses and neighborhoods,” Adler notes. “But it also has a very artistic and beautiful side. The story really contrasts those two worlds as we watch Tyler go from home to school and back again."
To bring out the rhythms and pulse of today’s most talented high school teens, Adler also spent nearly six weeks observing at a local performing arts high school. "I went to classes with the students, sat in on rehearsals and lunch breaks, and watched them prepare for their spring finale performance,” he says. “The idea was always to bring as much authenticity to this story as possible.”
When Anne Fletcher read the script, she knew STEP UP would be a tremendous opportunity for her directorial debut. “I knew I could do it because I really understand the world of dance and young artists because that’s the world I grew up in,” she says. “I loved the script and I felt that it was a chance to tell a very truthful story. But I also knew that the first priority was to hire really good people, because a director is only ever as good as her team.”
A STREETSMART REBEL AND A PRIMA BALLERINA IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT PARTNER: CASTING CHANNING TATUM AND JENNA DEWAN
From the minute she came on board, director Anne Fletcher found herself facing a major search for a cast who could bring realism, excitement and raw talent to STEP UP. She set out on a quest for a group of young actors so gifted they could not only embody the film’s characters but also do all their own dancing and singing. To make sure the film felt utterly alive and real, she absolutely refused to use doubles or voice-overs for even a single shot. It wasn’t easy, but through a combination of luck, timing and little miracles, an extraordinary ensemble was pulled together.
"We were so lucky because I think there is an astonishing amount of talent on display in STEP UP,” comments Fletcher. “These kids are the real deal and there’s no smoke and mirrors. It’s what I always aimed for. Everyone does their own dancing and singing – so the characters feel very real and you never have to cut away from what’s happening emotionally to switch to a double. I'm excited that I succeeded in that. Finding Channing Tatum was our biggest coup, followed by finding Jenna, who is an unbelievable dancer as well as being gorgeous. Most of all, there is real magic and chemistry between them that makes the story work.”
The hunt for a young man to play Tyler began with trepidation. "That character is so complex on the page,” says Erik Feig, “we knew it would be a challenge to find someone with all those qualities. We needed someone who would be charismatic yet troubled; tough but likeable; hard-edged but romantic; and an untrained yet amazing dancer. It was a lot to hope for.”
Then Channing Tatum, who grew up in a tiny town in Alabama and emerged as a new face to watch in an edgy 2002 Mountain Dew commercial, walked in for an audition. It was a moment that changed the entire film. “As soon as we saw Channing, we knew he was Tyler,” Feig recalls. “And then we saw him dance and he moved like water. There's no other way I can explain it. He is just so fluid and exciting to watch. It was just a thrill to find him. "
Adds Adam Shankman: "Trying to force someone into the Tyler character would have been disastrous. We needed someone who you feel has too much passion, too much electricity to control, and that is who Channing is. He's also quite possibly one of the best natural street dancers I've ever seen in my life. He just has so much texture in his being."
Tatum instantly related to Tyler on a deep level. "I felt I could not have written myself any better that what Tyler is in the script,” says the young actor. “He's a carefree kid who loves to dance and have fun, but he also has a self-destructive side. I think all boys at that age are kind of crazy and destructive in their own ways. That's what being a teenager is. You mess up in order to learn.”
He continues: “I also remember what it felt like not to know what you want in life and that’s a big moment to get through. Luckily for Tyler, when he gets put in a situation where he's around all these kids who really want something in their lives, it awakens something in him. Then he really starts to fall for Nora and a whole new world opens up to him.”
Although he’s been a freestyle street dancer for years, like his character, Tatum had no formal training – which meant he had to “hit the boards” in intensive sessions with hip-hop choreographer Jamal Sims. The process was a lot tougher than anything he had expected. " I could always dance and move, but learning a structured routine was hard for me because there's so much going on and it’s entirely different than just dancing on gut instinct,” he observes. “I don't know if I would have been able to do it without Jamal there. He has the patience of a Zen master. He's one of the most creative, talented people that I've ever met. It was because he had so much confidence in me that it gave me the confidence to try it.”
