In the first of a series of profiles on up and coming directors, I chat to former dancer Abe Sylvia, whose feature film “Dirty Girl” is now out in US cinemas. I’m always amazed at the dedication first time filmmakers need to get their movie out into the world, and with “Dirty Girl” it took many years of hard work, a passionate team, and just a little luck.
ALICIA: How hard is it to get a movie made?
ABE: It’s hard. That’s the short answer. You want to make sure that you align yourself with the right people who see your movie in the same way, but things obviously fall apart a million times along the way. That first day of shooting is kind of like, I can’t believe we’re actually doing this.
ALICIA: Were there many times you thought it wasn’t going to happen?
ABE: Yeah, everyday. We were green lit a couple of times before it finally came together and that was over a few years and then we were casting this movie ostensibly for 2½ years. It got to a point where I stopped being hopeful about it. I was like I will just do it and I will work hard but I don’t believe it’s happening. I’ll have my day job and when it happens, call me. You kind of have to psychologically disassociate… it just becomes too painful.
ALICIA: You had a great reaction in Toronto last year.
ABE: Yes, absolutely.
ALICIA: Is it correct that within 20 minutes the deal with The Weinstein Company was pretty much done?
ABE: It was starting to go, yes. We had these people watching the movie through the end and outside in the food court at the mall, the deal was getting done and I had no idea because I was just watching the movie. It was the first time I saw the movie with an audience ever. Two days before I was finishing the print and we got on the plane and plugged it in and it was surreal like, two days before I was on the mix, so to suddenly then have 600 people in Toronto watching your film, industry people. It was surreal and slightly out of body.
I was a dancer for years and it took almost 10 years from the time I said I’m not doing this anymore, I’m going to be a filmmaker… and now Harvey (Weinstein) is putting my movie out. It’s really exciting.
ALICIA: Coming from the dancing world, I would think you be more inclined to act. What was it about directing that really got your attention?
ABE: I had been an actor, a singer and a dancer… all those things and what I realized quickly when I became a professional, was that once the show was up, it was less interesting. I realized when I became a professional what I loved was production. I didn’t actually love performing. My mind kind of started to wander as I was in these shows and I started writing on my own and those ideas slowly took on an importance that couldn’t be ignored. It was like, I think my script is actually good, I think what I’m doing is really good and I need to follow this and every chorus boy has a script and it was like I’m going to have to go learn my craft if I really want to do this. So I dropped out of life and went to school.
ALICIA: Wow, that’s great, so you could learn from the ground up what you need to do?
ABE: Yeah, and actually a lot of dancers become filmmakers. In fact, Rob Marshall and I had the same role in Cats, 15 years apart and he came to give this talk at UCLA when “Chicago” came out and I was in film school there. He told this story about the moment he knew like he was doing the wrong thing with his life. He was like, “I was in Cats.” And I was like, “I was in Cats too.” So he was doing this hand stand on the back of the car, I was like, “I did the hand stand.” And I wanted to shout “I totally get you!” … everyone’s been stuck in a moment. Not only was I stuck, I was in the same position… in the wig!
ALICIA: What particular films or directors inspired you when you were making this movie?
ABE: Well this particular movie is a mash up of a lot of things that I love and it’s definitely a movie that loves other movies. We’ve got our Richard Gere Officer and a Gentleman ending, and we have our road hitchhiker who breaks hearts. But my influences are really foreign films. Pedro Almodovar is my hero, his ability to put camp next to melodrama, next to something that is emotional and then fill it with music and dance and color. That’s what I want to do. I love what Baz Luhrmann does and the movies out of Australia in the 90s. And when I finally went to film school and saw Fellini’s movies, I was like, “Oh, that’s it.” Because I bring a theatrical sensibility to my filmmaking and a lot of, I think a lot of American films have lost that sense of theatricality. It’s like we don’t want our performance to feel like a performance and I’m like, “Why the hell not?”
ALICIA: And that’s exactly what Baz Luhrmann does really well.
ABE: I come from musicals where the whole idea is that you’re laughing your ass off and then somebody sings a ballad and you cry. It’s like what do you mean that doesn’t translate to film? It is American, it’s just American films they want things to be a little bit more homogenized.
ALICIA: I love the story about getting Christine Vachon on board as producer… Is it true you were reading her book at the time?
ABE: Yeah, when I was still a performer I was on the set of Bedazzled, the Brendan Fraser movie. I was a dancing extra with Elizabeth Hurley and my roommate, Craig Gartner who’s now my manager gave me… he knew I wanted to be a filmmaker but it’s sort of pie in the sky and he gave me Shooting to Kill, Christine’s book. I took it with me to set and I read it on set that day between takes. I came out of there knowing that I knew it was what I wanted to do, I just didn’t know and that book told me how and it really inspired me. Not only is it a goal worth having, it’s actually a realistic goal.
ALICIA: You must have been pinching yourself when you were actually working with her. It sounds like you put out to the universe and it all just happened to make it true.
ABE: Her work always resonated with me for a reason. So it’s probably not an accident that my work resonates with her, that she would be attracted to my stuff too. It’s pretty mind blowing.
ALICIA: To people reading this article who might want be filmmakers and look to you for inspiration, what would you say to them?
ABE: I would say don’t take no for an answer, because there’s always somebody else who could say yes. Learn your craft, know everybody’s job. You can’t just rely on your DP, you’ve got to know the ins and out of every job on that set, especially for an independent film. You can’t underestimate the value of an on set education, whether you get that at film school or whether you get that as a PA volunteering, you’ve got to know everybody’s job.
ALICIA: Work hard and it can happen.
ABE: Yeah, absolutely.