We visit the Battle of the Year set in Whittier, California to speak with the cast and crew
Director Benson Lee's 2008 documentary Planet B-Boy proved that the art form of breakdancing is still alive and well today, decades after the popular dance craze started in the 1980s. The filmmaker returns to put a narrative spin on B-boying in the upcoming drama Battle of the Year, arriving in theaters September 13. Back in December 2011, I was invited to spend a day at the Whittier, California set to speak with the cast and crew of this dance-fueled drama. In case you missed it, to watch the second trailer that debuted last week.
During most movie set visits I attend, we spend the day watching scenes being shot and interviewing actors, writers, directors, producers, or whoever else is available. Due to some unfortunate scheduling complications, we didn't get to see a lot of shooting, because they were filming a big reveal that they didn't want us to see yet. The scenes we did watch more than made up for it, though, with some of the craziest dance moves I've ever seen, but more on that later.
Much like Planet B-Boy, Battle of the Year centers on a real-life annual competition where B-Boy dance teams from around the world square off to determine which country is the best. Despite the fact that breakdancing was invented in America, no American team has won at the Battle of the Year in over 15 years. The story centers on hip hop mogul Dante (Laz Alonso), who recruits his friend and former basketball coach Blake (Josh Holloway) to coach the best dancers in the country, forming a Dream Team with the hope that they can bring the Battle of the Year trophy back to America. Although he doesn't know anything about breakdancing, Blake brings these volatile personalities together to form a cohesive unit, just three months before the competition.
The first person we got to chat with on the set, on location at the Fred C. Nelles Youth Corrections Facility in Whittier, California,was executive producer Glenn S. Gainor (Think Like a Man, Friends with Benefits), who explained what drew him to this project.
"Well, the first thing we did was we saw the documentary. What was amazing about that, was it truly represented one world of fans. That inspired us to put together a film that carries that message. The film shoots on two continents, the film shares many cultures. Just how we put it together, we have a German organization, which is Battle of the Year, sponsored by an Austrian organization. Battle of the Year takes place in the south of France, we have a deal with French authorities and government and organizers. We had about 75 people who flew in from all around the world, and everybody came together, almost as if it was an Olympic competition. We shot the Battle of the Year in Montpellier at the Park et Suites Arena, with about 12,000 people. It was absolutely sold out, and we helped put on the show, with 3D cameras capturing the live event, five 3D cameras."
He also spoke about finding real dancers from all across the country to star in this film.
"The B-Boys are B-Boys. We scoured the United States of America, interviewing and seeing people at freestyle competitions in Los Angeles. Benson Lee, the director, and Amy Lo, the producer, they both come from this world as well, so they were looking at people as well."
Amy Lo, the producer of both Battle of the Year and Planet B-Boy joined us on the set to speak about how the narrative feature was in the works right before the documentary got started.
"I still remember our very first meeting about the documentary, we were like, yeah, we definitely want to make a movie out of this too. For me, it's all about story and characters, and I also really loved the idea that it's global. This language is universal. You don't have to speak the same language to understand what dancing is about. I think that appealed to me in that the sense that, the concept of the documentary was going to these different countries and seeing these kids who just loved what they're doing so much, and were so dedicated to it, and they're from totally different parts of the world. To see what they had in common, and how they were diverse, that, to me, was the crux of the documentary. Then, Benson had grown up in the 80s in the suburbs, and he was always fascinated by dance back then, and he saw a video of a Battle of the Year and it struck him how international it was. He had come up with this idea for a documentary. I didn't know much about the dance or the culture before that, but, because I liked his ideas, we got started with the documentary, trying to raise money, and get the production together to shoot at the Battle of the Year in 2005. That's the initial way it all came together."
We also spoke with the man behind all these incredible movies, choreographer Dave Scott, who orchestrated the dance scenes for movies such as You Got Served, Stomp the Yard, Step Up 2 the Streets, and Step Up 3D. When asked if, due to the influx of dancing movies out there, he enjoys trying to come up with new ways to top his own work, the choreographer offered this response.
