BY MARGY ROCHLIN
Back in 2006, making her directorial debut with Step Up—a Baltimore-based teenage dance movie—Anne Fletcher, who'd spent more than 12 years working as a choreographer on projects like Bring It On and The 40-Year-Old Virgin, got a crucial bit of advice from director Adam Shankman, a friend of hers whose career had followed a similar dancer-to-choreographer-to-filmmaker trajectory.
"What Adam told me," says Fletcher, "is that directing is exactly like a choreography job. It's just more." What Shankman, who not only produced Step Up but also recommended her for the job, meant is that on the film Fletcher would prep the same as if she were hired solely to create dance moves for a production. She'd read the entire script, break down the story, meet with the actors, and ask herself things like: What's this character's arc? Why are they dancing in this scene? Where will the dance take them in the story? With directing, though, her sphere of responsibility would expand from one aspect of the picture to everything.
"I totally got [what Adam] was saying," says Fletcher, who in the past four years has become one of Hollywood's emerging directors with the success of 27 Dresses and The Proposal, both mainstream romantic comedies that were expected to be modest players but ended up being box-office hits. "Your story is still the most important thing. Your characters are still the most important thing. Nothing is really different. It's just that with directing you have more characters to think about, you have costumes to think about. You have to think about all of it now. It's just more."
Because of her years spent observing how other directors shot and edited her dance sequences, on Step Up Fletcher had a pretty good idea of how she wanted her characters to be filmed when they were busting moves. Her first rule? No pandering to the short attention span crowd with chopped-up, heavily edited MTV-style dance sequences. "I don't enjoy fast cutting because it's just a lot of energy pumping at you; you don't really know what you're watching," says Fletcher, who also always made sure that if her young cast engaged in a hip-hop battle or a balletic pas de deux, it was to move the action forward. "It wasn't like 'Let's stop everything for a dance routine!' Story is first. Story is always, always first."
Hewing to her story-trumps-everything baseline helped Fletcher make decisions about things like camera placement. "I wanted to be far enough back to see the dance, to see the love and the victory and everything that's happening with the kids. But I didn't want to go too far back because that would mean I was being self-indulgent." But she was also shrewd enough to hire cinematographer Michael Seresin (Fame, Bugsy Malone), who was a whiz at filming bodies in motion. "He understood that I wasn't going to be one of those first-timers trying to prove themselves," says Fletcher, who loved Seresin's old-school approach to the look of Step Up. "It's an enormous, beautiful, gritty movie that you just want to watch. There's no digital imagery in it—the movie is gorgeous because of old-fashioned lighting and film."
Made for an estimated $12 million, Step Up went on to bring in more than $65 million at the box office. After that, Fletcher's next move was to reunite with her old friend Shankman, who was directing and choreographing Hairspray and wanted her onboard to assist him. For the next six months, as she and Shankman staged relentlessly upbeat '60s-era dance routines, she sifted through the stream of low-budget high school hoofers scripts—including a Step Up sequel—that flooded her way. "Teen angst does nothing for me. And I certainly didn't want to do another dance movie because I didn't want to get [pigeonholed]; I wanted people to know I could do other things," says Fletcher, who set her sights on a different genre. "I'd tell everyone, 'I want to do a comedy!' and they'd say, 'Ha ha ha. Um, no.'"
MOMENTS IN TIME: Fletcher puts Katherine Heigl through her paces in
27 Dresses. She knew her sense of timing would help her ensure the laughs.
Fletcher was realistic enough to know that with her single-entry director's résumé she'd need proof of her versatility behind the camera before a studio exec would entrust her with a bigger project. What she did have, though, were connections. "The great thing about having choreographed lots of movies is [that you know people]," says Fletcher whose break came in the form of a call from Jonathan Glickman, president of Spyglass, whom she met while choreographing the kiddie comedy The Pacifier, which he produced. Glickman wanted Fletcher to direct 27 Dresses, a fizzy romantic comedy about a perennial bridesmaid that would feature Katherine Heigl in her first starring role. Fletcher, who'd dabbled in improvisational comedy and is naturally funny herself, knew that her sense of timing would help her figure out how to ensure the laughs. But the project was also a logical progression for Fletcher because it contained lots of scenes in her comfort zone: celebratory wedding guests out together on the dance floor. The one drawback was that Fletcher only had six weeks from the moment she was hired to the first day of shooting. These days, Fletcher sees a silver lining in the fact that her second movie was a rush job.
"I was just flying by the seat of my pants—it was shot, edited and released in less than 10 months," she notes. "There's something great about [a truncated schedule] because it was like, 'I can only do the best that I can do.'"
27 Dresses established Heigl's credibility as a leading lady and enhanced Fletcher's standing in Hollywood. But what Fletcher also took away from the experience was that although she'd barely graduated from high school in Detroit and bypassed college completely in favor of moving to Los Angeles in 1984 to become a professional dancer, she'd still attended a kind of film school—the Hollywood movie set. "I got the greatest education—you're watching all sorts of directors, producers and actors so you're gathering an array of information daily," says Fletcher, who took mental notes while witnessing everything from high-paid movie stars refusing to come out of their trailers to assistant directors with temperaments ill-suited to the actors they were working with. "You see the bad behavior, the crazy behavior, the great behavior, all the contrasts," she says.
Regardless of whether she's working on a picture filled with unknown actors like Step Up or one filled with marquee names like The Proposal's Sandra Bullock, Ryan Reynolds and Betty White, Fletcher prefers the on-set vibe to be casual and collaborative with a dash of silliness to lighten the long hours of often grueling work. "I understand it when there's a serious scene and the cast wants to keep the tone serious. But if it doesn't have to be, why should I [make it that]? Why can't I give the actor a note and do a little jig before I make my exit?" says Fletcher, who occasionally relies on her choreography background to help demonstrate what she wants done in front of the camera.
One can only imagine what kind of comic chest clutching and frantic hunching Fletcher pantomimed for Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds when she first mapped out the bit in The Proposal that she refers to as 'The Naked Scene." In it, Bullock, a frosty book editor, and her beleaguered assistant, played by Ryan Reynolds, are horrified to accidentally encounter each other in the buff, slamming into each other face to face. Though the vignette came from the script, it was Fletcher who conceived of Bullock and Reynolds actually being nude when they filmed the scene so that she could shoot them from head to toe. In the end, "The Naked Scene" took three days to complete on a closed set and required Fletcher to wear two hats. "It was really technical," says Fletcher of how she, her cinematographer, script supervisor and a fully clothed Bullock and Reynolds had to choreograph the actors' every sprint and gesture in rehearsal down to the split second so that no X-rated body parts would be revealed.
'The Naked Scene' is a perfect example of a director with creative staging ideas, who knows how to plan carefully and can create an environment that even A-list actors feel safe in—a fact Fletcher should remember if she is ever called upon to sell herself for a directing job. For her next project, she's currently scheduled to direct Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogan in My Mother's Curse. But the reality is that she has, so far, landed all of her directing jobs serendipitously. "I told my agent, 'You know, I still really haven't pitched myself in a meeting yet,"' she says, only half-joking. '"I could really bomb at it. Just letting you know.'"