Fame director Kevin Tancharoen and star Kay Panabaker discuss the challenges of recreating a classic, and the changing nature of 'fame'.
29 Sep 2009 - 5:09 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

To meet director Kevin Tancharoen and star Kay Panabaker, the key creatives in charge of re-energising the spirit of director Alan Parker's 1980 ode to ambition, Fame, one is struck immediately by their youthful vigour. Hell, one is struck by their youth.

“I watched the move quite a bit when I was younger and watched quite a lot of the TV show because my mother was really into it, and I had an older sister who was really into the TV show,” says Tancharoen, without a hint of irony. The 20-something Asian-American filmmaker makes his feature film directing debut after a remarkably short stint in the music-video trenches, including choreography duties with Britney Spears and Madonna on their 'Me Against the Music' video and fine-tuning the gyrations of the Pussycat Dolls. “I definitely have a fondness for [the original] because I thought it was authentic and extremely realistic and rang true to a performer's life.”

At 19, Texan-native Panabaker is charming and open, make-up free and still sporting wet-streaky hair, as if the 8.30am publicity call caught her off guard. But she is completely unselfconscious – a quite remarkable feat given her long resume of projects in image-driven Hollywood. Having worked on 20 television series since 2002, as well the features Moondance Alexander and Nancy Drew, she is progressing from child bit-player to the cusp of teen-queen superstardom with a level head.

The lead role of 'Jenny' in the 2009 reimagining of life within the New York Academy of Performing Arts has been an all encompassing one for Panabaker, who delved deeply into the insecurities that curse her character. “She is very insecure, both as a person and as a performer, and going to the school where everyone has a talent and everyone is very good at it she feels as if she shouldn't be there.” Spanning the entire duration of the multi-year course at the Academy, Panabaker was asked to draw all her experience as a young actress. “Jenny is forced to ask herself how far she is willing to go for fame and for success”.

For Tancharoen, the experience of being the guiding influence on a film set filled with inexperienced and ambitious young performers was daunting. But it was the very freshness that the cast brought to their roles that proved inspiring. “It was a pretty extensive casting search”, he recalls, “but once we found this cast, they all stepped into their character's shoes. We took their roles and merged them into their real lives, incorporating their own emotions, so it was authentic and organic to them. This cast was not jaded; they were very happy to put in the work.”

For aging fans of the original film, the wise roles that the Academy's teachers played in tempering and channelling the unbridled talent and raging hormones of the student body have become more relevant. In casting experienced Broadway performers such as Kelsey Grammar, Bebe Neuwirth, Megan Mullally, Charles Dutton and dance-legend (and 1980 alumni) Debbie Allen, Tancharoen knew the influence they would have on-set in their roles as mentors, both on- and off-screen.
“They were all very willing to give 'us kids' advice”, recalls Panabaker, “and not necessarily as in 'Oh, this is how you should do it because this is how it happened to me'. More like 'This was my experience and this is what I have learnt, so please take it and do with it what you want', which was very nice. And they didn't have to do that at all – we were just ten noisy kids, playing around, and they were very respectful and very nice.”

One aspect that Tancheroen had to confront was the new millennium definition of 'fame'. In the pre-internet innocence of 1980, the notion that dedication to one's talent was how one achieved fame still defined artistic ambition. In the electronic era of Paris Hilton/Facebook/reality television, when 'fame' often equates to 'infamy', the young director was charged with making his audience believe that hard work and self-belief were still the core virtues worth believing in.

“We really wanted to go to the old-school mentality of 'fame', because the new-school mentality is just like watching a train wreck go by. Sometimes you don't know why people are famous”, the Los Angeles-based filmmaker says with a refreshing perspective on the obsession that often defines his hometown. “A lot of people are going to Youtube to find their 15 minutes of fame. We wanted to showcase that with hard work, dedication, passion and that kind of work ethic that your success and your fame will last longer and be real”.

It is this commitment to realism that belies the film-maker's young age that also led him back to the streets of New York City to shoot the films exteriors (interiors were shot in L.A.). “New York has a vibe that I really wanted to capture. Recently we've seen a wave of New York movies which have all been about the glitz and the glamour and about how pretty New York City is, whether it be Sex And The City where everything is gorgeous or 'Gossip Girl' where all the teens are rich”, says Tancharoen. “I wanted to find the gritty aesthetic again, which is charming and romantic in a way. We wanted to find the old architecture and the exposed pipes and the chips on the walls, just so we could capture the 'grit' of the working New York City.”

Most importantly, of course, Fame is a song-and-dance movie – a film about the joy of discovering the potency of your talent, the high-spiritedness that comes from envisioning and embracing a life of creativity.

“My favourite song is the graduation piece, just because every performer gets their moment to show everything they have learned over the last four years” says Panabaker, her affection for the music obvious. “Everyone gets their moment to shine; it is a really powerful statement.”