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“…About That Pivotal Time in a Young Person’s Life When Libido and Ambition Get All Mixed Up”: Director Sarah Adina Smith on her Amazon Dance Drama, Birds of Paradise

The complexities, uncertainties and rivalries of young female friendship are explored in heightened, near-surreal ways in Sarah Adina Smith’s ballet-school drama, Birds of Paradise, now playing on Amazon Prime. Working-class Kate (Diana Silvers) is the awkward newcomer at a somewhat gothic Parisian dance academy, and she’s immediately thrust into competition with Marine (Kristine Froseth), the talented, beautiful and mercurial daughter of the American French ambassador. The two women, placed together as roommates, quickly bond, however, following a competitive dance-off in a psychedelic dance club, a night-long endurance test that Smith cleverly constructs along the lines of the classic game-theory test, the Prisoner’s Dilemma. But with a third-act competition sending one of the women to the Paris Opera, their friendship — challenged also by romantic rivalries, backstory reveals and, in one astute subplot that resonates strongly with recent college admissions scandals, class division — can only endure so much. Smith and her collaborators, who include DP Shaheen Seth and choreographer Celia Rawlson-Hall, brings an unpredictably dark sensibility to the story, flirting with a kind of dreamy fantasy/horror approach while keeping the characters grounded in emotional reality. (In terms of the latter she’s aided by the pure charisma and strong performances of her two leads, Froseth and Silvers.)

Birds of Paradise is Smith’s third feature, following the 2014 mystery The Midnight Swim and 2017’s conspiracy-tinged psychological drama, Buster’s Mal Heart. Both of these films were purely independent productions, and, produced by Amazon Studios, Birds of Paradise is her first studio picture (although she’s been directing television, including episodes of Amazon Prime Video’s Hanna). In our conversation below, conducted over email, Smith discusses making that step into studio production; being strategic in how she covered the dance sequences; and the importance of retaining her independent film collaborators.

Filmmaker: First, tell me how you became involved with the project and, specifically, about the process of adapting the book. What drew you to the book, and what did you want to change for the film? And did you consult or work much with the original author, A.K. Small?

Smith: My agents Hannah Davis and Roger Green at WME flagged this for me as a possible directing gig. Dara Gordon and Trevor Adley at Anonymous Content had the rights to the book and had Kristine Froseth and Diana Silvers attached. I had directed Kristine in Looking for Alaska and had loved helping her harness her power, so even though I’ve never been into ballet nor did I think I would want to make a YA film, my interest was piqued. The book was a delicious, pulpy read. I gave it to Jonako Donley, my partner at Everything is Everything and she agreed. Truthfully, we had been struggling for a while to get a different feature financed that was very adult arthouse. So I think part of our reasoning was like… welp… here’s a totally commercial, pulpy little melodrama that we know we can get funding for. So why not sell the pitch and then adapt the book in a way that makes it our own? While writing the adaptation, I didn’t consult with A.K. Small much because she was incredibly gracious about just letting me run with it. I did stray pretty far from the original, but I loved how the book was about that pivotal time in a young person’s life when libido and ambition get all mixed up. Where who you want to be gets confused with who you want to be with. Plus, I thought it would be an interesting exercise to write a script specifically for two relatively unknown actors and try to break them as movie stars while at the same time contemplating the notion of stardom on a deeper level. I wanted to ask myself whether it’s possible to achieve greatness at the highest level without compromising one’s soul. In short, can one be Great and still be Good? And once you fall– because all stars eventually do– is redemption still possible?

There’s a story that Kate tells Marine in the movie that was the jumping off point for my adaptation. It’s a story I was told around the campfire when I was little about how the stars were formed. In that story, it took one rebellious beating heart to challenge the gods and reach them at their level. To make the impossible possible by sheer force of will. I wanted to make a film that was a trial of two souls, each one reaching for that elusive thing beyond human grasp. One reaching above, toward the heavens and one reaching below, toward her grief. I’m always searching for peace in my heart but I’m also always reaching for some kind of higher communion with the cosmos. I suspect that paradox – the dance between ambition and acceptance is the human condition — is probably what all of my films are about.

Filmmaker: Tell me about the process of casting and, specifically, the importance of a dance and movement background in the process. Was a facility in movement something you tested for, or did you trust that you’d be able to work with your actors and your choreographer to get the actors to the place that you needed them to be?

