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netribution > features > interview with stuart hopps > page one
Stuart Hopps is one of the UK's leading choreographers of feature films. He's just completed work on Kenneth Branagh's Loves Labours Lost, the latest film in a long working relationship with Brannagh that includes choreography for Hamlet, Mary Shelly's Frankenstein and Much Ado About Nothing. Other films Stuart has choreographed include Oliver Parker's Othelo, Twelth Night (for Trevor Nunn), Amy Foster, Sense and Sensibility and the legendary The Wicker Man. Filmmaker Elio Espana went down onto the set earlier last year to find out more

| by elio espana |
| photos from the film|
| in london |

How would you describe the role of a Feature Film Choreographer?
I've worked on many feature films as a choreographer, but I've never been head of a department before, which means that the place of dance and choreography on this particular film is considered as important as the design aspect of it. Usually, it's a question of coming in and doing a ballroom scene or a bit of a knees up, or some sort of stylised sequence. Recently we've had all the period films and I worked on Sense And Sensibility. I've also worked on a number of Shakespearian films that have used dancing; Othello and Twelfth Night - not with Ken [Branagh] and with Ken I did Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing.

Wasn't there another period piece that you worked on recently; Amy Foster?
Amy Foster was another thing again, more ethnic almost, I had to research Russian dance. All the work went into creating one scene.On this it's been ten musical numbers which have to be staged, it's a massive responsibility and a huge amount of screen time, which is unusual.

How do you usually approach a script and how has that been different for Love's Labours Lost in terms of the dancing and in context of the period in which the film is set?
I think in a sense there is no difference in the way that you would approach a script. What's been different about this is that there's been so much to do that from very, very early on one was involved in discussing the process of how we achieve it.In Sense And Sensibility, there's a huge ballroom scene, so there were fifty extras to choreograph and the ten lead actors and dialogue. It's a complicated moment, a lot of people, musical time playing an important part; but it's one scene and you rehearse the actors separately and it's usually months before they shoot it. This [Love's Labours Lost] was very different. Ken has devised a script in which the musical numbers are replacing Shakespearian text in terms of providing a vehicle for action and there are no extras, the dances are performed by the actors. It was a question of talking about how we were going to get these actors to a level of ability in such a short time.There was also a lot of discussion as to the style and function of each number; whether we are locked into a time capsule in terms of the film being set in 1939. The script played great homage to Hollywood musical tradition, there was a lot of discussion as to whether we should slavishly follow that, as a pastiche, or whether we would try and be more inventive within a resonance of a style, but not slavishly follow it.

What did you decide?
Oh we decided on the latter. Which is great because it means that I've had much more freedom and I've been able to put my own stamp on the film; working closely with Ken all the time.It's been very interesting, we talked at great length about the each particular number and what function, what physical language the number should be. Ken was very explicit about what he wanted and I then was able to choreograph on my own, with an assistant, four of the numbers. I then decided (and this is the process) to put things on their feet.You can spend hours talking about energy and guile and thirties style and I can stand and pose but it doesn't really convey the stuff of what movement is about. Movement has its own essence and the best way to describe it is to do it, feel it.I decided that it would be wise to have eight dancers and show Ken a body of work which would then be a starting point for discussion; I think that most of that material has survived into the film that we will see in Leicester Square.Right from the start, what Ken was encouraged by was that it was all very actor friendly and that was very important in my own mind. The movement sequences had to be attainable by non-dancers who looked as though they were dancers, but not to be as simple as to be unexciting on screen. It had to be pitched at a level of complexity which is interesting for the camera and attainable by the actors. It's experience which lets you find that balance; that part of it has been the most difficult and important.The choreography went through very defined stages; coming from me first and then Ken looking at it and making suggestions.Some numbers are all me, some very dominated by him but hopefully, as in all choreography, it's seamless; you can't tell where the choreographer has stopped and the director has started, it belongs to the same world.Ken was very adamant and clear that he wanted the dance to inform the acting style. The acting sequences are very choreographed so that the actor is always in a stage of readiness to move. I think that when you see the film you'll see that it's all a big ballet; when they break into real dance it's come out of an existing language, readiness and style of presenting the body that is period, but not slavishly so.I don't use mirrors, ever, I never had the actors look at themselves.

I remember my own training in the States, I had a teacher who believed that you achieve body shape through feeling rather than through just looking in the mirror...I wanted to get through sensation rather than just visual reinforcement. There is a contrary argument that mirrors would have helped but plumped not to make the actors feel self conscious in the wrong way. I think that when you see the film, it's quite amazing. Everybody that has seen the rough edit of the dances have been amazed.

You've said that you have been working quite closely with Ken, right from pre-production. How closely have you worked with other crew members? particularly sets, costume, camera and music.
Music, in the conceptual sense, I didn't work with any of the composers because they're all dead. The music department, though, were very crucial people. I worked closely with Pat Doyle, who is composer of most of Ken's films and is responsible more or less for the orchestrations and the whole musical approach to the film; although it's not his music.Maggie Rodford was also there for day one to talk about how on earth we were going to get the sync for all the actors..we're not using any dubbing, it's all them.We made a decision that we would not use any stand in singers or dancers, it would all be actor led so the whole of the music department were very important, the kind of feel behind each number, the orchestral feel; we had lengthy discussions on that. Ken did a demo disc himself so that I could work to something.Peter Glossip, who was Oscar nominated for Shakespeare In Love is our head of sound, our departments worked very closely. There has never been a moment on set where we have not known which bar we were starting at, we had points of reference in songs and liaised a lot about lip-sync. Detail is important.Every time we put a number on its feet with the stand in dancers the costume designer came along. We've had lengthy discussions and she's been absolutely clued up on what the costume requirements are from my point of view. Everybody has been speaking the same language.Tim Harvey has designed the sets for all of Ken's films, this is my fourth project with Tim. I was shown the set designs right from the beginning and asked to sample some flooring, so again, it's been a dream.

In terms of the dances and the movement of the camera, do you negotiate directly with the Director Of Photography or does that go through Ken?
When we choreographed the second version it was camera led so I had to follow Ken as to providing what he wanted. The numbers were very clear in his mind as to how he would shoot them and they were choreographed for the camera.Ken is a very visual man, aware of movement. The biggest problem, I think, has been time. We've only had a day to shoot each dance, that's remarkable. We would have been able to be more elaborate with more time; one never knows whether that's a good or bad thing. Ken is very keen on shooting in one take, but with more time I think that he would have broken things up a bit more.We had a terrible day with the electric crane, which didn't work on the biggest day. The biggest number in the film, twenty five people dancing, " No Business Like Show Business" the most famous number in the film - at least to a thespian- and we had a disastrous day. The atmosphere on set at ten in the morning was electric, everybody was so excited and keen to go. It was the nightmare number for me; I had to get twenty-five people all moving as one..with no marks on the floor because they'd show and we had that terrible start. We started, in the end, and three, by which time the dancers were spent through rehearsals.

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