Tatum also credits Anne Fletcher for bringing out the best in him. "I learned so much from her. She's so free-spirited and wild, I just wanted to be around her all the time,” he says of the first-time director. “She’s a ball of energy and a finely tuned instrument for knowing reality."
With Tatum cast as Tyler, the next crux of the production was finding a young actress with extensive enough ballet experience as well as the personality to pull off Nora. “Once we cast Channing and realized what an amazing dancer he was, the bar became extremely high for whoever would play Nora,” notes Feig. “We had to search that much harder.”
After a lengthy series of auditions, the filmmakers came across Jenna Dewan, another newcomer who has been dancing since the age of 5, has been seen in dozens of music videos and toured with P. Diddy and Janet Jackson as a dancer before breaking out into films. “When we saw Jenna, it was another great discovery,” says Feig. “We knew she had to be the kind of person that if you're Tyler Gage walking into school with a major chip on your shoulder and wanting to hate everyone, you'd stop in your tracks as soon as you saw a glimpse of her -- and would want to do everything to impress her and try to win her over. Jenna had that ineffable quality."
Like Tatum, Dewan was attracted to the story of STEP UP. “I like that it’s about two worlds coming together, and how Tyler and Nora really wind up teaching each other lessons,” she says. “I also loved that Tyler and Nora don't come together in a cliché way. Tyler’s had such a hard life and he doesn't know how to want something because every time he wants something, he feels like it goes away. But when he meets Nora, that’s all she knows how to do – to fight for something that she wants. I think that ignites a fire in him and inspires him to find out what truly matters to him. On the flipside, he shows Nora how to let go and live more and not be so rigid. He shows her what real love is. Both of their lives are changed by the other."
Also like Tatum, Dewan felt that role had been tailor-made for her. "I was so drawn to Nora because it really couldn't be written any more like me as a 15 year-old. I was Nora,” she says. “I was a true diehard about dancing. That was all I ever really wanted to do. I had that same passion – and I really didn't know what would happen if I couldn't go and pursue it.”
Things really clicked when Dewan encountered Tatum for the first time at an early reading together. "The second we met, it felt completely natural,” she recalls, “and by the time we started rehearsals it was as if we'd known each other for years. Channing’s very open and generous, plus he's an amazing dancer so just watching him develop was an inspiration to me.”
It also felt natural for Dewan to work in Baltimore – a city where she lived for several years when she was in elementary school. "I started to dance in Baltimore, and it’s where I first started doing some acting. It couldn’t have been a more exciting setting for this story.”
AT SCHOOL AND ON THE STREETS:
FINDING THE SUPPPORTING CAST OF STEP UP
Surrounding Channing Tatum and Jenna Dewan in STEP UP is an accomplished cast of both young newcomers and award-winning stars. The adult side of the cast is headed up by Academy Award® nominee Rachel Griffiths, who plays the key role of the performing arts school’s Principal Gordon. Fresh off her critically acclaimed and long running role on HBO’s® dark drama “Six Feet Under,” Griffiths was looking to break out into something completely different. When she read STEP UP, she knew this was it.
“I was drawn to the film because I thought it would be great to be in such a youthful, vibrant, hopeful environment,” says the actress. “Plus I was a huge ‘Fame’ fan. There’s something so wonderful about people at the beginning of their lives. It’s not that there isn’t pain or struggle but there’s also this beautiful, sexy optimism and I wanted to be around that.”
Griffiths was also intrigued by the effect her character has on Tyler, an outsider to the school but someone in deep need of inspiration and direction. "I see Director Gordon as someone who is really tough but really fair,” says Griffiths. “She knows when kids are putting it on the line and she always wants to bring out the best in them. So that’s why she challenges Tyler to find in himself the kind of fight to pursue the positive. She really throws down the gauntlet and he responds. It's a great moment because nobody's ever asked that of Tyler – but she believes he can rise to the occasion.”
