July 21, 2011

SCA Family Stories: Sheldon Larry

The Directing Track Professor Talks about his Process

Watch the Leave It on the Floor trailer here!

At the School of Cinematic Arts, many students’ goal is to make a groundbreaking student film which will launch a long career in the entertainment industry. For many, the professor with them every step of their productions is Sheldon Larry.

SCA Professor Sheldon Larry

Larry’s credits include An American Daughter, Split Images, The First Circle, I Want to Marry Ryan Banks and a small film called Popular Neurotics produced by a young, talented producer who went on to become the Dean of the School of Cinematic Arts, Elizabeth M. Daley.

Larry’s latest film, Leave it on the Floor has been on a roll in the festival world and he recently got in touch with SCA Family Stories to talk about the experience of teaching directors, having success in the festival world and how having to articulate his vision as an educator helped his work as a filmmaker.

Thank you for sitting down with us. You are a relative new comer to the School. How long have you been at SCA? I have been adjunct faculty in the Directing Track for three years now. I have taught 475 educating directing students how to direct actors; 507W for writers, and been the directing professor in 546, Production III where I mentor directors working with SCA student crews as they do a short film entirely within the space of one semester. I’ve been spoiled by doing this course in getting to know most of the grad student talents.

Tell us a little about your journey before coming to SCA. I have blessedly had a long and successful career working in film, television and the theater. I ‘ve directed and/or produced more than twenty-five movies for all the networks and cable outlets and helmed many episodes of various television series as well. I learned my craft in Britain with more than 100 credits with the British Broadcasting Corporation. I won a National Endowment Award for my work with dance on film and moved to New York City where for the next ten years, I worked off-Broadway as a theater director as well. I spent three summers at the National Playwrights Conference where I met and subsequently worked with many of the best American dramatists including Wendy Wasserstein, Peter Parnell and Israel Horovitz. I won an Obie for my production of Forty-Deuce, worked with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy on Many Faces of Love, and directed Blythe Danner and David Hyde Pierce in Candida.

Before coming to SCA, were you aware of the School? I was very aware of the SCA community. Many colleagues and friends over the years are SCA alumni and the school’s reputation is extraordinary. But coming down to the campus, seeing the facilities and getting to know the professors has dynamically changed my appreciation. The physical plant of the school is, of course, unbelievable. But the energy and commitment of the faculty and the delight and zeal of the student body has been galvanizing. It has rekindled my own love of the profession and my desire to keep lean and hungry to continue to work, break boundaries, and tell stories. Its certainly shaped my storytelling. Leave in on the Floor would never have happened without SCA. The students working on the film had an “in-the-trenches” seminar on feature film production. But I got to access their energy and enthusiasm, and their passion. All that is in the film too.

You’ve had a nice run with Leave it on the Floor. How did the film come about? The

The Poster for Leave it on the Floor

obsession began more than twenty years ago when I first saw the Jennie Livingston documentary, Paris Is Burning, released in 1990. That film took a remarkable look at the New York ball community of the late 1980’s. In the intervening twenty years, the culture has gone through major change and transformation and yet startlingly, no one since has seriously written on its recent history, or created any kind of resonant or reflective film document (either documentary or narrative drama). Indeed, most people who know the original film believe that the culture has long since disappeared, and that it had been a New York-only event anyway. Not true. Today, communities in more than fifteen major urban settings are flourishing throughout the country.

Six years ago, when I discovered that the scene was still alive and thriving locally, I began in earnest to research it. It took time to gain trust and access and penetrate the wariness of its members. Still, the more I dug, the more I grew fascinated by its personalities, its complex sociology and its groundbreaking theatricality. I became excited by the idea of creating an investigation of the culture as a feature film with original songs, choreography and performance. Of course, I might have chosen to create a documentary. But I quickly realized that this film’s power would be in its imaginative form as a fictional narrative with an original contemporary soundtrack.

Were you aware that you were making something special? Once I began to hear the music and started casting, I had a sense that we were making something special. Leave it on the Floor features eleven musical numbers. And its music crosses the contemporary musical spectrum: gospel, rap, house, hip-hop, R&B, Broadway-style power ballads and book songs. The songs and musical score are revelatory and written by Kimberly Burse, who has been Beyonce’s music director for the last twelve years. She brought most of the members of Beyonce’s band to the John Williams Scoring Stage at USC to record the instrumentals for the soundtrack. And she led me to secure the talents of Beyonce’s choreographer, Frank Gatson Jr. Frank is a multiple MTV-Award- winning choreographer and the genius behind all of Beyonce’s moves including the “Single Ladies” phenomenon. We called the musicians working on the film the L.O.L. Band (for Labor of Love Band)!

Finding the cast was a journey too. I was committed to use as many talented ball kids as we could. Monica Sender, a wonderful SCA student director served as casting director, and we shook the trees both here and in NYC to be able find this cast. Some of the leads are ball kids or stage actors or dancers. But they all brought together an amazing level of talent and commitment.

But I need to say that this film would have been impossible to make without the support and resources of SCA staff and faculty, and an extraordinary cadre of talented and committed SCA students many of whom worked for very little or on deferred payment. Everett Lewis was an early cheerleader of the project pushing me to just “set a start date”; he got the ball rolling. Chris Chomyn, gave camera advice, Victoria Paul gave production design perspective and Midge Costin and Doug Vaughan counseled our student sound crew. Rich Hyland and Merri Weingarten helped as well. Students Adam Ganser and Gabriel Blanco brought wonderful energy drawing other students to the film to populate every department. And I owe a special debt to Joe Wallenstein and Doug Wellman whose unstinting assistance making resources available was truly extraordinary.

And so, I have been working to create an entertaining and provocative landscape using the combined input and resources of a multitude of my colleagues and more than sixty students, creative film talents all (composers, musicians, music producers, screenwriter and lyricist, actors, dancers, singers, choreographers, cinematographers, production and costume designers, editors etc.). The film’s indie production, its own creative energy, and its extremely limited budget mirrors and amplifies the journey of its subjects who create so much from so little.

How has being an educator influenced your work as a filmmaker? It reiterated to me the necessity of communication and clarity. Film students, members of any crew and actors come from different places with different levels of experience, talent and perception. As a director, one needs to coordinate and integrate all their abilities. As a filmmaker, I can sometimes make assumptions or take certain things for granted. But being a successful educator is all about communicating ideas and concepts successfully. And so teaching has taught me a little more about the need for patience.

Making a student film is a benchmark in many aspiring director’s education. Do you have any advice for anyone looking to attend SCA and make the most of their student productions? I think it is all-important for a director to breathe, read, observe and most importantly remain curious and open. Get out of your comfort zone. As directors, we are storytellers, so its important to always look for new stories and find different ways to tell those stories, finding different worlds and differing points of view. For me, directing is so extraordinary because being a director is the most gregariously creative job in the world. I get to interface with so many different talents and so many of these encounters have so much to offer and share. They have consistently enriched my life and as well as my abilities. So it’s best to remain humble. So much comes as a result of that.

What’s next for you? I only finished the film three months ago, so I am going to follow the film around to various film festivals and work on finding distribution. The film played last Saturday to an overflowing crowd at the DGA. We had to turn away seventy people and the audience gave us three standing ovations. I want to make sure that we protect the film and find a distribution that will allow the audience word of mouth to build. Plus its great to just be celebrated a bit. After a twenty year gestation, I think I deserve a little of it! But I am most excited about the prospect of turning the film into a Broadway musical. Several producers have stepped forward, so I will see where we go. Plus I get to resume teaching this fall. Excited about that as well. And continue nurturing a couple of scripts.