How many Step Up movies can our fragile Earth sustain? This summer brings us the fifth installment, Step Up All In, with all the trappings you have come to expect from the dance world’s version of Fast and Furious: dance battles, rival crews, a big competition with a prize that is conveniently the exact thing all the characters need in their lives at this particular moment. What’s the secret behind the success of the series?
To find out, I called up Adam Shankman, who has been a producer on every Step Up film. You could know him from approximately a billion places: Shankman is a judge and choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance. He’s produced the only Zac Efron vehicles that are totally worth watching (17 Again, plus Hairspray and “Zac Efron’s Pool Party,” which he also directed). He choreographed Boogie Nights, the most memorable scene in She’s All That, and “Once More, With Feeling,” one of the best Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes of all time.
Shankman talked about all things Step Up, including what the movies have grown to include (3D technology, a flexible relationship with reality) what they still lack (non-white leads, LGBT love stories), and what he envisions for the future of the franchise.
What’s your Step Up origin story? Where did this all start for you?
When God made dancing.
So: In the beginning.
To go back to how it all germinated. I was approached by Erik Feig, president of Lionsgate, which was Summit then, and he and I talked about an idea. He really wanted to make a dance movie. I was doing other projects, and he has said who would be a great director for something like this, and I said Anne Fletcher. They gave me a script, and we just developed it with Melissa Rosenberg, who went on to write the Twilight movies… There’s part of me that thinks it came out of Erol not only being a huge fan of dancing but just a pure fan of movies. The first one was a drama set in that school with dancing in it. It was more along the lines of Fame, really, not that I would ever compare myself to that incredible movie. Something set in the world of a performing arts school. Obviously there was a lot of dancing in it, and Anne was perfect for it. And it was very popular, surprisingly so. And so it was because of the price point—the budget, frankly, and the return.
There was a moment when they said, “Let’s make another one but have it go straight to video,” along the lines of the Bring It On franchise. And we brought on Jon Chu [to direct], and his presentation was so impressive, and we decided, oh my God, let’s not go straight to video. And then it sort of kind of kept rolling. It was as simple as a lot of people talking about dance.
It feels to me like the first movie is the only one that’s a really traditional “dance movie.” It almost doesn’t connect with the rest of the franchise.
The first movie, to me, is a bit of a standalone. I’ll tell you what has driven this a lot. The actual filmmakers. The directors. Because when we find somebody who we really love, they come with all of their ideas about it. For example, with Step Up 5, with this last one, I said, there’s always been a real correlation between how much the audience loves characters. The fans actually are interested in what is going on with these characters after each movie, which is rare for a dance movie. So we have to write about what their lives are like now, now that they’re adult professional dancers. That’s what I thought was important, to address this. Because coming up for ideas, it’s complicated at the very least. The sort of stuff to justify everyone’s behavior and actions and all that. So then when Jon Chu came in, he was OBSESSED with all the battling, and he thought that that would go well.
The dances in the first movie look almost, not quaint exactly, but simpler and more realistic than the dances in the later movies. Have you had to change the nature of the dances because audiences are so much more dance-literate now?
I believe that people’s exposure to dance on television and online—it’s surreal how much there is: crews battling, classical dances, everything—[made] the global culture infinitely more dance literate… So You Think You Can Dance is broadcast all over the world… So yes, in point of fact, the world, not just America, has become infinitely more dance-literate. And it’s just become a part of global consciousness now…and the people who don’t actively seek it don’t reject it anymore because it is so everywhere. So it’s not like we’re just watching the World Cup and what do you mean, people dance somewhere? Dancing is EVERYWHERE now: professional, competitive, dancing as sport. It is just everywhere. Before Dancing with the Stars and SYTYCD and Step Up, dancing was kind of marginalized for many, many years. After the golden age of the musical. And it just isn’t anymore.
The new movies also abide by what I’ll just call “Musical Rules.” Like, if there is a dance sequence in a restaurant, everyone at the restaurant, even the waiters and random patrons, know the choreography. Are you concerned about crossing over into that territory and losing whatever realism the Step Up movies want to have?
We are not concerned about that. My background is musicals, and musical theater is where I’m from. So I feel very comfortable acknowledging the rules and deciding when and where to throw away things. I remember, for example, when I choreographed She’s All That, the big famous dance scene in it, the prom scene. And Rob Iscove, who directed that movie, was also a big musical theater person, and he wanted it to be a production number. And of course it was one of those, there was no budget, I had to make it up and teach it in the same day. Even by any standard, it was like, white-knuckling. And we shot it, and it was what it was, and then there was sort of a panic at Paramount because when they tested it, audiences didn’t understand why everybody at the school knew the dance.
So they went back and did reshoots, and shot Usher, the DJ in the scene, they threw some very flimsy piece of dialogue: “Hey dance club! Get out there and do those steps I taught you.” And so it added a piece of information that seemed to assuage that discomfort in the audience. But nobody remembers that when they look back at that movie. And that number, for better or worse, has really stuck out for a lot of people. It’s a pretty classic scene for that period. By the way, so classic, it’s gone on to be spoofed and mocked a lot in a very loving way. That panic would no longer exist now. Because when we made she’s all that, that kind of production number was not the norm. it just didn’t exist in movies. I don’t think it would feel out of place, today.
The other Musical Rule trope that’s so prevalent here, especially in this new installment, is that there’s no violence. All the arguments escalate into dance battles. And I remember in the first movie, there are real gangs and a little kid actually gets shot and killed. Whereas now it’s like, they’re in a bar and the guys are all saying, “Come on, don’t start anything,” and it turns out the “anything” they were going to start is… a dance off.