Anne Fletcher was thrilled to have an actress of Griffiths caliber take on such a key role. “We talked about who the character was and where we wanted to go with her – and then Rachel went off and created something fantastic,” she remarks. “As such a skilled actress, she was very exciting to work with.”
Another focus of casting became finding the ensemble of talented teens at the school, as well as Tyler’s fun-loving friends back in the neighborhood. One of the first young stars to be cast was Mario, the Baltimore-based, platinum-selling R&B artist who broke out when he himself was only 15 but has yet to make his mark in film. He read for the role of Miles, who helps to guide Tyler through the world of Maryland School of the Arts. “As soon as the doors shut after Mario left the reading, we all said “We have to hire him”. “He is so special ” says Anne Fletcher.
Mario was drawn to the realistic portrait of Miles. "He's a very cool character and he seemed very authentic to me,” he says “He came from the hood” and then to this school to make his life better. I like that the whole idea of the film is that you’ve got to persevere if you want to attain your dreams, which is true no matter where you come from.”
He also sees Miles as key to Tyler’s transformation: "Miles is real valuable to Tyler because he’s the one who can set him straight,” says Mario. “In the beginning, they’re kind of standoffish with each other because they're both from real bad places. But I think Miles understands that Tyler’s emotional issues comes from that fact that he really doesn’t know how to trust anyone yet – and he knows that can change.”
Starring as Nora’s best friend Lucy is newcomer Drew Sidora, a Chicago-born actress, dancer and singer who, without even an agent to rep her, sent a tape to the casting department at Disney hoping someone would give her a chance. “On the tape, Drew was just sitting in her living room reading lines, and it felt so natural and vibrant. Then she sang, a cappella, this beautiful song – and when we saw that, we just had to cast her,” says Feig.
Sidora says she wanted to be part of what she calls, "a love story told through dance." She continues, "Lucy is Nora's best friend, and is a really fun character who has her own transformation. She starts off as someone who goes after men who are not particularly good for her. But when she notices Miles, they connect and she realizes that love can be something really positive."
Rounding out the cast as Tyler’s shocked and dismayed friends from the old neighborhood are Damaine Radcliff, the six foot six actor who last played a basketball player in “Glory Road,” as Tyler’s best friend Mac; and De’Shawn Washington who plays Mac’s younger brother, Skinny, and celebrated his 16th birthday on the set. Ironically, both Radcliff and Washington are skilled dancers but neither one gets a chance to make a move in the film. Instead, their roles are more about the changes and rough roads that friendships go through.
Says Radcliff: “My character starts out tight with Tyler Gage, the best of buddies, sidekicks side by side. Then Mac becomes suspicious of who Tyler is becoming with all the dancing and everything kind of falls apart. We don’t hang out anymore. We aren’t hustling together anymore. And it takes awhile for Mac to realize it’s time for him to try to do something with his life, too.”
Also featured in the rousing finale of STEP UP are teenage brothers Damien and Tourie Escobar, a musical duo known as Nuttin But Stringz. Born and raised in the Southside Jamaica neighborhood of Queens, New York, the brothers took up the violin, a dicey pursuit in that particular neighborhood. Both studied at Juilliard and the Bloomingdale School of Music, and then started playing in subway stations, attracting crowds with their distinctive sound, a unique blend of classical, jazz, rhythm & blues, and hip-hop. They have performed at the Apollo Theatre, and on “The Jay Leno Show,” where Anne Fletcher first saw them, and immediately wanted them to be part of STEP UP.
"I already knew what I wanted for the finale of the movie, which was hip-hop meets an orchestra. So when I heard them, I got on the phone as fast as I could with our music supervisor Buck Damon to get them in the movie. We have them in our opening shot playing Vivaldi, and then in the finale. I was so excited to be able to include them."
