MATRIX: What brought you into choreography?
CHARLIE: I’ve been doing choreography since I was probably 12 or 13 years old, I’ve always wanted to be a choreographer. I started off studying dance, then moved to New York and danced professionally there with a number of companies, and then ran my own company. I was in New York for a total of twenty-five years, and five years ago I moved to San Francisco because I was sick of New York. I do projects all over the world: I do television commercials, I do movies, I do commissions on ballet companies, I’ve worked with the Joffrey Ballet, I’ve worked with Baryshnikov, little tiny companies, big companies, all different kinds of people.
MATRIX: Do you remember your first film project?
CHARLIE: My first film project was an independent film that I did in New York almost twenty years ago, I don’t even remember the title. It involved lots of people dressed up like monsters, but they looked incredibly terrible, so it was not a very successful film. I’ve always been interested in film and television, and have done a lot of works for video. I’ve done several works that are collaborations with directors, which have to do with the exploration of ways of working with the camera, technology and movement together.
Several years ago I was invited to the Sundance Institute to participate in their Film Dance Workshop. The Sundance Film Institute Dance Workshops brought together directors and choreographers from contemporary work, with people who did musicals in the forties and fifties, like Stanley Donen and Michael Kidd. So those guys from the old musicals that happened in the thirties and forties and fifties and sixties were all there, as well as all the new kids on the block. That’s where I got, I think, my most important education, in terms of film and how to work with film.
MATRIX: How different is theatre and film?
CHARLIE: Film and theatre are profoundly different. In theatre, you can’t edit anything out, you start at the beginning and end at the end, and if it doesn’t go so well, it doesn’t go so well. With film, you’re able to be very, very selective. You can, first of all, select the take that you like, the best take, and hopefully you select a series of the best takes, things look fantastic that way. The exciting part of film is that it allows you to splice together the best of reality.
The way the businesses are organized is very, very different. Film usually has many, many more departments that are taken very seriously. When I do a stage piece for the Joffrey, I get to do whatever I want, I’m completely in charge; I get to tell the lighting guy what to do, the costume guys what to do. Here, the choreographer is working more with the Director as one of twenty guys that are doing design work, so there’s much more coordination with different needs from different people. I would say that’s about the biggest difference.
Which scene are you working on for THE MATRIX 2?
We’re working on the Zion Temple sequence. We’re going to be working with 900 people in the Temple sequence, out of those people 110 are professional dancers and the rest are people with varied dance history, some of them don’t have any. I think part of the issue with this has been finding the people, we’re shooting in the Bay area, and we’ve got every able bodied person who wants to be in film in this film. So we’re kind of using everybody. It’s a very mixed palette, from the 10 principal dancers I’m working with, who are extremely skilled, to the 100 semi professional dancers we’re going to be working with, who have some skills, to then the rest of the group who have all different kinds of backgrounds.
The choreography is going to be a mix of different abilities and finding what people can do that work within the aesthetic of THE MATRIX, and the sequel of THE MATRIX. So that is a structural problem, which is why it is interesting to me as a choreographer.
MATRIX: You’ve probably been asked more often in film, than in theatre, to work with people who don’t have a dance background.
CHARLIE: Yes, but mostly that’s been one on one. A recent film I did was a feature shot here [San Francisco] with Tilda Swinton. I did a sequence in which three Tilda Swintons danced with each other, using a lot of blue screen, and using a lot of different kinds of layering effects. So it was one on one working with Tilda, who is fabulously talented, and a star, and has incredible abilities.
THE MATRIX 2 is going to be different because we don’t have an enormous amount of time with all these people. What is interesting to me about this film is the scope and the size of it. I was told that the set we’re working on is 150,000 square feet. It may be smaller than that, but it’s enormous, and we need to fill that with people, and fill that with energy. That’s the challenge, and that’s what is exciting too.
Have you ever had the opportunity to choreograph so many people before?
I’ve choreographed 150. It’s one of the things I specialize in, working with large groups of people, and creating a situation where people of varied skills are going to be able to bring forth their highest energy, and that’s interesting to me.
MATRIX: You’ve had a couple of days to work with the principal dancers, a day with the 100 dancers, how much time are you going to have with the whole group?
CHARLIE: I’ve been on the project now for six weeks, so all this depends on having everything meticulously planned. For those people I’ve been working with for four days, the 10 principal dancers, I have the choreography developed and established. We’re going to take that choreography, and in one day we’re going to set that choreography in the group of 100. That group of 100 will get broken down into 4 groups of 25, group 1, group 2, group 3, and group 4. It’s kind of like a big military maneuver in some ways, because we’re going to have to be shifting big groups of people around all over the space, all of whom have dance steps.