"That became my thing, a long time ago. I want to continue to do things that are different or revolutionary, that hadn't been done. I never wanted to go, 'OK, let's go do another film just like this one.' The reason I did Step Up 3D was it was the first big 3D film, aside from Captain EO. It was groundbreaking. In Step Up 2, I got to create a whole water scene, and I love Singin' in the Rain. You Got Served was the first time we had B-Boys and dancers in a crew together, to showcase those battles on film. And this is the first all B-Boy film with worldwide appeal, from countries all over the world. I like to do things that are different and revolutionary, and, at the same time, it puts a lot of pressure on me. If it bombs, I bomb."
Later on in the day, we were joined by director Benson Lee, who revealed that fans of his documentary Planet B-Boy, will recognize some of those same dancers in Battle of the Year. Here's what he had to say about the process of finding the best dancers who can also act.
"It's one thing to have a great dancer, but it's another thing to find a great dancer who can act. At the same time, I have spent enough time with these guys to know they're all charismatic. They're kind of like singers, who transition into acting, I felt confident that the b-boys could do the same, because when they dance and battle, they take on a certain persona. I felt they could be good actors, as long as they played themselves. Our approach was to convince Screen Gems to use real b-boys, because we couldn't just hire actors who could do this kind of dance, because it's very challenging. Screen Gems said, 'Yeah, let's give it a try.' So we held auditions in New York and L.A., and we met a lot of b-boys and interviewed them. We heard their stories and saw what their screen presence was. That's how we approached it, and Screen Gems fell in love with a lot of the guys we auditioned. That's how it kind of developed. We chose them because of their personalities, because we wanted them to play themselves. After the script was done, we spent a lot of time in rehearsals, so they had time to get comfortable playing themselves in front of the camera. Some of these guys had acted in other dance films, but they hadn't really trained. They didn't really have a lot of lines, and when I watched them, I noticed they were a little awkward at times, a little too over the top. We didn't want that. When they danced, they're like Oscar-award winning performers, in terms of their personas, but when they have lines, it's a little different. They completely over-exceeded our expectations as actors and they're really feeling their characters right now. I'm extremely proud of their performances so far, in terms of the emotional levels they were able to attain, as actors. It was great. We were able to pull it off."
He also spoke about whether or not this was always conceived as a 3D movie.
"No, it wasn't, but then it made sense. We're currently in the next generation of 3D, which is technically more proficient. It's less concerned about the gimmicks and more concerned about including the audience into the world you create for them. That's our approach with the 3D. We're totally blown away by the stereography. I personally think we're making the most beautiful movie ever made, not CGI, but live-action."
When asked what he wants the audience to take away from the film, Benson Lee said that he wants this art form and these dancers to get the recognition they deserve.
"That they just know what a b-boy is, because a lot of people don't. Another thing is they learn that this is a dance form and an art form and a sport. There is this whole sub-culture that exists. Chris Brown, who is not a B-boy, but trained with b-boys, he's very respectful of b-boy culture and has trained really hard. He's completely blown me away with his performance, not only as a dancer, but as an actor. Josh Holloway, who is one of the most generous actors I've ever met, his relationship with the b-boys are amazing. It's on par with Olympic athletes, as far as how much they do, and how much they train. They just don't get the same amount of respect or recognition."
Our final interview of the day was with star Josh Holloway, which is presented in full below.
Josh Holloway - Blake
Can you tell us about the scene you just shot and why your character had to get so angry?
Josh Holloway: It's the beginning of this sports/dance story. At the beginning he has to come in a bit hard because he has to gain their [trust]. They're not used to being coached. They're B-Boys. It's a dance that originated in the streets and they make their own rules so they're not used to taking any sort of direction. He's got to establish that alpha situation from the get. They're not listening and it's the first day of practice. They're not taking it seriously and I'm reminding them that if they don't take it serious they're on a bus.
Do you have any previous coaching or dancing experience?