In addition to the main cast, several crew members can be seen on screen in STEP UP – director Anne Fletcher is Miss Stephanie, the dance teacher; director of photography Michael Seresin dons overalls to play the part of the Custodian; producer Erik Feig can be seen in the background as the Art Teacher; and additional 2nd assistant director Bill Hardy is the Music Teacher.
SET TO THE BEAT:
THE CHOREOGRAPHY OF STEP UP
With the cast assembled, Fletcher began to focus on two key components of STEP UP that go right to heart of the film’s experience: driving music and street-style dancing. To bring to life her choreographic vision of merging the grace of classical dance with the grit of urban moves as a foundation of the film’s original style, she collaborated closely with assistant choreographer Zach Woodlee and Jamal Sims and Rosero McCoy, the hip-hop choreographers, both of whom Fletcher’s worked with before on other film projects.
“It was a great process working with Anne to come up with a natural blend of dance styles,” says Jamal Sims. “We would do a move and then Anne would add a classical interpretation to it to create something truly unique.”
It was Sims who worked most closely with Channing Tatum, developing his innate abilities, which turned out to be pure joy. “The minute we started rehearsals, Channing was so positive and he wanted to do it all so badly,” says Sims. “It was amazing because Channing had never had a dance class in his life, and that's exactly where Tyler comes from, too. Sometimes being self-taught can be an advantage because since you don't have any training, you're just going for it. You're listening to the music and you just start doing what comes naturally. And Channing had that perfect instinctual approach."
But professional dance can’t all be instinct. Tatum had to learn to count beats and dance in sync with an ensemble – skills that can take years to learn but that he had to pick up on the fly, much as his character does. Says Sims, "I think ultimately his dance performance really comes across as very authentic. It doesn't feel choreographed or like somebody gave him those steps. We wanted it to feel like it’s all coming from within Tyler and Channing really was able to do that.”
Sims also enjoyed working with Jenna Dewan. "She was a dancer for Toni Braxton and we worked together for a while back then, so I knew her. She's amazing,” he says. “I would show her what I wanted and in five minutes it was done. And she's really beautiful, so that adds even more to her grace."
Dewan was thrilled to work with Sims but especially enjoyed her close relationship on set with Anne Fletcher. “Anne so much insight into a dancer’s needs and creativity and she had such a strong vision for each move in this movie,” says Dewan. “I felt completely confident with Anne because I knew in advance that dancing was going to look flawless.”
As the dance sequences came to life everyone was impressed by their natural immediacy and they way they were so strongly interwoven into the film’s drama. Says executive producer John Starke: “What’s amazing is that in the beginning there were just words on the page, and somehow Anne Fletcher and the choreographers created these great dances that deepened the story, the dancers learned them and the final result is something really exciting and fun.”
Every beat and every move in STEP UP builds up to the climactic performance at Nora’s “Senior Showcase,” in a number that retells the story of the film through music and dance. The scene is the culmination of all the steps seen throughout the film. Sums up producer Feig, "Throughout STEP UP, what you see are worlds colliding and in the end you have all the music and dance styles -- everything from classical to modern, jazz, and hip-hop -- coming together into one.”
THE SOUNDS OF STEP UP:
COMPILING AN ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK FROM TODAY’S HOTTEST URBAN ARTISTS
The dance and drama of STEP UP could only be set into motion by equally irresistible music -- which is why Anne Fletcher immediately brought in sought-after music supervisor Buck Damon, whose work on such films as “Garden State” and “Mean Girls” established his reputation for tapping into the sounds of the moment. Damon in turn rounded up a roster of today’s most exciting hip-hop producers including Kwame, Alias and Neff-U, who worked closely with the filmmaking team to develop original songs based upon the script, concepts and choreography before shooting even began.
Says Anne Fletcher, "Buck did such a great job that the music of STEP UP is truly one of the biggest stars of the movie." The album will be available on Jive Records.
Taking his inspiration from the script, Damon quickly envisioned a soundtrack that would match the film’s exuberant and authentic sense of youth style. "We wanted the music to be like another character in the film," says Damon. "So we created a lot of originals for the film – building a soundtrack that is street credible yet also has a real symphonic richness to it. Anne and I really wanted to create something that would stand the test of time, something where if you listen to the album ten years from now it might sound like 2006 but it’s still a hot soundtrack.”
