he movie Mad Hot Ballroom really started in February 2003, when freelancer Amy Sewell got an assignment from the Tribeca Trib, a weekly neighborhood newspaper in lower Manhattan, to cover fifth-graders over ten weeks of ballroom dancing lessons at Tribeca’s Public School 150. These eleven-year-olds learned the meringue, the fox-trot, the rumba, the tango, and the swing. If they could make the cut, their school might go to the all-city championships at the World Financial Center’s Winter Garden.
From her first day watching the kids and the teachers, Sewell thought this should be a movie. She’d never made a movie before, but she had an old friend who worked in the business and the next year Sewell and director Marilyn Agrelo were back with a small, all-woman crew. They wound up following PS 150 again, PS 115 from Washington Heights uptown and PS 112 from Brooklyn’s Bensonhurst—with a side trip to check on the reigning champs from Forest Hills, Queens—all the way to the championship.
This mandatory fifth-grade dancing program—students whose religion forbids dancing act as the deejays—started in two New York City schools in 1994, the brainchild of Pierre Dulaine and Yvonne Marceau of the American Ballroom Theater. When Sewell made MHB, the Dancing Classrooms project had grown to 6,000 fifth-graders in sixty metro New York schools.
Mad Hot Ballroom premiered at Tribeca Film Festival in April 2005, screening outside to accommodate the 3,500 viewers. The next month it opened theatrically against Star Wars 3, and made $8 million in the first six months—unusual for a documentary. But Mad Hot Ballroom has been known to get its audiences cheering out loud.
Mad Hot, as Sewell calls it, has been showing up on cable lately, perhaps because Sewell just released a book titled The Mad Hot Adventures of an Unlikely Documentary Filmmaker. Sewell’s book reads like an extended commentary track combined with making-of advice, covering original concept and research, scouting locations, logistics for daily shoots, legal issues, festivals and distribution.
Now Sewell is developing a TV sitcom called “Mommy Juice,” and she’s about 80 hours into her next movie, another doc she’s making with Susan Toffler and MHB’s cinematographer Claudia Raschke-Robinson and sound engineer Tammy Douglas. Sewell still lives in lower Manhattan. She spoke with Stylus by phone recently.
You know, your book is almost like a commentary track for the movie.
Well, when I was reporting for the article that I wrote, I thought, there’s no way I could describe this in 1,500 words. I ended up writing 50,000 words. I thought this could be told so much better visually. Since I’m a painter I think in terms of a very large canvas when I set out to make a documentary. I think naiveté was my best friend. People say it’s harder making your second one. To me it still comes down to the story. And every person has a story, even if it’s little. Even if it’s simple, and sometimes those are the sweeter stories. When I look back at Mad Hot I think of the universal themes—about friendship, about the fact that dance is a language and you can communicate, that everybody was young once and awkward—those are the things in stories that resonate.
How did you conceive of this book in terms of its audience?
The audience was me! I had spent a day at Barnes and Noble on the floor going through a lot of books. I have a masters in business administration, but I kept picking up books, thinking, oh! I can’t read this! And, you know—this is too technical! And they’ve lost me in the first five pages here! I’m a mother of twins. Even if you’re extremely bright, or not so bright, it comes down to time. When you’re older and you want to do something, you don’t want to go to school—you want to do it!
I remember finding the seven best books, which are listed in the back on my book. But this is the book I wanted. If you see that list, say for the daily shoots—which seems so elementary to so many people!—you think, well, of course! But having it in front of you and putting the band-aids and the Tylenol and the sunscreen into a bag—you realize when you’re out shooting and your camerawoman cuts her finger and it’s a great scene, the last thing you want to do is to stop shooting. You want to wrap her finger while she’s standing still for a minute, so she’s still shooting. If you have a small crew, you can’t run out and get supplies. So it was really about making it easy to take the leap.
It’s also a book that a mother would write, don’t you think?
I know! [Laughs] I think that’s very funny. Film to me is art, art with a very expensive canvas. When I go speak to film classes at N.Y.U., I look at all those young film students—they’re already spending a fortune on their education. It’s very expensive, even to shoot in tape stock with mini-DV. So with film, you have to get it right. They really can’t wait to start shooting. I think that’s great, but what a novice, a new filmmaker, forgets is that you have to have a plan. Or you’re gonna waste a lot of days because everything and anything that can go wrong, will! [Laughs]
You have a plan—what you call the core of the story—but you’re also doing a documentary and you don’t know what will happen.
