The Big Picture
- Neve Campbell visits Collider’s media studio at the Cinema Center at MARBL to discuss her new documentary, Swan Song.
- Campbell is an executive producer on the Chelsea McMullan-directed film about ballet legend Karen Kain and her experience directing her own version of Swan Lake.
- Campbell, McMullan, and Kain discuss the challenges of capturing intimate footage in such a setting and how they approach figuring out “what’s worth it and what’s too much when you’re working on your craft.”
Before Neve Campbell skyrocketed to stardom as one of the most iconic horror heroes of all time via Scream and as a prolific actor well beyond that franchise, her sights were set on becoming a professional ballet dancer, idolizing the legendary Karen Kain. In fact, she trained at the National Ballet School of Canada. Clearly she wound up pursuing a different path, but at TIFF 2023, her passions collide via a documentary called Swan Song.
Campbell is an executive producer on the hugely ambitious film (and four-part series) directed by Chelsea McMullan that follows Kain as she completes her 50-year career with a new rendition of the ballet she famously debuted in back in 1971 — Swan Lake. McMullan, producer and co-writer Sean O’Neill, and the rest of the Swan Song team amassed 500 hours of footage while following Kain and her Swan Lake dancers as they pushed through countless physical and emotional challenges to reimagine one of the most famous ballets in history in their own image.
Just ahead of Swan Song’s TIFF 2023 world premiere, Campbell, Kain, and McMullan visited Collider’s media studio at the Cinema Center at MARBL to discuss bringing the experience to screen in the feature film format, and also to tease the four-part series on the horizon. Check out the full conversation below to hear all about Campbell’s goals as a producer, the rigorous filming process required to capture such intimate footage, how one figures out “what’s worth it and what’s too much when you’re working on your craft,” and loads more.
PERRI NEMIROFF: Chelsea, what was it like figuring out the right subject for this project? Did you ever consider anything else, and then ultimately, why did Swan Lake and Karen’s story emerge as the right choice?
CHELSEA MCMULLAN: We wanted to make something really ambitious and we found a subject matter that was equally ambitious, Karen making a very ambitious ballet. It became a little bit of a mirror of like, “We’re making this very ambitious film project following Karen and the company making this very ambitious ballet project.” So we kind of knew we had a bit of lightning in a bottle, and there were also so many stakes. It was Karen’s retirement and a sort of gift to the company, it was her iconic role. We kind of knew that it was a perfect fit if Karen was on board.
Karen, what was your initial reaction when Chelsea and the team came to you with the idea? You had your work cut out for you with the ballet alone so what was it about adding this extra layer to the experience that made you think, “Yes, this is worth doing?”
KAREN KAIN: I guess I felt trust with Sean and Chelsea, and I knew that it was my last thing that I would be doing with the National Ballet of Canada, and it was something that, in my heart, I had wanted to change. I wanted to go back to the original production of Swan Lake that Erik Bruhn had created for the National Ballet of Canada many, many decades earlier, which I thought was unique in the world, and that we owned it. It was the one that I first danced when I was 19 years old, and it had a place in my heart, but I also thought it was one of the best ones ever done. There were other versions that had come along in the meantime and so I never thought I would have a chance, and [then] I had a chance, so I was gonna take it! If I didn’t do it then, it wasn’t gonna happen.
Neve, it’s been a little while since your last producing credit. Why now and why with this particular project?
NEVE CAMPBELL: Chelsea and Sean approached me about a year and a half ago and spoke to me about the project. They had seen another dance film that I made 20 years ago, which I can’t speak of because of the strike, but they had had some inspiration from that and spoke to me about their idea here.
For me, it was just such a beautiful kismet, full-circle thing because I was at the National Ballet School of Canada, Karen Kain was my idol growing up, was one of the very reasons I became an artist. So for me, it was such a beautiful opportunity to be a part of this project and to support her goodbye to the National Ballet. It felt like an honor to be asked, and I really thought that their concept was great, and I thought Karen’s concept of what she wanted to do with Swan Lake was moving and new, so that’s why I wanted to be a part of it.
One of my favorite things is when I see an artist I admire with a really big platform use that platform to get a film that isn’t backed by a gigantic studio in front of more eyes. What does it mean to you to have that ability, and do you have any goals for the future in terms of how you could use that to continue putting more films in the spotlight?
