[Interview] Director Laura Terruso knows all the right moves to ‘WORK IT’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

Director Laura Terruso (GOOD GIRLS GET HIGH) has brought her innovative vision and storytelling stances to what a dance-themed film not only looks like, but tangibly feels like, hitting on a deeper resounding level in WORK IT. In the spry, sweet and superb flick, Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter), in dogged pursuit of her dream, misrepresents her standing as part of her high school’s dance squad to a college admissions officer. Determined to fix her mistake, she forms her own ragtag team and enlists them to square off against their more powerful adversaries at a dance competition.

Watching this, I was struck by the vibrancy and originality in how you capture and craft the dance sequences. How did you go about collaborating with the choreographer and figure out the aesthetics and assembly of, what’s ostensibly an action movie?

Dance is exactly like shooting action. That was a real learning curve. I loved working with our choreographer, Aakomon Jones. He is delightful. We filmed in Toronto, which has a very small dance community that’s tightly knit. When we went up there to audition kids for the movie, they all knew each other. It’s a very diverse city and so you had this electricity in the room and it really struck me at that first dance call that this is a universal language. The girl who plays Priya [Indiana Mehta] did a bhangra routine to Chris Brown. It was such a beautiful expression of diversity and culture through dance. It blew my mind.

It was important to me and A.J. that we cast dancers, not non-dancers. It’s crazy to me that people would cast dance movies with non-dancers. We cast these kids who have never acted before, or been in a movie before. What I did was shape their characters to who they were in the room and how I could see them in the movie. All of the “T.B.D’s,” it’s their first rodeo. I think they did a tremendous job. That was part of the vision. We basically chose the best dancers we could find who felt like they could act, or had potential. It was really fun creating these characters with them.

I had named the gal who plays Priya, Gita. And she came up to me and was like, “Um. So Gita is kind of an auntie name.” I was like, “I had no idea. What would work?” She said, “I think Priya works.” That’s a testament to my directing style. I’m very, very collaborative and open. I invite feedback and want the kids to say, “Kids don’t talk like that.” I think that’s why we have the performances we do in the film.

The cast was very involved in the writing process with me. I want them to feel ownership over their characters. Keiynan’s [Lonsdale] character was, in Alison [Peck’s] script, written for a girl. She was kind of a mean girl. I have a bit of an allergy to seeing mean girls. I don’t like it. I feel like it’s been done and it’s been done well. Let’s enter this new era of us supporting each other on screen. So when we sent the script out, Rich Delia, our casting director, sent Keiynan the script for the Jake role originally. He came back and said, “Actually. I really like the Foster character,” who was the mean girl. I was like, “That’s interesting.” He came in and read and blew us away. He was so funny and had the bitchiness down and breathed new life into this trope. It felt fresh. So I worked with Keiynan to rewrite the script and we wrote everything for Julliard. It was so much fun.

Julliard (Keiynan Lonsdale) leads his competing crew in WORK IT. Courtesy of Netflix.

Also just the way you photograph the way these dancers move, giving them room in the frame and not be overzealous with your cuts in the editing process feels refreshing to see.

Totally. That was a huge conversation with our DP [Rogier Stoffers] early on. When I think back to my favorite dance movies, they are the ones you’re seeing the dances fully – like DIRTY DANCING. It’s not cut to shreds. They’re not music videos. I think when you do cut it to shreds, it turns into a music video than a movie with a narrative. Each dance is propelling the story forward. There’s something happening in every number that’s telling us where Quinn is on her journey. It was really important to me that we see the dance and document the dance in that way.

I’m really proud of the scene under the bridge, because that is a two shot scene. You can’t even tell because the steadicam was dancing with the dancers and it took many takes to get it. It felt really electric when we were shooting it and in the zone. It was late at night and everyone was really patient. Little by little, we got it, up until the end with that perfect kiss. I remember after the kiss, I ran out from behind the monitors, “Yasss! Yass!” Everyone was cracking up. That kiss was fire.

I love how your films have this fervent theme of people lifting each other up instead of tearing them down. Is that the happenstance of getting these types of projects sent to you or is it by design? 

No, this is me. I really want my films to be about intersectionality and inclusivity. I want women to support each other and that was really, really important to me in the making of this film and for the characters to feel truthful always. Truth first. There are so many tropes that don’t feel truthful. Figuring out a way to tell these stories, for me for this film, I wanted everyone watching this movie to see themselves reflected on screen in some way. That’s why it was important to include the differently-abled dancers and all of these things where anyone watching can be, “Oh. I’m like that character,” or, “I love that character” to feel included that way. That’s part of my worldview and positivity I can put out in my filmmaking.

WORK IT begins streaming on August 7 on Netflix.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.