Q&A: Jody Lee Lipes talks about Ballet 422

Director Jody Lee Lipes talks about Ballet 422, his new documentary about Justin Peck

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How much time did you spend with Justin?

It was a pretty short process. There’s a timeline that helps fuel the film; this happened pretty quickly for him—it was a quick commission—so basically I think we started shooting at the end of November in 2012 and the premiere was at the end of February. It was a three-month shoot, and we were with him a bunch of days during that time, but there wasn’t always something happening. 

This might have been unintentional, but I also love the way you capture Sterling Hyltin and her kind of badass, no-nonsense personality. She can be so ethereal onstage, but she certainly isn’t in the studio. She’s like Justin: pragmatic, intense and analytical.
[Laughs] I don’t know that a lot of people will read this, but there are differences between people’s personalities and in terms of dancers, I see that most in this film between Tiler and Sterling. There’s nothing dramatic; there’s no conflict. That’s not what this film is. But they have different methods and ways of doing things. There’s this one shot at the end when they’re getting ready for the premiere and Sterling’s sitting in the chair and having her hair done and she looks up at Tiler and there’s a little thing that happens. They’re different.

What do you mean? 

Sterling just looks up at Tiler for a second and to me it reinforces that they’re thinking about this differently. One is more nervous than the other. They just have very different approaches for getting ready that I think says a lot.

I also admire those overhead shots during the performance. How did you plan shots like that?  

This is the first time that NYCB has allowed something like this to happen, so it was definitely still a process of shooting during performances and thinking, Where can we be? Is this okay without getting in the way? Finding that trust, and obviously with a premiere it’s especially intense. It was hard to find places where we could be during the premiere, but I think we got some interesting shots. Again, I was talking about that Todd Solondz thing of wanting to watch him watch and being able to see Justin’s face during the premiere—I don’t think I’ve ever seen that before. I think they even tried to do it with Paul McCartney and Valentino, but their people couldn’t figure out how to do it; Ellen and I figured out a way to shoot without being in anybody’s way and in the dark. That’s a really interesting moment to me too.

I know. It’s so private watching him watch his ballet. I also thought it was cool how you cut between the ballet onstage and Justin in the studio working out the movement on his own body. Did you plan that or did it come to you with your footage?
Saela Davis edited the film; we just found that in the editing room. With a vérité film, there are so many options and so much footage. Working through it over six or eight months or however long we were working in the editing room, it just came together that way. I love ballet, but I wouldn’t consider myself a huge ballet fan. I’m more of a movie fan. I don’t want to go to the movies and watch a ballet. That’s not cinematic to me, unless it’s made for cinema, and you can break the rules about how you need to shoot a live performance. I think it’s a real balancing act of showing the audience enough of the premiere so that they feel like they were there and don’t feel cheated, but also taking it beyond that to a more cinematic place.

But I don’t like going into the theater and watching a straight ballet on film myself!
[Laughs] Yeah, totally. It’s a hard thing. Some people who are going to want to see this movie are going to want to just see the whole ballet. And they’re going to feel cheated, but we tried hard to meet that balance. It’s just not what’s interesting to me. I also think you see so much of the ballet throughout the film just in small pieces that you don’t even realize that you probably have seen the whole thing already. It’s like, Do I need to see it again?  It’s more about what the people who are involved in it are feeling than it is about watching the end result. And the film is much more about the process than it is about what the process is for. And it’s not about conflict or Black Swan drama. It’s just about A, B, C, D—this is how you make something.

How involved was Ellen Bar creatively?
Ellen was hugely involved. The two of us have been on it since the beginning and decided to do it together. She made it happen, and she’s a huge creative part of the film too. She was involved in both the shooting strategy and editorially in every single element. And the same thing with Anna. I think this film, more than any other, was a collaborative process. I tried to go even farther with that than I ever have before, of making sure to try everybody’s ideas and to not shut anything down. It definitely made the film better that I had all of these voices really shaping the story. In a lot of ways, Saela wrote the film. She really crafted it in to a story, and I owe a huge amount of what this is to her and to Ellen and Anna. I didn’t realize this until pretty late in the game, but at this point I’ve probably worked on 100 projects, maybe more. And I don’t think I’ve ever worked on a project where it was me and all women, and that was kind of amazing too. It’s so rare and the three of them are such powerful, confident women, and it was amazing to realize that deep into the process.

But you work on Girls, right? 
I do. But even with Girls—there are definitely women in the most powerful positions on that show, but there are also men. And with this film it was just me and just women.

Right after his premiere, Justin is in his dressing room getting ready to dance. That’s such a great moment in the film.
It’s just right back to work. It takes a long time in a creative business to realize you don’t just make something and sit back once people like it. It’s always a struggle, it’s always hard, you’re always working. Martin Scorsese probably works harder than anyone in the world. I think continuing to keep pushing and keep going and keep expanding what you do and working on the basics over and over again despite how successful you become takes a long time to learn. And that’s necessary. To me, it’s just so great when he walks right back out onstage. It’s like nothing ever happened.
Ballet 422 is at the Tribeca Film Festival Apr 19, 22, 23 and 27.

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