Feel the Beat with Elissa Down

June 18, 2020
The Australian filmmaker took 10 years to follow up her brilliant debut, The Black Balloon, but now she’s on a roll, with a new Netflix movie about to take her to the next level.

How did the Netflix movie Feel the Beat happen for you?

My editor on the movie – fellow Aussie Jane Moran – is one of the reasons I came on board Feel The Beat. She and producer Susan Cartsonis have worked together previously, so when Susan was searching for the right director for the film – Jane suggested me. I met with Susan to discuss the project and we connected right away. Susan responded to the vision I had for the movie and she then presented the idea of me to Netflix. I then had to pitch over Google Hangouts because when I found out they were interested – I was on my way to the airport to fly back to Sydney for a month. A few weeks later I was working on the film. It all moved very quickly as we wanted to ‘shoot out’ the children as much as we could during the summer break.

It took you a while between The Black Balloon and your next feature. Can you tell us about that journey?

The gap between The Black Balloon and my second feature The Honor List was the result of working on films that came close to getting greenlit and then fell over for one reason or another. During that time, I directed a block of Offspring in Australia and adapted and directed the limited series Confess in the US. I wrote a number of screenplays in that time – some of which went into turnaround and some that are still alive.

Filmmakers always say how great it is to work on a Netflix film in that they leave you alone. Can you comment on that?

I had heard some horror stories from friends who had worked with the studios in the US, so I didn’t know what to expect when working with Netflix but my experience was fantastic. It was so rewarding and collaborative. Head of Family Features Naketha Mattocks along with our creative executives Alison Haskovec and Caroline Mak, and our physical production executive Maureen Mottley were incredibly supportive, they understood what type of film I was making and backed it.

How was it to work on what I imagine is by far the highest budgeted film you have ever done? Was it freeing or more challenging? 

It was both. We had a nine week shoot which was great, but we had a huge cast of children which meant we were very restricted with how long we could work with them. Sometimes I had only a couple of hours to shoot an entire dance with the kids.

Being a dance film added to the challenges – it meant more rehearsals and coming up with different songs and looks for each routine. The amount of costumes in the movie was staggering. There were over four hundred and sometimes the wardrobe department headed by Shelley Mansell, would be sewing elements of the costumes just before we started filming.

It was great to finally have the budget to be able to build a studio to exactly what was envisaged and be able to shoot so many different angles, which wouldn’t be possible on location. I had the good fortune to work with Director of Photography Amir Mokri who is known for his big action films, so he knew all the toys and tricks we could use to shoot.

Do you feel that as a female filmmaker that there are more opportunities now than there were in Australia when you made The Black Balloon?

I can’t speak so much of Australia because The Black Balloon afforded me a number of opportunities after its release. But I definitely saw the shift in Hollywood. For such a long time it was difficult to get into a room or be taken seriously. You felt invisible. Last year I met with an executive at one of the studios who apologised for his part in the lack of women directing, he said, “I never thought that I should get a woman in to direct a movie. So, from now on, my director lists will have women on them.”

Do you hope to make films in Australia in the future?

I am very excited about my future projects in Australia. I’m currently writing the Muay Thai feature drama, Rising Ash, which recently received Screen Australia development funding. Also, I’m working on The Tempest for Hoodlum’s Shakespeare Now series as well as the young adult film Scarred with Eclectik Vision.

Your previous films strike me as very personal, whereas this one seems like it’s frothy and fun. Did you enjoy the experience?

Feel The Beat was so much fun to make. I was very excited to make a dance movie and to work with Emmy award winning choreographer Mia Michaels from So You Think You Can. Even though the film isn’t from my own personal experience, there is the heart with the humour. Friends and colleagues who know me and have seen the film have commented that they can see the commonalities across my films.

What past films / inspirations did you take into it?

I think there was so much inspiration around for the film – I definitely related to the themes, so I could dig inside myself to relate to the characters. Visually – there was photography from William Eggleston for the depiction of New Hope, Dina Litovsky for the dance competitions and other vintage photography for the creation of the dance studio. In terms of movies there were plenty – Billy Elliot, Footloose, Little Miss Sunshine, Fame, Bad News Bear etc. And throw in a bit of Dance Moms in there too.

What can audiences expect from the film?

Audiences can expect to enjoy a heartwarming film that is going to make them laugh and cry. As well as the enjoyment of many wonderful performances. I am really proud of the film’s message for kids – no matter who you are, what you look like or where you come from, your dreams are important and you’re allowed to chase them down with all the passion that you have.

What’s next?

Since finishing the film, I’ve been able to jump back into writing on some of my future projects. I’m also being sent scripts to read. I have no idea of what is next – as what is happening in the industry is up in air with Covid – so I’ll just keep writing until then.

Feel the Beat streams on Netflix from June 19, 2020

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