CAMPBELL: Listen, it’s a wonderful thing to have a certain amount of a public audience that gives you the power to create, produce, bring projects to the spotlight, which might not get the attention that they normally deserve. And so for me, when this project came along, great! If my name can help tell Karen’s story, if my name can help these two wonderful filmmakers tell the story about a company that I am so passionate about and that inspired me to be an artist, what a beautiful thing.
And yeah, I have projects that I’m developing, books that I love that might not have seen the light of day, but now I have the opportunity to sort of give them attention and try and put them on the screen. We’re in the strike, so I can’t even ask writers to read them yet, but hopefully that will shift soon. I’m very, very grateful for the position I’m in.
Hopefully people get their shit together and make the obvious right decision so we can all move on with our lives.
Chelsea, I don’t even know where to start with how you went about filming this project. More broadly first, what part of your initial filming plan changed the most from pre-production and prep to what actually wound up happening on the spot when you were shooting?
MCMULLAN: What was very attractive about this project, to me, was the opportunity to follow something that had an organic arc, that there would be a beginning, middle, and end of something. We would be following a journey of something, in this case, the production of Swan Lake and the company and the dancers from beginning to end. What was very attractive to me is that we didn’t know what was gonna happen. And so what is, I think, the hardest to do, in documentaries especially, is allowing the story to unfold. And so that also means shooting a lot. We shot 500 hours of footage because you have to capture everything, and you have to find the story in the edit. And of course, Sean, who’s a co-creator, and I were talking every single day, and all our crew were having story meetings at the end of every day – tracking stories, tracking our characters’ arcs, all of those things to find it. But ultimately, the thing is that there kind of was no plan. [Laughs] The plan was to let it evolve and capture it in real-time, and that’s what we did.
Is there any particular person that emerged as a focal point of that story that surprised you?
MCMULLAN: Oh, that’s a great question. When we were casting I interviewed every single dancer in the company. It’s 70 dancers. It took me two weeks to do it.
Obviously we were casting based on maybe where we thought they might be cast, also what their background is, if they had an interesting personal history with ballet, and then also it’s just a gut thing. It’s like, “Who do you want to watch? Who’s dynamic?” And Shaelynn Estrada and Jurgita [Dronina], over the process of filming, I became really close to, and for me, they just both were so vulnerable and also were so open. I found both their stories so compelling.
Karen, I know the point of a documentary is to be more observational, but is there anything about the experience of doing Swan Lake while filming a documentary that you think enhanced the experience for you? Where being forced to process and rethink things on the spot while you’re giving interviews made the production itself stronger?
KAIN: I was really not paying attention. [Laughs]
CAMPBELL: She had something to think about! She was focused on more important things. [Laughs]
KAIN: I mean, I knew it was happening, but I couldn’t put my head in two places so I was just with the production. There were so many decisions to make every day about that and so many personalities to deal with and so many questions and so many decisions to be made that I barely noticed they were there.
That means they’re doing their job well!
CAMPBELL: As it should be, right? What you don’t want is for your subject to be aware of the camera when making a documentary, or changing their behavior or changing their decisions.
KAIN: Yeah, so I didn’t know what they were catching or not catching. I didn’t know which dancers they were following. I didn’t know anything.
Neve, the answer to this might be no, but is there anything about this documentary cinéma vérité filming style and some of the techniques they use to capture this material that you think would benefit scripted filmmaking?
CAMPBELL: Well, this is hard because what I want to do is talk about a film I made 20 years ago. Their process was not dissimilar at all to what our process was, even interviewing all the dancers of the Joffrey Ballet. I won’t speak to my project that I made with Robert Altman, but Robert Altman created the mic pack in order to capture sound and capture real moments on people. So Bob was known for putting mic packs on a slew of people. Giving them a circumstance. Saying, “You’re in this party. Maybe this person over there’s pissed you off and that person over there is trying to get your attention, and that person over there is crying, and that person doesn’t interest you at all. Now go!” And then he would have five cameras going and he would have earpieces in his cameramen, and he would watch monitors and he would say, “Okay, camera one, go over to the lady in the red dress because she’s having an argument right now,” and he would find his story and often create his script during the edit from those moments, from that way of working, and I think that’s what made his work very dynamic, and I do feel that you’ve probably been inspired by Robert.
MCMULLAN: That’s exactly how we shot our film.
I wish more films were shot that way.
CAMPBELL: You have to know how to edit them. You have to have an eye and know what is compelling.
You walked away with 500 hours of footage and I know originally you were going to make this a four-part series. With all that material, why switch to the feature film format? What was it about that format that you thought would tell this story better?
