Interview: Jody Lee Lipes of “Ballet 422”

Posted on February 16, 2015 at 3:55 pm

“Ballet 422” is a new documentary directed by cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (Lena Dunham’s breakthrough “Tiny Furniture,” Judd Apatow’s upcoming “Trainwreck,” written by Amy Schumer).  It is an intimate, behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a new dance number for the New York City Ballet, choreographed by a young member of the Corps de Ballet named Justin Peck.  I was very fortunate to get a chance to speak to Lipes about the film.

The film really illuminates the extraordinary collaboration and teamwork by everyone, the dancers, lighting crew, costume designers, and musicians, very different from the stress and competition we have seen in ballet films from “The Red Shoes” to “The Turning Point” and “Black Swan.”

I don’t know that much about the culture of the ballet world in general but just in terms of Justin’s specifically and his process. This is very early in his career, this is a big opportunity. It was the second ballet he had choreographed to be performed at Lincoln Center for the company and the third overall. And I think there are a couple ways that people can respond to a certain inevitable insecurity that comes along with that. One is to sort of be pissed off and angry and blame things on other people and get upset when things don’t go your way and stamp your feet. And then the another way is to work really hard and to try to incorporate other people’s opinions and their knowledge and to use the people around you in the best possible sense to get closer to what you want.

Copyright 2015 Magnolia Pictures
Copyright 2015 Magnolia Pictures

Justin is much more like the second way and I think that kind of calm and that apparent confidence and cooperation and collaboration that he tries to create would lead to what we saw in the film. I think it’s top-down. Just as in any other creative group or business or social situation, the person in charge really dictates the tone.  A lot of the dancers were people that he basically grew up with and has been working with for a really long time. Instead of being jealous or angry or frustrated that they’re being told what to do by somebody below them, I think they’re really excited that one of their friends is becoming this really important artiste and they are excited that they were chosen to work with him and to help him and to collaborate with him.

So I think that is the tone of the film.  There are definitely some tension at points in the film. There is like a general tension underneath but it’s not really a film is driven by conflict. It is a process film so it is just really about all of the pieces that come together to make a work of art and each step along the way and hopefully the progression of that is enough to keep people interested and they don’t need screaming and crying to be interested in what’s happening.

My favorite example of that is just before the premiere, when the ballerina asks her co-star if there is anything he needs her to go over before they go on.

Yes, I agree. You are the first person that ever brought up that moment with Sterling and I have talked to many people about this film at this point. But it is really my favorite part of the movie too and I really love how Amar responds to that, too.

You let the story unfold without interviews or narration.  What made you decide on that style?

I don’t know like when that additional material became what you have to do to tell a story.  The documentaries that I always loved the most those or that are verité films. I’ll never forget the first time I saw Don’t Look Back, the  D. A. Pennebaker about Bob Dylan on tour in Europe.  It felt like there was so much happening.  My parents have Dylan records and I like them a lot but then when I saw that it was like a whole other thing. I was like, “Oh this is why people are so crazy about this guy.” There is a way that you can get to know people and that you can also put your own ideas into who they are in this style which is even more meaningful at times than if someone tells you who they are or decides for you what you should think about them.

It is like people showing you who they are through their actions and how they behave rather than through telling you what they want you to think about it. And also I think for me the goal is always to tell stories visually and cinematically and verbal story telling is a different thing to me. It is not always necessary and if you can avoid it sometimes it is a good thing to just let things happen. So it is just the kind of movie that I like basically but I think it works really well in this case because it is such a physical visual arts form and because there is this natural sort of ticking clock in this film because it there is only X amount of time until the premiere so I think the combination of those two things allows for this kind of storytelling.

I also think the narrative in the film is very very clear and it is very precise.

You tell us a lot with just a few words.  Knowing that Peck is so young and inexperienced and that he is a member of the less prestigious Corps de Ballet and that he has such a short time to create the piece.

The last thing in the world I want is someone who doesn’t know ballet to feel like they can’t access this film or that they can’t follow it because they are not in that world. Of course I want those who do like ballet to like this film but that’s just preaching to the choir.   The real challenge and the real storytelling comes when you are telling the story to people who don’t know anything about that world and who don’t care about the world. So it was very important that we set up the language and the rules of that world in order for people to follow it who do don’t care or don’t think they like ballet.

Did you intend for it to be a big surprise to find at the end that Justin was actually going to be appearing in a different number at the same time that he was doing this overwhelming work of putting his number together?

It was a surprise to us.  We did not find out until a couple of days before from Justin that he was dancing the same night.  But yes I think that’s one of my favorite parts of the film. It is like something that you couldn’t really write.  It’s kind of shocking to me still that that’s how things are done there.  He has two jobs and he has to do both of them and it was a very delicate balancing act to make sure that the audience doesn’t totally totally forget that he is a dancer. That was also a very delicate thing to do and part of that was making sure that the physical therapy scene was in there.

What do you want people to talk about after they have seen the movie? What is it that you want them to think about?

I want them to be entertained first of all because that is an important thing to me. I also just hope that people don’t think that this is a movie that is not just about dance, it is about a creative process in general. And I think for me the reason why that is interesting is because I’m always trying to get better at what I do and at the way that I make art and so I think I’m fascinated with how other people do that because I get to spy on their way of doing things. I’m always picking things up from that and learning how to behave and how to get what you want and how to make better work and challenge yourself more and how to treat people and all those things and so I hope that people will walk away with a greater appreciation for that.

There’s never a sense of anyone being self-conscious.  How did you make a safe environment for the people in the film so they could behave naturally?

A big part of that was the fact that I had already made a dance film two years ago so I had that that kind of leg up. The producers and I had a relationship with the company and the dancers already.  Ellen Bar is a Director of Media at New York City Ballet so she shoots with them all the time.

So this is not a new experience for them. They are used to being filmed for promotional stuff. So I think the right combination of those two things and also of Justin being cool and saying it’s okay and his strength and letting us be there watch him figure this out and the same thing for the dancers.  I think it sort of percolates down and the fact that he is cool he is okay with not being perfect on camera all the time really helps.

Your next project is a high-end Judd Apatow film.  That must be quite a contrast.

I have done a lot of different kinds of films over the years and whether I am working as the director or cinematographer I think that is a really healthy thing. I think it refreshes you to do things in a new way on a new scale, you go back and forth and have to use different muscles to do your filmmaking. So I hope I can always do that, I hope that I can always do dramatically different projects back to back. I think it keeps you awake and engaged.

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