Damon continues: “I started by going shopping – I looked through all the current hip-hop albums that I found interesting, put together a kind of Who’s Who listing of all the hottest urban music producers and then asked them each for demos. What came back was a treasure chest of riches – it was really cool and brought us to a lot of great artists.”
One of the first artists to come aboard was Wyclef Jean, the former Fugee’s lead rapper and among the hip-hop world’s most eclectic and innovative talents. “Once you’ve snagged one big fish, the competition starts to bring more in,” notes Damon.
Soon the likes of renowned Philly hip-hop producer Scott Storch, classically-trained hip-hop writer/producer Rich Harrison and New York-based DJ turned producer Mark Ronson were joining the mix. They in turn helped to bring in a host of artists who could relate strongly to the film’s themes and dance scenes including Ciara, Sean Paul, Keyshia Cole, Chris Brown, Petey Pablo, Mario, Samantha Jade, Gina Rene, Jamie Scott, Drew Sidora, Novel, Youngbloods, Anthony Hamilton and Yung Juc.
Four music videos from the soundtrack, some featuring the STEP UP cast, will include “Give It Up to Me” from Jamaican dancehall DJ Sean Paul with 21 year-old Oakland-based songstress Keyshia Cole; “Say Goodbye” from 16 year-old R&B prodigy Chris Brown; “For the Love” from Grammy nominee Mario and STEP UP cast member Drew Sidora; and “Get Up” from R&B superstar Ciara – a video that will also feature an unknown amateur talent to be chosen from audition tapes submitted to the filmmakers in a special on-line contest on myspace.com.
“This has been an incredible year and a half long process of finding the best producers, putting together original songs and recording some phenomenal artists – it’s been challenging but it’s also been incredibly fun and definitely worth it,” sums up Buck Damon. “Everything has come full circle back to our original vision of creating an inspired urban soundtrack.”
THE VISUAL DESIGN OF STEP UP
From the beginning, Anne Fletcher liked the fact that STEP UP is set in Baltimore, an industrial Northeastern city full of rawness and vitality – and definitely not a typical performing arts center like New York or Los Angeles. The visceral urban realism of Baltimore became a key factor in developing the film’s contemporary style. To further forge the look she envisioned for the film, Fletcher worked closely with a team that included director of photography Michael Seresin, production designer Shepherd Frankel and costume designer Alix Hester.
Fletcher went after Seresin because he had shot the dance-driven classic, “Fame,” and went on to such diverse films as “Angel Heart,” “Angela’s Ashes” and “Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban.” “I went to Michael because ‘Fame’ was so tremendously gorgeous and dimensional and yet real and touchable,” says Fletcher. “He has an exceptional eye. Some of his scenes in our film are so rich, I feel like you could eat them right off the screen.”
Seresin was equally drawn to working with Fletcher. “Choreographers traditionally make great directors because they have such a good sense of movement and Anne's brilliant that way,” he says. “This film is also really different from ‘Fame.’ It’s more a real story of redemption."
The cinematographer also had his own distinctive vision for the film. “I wanted the look to be very counter to what you usually think of as hip-hop style,” he notes. “I wanted the lighting to be very naturalistic, so you always feel like the scene is being illuminated by daylight or moonlight or streetlights. To me, hip-hop has a very hypnotic, authentic feeling that I wanted to capture.”
To keep a melodic fluidity to his work, Seresin often listened to the scene’s music while working. “The music is so important to the drama and it can also suggest camera moves,” he explains. “I often use visual beats on the beat. It’s pretty subtle stuff but it’s useful to create a strong atmosphere.”
