• Marilyn Hotchkiss’ Ballroom Dancing & Charm School (2005) - Randall Miller

    First created by Randall Miller (CBGB, BOTTLE SHOCK, NOBEL SON) in 1990 as a short film, then developed into a feature, MARILYN HOTCHKISS’ BALLROOM DANCING & CHARM SCHOOL first screened at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. The cast includes Robert Carlyle, Camryn Manheim, Marisa Tomei, Mary Steenburgen, Donnie Wahlberg, John Goodman and Sean Astin.


    Geoffrey Gilmore, Director of the Sundance Film Festival, wrote,


    “There is a purity of spirit and heart in MARILYN HOTCHKISS’ BALLROOM DANCING & CHARM SCHOOL that hearkens back to a simpler, more straightforward place, a place that draws from emotional memories of growing up, with its scars and lost dreams. That’s a place where film doesn’t often venture during these cynical times, but that’s a shame because it is a locale where we sometimes experience our deepest feelings when a film evokes it well. Without question, Marilyn Hotchkiss reaches out and touches you deeply … The film is directed with passion and an unerring delicate touch by veteran Randall Miller.” (Geoffrey Gilmore, shorelineentertainment.com)

     In his review, Roger Ebert wrote,


    “When he was 8 years old, Steve promised Lisa that they would meet again on the fifth day of the fifth month of the fifth year of the new millennium … Now Steve is 48, it is May 5, 2005, and he’s piloting his station wagon down a lonely highway to make that rendezvous … The adults at the Hotchkiss reunion are played by an assortment of splendid actors … Marisa Tomei is adorable as the big-hearted Meredith … All I can say about Lisa is, when we finally meet her, she’s smoking. As a far better critic than I once wrote, there wasn’t a wet eye in the house.” (Roger Ebert, April 6, 2006)


    In his vision statement for the film, director Randall Miller writes,


    “When we conceived the story for the feature MARILYN HOTCHKISS BALLROOM DANCING & CHARM SCHOOL we knew it could not be told in a straightforward linear structure.  A story of great loss, past wonders and new beginnings, we knew that to tell it successfully it would have to jump back and forth in time.  Essentially there are three stories at play within the great narrative of this movie and to write it chronologically would be to segregate and confine the emotional arc of the characters which could only be honestly conveyed by interweaving the narrative threads and thereby demonstrating their effect on the journey of the main character.  That said, the interweaving of the stories changed from the script to the movie.  Often in storytelling I find that what serves the read does not ultimately serve the movie itself.


    I chose to film in 35 anamorphic. This wide screen format can help achieve intimacy as well as isolation.  Intimacy in that the screen consumes your entire field of vision thereby drawing you, the audience, into the world and mind of the characters.  Compositionally however the wide screen format dictates that a significant amount of negative space will surround the individual character on screen to the right and left, heightening the feeling of isolation.  This was an important visual choice in portraying Robert Carlyle’s character who is in many ways an outsider to his own life.


    I had this technical notion that the use of dissolves in the cutting room would dilute the storytelling.  I never, for instance, used dissolves when cutting back and forth in time.


    What I did, instead of relying on dissolves, is radically change the look of the movie in the three storylines.  When we first travel down the road with Frank Keane (Robert Carlyle), I used a film process called Bleach Bypass.  This is achieved through a combination of film stock and processing.  Essentially, the film is processed twice.  As a result, more silver adheres to the film and the resulting look is much punchier blacks and a higher contrast. The ballroom segment of the film is lit richly and is intended to underscore a deepening of emotion.  Finally, the memory part of the film is warm with antique colors, sepia hues and a graininess that gives a feeling of nostalgia and history.  The three looks are very distinct from each other.  Even without a dissolve to guide you, you know when you have left one part of the movie and landed in another.


    We were helped out tremendously in creating the three different looks of the movie by the Digital Intermediate Process and the work of an expert colorist, Julius Friede.    The D.I. process allowed us to conform the 16 mm footage of the memory sequences to 35 anamorphic with a success we had never imagined possible.


    Shooting the ballroom sequences was a challenge because of the limited time.  The actors knew their choreography well.  And Greg Smith, my incredibly talented steadicam operator, devised a method of dancing along with the actors to keep the motion fluid.  JoAnn Jansen, the choreographer, joked that we shot our whole movie in the time it took to shoot one dance sequence in SHALL WE DANCE.  The task was daunting in that several of the dance sequences had to feel masterful and real—Marienne Hotchkiss (Mary Steenburgen) has been teaching these dances her whole adult life and for Randall Ipswitch (Donnie Wahlberg) the dances are like a religion.


    I was blessed in this movie to work with so many truly great actors.  Great actors feed off of each other.  When they respect the work, they dig deeply into the souls of their characters and that is when really exciting things happen.  I am eager to work with every one of the actors in MARILYN HOTCHISS again.  They are the heart and soul of this movie.


    I edited the movie myself.  I believe that editing is an extension of directing and although I solicited the editorial opinions of many colleagues, finding the movie on my own in the editing room was very important to me.  I edited day and night on Final Cut Pro to get the cut done but I set up the editing room at home so I could be near my family.  My four-year-old has been known to show up to the playground and proclaim (a la Steenburgen), “Girls to the pink line.  Boys to the blue.”  Of course no one knows what he’s talking about except for his two-year-old sister.


    It was on those dark nights in June July and August at three or four in the morning that I came to realize what special performances I had.  Every one of Robert Carlyle’s takes was new and inventive.  Marisa and Mary and John and Donnie were equally exciting.  It was hard to tear myself away even to get some sleep because I knew what I was working with was something very special and I was enthralled with the process of bringing it to life.  And so it goes without saying that making this movie was a very personal and all- consuming process and I would do it again in a heartbeat.”


    NOTE: Randall Miller is a member of the Rikaroo Advisory Board

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    Categories: Drama