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Savoy Ballroom: Key Scene Study

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John Henry Redwood, Playwright

John Henry Redwood 
"A lot more is made of the Savoy Ballroom in the film [than in the play], where you can really create the atmosphere of it. In the play, the Savoy is more of a presence offstage. The Savoy is symbolic in a number of ways. It was one of the places that blacks were able to go. They couldn't go to the Cotton Club or other places in Harlem. They could play there but they were not allowed in as patrons. The white presence in Harlem was ubiquitous at that time. So the Savoy was one of the places where they could gather and have fun, great bandleaders were there, wonderful dancers were there."

"People talk about why the Savoy got closed down. Sometimes you had a situation, white women dancing with black men. The people downtown, and the government, don't mind when it's white men dancing with black women, but they can't hold their water when they see white women dancing with black men. That was a big thing. The Savoy got closed down for one great reason. Too many white folks were coming uptown having a good time."


Dancing at the Savoy
Cast members dance at the Savoy


Shauneille Perry, Screenwriter

Bucket, the MC, at the Savoy


Shauneille Perry 
"Debbie told me we were going to add a scene at the Savoy. I thought it was an excellent idea. That's one of the places they would've gone to in that period. Once she said we're going to have a scene with dancers, then my imagination was free to say what else would go on. It's my job to help the scene propel the action, which is fun. So I said, 'We can bring Husband there, and there are certainly some friends.' Bucket is a new character who was only talked about onstage. I gave him one scene, then it came to me, 'There's an MC at the Savoy. Let's make Bucket the MC.' And I had Lou Bessie with some dancer friends who had a few lines."


Debbie Allen, Director

Debbie Allen 
"We did the Savoy Ballroom scene because it visually opens up the story, and it was an obvious way to showcase the energy and musicality of that period. Actually going there to see what those people were doing, and not just hearing about it as you do in the play, became the dynamic thing to do to open up the movie."

"Directing the Savoy Ballroom scene was a great deal of fun. I hired as many dancers as I could afford because I knew they would give me energy and life and it would just be a matter of capturing on camera what was happening in that room. Because we didn't have the money to hire 150 extras (which we would've loved to have), we had to shift the people we did have around. They had to change clothes."

"As far as wearing a choreographer hat, since there was no time, I just held a big call for dancers who already knew how to swing dance. So the choreography for the Savoy scene was about finding those wonderful dancers who love swing dance, giving them blocking, and getting it on film."

"It was fun to dance in it, even though I often wondered why I had to go and open my big mouth about it. But I loved it because I loved what it said about the character of Quilly. And I loved dancing with the young man that played Herman, Steven Smith, who's a former lead dancer with Alvin Ailey."

"Norma Miller, the star of the Savoy Ballroom when she was fifteen, came the day of our audition for dancers from her home in Las Vegas. Norma is always my consultant whenever it comes to anything dealing with swing dancing. She's like the Griot. She knows everything. She can just look at something and say 'kid, that never would've happened,' or 'no honey, take that out,' or 'that's perfect.'"

"The budget had a lot to do with why the ballroom set was so minimalist. With lack of money comes creativity, and I suggested we show only four of the musicians instead of an entire bandstand. We got a sense of it as it went on. All we needed were some tables and a dance floor. The dancers would add color and make this real and true. Costuming helped too. We had a few soldiers in there. John Iacovelli took what was there and made it work."

"The DP and I designed it so that the camera went in and creeped on Quilly slowly, and when she talks about a storm coming the lights actually change and then we go to black. And when we come back to her the lights come back up. It's a beautiful sequence."

"For the scene where Quilly reveals the truth about Herman, I directed Phylicia to simply listen and to go deep into how she feels."


Debbie Allen dancing
Quilly, played by Debbie Allen, dances in the Savoy scene


John Iacovelli, Production Designer

John Iacovelli 
"The Savoy scene came up at the very first meeting that I had with Debbie. I didn't know what the Savoy was. Being a middle-class white guy, the icons of Harlem are the Apollo and the Cotton Club. Now I realize how important the Savoy was, just to dance. And Ken Burns' documentary about Jazz on PBS had just been out, so there was a lot of footage from the Savoy to look at."

"An empty stage became the Savoy Ballroom. When Debbie and I were working, almost the first thing we said was we could do the Savoy so simply. It's all about movement and light and the feeling. We'd keep most of the shots tight, so all we need is a bunch of dance floor and a big black drape."

"For us, the Savoy is a state of mind. In a way, the Savoy became the Costume Designer's moment -- great dresses, guys in uniform, dancers, hangers-on. It is one of the few places in the film where we set the period."

"Our first image of the Savoy was dancers gliding across this big black floor with white curtains. That became a little bit too much like the Dinah Shore show. When I saw actual photos, I kept seeing this scalloped curved bandstand shell thing. So we built one of those. We had a wood floor just like we saw in the photographs, tables and chairs. If you see the Savoy scenes and you believe that you are in some smoky crowded nightclub in Harlem in 1943, then we've done our job.


Dancing Couple
Debbie Allen dances at the Savoy


John Simmons, Director of Photography

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John Simmons

John Simmons talks about the scene.


John Simmons 
"The look of the Savoy that we put together was quite interesting because it's all from imagination. All the photographs you see of the Savoy in stock footage are bright because there's a flash or somebody has a big movie light on the scene. You know it didn't look like that. We don't know what it looked like, but we know lots of people had fun there, lots of people fell in love there. So it's moody, it's sexy, it's passionate. We tried to give it that kind of feeling."