Smith: Anonymous Content had already suggested Kristine and Diana. I already knew Kristine would be great because of having worked with her previously. But also because there was one time in rehearsal for Looking for Alaska where Charlie Plummer was playing music and Kristine closed her eyes and began to dance and I was like… this girl feels music in her bones. So I had a hunch dance would come pretty naturally for her. I had seen Diana in Book Smart and thought she was completely magnetic so I met with her to find out if she could do an extremely challenging role like this. As it turns out, Diana used to be a very serious tennis player so she was no stranger to training and pain and hard work. Diana has such an amazing fire in her belly too, which made me realize that she’d be perfect to play Kate.

Both Diana and Kristine had to dive right into rigorous ballet training. Anyone who knows ballet knows that there’s just no possible way to become a ballerina in three months. But both of them managed to get pretty damn close! For the most difficult sequences we used dance doubles and a 2.5D face replacement technique that was pioneered by Lola VFX for David Fincher’s The Social Network.

Filmmaker: Speaking of choreography, you worked with Celia Rowlson-Hall, who is a director in her own right. Tell me about your collaboration and how you played with not only classical ballet but also modern styles and experimental interpretations. Did you have a concept of how the dance pieces would progress and build throughout the film?

Smith: My choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall is an absolute visionary and I adore her. She and I hit it off right away because I think we both probably work from like a visceral channeling process. Originally, the film was supposed to be much more psychedelic, and there was a really insane climactic dance sequence at the end. I basically told Celia we needed to open up a wormhole together by the end, formed by love and loss. Sadly, we didn’t get to shoot that sequence as we were shut down due to COVID before we had the chance. In order to safely finish the movie, I had to completely rewrite the ending. I’m very proud of how the movie turned out, especially in a pandemic. But of course I do wish the world could see the absolutely brilliant final dance number Celia created. I think it just means she and I will have to work together again one day!

Filmmaker: One narrative element I found fascinating was the backstory involving Kristine’s family and their role in the academy, a storyline that’s certainly resonant given recent scandals around college admissions. Was this an element from the book and, regardless, could you speak about how you conceived of the school as not just a site of sometimes punishing education but also a symbol of how power and influence work in society?

Smith: To be totally honest, I can’t remember if any of that was part of the book. I assume it was seeded in there somewhere but it was certainly a storyline I wanted to lean into! I tend to be drawn to stories about economic injustice. In Buster’s Mal Heart there’s this recurring theme that the capitalist system is rigged against the protagonist… that he can’t get any traction. In this film, I was interested to explore an underdog/outsider character who is so frustrated with someone else’s privilege that she becomes blind to her own entitlement. Kate’s crafted this narrative in her head that she’d be #1 if only the playing field were even. And while it’s true that the levers of power and money have tilted the playing field in Marine’s favor, it’s also true that no one is entitled to the prize. True greatness has to be earned, no matter where you come from.

Filmmaker: And what inspired the rave-type club the girls go to near the beginning of the movie and, particularly, the endurance game that they play, which builds to a Prisoner’s Dilemma type conclusion?

Smith: As an outsider looking in, it appeared to me that traditional ballet has a rigid gender binary. Male dancers leap and dominate the stage and these delicate ballerinas on twinkle toes dance all around them. I wanted to contrast the rigidity of that binary and the strict control required of the artform with an experience that felt like total freedom, the invitation of chaos, and a return to nature. It’s that experience that opens Kate up to her own complicated desires.

The idea for the dance game they play was my nod to the “dance off” moment that happens in so many dance films. I was hoping to find a new twist on that moment, and this one was definitely inspired by the Prisoner’s Dilemma. Trust often requires a leap of faith, you have to be willing to put everything on the line. I wanted the bond between Kate and Marine to be foraged through a dance-to-the-death type of sequence. But also it’s actually kind of funny how seriously they’re taking themselves in that moment when in reality they’re just super sweaty and exhausted.

Filmmaker: What sort of conversations did you have with your cinematographer, Shaheen Seth, about the way you’d shoot the dance, and how were these conversations shaped by the material conditions — schedule, budget, etc. — you had to shoot the film? What films involving dance did you look at in your research phase, and what inspired you?

