The pseudo-doco is a tough business, especially when it comes to squeezing fresh laughs from a world as inherently self-satirising as dance eisteddfods. But director DARREN ASHTON, Australian icon KERRY ARMSTRONG and UK comic firebrand BEN MILLER prove that they've got the right stuff in the local flick RAZZLE DAZZLE. BY FILMINK's JULIAN SHAW
Razzle Dazzle tracks the keen-to-impress repertory of Mr. Jonathon's Dance Academy as they tilt for Grand Final glory in the ultimate Australian dance competition. A parallel narrative appears in the form of a behind-the-scenes look at Justine, one of those aforementioned conniving stage mums, who you'd think would prefer to be up there in the limelight herself.
So how much of Razzle Dazzle's original neuronal burst of inspiration – to make a mockumentary – ended up on screen? The answer comes most succinctly from actor Ben Miller, who plays ex-pat British dance teacher Mr. Jonathon. “Ben Miller told me that of all the work he's done on TV and in films, this one has ended up the closest to how he thought it would be in the beginning,” director Darren Ashton says with obvious satisfaction. “When we shopped the script around, people had a bit of trouble with it because they saw it in the style of heightened Kath & Kim comedy, and not in the style of natural comedy. But we got there. I think we nailed it.”
Miller also understood implicitly that for the humour to flow, each scene had to be played earnestly. His character is pretty far-out – a dance instructor whose concepts around choreography for young kids are, put mildly, overreaching. Taking on issues as loaded and portentous as asylum seekers, globalisation, whale hunting and deforestation, Miller sparks scenes of real comic fire as he marshals his barely-out-of-kindergarten proteges through deeply political compositions.
The actor gives his thoughts on the process, down the line from misty London. “I'm a big fan of comedy being done in a naturalistic vein. It's always funnier than going overboard. You need to do it with total commitment to it being real; you almost have to do it seriously, and then it works.”
Indeed, Razzle Dazzle gets its kick from playing bawdy situations with a poker face. Darren Ashton has high hopes about the form being perceived as real. “The idea was always in my mind – and obviously this applied to someone who's not too film literate – that they might watch it in another country on TV and scratch their head for a few moments, wondering if this is an actual documentary.”
The style of shooting plays this conceit like a violin. Never breaking down stylistically, Razzle Dazzle has carrion-like cameras circling the prey, bumping into scenes late and pulling up early, hovering over the self-conscious characters like a guilty conscience. In scenes featuring adults, it seems to be filmed by a hardened doc crew always on the lookout for a sordid close up.
More significant was the decision to never rehearse the movements of the camera as one normally would on a feature film. The freshness is important, and often the first take was the one used in the final cut. Equally significant was that Ashton never gave his cast of child actors a copy of the script. In this way, Ashton was able to harness the best quality a child could bring to a movie: unblinking emotional availability.
“I didn't give the kids the script for two reasons. One: I worried about them learning at home with their parents, and an over-rehearsed performance coming out. Two: new things happen within the scene and they'll need to go along with it, and not resist. My theory was that the kids would almost be directed in the scene by the adult actors. So when Ben Miller as Mr. Jonathon tells them to act like an animal, you're seeing them do it for the first time.”
Described by one co-star as “Hugh Grant with an overbite”, Miller seems to tap effortlessly into a vein of poised charm in person. “The whole thing was such a blast,” the British actor observes genuinely. “The kids are the least experienced ten times over, but they would often have the best timing.”
Ben Miller deserves credit for manoeuvring the throng of kids through one comic set piece after another. “There wasn't this usual element of blocking,” the actor says. “You switch into this character and expressions just start coming out of your mouth. It's brilliant. But sparking off the kids was the brightest part of the shoot – they really follow things through with little self-consciousness.”
The biggest challenge for Miller, and always the number one consideration, was getting his dance steps right technically. If he could do that, Miller believed the rest might take care of itself. “I'm not a dancer, in case you didn't notice,” he laughs. “So I really had to spend hours doing the basics over and over. I drilled myself. I know this sounds funny, but I really worked on my routines! Because I'd done that work in pre-production, I could totally let go in the scene and not have to worry about how I was looking or moving. That paid dividends in terms of the character's physicality, and with the scenes overall.”
Director Ashton has an insightful take on Miller's approach. “Ben gave up a PHD in physics to become an actor,” the director explains. “He has an almost scientific approach to comedy. 'Now this, this and this will make the gag better.' When Ben came in for a read through, which is the polite British way of saying 'audition' by the way, I just sat down with him and he got into character as Mr. Jonathon. I said to him 'Where did you first get political?' and he came up with this spiel about having an argument with his local council about having a greenhouse in his back yard, and he thought politics are everywhere, so why not bring them into the world of dance? It was just brilliant; he was so quick and so funny.”