"We wanted to be able to shoot dance from all levels. There's a scene where Debbie dances alone with the guy and it's a flashback so the camera isolates them from everyone else. Then as the jib arm comes down the other people come into the shot, the lights dim up. That is the only way we could do a shot like that. It just gives us a lot more creative possibilities."


Edwin Schiernecker, Gaffer

Edwin Schiernecker 
"The lighting for the Savoy was a pretty simple set-up. We used a lot of hard backlight and overall ambiance coming from overhead. We kept the background really dark and we cross-keyed -- key lights coming from either side. We put highlights on the few set pieces -- the bandstand, the maitre d's cabinet -- to make them stand out from the curtain they had put up and to create that vintage '40s look. We had some pools of light coming from overhead. People go in and out of the light, which makes the scene more dramatic, and since there's dancing, it creates the perception that there is even more movement. It showcases the individual couples."


Lighting set-up for the Savoy scene


Simon Edery, Producer

Simon Edery 
"With the decision to have a scene in the Savoy Ballroom, the question became, 'How do we do it? How many people can we put in? How big can we make it? How real can we make it?' That's my involvement. My feeling is always, if you can't do it well, it's better not to do it."

"We shot [the Savoy scene] on the last day of production. It was psychologically strategic. To have put the grandeur of the big ballroom scene where people are dancing, drinking, and having a good time in the middle of the shoot would have made it difficult for the actors to concentrate. I can't make actors jump in the very first day of shooting and have the most incredible emotional scene with a person they don't know either. I have to schedule things so that when that emotional scene happens, they react to one another in the proper way."

"The DP works with the director to determine what special equipment will be needed to shoot each scene. With the Savoy, because of the intensity of the scene and the amount of people we had, we decided that we needed to have a jib arm for that day. We also had two cameras. We have two camera crews, one that we call the A camera crew that we carry all through the shoot, and the B camera crew that comes in that day to handle those specific shots on the second camera."


Marilyn Matthews, Costume Designer

Marilyn Matthews 
"Swing dancing is really popular now. The kids dress up when they go to these clubs. So the extras were asked to bring their own clothing for the dance scenes. These period clothes are now really hard-to-find and expensive, and even in the costume houses it's hard to find things without mended rips. So the kids will do modern clothes that look or have the same feeling as the '40s. Unfortunately, when they came to our audition they didn't look authentic. We also had color constraints, so in the end, we dressed all of them several times."


Costumed dancers help set the 1940's tone in The Old Settler


Romania Ford, Makeup Artist

Lou Bessie and Husband
Lou Bessie and Husband at the Savoy


Romania Ford 
"Women like Quilly and Elizabeth didn't go to the Savoy. These were women of the church. Elizabeth only went later on only when she met this young man. The Savoy was a very fast place for either the younger set or the set that liked to party, like Lou Bessie who wore the bright red lipstick. At the Savoy she wore thicker liner and more mascara, a little redder cheeks. The hairdos were more fluffy and young looking. They were having fun dancing, smoking cigarettes, drinking liquor."

"At the Savoy, the men wore mustaches and slick hairdos. Or they would comb their hair and wet it with hair oil and pommade and put on stocking caps. They didn't look as slick as they did in the '30s or in the '20s. It was a very conservative slick, depending on the party."


Lillian Benson, Editor

Lillian Benson 
"I worked on a film called Swing Dance, so I knew the rhythms, I knew the music. When Husband enters The Savoy, you should feel kind of excited and maybe a little frightened. Here's this country boy entering this special place. I looked at a lot of stills of the actual ballroom when it was empty and that was the first time I had a feeling of the expansive physical space of it. And you should feel that from the scene, you should get that information."

"Some of the scenes in the film are simple. They have one or two setups -- choice of camera angle, shot size and staging. A dance sequence like The Savoy scene was shot with two cameras and many setups. Each setup is labeled A,B,C, and so on. So we shoot the stage, we shoot the dancers, we shoot Husband coming in, we shoot Bucket watching Lou Bessie and Husband and we shoot another set of dancers. I think the setups go to J."

"What you're looking at is part of the Savoy Ballroom sequence. Lou Bessie spots her hometown boyfriend Husband, who has come up to Harlem to find her. Her new boyfriend Bucket watches their encounter from across the ballroom.

In the first version of the scene, I cut back and forth from Lou Bessie and Husband talking to Bucket watching them. But Debbie wanted to emphasize Bucket taking it all in. She wanted the audience to know they should be a little bit afraid of him, to know that he's a bad guy. We shifted the focus to show more of Bucket's side of the room.

Once you've established the fact that Bucket is looking at them, we only see him and his friends. We see Bucket watching them kind of like they're prey. It's more ominous that way because you don't know what he's going to do. You don't relieve the tension by cutting away. Cutaways relieve tension by equalizing the scene.

Most often the director chooses the best performance, the best take. But you're always looking for nuance. In this instance, we don't know what's going on inside of Bucket's head, but we know he's the new man. And the old man has come up to his territory. Bucket is an extremely attractive character, so the audience will respond to that, but they are being asked to look beyond that to what's going on inside. Focussing on him brings out that sense of an interior to be explored."


Script Supervisor Notes

EnlargeThe script supervisor's annotated script; used by the editor.


Script Supervisor Notes

EnlargeThe script supervisor's notes; used by the editor.


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A still from an early cut

Early cut


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A still from the final cut

Final cut


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