Exactly! We started off with the idea that it was about the program, the co-directors and going into the schools. Four or five weeks into it, we discovered what the kids were saying was a lot more interesting than the adults. Out of maybe 150 hours worth of footage that we were going to narrow down to a 100-minute movie, it really became more about eleven-year-olds growing up in New York City.
The dance became the thread that held it all together and took us along for the ride. That’s more fascinating because eleven-year-olds, from a psychological standpoint, are too old to be cute and too young to be cool. Yet they wear all their emotions on their sleeves. And we nailed it! And as a Midwesterner raising kids in New York City—I was born in Iowa, lived in Illinois and then Michigan—to me it became much more interesting. Because my kids will be this age some day!
When the kids talk about growing up, who they think is cute, and what marriage will be like, what boys are like, and some of the kids talk about how you don’t want to go out with drug dealers—it’s all girls talking with girls, boys talking with boys.
Originally we started off with the kids with their parents at home and they didn’t say a word. And there you go—a lot of tape stock wasted! My mother’s a psychiatric nurse and she and I always got into discussions about different ages of kids and how they acted. She said to Marilyn and me, “Why don’t you put them together—same sex—and let them talk to each other?” And it worked.
So then the dancing is the first structured thing that will get them talking to each other?
Well, that’s the beginning. Then when the girls start to talk about personal things, or the boys, you know—there’s a lot on an eleven-year-old’s mind! That’s the other thing that pleasantly came out on film. Everybody ignores eleven-year-olds. They’re pre-pubescent, you feel like you need to ignore them before the storm comes, and yet they have so much to say. And they really get the world right and they hold adults and society accountable. In a strange way, they say, “Shame on you!” to a lot of us. And you think, oh! People are watching—and they’re eleven! [Laughs]
I love that part in the book where the music company doesn’t want to let you use Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” in the film because they think the kids are too young, and you tell them that the kids aren’t listening to the words.
I know! And all they do is sing it all the way through! [Laughs] That was fun. You know, looking back, it was amazing. I’m working with a still photographer on another project and boy, that moment has to happen for still photography or you miss it. The thing I love about the fluidity of filmmaking—you may think you have somebody pegged, you think that person will be super in this movie. Yet the ones who captured our hearts in the classroom would not come out the same on film, and the ones who really didn’t hit the radar in person blossomed on film. Film has a way of telling the truth.
The current project I’m working on is about women’s leadership, and when you ask a young woman a question, the way she answers—people pick up certain tics they don’t know they have, and you can tell what they’re really nervous about, even their greatest fear. It’s so revealing. I’m almost a little uncomfortable sometimes because I think people don’t really know how revealing film is and you can really catch their essence. But it’s also what catches the audience’s feelings, because what’s coming across is really genuine. And that, to me, is magic. I’ve fallen in love with the magic of documentary filmmaking –you can get things and have things said that you don’t even know you’re getting. They’re surprises to you as a filmmaker. So it’s constantly a gift.
Actually you talk about that in the book—that the audience discovers the subject just as you did, that you share that in a way that doesn’t happen in other kinds of filmmaking.
It really doesn’t! I’m still in awe about that. We’ll be filming something and my head will swing left and I’ll think, wow, there it is, there it is, and I’ll tap Claudia on the shoulder and she’ll move over to it and it’s there. I think this goes back to growing up as a very insecure, left-out child who moved a lot. I think I just had so much time on my hands to always observe and I was always on the outside looking in. Finally after forty years it’s an asset. [Laughs] It really comes of being observant and patient and waiting, really waiting, for the shot or the conversation to unfold.
You do seem to observe things that others, who are used to doing these things, don’t see.
Thank you so much, because this comes along with so many years of insecurity. You don’t ever think you’re good enough. You think you can’t write. Especially on the East Coast and in New York City, you’re surrounded by hugely talented people—even people who aren’t talented but have huge personalities. You talk yourself out of anything you think you might have. Finally I decided I’d love to tell stories. And I love to tell simple stories.
Life is pretty simple about what’s important and what’s not and what breaks your heart and what makes you smile. You have to ride the bus and you have to ride the subway and you have to walk—you can’t change your lifestyle, because that’s where the stories are. It’s great having kids because I’ll look at what they’re looking at. I love to have people visit me from other countries—they’ll say, what’s that? It’s something I pass every day!
Claudia—I have the same camera woman on this next documentary, and we went to Madison, Wisconsin. We visit seven young women at seven universities and in Madison, Claudia sees sororities and fraternities. She’s never heard of them. So for an hour and a half over coffee, we tell her about the sorority and fraternity system—that’s a different documentary. But through her eyes it was a big deal for seeing this young woman on this campus.