Josh Holloway: Yes and no to those. I'm playing a coach in this. What I liked about it and what attracted me to is this film is to start with is that it is a coaching story. It's more of a sports story like Friday Night Lights. It was established right off in the first scene by my character when my friend comes and asks me to coach them. I tell them what a stupid idiot idea that is because I was never a dance coach. I was a basketball coach. So like that. I like that it's addressed right away. My friend is like, "I don't care. A coach is a coach-different venue, but same principal. I need your skills." So we agree on the fact that I have no idea what I'm doing as a dance coach which is cool. Later we bring on a choreographer to help out because in the story I did have previous dance experience. Me and the other character Dante (Laz Alonso) grew up together in foster care. They chose different paths. Dante became like P Diddy and I raised a family and became a basketball coach. Then I lost my family in a car wreck two years before so he's just a drunk. He doesn't want to live anymore. So this is kind of his friend needing his skills but also trying to bring him back to life so that's where it all begins. But me, I used to B-Boy back in the 80's. It's so different than what's happening now. Now it's more like Cirque Du Soleil. It's insane what these guys can do and do do. It was very impressive to see it's going to be shocking I think for people to see. It's such a different approach to it because most dance movies tend to be a little more poppy and about the romance. There's always a girl and a guy and she's always some ex ballerina-you now something like that. This is raw story which what I love because their lives are actually more raw. Generally speaking, B-Boy came from the streets and kids who don't have a lot. They found their way to express through dance on the streets so it's more of a raw story connected to that.
Were you aware that there was a B-Boy culture since the years you stopped doing it?
Josh Holloway: I knew that people still danced, but I had no idea that there was a competition or many competitions actually in different countries and all over the world. Then of course the big competition is The Battle of the Year. There were 22 different countries there this year. There is phenomenal dancing going on and you really get the flavor of country. They have to do a choreographed routine and then the top four get to battle which is a different thing. They face each other and they battle off then the top two go for the final. They bring what they're about and that was beautiful to see. I enjoyed those 14,000 screaming fans. I was like 'This is big!' What a following. It was an eye-opener for me and very inspiring because I have a secret dancer in there that wants to come out. I've gotten older and famous and [now there are] iPhones. What I'm going to bust a move in a club? No!
Why did you stop dancing?
Josh Holloway: I've always loved dancing and going out dancing but I stopped mainly once I became in the public eye. I felt self-conscious and for good reason. That shit will be on the Internet. [Laughs] I'm like well unless I'm a pro which I'm not I should hang off the dance floor.
So your character doesn't dance at all in the movie?
Josh Holloway: As of now no. We've talked about it maybe, but they're at such a level that I feel personally that it would take away from the coaching story. It would almost invalidate him to dance unless he could dance on that level. They certainly didn't give me any time or training.
So no flashbacks or anything?
Josh Holloway: That would be cool if they did it right but I don't think they're going to take the time to do that. They established it so strongly that I was pissed off that he was asking me to coach dance and I don't know what I'm doing so as long as that was established in the very beginning I'm OK. And it's valid because I can only take them so far and then we hire a choreographer who can give us a shot at this so it makes sense. Would I like to dance? Sure, but not on this level. If I could I would.
What about when the cameras weren't rolling? Did you do any dancing?
Josh Holloway: Sure, of course. I'm learning little tidbits here and there. I have to keep reminding myself - check yourself don't wreck yourself! [Laughs] I'm over 40 now and I'm still very athletic, but like I said what they're doing now is very Cirque Du Soleil. They really do flips and spins, air flares and things you just want to do. I'm like, I can do that. Oh wait that's a compound fracture for me.
Is a lot of the dancing still the same from your 80's days?
Josh Holloway: Sure, aspects are the same. It's still expression. It's street dancing with expression but it's more free flow. The basis has not changed. It's just more insane now and they're expressing a lot. They don't do a lot of what they call poppin and the moon walk and all that. They don't do that anymore. They do it sometimes, but they say that's a separate thing. I'm learning myself what the difference is.
Did you have a chance to develop a rapport with the guys like your character has to in the film before you started shooting?
Josh Holloway: No. Welcome to movie making. I did my best. I came to their rehearsals in the beginning when I wasn't scheduled to be there. I just tried to make a connection somewhat because also the way movies are shot and the time constraints with the actual Battle of the Year which is where we filmed at, we had to shoot the script backwards, which means the whole resolve I had to do right away like as if we had already become a family. So we do the best we can and they guys have been great. We tried to connect on every level we could and we did. They were tiny moments, but they were big. What was really big I think was me going to their rehearsals because they were like 'Who is this guy going to coach us?' You know I'm some white boy from Georgia. It's like who is this cracker? Not really, but you know it's that kind of thing. The rehearsal gave them confidence and gave me confidence. I gave some speeches and they took me seriously.
