Elissa Down makes her Netflix directing debut on ‘Feel the Beat’

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‘Feel the Beat’s’ Wolfgang Novogratz with Elissa Down.

Elissa Down’s teen dance movie Feel the Beat premieres worldwide on Netflix this week. Sofia Carson (Pretty Little Liars, Disney Channel’s Descendants) stars as April, a self-centred dancer who, after blowing a Broadway audition, reluctantly returns home and agrees to coach a squad of young misfits for a big competition.

The director tells IF how she landed her first Netflix gig, which was produced by What Women Want’s Susan Cartsonis; collaborating with fellow Aussies, composer Michael Yezerski and editor Jane Moran; and how her career has ebbed and flowed since her debut film The Black Balloon.

Q: How did you get the gig?

A: I met with producer Susan Cartsonis to discuss the project and we connected right away. Susan responded to the vision I had for the movie and she then presented me to Netflix to pitch – which had to be done over Google Hangouts because when I found out about the pitch I was on my way to the airport to fly back to Sydney for a month. (I got air sick on the plane to add to the degree of difficulty). A few weeks later I was working on the film. It all moved very quickly as we wanted to shoot the children as much as we could during the summer break.

Q: What appealed to you about the project?

A: I really responded to the heart in Michael Armbruster and Shawn Ku’s script. I knew it could be a very special movie. I loved how ambitious the main character of April was and how she evolved over the course of the story. I loved that there was a Deaf character (ZuZu) included as one of the kids in the dance troupe. I thought that representation was so important for kids to see on screen. Plus, I’ve always wanted to make a dance movie.

Q: Shot in Toronto, post in LA and scored at Trackdown?

A: So much is shot in Canada because of the tax breaks and the proximity to the US. The actors pretty much have the same accents and it’s easy to access the same cars. Toronto and the surrounding areas doubled for Wisconsin, New York and Atlantic City. We brought over from the US a cast of 13 and the rest of the 100 or so cast came out of Toronto.

The cutting of the film was completed in Los Angeles and the finishing of the film was done in Toronto. COVID-19 hit just as we were in the final days of the final mix. Jane Moran and myself had to leave three days early to make it back to Los Angeles before the borders closed. We had to finish the rest of the film remotely which was a challenge. But in the same breath I’m so lucky we got to finish the film because so many other productions had to shut down.

Q: You were able to reunite with composer Michael Yezerski and hire editor Jane Moran?

A: This is the fourth project that Michael and I have done together; we first came together on The Black Balloon, our first film. He then did the US series Confess that I adapted and directed and my second film The Honor List. It was awesome that he could join me on Feel the Beat.

It was a real pleasure for us to be able to bring a part of this production back to Sydney. Michael works with orchestrators Jessica Wells and Jigsaw music on all of his projects going right back to The Black Balloon. When Michael and Jessica were discussing recording locations, Jessica mentioned that engineer Evan McHugh and Trackdown had just wrapped up Peter Rabbit 2 and that the recordings sounded great. When Michael heard a sample of those recordings he was blown away. It was exactly the kind of sound he was looking for. So it was a perfect match and the score sounds spectacular.

‘Feel the Beat.’

Jane Moran and I met at the screening of the documentary Only The Dead. I was so impressed with how that project was edited. Jane was also one of the reasons I came on board Feel the Beat. She and producer Susan Cartsonis have worked together and when Susan was searching to find the right director for the film and Jane suggested she should meet with me.

I was also very excited to work with Emmy Award winning choreographer Mia Michaels from So You Think You Can Dance and director of photography Amir Mokri, who is known for his big action films like Man of Steel, Transformers: Age of Extinction and the first Fast and Furious.

Q: When did you move to LA?

A: I first came to Los Angeles in 2008 to sign with an agency and seize a few opportunities that presented themselves with the release of The Black Balloon. I spent many years straddling both Sydney and Los Angeles and in the last few years I’ve been in LA more as the projects that have been green lit have originated there.

Q: According to IMDB there was quite a gap in your credits between The Black Balloon, Offspring and Confess. What did you do in the interval?

A:The gap between The Black Balloon and Confess was the result of working on films that came close to getting greenlit and then fell over for one reason or another. I wrote a number of screenplays in that time – some are in turnaround and some are still alive.

Q: What are you working on now?

Since finishing the film and with COVID isolation I’ve been able to jump back into writing on some of my upcoming projects. I’m currently writing the Muay Thai feature drama Rising Ash, which recently received Screen Australia development funding.