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.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
If you saw UGLY DOLLS, screenwriter Alison Peck’s sublime skills might already be well-known to you. She fashions authentic characters caught in emotionally resonant circumstances, imagining a world we would all benefit from living in. The same can be said of her latest feature, WORK IT.
In the nimble, funny and sweet film, Quinn Ackerman (Sabrina Carpenter) gets herself into a bit of a pickle with a Duke admissions officer during an interview by misrepresenting herself as part of her high school’s acclaimed dance squad. And, in order to correct her mistake, she forms her own crew of misfit dancers, who are forced to face off with the more powerful group at a dance competition.
Where did this story originate? Was it from a love of dance, or sports underdog themed movies?
It was definitely from a love of dance movies. But I love what you said about sports movies because when I was figuring out how to tackle this, I watched a bunch of sports movies. Dancing is a sport and this is about competition and wanted to see, structurally, what classic sports movies do and what do classic dance movies do in the different genres. It definitely is THE BAD NEWS BEARS kind of situation with the ragtag dance crew. Both really blended together.
What sort of creative freedom did you feel writing this versus writing a movie based on a pre-existing IP?
They were two such different experiences and both were great. It was really fun about this is it was a completely original idea of mine, so my imagination could run wild and play around in that kind of world. With UGLY DOLLS, there were set characters – a set world. It’s a fun creative challenge to be confined that way. There still was freedom in it, obviously. We created a lot of different characters and elements in that world. This was a different experience, in that all the characters were my own.
It must be such a gigantic blessing first to have a director who understands what you wrote, but also to have actors who also do. Let’s chat about that creative symbiosis and collaboration.
I was so happy with the casting of this movie. It’s always a challenge to find someone – and I’m so glad they found someone as great as Sabrina because she is a dancer. I’m sure for someone who knows how to dance, it was very hard to dance badly. I was impressed with how convincing she made it look. I was very concerned and made it very clear in the script that I didn’t want the character to come in with no dance experience and then end up with the greatest dancer you’ve ever seen. I think she so beautifully progressed in her performance that was believable and fun. She had such great chemistry with Jordan Fisher. I’m so happy with everyone and see it come to life.
And Laura [Terruso] did such a tremendous job capturing the spirit of the words on the page, but the energy of the dancers too.
Absolutely. It’s such a talent to put together those dance sequences and make them feel full of energy. I wanted it to feel like you want to get up and dance when you’re watching it – and I feel like she captured that really well.
Obviously this movie is heavily choreographed. But I’m curious what do those dance scenes look like on the page? Is it more than “insert dance sequence here”?
Yeah. I’m not a choreographer and we had an amazing one, so I didn’t want to even attempt to choreograph dances. But what I did write in the script were some motions and dance steps I felt were important to get across so that you can get the feeling of what these dances look like, the emotion behind it and sorta track the dance team’s progress and skill. I would write generally what it looks like, not step by step, but if it’s high energy, or fast-paced, or if they were flipping, to try to capture the style and where they are in the story, as opposed to how they dance. It was kind of like writing an action movie in that way. It was a lot of physical description but you want to make it seem dynamic and exciting so it’s not just a bunch of boring dance steps when you’re reading it.
I valued that this is about lifting each other up, not tearing people down. Was that a challenge to not make villains fall into expected tropes?
Right. Something I really wanted to focus on was, in a lot of these sports movies where there’s the villain character, I wanted it to feel believable. I wanted them to be a challenge to the protagonists, but I also wanted to point out that the other team is working really hard too. It’s an inclusive world – dance. I wanted it to feel like everyone brought something else to the table and it wasn’t just “Ooh. We’re the bad guys and we’re going to sabotage you.” They all love dance for different reasons and I wanted to celebrate that.
Were there any sweeping changes from your first draft to your final? Did it look radically different?
Somethings changed. Somethings didn’t. In my writing process, I went back and forth on the ending. I won’t give it away, but I went back and forth on who wins the competition. That was fun to figure out what’s the most satisfying and what is the most believable.
Did you write music into the script? Was “Get on Your Feet” always in there?
I did write music into the script. The chances of those exact songs getting in were pretty unlikely, for no other reasons than the random songs I thought would be good. I wanted to put the basic type of song in it so at least you understood what type of song would be at that moment – the tempo, the energy, the genre. They did a great job with the music that ended up in the movie. It really captured the examples I put in as placeholders in the script.
Quinn struggles to get out of her head. I’m sure when you’re writing, you are too. What gets you out of yours?
That’s a great question. A lot of times when I’m really in the weeds with writing, I have to force myself to step back for a minute and think, “Okay, what did you love about this originally?” I talk to myself about the project. For this movie, for example, is the story isn’t to get tripped up on the dance part, or the choreography. It’s about the coming-of-age for this young woman, discovering who she is and what she wants out of life – to find balance and not approach everything academically. That was important to me. I focus what I love about the project and that brings me back to the emotional aspect of whatever I’m working on as opposed to the technical aspects.
Quinn breaks out of a mold she fashioned for herself. Have you had a break out of the box experience?
I grew up very academic. I’m very similar to Quinn in that regard – very focused on good grades and I was into science. When I decided to become a writer, it was kind of a left turn. I’d always loved writing, but I pictured myself being some sort of scientist, or doctor. I really did have to follow my instincts on this one and pursue something that I really truly loved. I definitely channeled myself into her.
Do you have a daily routine like she does?
In another life, before the world turned crazy. Now every day, it’s like, “What time is it? What day is it?” I do try to treat my writing time as, “I’m at work. Nobody bother me.” My whole family is always around so that’s difficult now. I gave birth during a pandemic. I have a toddler and a newborn now.
Oh my gosh!
Yeah. Had I known the pandemic was coming, I would have rescheduled this. [laughs] It’s a little intense. Mostly it’s just closing my door and reading the whole social media scroll to get myself onto a computer and get focused. I have a schedule for myself every day. I have goals of what I want to hit. And try my best to hit them. I think we’re all struggling right now and it’s hard to focus, myself included. We’re all figuring it out. It’s getting easier. I look forward to the days where I can have a long, Quinn-like morning routine.
So you have the G-rated UGLY DOLLS, a TV-14-rated WORK IT and an R-rated YOU CAN’T KEEP A GOOD GIRL DOWN written. Do you write with a particular rating in mind?
Each project is a little different. Sometimes it comes from the premise and what world I think it would lend itself to the most. Usually I like writing a little closer to R and then seeing if we can pull back. I don’t want to hold myself back. If I feel like this character would curse, or something, I’ll write it in knowing we’ll likely change it. I try to keep it in mind, but not worry about it so much. Obviously UGLY DOLLS, I knew it was for families and kept that in mind. I was trying to make that appeal to children and adults at the same time. With this one, I imagined it would be more like a teen/ tween audience, but also know that I’m an adult and love these types of movies and wanted it to feel accessible for everybody. For the rated –R one I wrote, I wanted to do the hard R, raunchy female comedy specifically because we don’t have enough of those. That was very intentional. All my projects have a comedic bent and a strong female lead so they all fit in the same world even though they are different ratings and genres.
So will that one be what’s next for you?
I hope so. I do have another project with Alloy. I’m reading a lot of books and figuring out what the next one could be. You know: Always be working [laughs].
WORK IT begins streaming on August 7 on Netflix.