The producer said earlier that you have the persona of the authoritative character so is the coaching role something you've wanted to tackle? Is it an iconic role for you?
Josh Holloway: Yes, but I didn't realize it was a coaching role. I just have been ready to lead a film and carry a show. I've been ready on that level for awhile. So any shot at that in a leader position was what I was ready for. And coaching-well I'm very interested now because I have a little girl and I can't wait to coach soccer and basketball, but that's awhile. She young. But that it there and all my friends have children and they're coaching here and there so it's come into my life now. It's something I'm very familiar with since I've played sports all my life. I played basketball for 10 years and soccer for 10 years so I've had a lot of experiences with coaches and hard ass coaches too which is great. I'm pulling from my experience there. Also I'm staying within the integrity of the character and that also what makes him a bit of a hard ass because every breath he takes right now is painful. He doesn't want to be alive. He lost his family he's just been a drunk in hole not living anymore so coming back alive is painful. He's not clean yet-he's still hitting the bottle, but slowly as the movie goes on they bring him back to life. He's teaching them about changing the way they think, changing their life. It's affecting him so he gives up his drinking and he comes back to life and gets rid of that, but it's a process. This is early on in the process so he's a bit salty.
Can you talk about transiting from a TV show like Lost that was an ensemble cast to being the lead in a feature?
Josh Holloway: It's difficult. I'm used to having to do very difficult scenes-a lot of dialogue. Lost really trained me in many different ways. My God I did everything on that show so I'm unafraid so I was clearly ready with that. I'm enjoying it because I realize I'm actually trained which is always a shocker for an actor. It's like oh shit do I know what I'm doing? So to get back into something with this much weight has opened has opened my eyes. I know what I'm doing. At least I'm scratching the surface of what I want to grow to so that's great for me. It's a confidence builder and also validation that I'm ready to do this. Let's hope. Everyone seems happy but I haven't seen anything yet. I love it. It's a lot more work because you're in every other scene and because it's a condensed shooting schedule so it's constant. I basically work all day, go home and study, go to bed, get up work all day, study. I don't have time for anything except to be immersed in this.
When you say study what do you mean?
Josh Holloway: Well prepare for the next day. Also with a condensed shooting schedule things change at such a pace so you have to stay agile especially being the lead. Scenes are changing, lines are changing days are changing. You can't go on what you thought the order of preparation was. It's not. It gets changed everyday so that's just it. I've had to remain very agile so that's good training too. It's so far so good.
Do you see yourself doing more films now that Lost is over or do you see yourself going back to a TV series?
Josh Holloway: I'm open. For me, it's really about the material. I am focusing more on movies but I'm still open if some great material came through a TV I don't have any judgments towards that. It's really can I perform that and be fulfilled by that and give something to that and get something from that then I'm in. so we'll see. It's hard to say. It's a tricky business.
What do you hope people take away from this movie?
Josh Holloway: I hope they're inspired to go dance in their own way. We all have this dancer in us. We're rhythmic beings. It's in us all so I hope people are inspired even if they don't go out to a club to just dance in their living room. Living room dancing is a blast. Also to take away these life stories of these B-Boys and understand that dance is an expression. It's something we all have and we can do it on any level. You can express yourself through dance. Anyone can so I hope people take that away.
After that final interview, we were lead out into a large gymnasium to watch some of the filming. As Josh Holloway said, this scene is towards the beginning of the film, with this team just starting to come together. The 12-man group is split into two teams of six, who square off and battle each other. There are some truly insane moves put on display here, including one dancer who literally spins on his head for over a minute. Between takes, they all must break down the order, who steps out to dance when, and it seems like a lot to keep straight. The actors/dancers are not only incredibly talented, but in just the short time I watched them before, during, and after takes, I could tell how passionate they are about their craft, which completely shows in their work.
That about wraps it up from my day on the Battle of the Year set, which debuts in theaters nationwide September 13. to watch the trailer and see some of these sick dance sequences for yourself.