I’m telling you, that is totally filmmaker driven. When Anne was making the first one, I remember kind of the last piece of plot to be added to the script was the character Skinny, the young kid, getting killed. And she felt like Channing [Tatum]’s character would never be impacted in any meaningful way that made sense unless something truly shocking and egregious happened. And we all agreed.
And then Jon, who is obsessed with all of the way that these crews have dance battles, that became what he really wanted to show. But we anchored it with: we stayed in the school. That still had some pretty good dramatic undertones. The third one went into what I would consider pure fantasy. But the third one was really driven by utilizing 3D technology, which was very unusual in a low budget film and never had been done in a dance film. Honestly, it was very constructed by Jon’s sense of fantasy and wanting to explore that 3D technology. And by the time Step Up 4 came around, Scott [Speer, the director] really wanted to—we all decided that we wanted to get away from the sort of crew-battling-crew thing, and what was happening a lot out there, online, and they were making TV shows about it, were flash mobs. So it was a culturally zeitgeist-y thing. It became that kind of idea. And then this last one, Trish [Sie] really wanted to lean into the comedy and try to be self-aware without being overly, like it would be bad if we were making fun of ourselves. But it’s number five, so trying to maintain all of the Sturm und Drang [laughs]… She really wanted to lean into the joy and the humor. But of course, the audiences still want to see the romance, you need stakes. So we have to make sure that there was, and out there acknowledging that it’s hardly a complicated plot, but these are not driven by complications. These are driven by simple frameworks that create acceptable reasons why these characters are in these situations and have goals.
Given that, as you’re saying, these are almost color by numbers at this point—the plots don’t change a whole lot from movie to movie—how many more of these do you think you can make and still be excited to make? Could Step Up just go on until infinity?
You know, personally, this is just the truth, I looked at everybody and said, I now make jokes about it, “Step Up 6 should be 666 and it should be God and the Devil battling for the world’s soul by dancing.” And then it’s like, where are we going to go now? Space? Atlantis? Water ballet? Where are we going to go with these?
But the truth of the matter is, it seems like, I happen to know that they’re starting to roll out the movie overseas, and our numbers are shockingly good. It had to be a combination of returning and new fans, because our core audience that started with us, I think many of them now have kids. They’re parents, now! This has been going on for now, eight years. Or of they’re not having kids, at least their concerns are different. 15 year olds are 23 now, they’re getting into the workforce, I doubt they have the same level of prioritization… But we have a rabid core fanbase. And our core fan base is absolutely in love with these movies and with these characters. That’s the other thing that really drove the making of this next movie.
CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
It’s been five films now, all of which have a male and female lead. Why have all those leads been white? Has there ever been a conversation about ethnic diversity in those roles?
I would actually say, to be perfectly honest, I believe that that was driven – that IS driven – by our foreign distributors, I want to be very careful about this, because it’s not like I know…I will say that, Ryan Guzman [star of the fourth and fifth Step Up movies] is of Latin descent. We’ve always made sure that there’s been a very strong diverse presence in the movie. And I for one would love to see, in the future, that we be making ones with some more racial diversity.
What about gay couples? It’s not just that the central love story has always been heterosexual; to my knowledge, there haven’t been any gay love stories in the movies at all, even among minor characters.
There’s never been any gay couples, and I am not going to lie, I cannot remember any gay—I know in Step Up 4, there was, in that classic company, we implied that some of the guys were gay. It wasn’t like they were big characters.
I don’t believe in putting things in just to say, look, we are progressive. If it was something that was organic to the story then I’m completely down with that. I don’t believe that the Step Up franchise, we are so racially diverse, and the world of dance is a really all accepting world. There is no sexual bias in the world of dancing. This may be part of it: I would say where men are concerned, the bias leans against straight guys. I think that we have really embraced showing that straight men dance as well. If anything, that is probably a strange reverse bias that we have addressed. I for one if this franchise goes on, would be happy to see gay characters presented in a more illuminating light.
I think that’s why the absence of main gay characters stuck out to me, though. There is such a strong LGBT presence in the real world of dance; it’s surprising to not see that reflected in the movies.
I’m just going to have to say, I think because we’re living in a world where the notion of sexual fluidity is never shown in that world, none of the guys who dance in the movie have been called sissy, there’s never been any prejudice against them. I’ll be honest, I don’t think we’ve ever thought about it, because we as filmmakers understand that these worlds are totally inclusive and there’s been no organic reason to bang the soap box.
The scene that starts this movie, in the audition room, looks pretty brutal. But you’ve been on both sides of that table. Who do you relate to more?
Oh, I relate to the dancer, not the casting agent. One of the things I know about casting is, really, it’s not personal. We can make fun of the process. I remember when I was dancing, I got so numb to the disappointment of not getting stuff. But it was really hard being poor and getting rejected and having talent.
Is it easier, financially, to be a working dancer now than it used to be?
It is easier than ever before, because of movies like Step Up other dance movies that have been made, because I think there’s more dancing on Broadway now than there’s been in a long time. We have so many touring pop artists. But not everybody who dances wants to be a professional dancer. That’s one of the things I talk about a lot, it’s like saying people who play baseball want to be professional players. Dancing is unique because it’s both an art form and a sport. So it is an art form, but it is the most physical art form.
What would you say to people who ask why you keep churning out Step Up movies? What is the enduring appeal of these films?
What is the core reason these things keep getting made? I think it’s because, above everything else, these movies are a celebration of underdog triumph and dance. And as long as people keep wanting to see dance, we can keep generating these conversations in the world, I imagine these movies will keep getting made. I couldn’t be more proud of how diverse we have, in fact, kept the movies. And what I love about making it, I love employing dancers. I am a dancer, and I would have KILLED when I was young and dancing, to have had the opportunity to be a part of this celebration of dancing.