Equally focused on forging the film’s atmosphere was production designer Shepherd Frankel, who was faced with the task of creating a fully fleshed-out performing arts high school. Frankel wound up using three Baltimore locations to get the look he was going after: the exterior is a historic local middle school, the school’s auditorium is located at a nearby college, while the centerpiece is the interior of the school, which was built from scratch at the City Pier in Fell's Point, where the TV series "Homicide: Life On The Streets" was filmed.
In building the school, Frankel had a lot of personal inspiration. "I went to the LaGuardia School of the Arts in New York City," he says, "so the first thing I did was bring in my yearbooks and Anne and I started talking about them. We really wanted to make the school feel real, to have a very comfortable and lived in feeling where there's constantly activity and things going on everywhere."
Frankel came up with designs that were authentic right down to the tiniest details, from the wooden locker boxes for musical instruments to display areas for student artwork. But it was a daunting challenge to create it all at City Pier. “At the time we started shooting, no one had set foot in there for years,” explains John Starke. “The paint was peeling and it had become an informal homeless shelter. It was pretty rough. And yet Shepherd really turned it into something great."
Among the sets Frankel created at City Pier were classrooms for costume design, digital art, music, a set shop and Director Gordon's office. He also built a fully functional recording studio and the piece de resistance: the dance studio, which he created so as to be visible from all the other sets, replete with majestic windows that saturate every scene with light.
Moving out into the city, some of Frankel’s favorite locations included the iconic Baltimore row houses seen during the early sequence at Omar’s Party; the Night Club scene, where Tyler and Nora meet, which Frankel notes was created to “be a total fantasy world”; and of course, the auditorium set for the final performance.
“Anne wanted the finale to be the story, more or less abstracted, of Tyler and Nora's entire journey together,” recalls Frankel. “So the arches in the set mimic the windows in the ballet studio and beyond that window is an urban graffiti wall which works to merge the two worlds in one space.”
A third element of the visual style came from costume designer Alix Hester, who worked with both Seresin and Frankel to come up with an original color palette. “We always wanted a lot of color, but nothing cartoonish, more muted colors like mustards and rusts,” she explains. “I incorporated many of the same colors Shepherd uses in his sets, so it all looks as one.”
Hester’s primary focus was putting the characters into cool, real-world clothing that also reflects who they are. “Anne wanted to create a very real dance world, so I felt the clothing had to be very eclectic, with lots of patterns going on. We didn't want it to be simple and basic. We wanted it to have tons of texture,” she says.
Hester really had fun with the wardrobe for Jenna Dewan’s character, Nora. “We wanted a really interesting and different look for Nora that isn’t quite what you would expect,” she says. "We used great designer pieces and vintage pieces, anything that was different from what normal dancewear would be, and then mixed it with real dancewear to create Nora’s own sense of style."
One of the designers Hester used extensively was LA-based Rachel Palley. "Rachel was a dancer, so several of Nora's skirts are this amazing drape-y jersey fabric that Rachel designed,” Hester notes. “We also used classic dance wear. Meanwhile, Nora’s street wardrobe includes fashion forward pieces but without falling victim to trends. We always wanted to keep the look timeless."
Fueled as it is by dance, STEP UP was also a great chance for Hester to put her focus on a fashion area not usually emphasized in film: shoes. "The great thing about doing a dance movie is that it shows a lot of feet, so I got to do a lot of great shoes, like boots and even bare feet with interesting socks," says Hester.
For the men's wardrobe, Hester concentrated on revealing the stark contrasts between Tyler's street world and the more rarified fashion world of the art school – but without succumbing to clichéd looks. "We really didn't want to get stuck in stereotypes or doing anything that would be cartoonish,” she notes. “Luckily, we found some hip-hop designers who are doing great new things and were able to use their work to really bridge the two worlds."
Music, dance, fashion and drama all come together to bring Tyler and Nora’s worlds into connection and for producer Adam Shankman it’s the perfect mix. “I think audiences can expect a rocking good time from this movie with an authentic location, great style, unbelievable music and some of the best dancing I’ve seen on film in a decade,” he sums up, “along with a really life-affirming message about finding your dream and living it.”