Filmmaking is collaboration. You can’t do it without surrounding yourself with great people with whom you can constantly discuss this ad nauseum. You discuss everything. So your sound person will hear something and say, “Do you notice the sprinklers?” In the fields of the migrant workers where we were also filming this year, there were sprinklers. So now we have that in this scene because there’s a peacefulness to that sound.
Your full-time crew was just four people, all women. You talk about how, in your dirty white minivan, you were like a women’s sports team.
We were, we were. We didn’t do all-women on purpose. But having worked with all women, there’s something to be said for the way we all chat and check in with each other. When somebody was sick or couldn’t make it and we substituted a male, it changes the chemistry. I have nothing against men—I think they’re great, maybe for certain kinds of movies. But even up in Washington Heights, when we were all women up there, we never got messed with. The minute our sound person was a male, we were hassled. I think the men get messed with.
Is that a more ideal way to make film—having a small crew and traveling light?
Personally, I think so. I don’t care if somebody offers me a ton of money to do the third film—nobody offered me any for the second—but I will never change. The only thing I would change—since we’re all in our mid-40s, I would like a little more muscle—male or female—just to help out with some of the lugging, because our bones are starting to hurt! [Laughs] I love keeping it small. I love keeping it without lighting. Lighting changes everything. It makes people aware they’re being filmed. Also the only people in the room with our subjects, when it’s not an interview, are the sound person and our camera woman. My filmmaking partner, Susan, and I stay out of the room and we just listen in on Comtexes.
Because it stays small, very quickly you forget that Claudia and Tammy are there. I think that’s the only way I ever want to make movies. And I could be wrong, but I don’t think a guy could’ve gotten through the Board of Education. Whereas women—two of us were mothers with kids in the public school system, we were legitimate. Being mothers, I think there’s a sense of honoring your subject. Instead of making it edgy to get into Sundance—it’s a great festival and there are great films out there—but if my stomach gets turned by something somebody says and I think if that were my daughter, or my son? I can’t use it. It doesn’t make the story, really. Two little girls on a rock talking about not wanting to marry a drug dealer says it all. We didn’t need to know that their dad was in jail or their mom—you know what I’m saying?
In the book, you’re at the Slamdance Festival—down the street from Sundance, actually—and there’s a bidding war going on for the film. You get this call from a studio executive who wants a rough cut of the film. You talk about how hard it was to say no. Then she calls back and says, well, you at least need an agent so let me give you a name. You presented that for how difficult it was to keep your integrity and how you have to gulp and say, this is our rule and we’re not going to break it.
I think that’s important for a lot of people. I love being older! I love being in my 40s. It gives me great foresight and hindsight into having the guts to say no. Because what that movie actually became was a baby and really, you just don’t sell the baby. You make sure you’re going to hand it off and it’s going to be cared for. I think we were able to do that because we were older and we thought, well, this may be it, so exactly how should this be handled? It was very scary.
It’s so easy to become intimidated by big business and money and power. And it’s really—nothing. It’s almost, you know, a mirage. You can walk away and still be okay because you’ve got the product. Just make sure you’re doing a great job, tell a great story, and be proud of that, because that’s all it’s about.
You’re working on another project with Susan Toffler, about women’s leadership? Anything else you can say about this project?
I can’t—that I even let that much out, she’s gonna kill me. But I’m so excited about this one—again, it’s a hopeful documentary. I decided if I’m going to make movies, they have to be about subjects I’m passionate about and they have to be hopeful. We touch on a subject that hasn’t come up in a long time. Just as Mad Hot Ballroom is really about the importance of arts in education, this is about something else, down to a needle in a haystack of seven stories. Next year in ’08 look for it in the seven states at the seven film festivals of our subjects—that’s our goal.
There’s a place in the book about Mad Hot Ballroom where you talk the arts in schools.
I was a mediocre student. I did go to a decent university but by the hairs of my chinny-chin-chin. What saved me was that I drew. I was always drawing. Pencils are not expensive. A pad of paper is not expensive. Now, raising kids on the East Coast—but I think it’s everywhere—there’s such an emphasis on getting your kid into the right school and going to the right college. I think, Oh, hogwash! Buy them a paint set! Buy them a recorder or a flute! Get them dance lessons! Because art has no boundaries. And if you are boundary-less, then you feel empowered. What art really does for a kid is level the playing field.