Smith: I remember Shaheen and I watched Pina early on in the process, which was really inspiring. But we also watched a lot of sports movies and fight sequences as I was interesting in treating ballet like battle.

We and I had to be incredibly strategic in how we covered the dance sequences because there was a limit to what our actors were able to do themselves practically as well as a very strict limit to the VFX budget. So we had to ration the number of VFX shots and really try to make them count. The Prisoner’s Dilemma dance was actually the very last thing we shot for the movie and for that we used a motion control rig, which was such a blast as we got to pre-program the sequence very carefully with the choreography ahead of time. There was a beautiful happy accident on the day where the body glitter kept falling off with each take on to the otherwise pristine blackspace we had created. It was so lovely I told the crew not to sweep it off. It kept building up with each take until the whole floor was covered in this iridescent rainbow that felt like a floating cosmic cloud.

Filmmaker: Working with your editor, David Barker, what sorts of challenges presented themselves in post, and what were the ways you solved them?

Smith: The biggest challenge was we had too much story. I’m kind of a maximalist when it comes to my scripts. I’m bothered by many movies these days that leave me feeling half-full. I always want my films to deliver enough story to fill the belly, with leftovers to take home.

David Barker is a wonderful creative bouncing board and edits with a writer’s brain, so we did a lot of great problem solving together. His brain was a good balance for mine. He kept reminding me that a scene can really only be about one-to=two things max. Maybe three. But not very often.

There was actually a very moving storyline about Kate’s backstory which Diana performed so incredibly. It was hard to have to cut it out of the movie but it had to be done in service of making the Kate and Marine relationship central. It had been a dream of mine to work with Vincent D’Onofrio and he very graciously came on board and played Kate’s dad in two fantastic and very powerful scenes. His performance was a knock-out, which was no surprise. But it only made it harder to let the scenes go. In post, your movie tells you what it wants to be and you have to listen and be willing to make those tough calls. I do hope one day Amazon will release them as “bonus” materials as they’re very moving.

Filmmaker: You shot Hungary for Paris — what sorts of decisions did you make about location realism in order to accomplish this? It seems that rather than pure verisimilitude you’ve embraced a kind of darkly stylized vision of what this Parisian school and its surrounding landscape would be.

Smith: We knew there was just no way we were going to be able to fake Paris. So we embraced the very best of what Budapest had to offer. I spent a lot of time in Budapest shooting Hanna so I felt like I had a leg up when it came to locations. Pioneer Stillking Films was our local production services company and they brought on the very best location manager I’ve worked with– Arisztotelesz (“Aris”) Stergiu. Among other things, he had the really hard task of finding us the perfect school. My production designer Nora Takacs Ekberg and I were adamant in our search and luckily Aris kept pushing until we found the right place so we didn’t have to compromise our vision. Nora absolutely transformed the place. I wish I could publish before and after pictures so the world can appreciate her genius!

Filmmaker: Finally, Birds of Paradise is a larger-budgeted film than your previous, Buster’s Mal Heart, and it has a specific YA audience in mind. And it’s an Amazon production. Could you discuss for your readers any advice you might have on “scaling up,” so to speak, from independent productions to larger films, as you’ve done — or seem to have done! — here?

Smith: I had worked with studios and streamers for TV before but this was my first studio film. It was so important to me to bring my teammates from indie film up with me, and that’s my most important piece of advice. Find your collaborators and allies early and do your damndest to be loyal to them and help them make the leap along with you. It’s not always possible and sometimes you do have to mix up who you work with to help your own skills improve. But my core collaborators– Shaheen Seth, Jonako Donley, and Ellen Reid haven’t changed in nearly 20 years.

I didn’t make any money on my first two films (much to the contrary– I hemorrhaged money). I’ve been struggling to find the sweet spot between making the films I want to make and having a career I can support my family with. The hope with this film is that it would be a marriage of art and commerce. But, of course, I can’t help but wonder if I’ve compromised myself along the way. That’s partly why I decided to make that very question the major theme of the film. Will I ever be able to achieve my goals without some level of compromise? Would I have been more able to do so had I come from a more connected family? It’s so important not to get a chip on your shoulder about these things. To stay humble and curious. I think telling Kate’s story in Birds of Paradise was a way for me to begin to exorcize some of my own inner demons.

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