The other jewel in Razzle Dazzle is veteran Australian actress Kerry Armstrong, who creates an unforgettable cracker of a one-liner when saying that her dance-crazy daughter Tenille would target American Idol next: “And if she has to go black for that, if she has to black up, she will.” In the course of the film, Armstrong truly becomes her character Justine. Tottering around in scandalously revealing outfits, and only too happy to take over performance duties if Tenille falters, Justine is the iron fist behind her unmotivated but obviously talented kid.
Armstrong's own children are a significant topic because nowadays they are her first consideration when signing on for a role. “There is this element of me thinking about my kids saying, 'What's Mum doing up there on the screen?' I don't want them to have to explain anything to their friends in an embarrassed way. There are limits to what I say yes to at this point in my career, and you are of course defined by what you say no to. The important thing is for people to have a ball. I love the part of acting that's about entertainment, not the bloody red carpet, which can be a hoot, but that's about all. For me, it's all trackies and ugg boots and getting the cows out with the dogs, not designer frocks!”
Is there anything that she did turn down for the sake of her family? “Yes, a few things,” Armstrong replies. “Rolf De Heer, who I'd love to work with, sent me the script for Alexandra's Project. My kids don't need to be in the front row seeing that!”
Armstrong's character Justine obviously loves her daughter Tenille, but has the sort of scalding ambition that ultimately makes her a backstage piranha and pariah. “A lot of people think it's easier to do a character like this than a more obviously 'dramatic' one,” Armstrong muses. “Wrong. This is one of the most difficult characters to give a structure and belief to. You just can't make a parody of her and use her for your comedic riffs. You can't bring in selfishness and greed as an actor.”
For Justine, Armstrong took on-board a surprising point of reference. “Posh Spice was my reference,” she says. “A friend and I went out and had a late night a while back and at one point I said, 'Oh my God, let's face it, we're no longer Spice Girls. I feel like Shabby Spice.' And that is Justin in a nutshell. She wants to be Posh Spice. Posh Spice with older kids!”
Ultimately, given the trappings of the character, the basis for constructing Justine as a character really had to start externally rather than from within. “The makeup artist was so innovative on a budget of three dollars,” Armstrong explains. “When I met my screen daughter, I saw this cascading, dark glossy hair, and thought 'Good grief, that's what I need! Hair like that! Like mother, like daughter.' And so I shoved my hair up high into a horse's tail, and dyed my hair, and wore what my daughter was wearing but two sizes smaller.” Director Darren Ashton laughs about the wardrobe and hair choice when reminded. “It became clear that her daughter dressed that way just because her mum did,” he says.
There was a lot more hard work to do once Armstrong had settled on the appearance of Justine's middle-aged sex bomb. “Shoulder pads and Gucci gets you to morning tea on day one, but not through the whole shoot. I had to look at it like there are thousands of women like Justine in Australia, swimming like minnows up-stream, dragging their poor daughters with them. These children are stitched to their mothers, and they're standing up trying to be the next J-Lo and Kylie. It's almost like a chain store of little J-Lo's…Bi-Lo almost. How do the kids feel? Some of my friends can't look me in the eye,” Armstrong admits quietly, “because they're pretending that the character I play here isn't them.” A more perceptive friend of Armstrong's apparently admitted to the actress that, upon seeing the film, she couldn't stop wondering, “Oh my god, is that us?”
Armstrong sighs, the subject clearly close to her heart. “You can work your guts out but you can't fabricate talent. We want real talent. I want to be moved when someone opens their mouth and sings; I want my soul to stir. It's not enough to have computerised trumpets that you can take drugs and dance to in a crowd. It's an enormous tragedy of this day and age that there will be a kid singing in the school concert and she won't learn how to listen. Kids might stop knowing what truth and beauty and art are.”
“Why I love Kerry,” Ashton explains, “is because she's kind of crazy – in a positive way. She does this sort of Capoeira dance; that's the only way I can describe it. It's a kind of dance battle with her. I love her to death and can't wait to work with her again, but it is this struggle. She verbalises things you normally wouldn't and battles with the character. She is one of those people who tosses everything around and improvises and considers every single approach, but then it all comes together on the day.”
On the admittedly tangential topic of her character cracking the splits in a tutu, Armstrong says she wanted to push Justine into doing something shockingly desperate. “A woman my age doing splits in a tutu is just environmentally unsound,” Armstrong offers, coining an uproarious turn of phrase. Does a lot of courage need to be mustered to do this sort of thing on camera? Surprisingly not, it seems. “No, because it's not me. It's the character. I'll do things that would embarrass me to the nth degree if it's for the character.”