MCMULLAN: It actually is a four-part series as well, so we delivered both, a four-part series and a feature version.
When are we gonna be able to see the four-part series?
CAMPBELL: November 22nd.
MCMULLAN: November 22nd it comes out on CBC.
Is that gonna be a problem for me in the states?
MCMULLAN: Yeah, TBD. [Laughs] But yeah, there’s a series with more characters, more dancers who are also all amazing. I’m really proud of both. I think both are really compelling. One is in more of a televisual language and one is more cinematic to sort of fit the format.
I’m so excited. I wanted more when this ended!
MCMULLAN: Oh, there’s more!
Going back to some of your filmmaking techniques here, was there any particular part of the process of putting on Swan Lake that you found most challenging to figure out the right way to capture so that your audience didn’t just feel like an observer, but they could actually feel the weight of the work those particular artists were taking on?
MCMULLAN: I’ll say just in the first two weeks that we were shooting, we were sort of approaching it always with the same approach and style. But, because we didn’t quite know the dancers yet, because we were just starting, because there are big cameras and there’s a few of them and we were asking the dancers to wear mics, which is this kind of foreign object when you’re dancing, it was awkward at first. And we kept getting in the way of the dancers [laughs], which is not ideal, not good. So the first two weeks it felt like we weren’t quite achieving the intimacy we were after, but then I think as we gained trust, as we were there every day, as we were there in every rehearsal and shooting all the time, we just sort of blended into the background. And our cinematographers learned the choreography, and so they knew where they needed to be.
KAIN: They had to save their own butts. [Laughs]
MCMULLAN: Yeah, exactly!
CAMPBELL: And not injure the dancers.
MCMULLAN: And that allowed us to be closer, which the closer we could get, I think, the more visually dynamic, and it feels so special to be so close to the dancers because it feels like something really unique. So it was more about locking into that process and it all sort of clicking and us becoming one with the dancers in the company. That was the challenging scary moment where we were like, “This is not looking great,” and then it just clicked.
I’m going to end with a really big question for all three of you. I got very hung up on this one quote at the end of the movie. It’s when Robert says, “What’s worth it and what’s too much when you’re working on your craft?” So in your respective crafts, can you each give me an example of a time when you had to weigh what was worth it and what was too much?
CAMPBELL: I think as a dancer sometimes you’re so used to doing whatever is asked of you that you can forget to think about your own safety. I did a movie, which I won’t name, years ago in which I had to carry a 10-year-old child and I was wearing heels for the whole film, and this 10-year-old child is probably, what? 60, 70 pounds, something like that. I already had a bulging disc, but I didn’t say no. The director had asked me if I was okay to carry this child across this bridge for the scene, which I did, and we did over and over and over and over, and my disc ruptured. So I would say that’s a moment where there is too much – when you don’t know when to say pause or say no. I could have put the child down. I could have held his hand instead. I mean, I knew it was better storytelling to carry him and so I did that.
So there’s moments like that where you do have to sort of check in with yourself, and that was a lesson that I’ve learned from that moment. But at the same time, it’s hard because, as an artist, you want to give your all. The magic comes in those moments where you give up yourself and you hand it over to something greater than, and you see what happens. So to stop that is hard.
I know! That’s why I love thinking about this idea!
KAIN: I can relate to that. I think about similar kinds of situations when — I think once I did five Swan Lakes in a row because everyone else was injured, and with different partners. I was strong enough to do it. I was completely and totally exhausted, but now I’ve had a knee replacement and I need a hip replacement, and I wonder whether in moments like that if maybe I shouldn’t have done that, you know? But the company needed me, and everybody was either sick or injured, and I did it. But, I was glad that I could do it and that I did it and that I sort of saved the day. I felt like I got a gold star, but in the end, was it the best thing for my body? I don’t think so.
MCMULLAN: I’m really glad that theme really stood out to you because it was something that was really important to us to sort of tease out. But I think the reason it was important to us to tease out is that we saw the company and the dancers and everybody pushing themselves so hard for this very big and beautiful work of art, and then we kind of were like, “Wait a second …” Our cinematographers lost like, 25 pounds each just [by] shooting it, just running around with those cameras. Our editors worked to the bone. There was like 500 hours of footage. We worked like crazy.
And then Sean, the producer, and I would look each other in the eye, and then we’d be looking at the footage of these people working so hard and we were like, “What is it?” You know? We would ask ourselves that same question. And so I think that’s why that theme really comes through is because we were all, as Rob said, doing something incredibly hard.
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