There are going to be some very specifically choreographed sequences, but then there are also going to be some very general steps that are given to people who have the feeling that we want – simple dance steps. We’re going to give the group of 800 two or three steps to do, and some improvisational ideas to work with. That instruction will possibly happen on the set.
MATRIX: Have you spent much time in the space these 900 people will be in?
Yeah, it’s fantastic, it’s unbelievable, it’s just absolutely wonderful.
MATRIX: Are you orchestrating dance maneuvers to the space?
CHARLIE: We’re going to be really flexible. There are a lot of problems with the camera and the way we tile people, that we’re not really going to able to see until we’ve got cameras in place. I’m going to be able take groups of people and move them over here, or move them over there. The scale of it is just spectacular, it’s going to be absolutely kick ass.
MATRIX: What kind of direction did Larry and Andy Wachowski give you when you began work with the principal dancers?
CHARLIE: Here’s my sense of Larry and Andy, they’re very, very smart and they have a very particular aesthetic. They surround themselves with very, very smart people, and they give the people that they’re working with a lot of room, but they have a very subtle and specific style that they’re interested in. So the process has been a conversation with them, it’s been showing them movement, having them comment on the movement, going back into the studio and working some more, then having them comment on that. There’s been a real back and forth happening that’s a real conversation.
The challenge of this is to try to create movement that reflects some of the edge that THE MATRIX is about, and that’s going to be the flavor we work with. That’s what this is all about: first of all, getting the energy, because the scene is hugely about energy, but it’s also about finding that right balance, that right quality.
The set has been a really unique problem because everybody is barefoot and we’ve needed to find the right surface for them to work on, so we’ve had to look at a number of different types of dirt. We’ve found the ideal dirt is actually crushed lava. It’s very fine, it doesn’t kick up any dust so it doesn’t cover the costumes, and it’s very good on people’s feet, it’s wonderful for them to dance on. It took about a week to figure that out. On a film that’s this big, small things become very, very big, like the dancers’ feet. If we’re dancing on dirt with gravel in it, after 20 minutes the whole thing stops because people’s feet are bleeding. As something becomes larger, the details become more important. If you’re working with 900 people on a giant set and a lot of money, it’s all about detail.
The thing that’s great about this is that it’s all the top people, it’s the top of the business; it’s the best Sound guys, it’s the best Directors, it’s the best Producers, it’s the best Costumers, it’s the best design guys. Everybody is very, very generous and working to manifest this shared vision. That’s why THE MATRIX is a work of art, rather than a piece of pulp cinema, and that’s why these next pictures are going to be works of art, because everybody involved in them, is fantastic. I learn a lot from just being around Wo Ping [Kung Fu Choreographer] and those guys, they are meticulous.
MATRIX: Have you had much interaction with them?
CHARLIE: The thing that’s interesting is that we had to make sure that we didn’t cross over. None of the dancing that we do can be capioera, for example, which is a form that I think would be fantastic. We can’t do that because we have to keep the martial arts and this dance sequence separate, as separate entities, or else it’s going to be to be confusing. So it’s been important for me to be on set to see what these guys are up to so we don’t end up using their movement, or any martial arts movement.
MATRIX: What form would you call the dance you’re filming for THE MATRIX?
CHARLIE: I would call it futuristic neo primitive. There’s both a real quality of shared rhythm, and a real tribal sense of the people of Zion coming together. All the dances we’re doing represent the cultures they come from, so the trick has been to find what is connecting these people. They’re doing similar steps, but they’re not all doing the same thing at the same time. It’s not like they’re a chorus line or something, it’s a very free environment with a lot of different things going on. What ties that together is a sense of rhythm, a very, very strong sense of beat, and then what becomes interesting about it is how is that tribal sense of connection, through rhythm and individuation, then translates into an almost futuristic setting. That’s been the trick.
MATRIX: Who designed the music for the sequence you are doing?
CHARLIE: Don Davis did the music for this, they’re also considering using other people, so I don’t know what we’re going to use yet, really. Don Davis did the track we’re working with, but I think we’re working with a bunch of different bands the brothers are interested in.
MATRIX: It must be difficult not knowing the specific music.
CHARLIE: No, it’s fine. It’s beat driven, and the goal of this, and the trick of this, has been to find very tight structures and vocabularies within which people can freely express themselves. Again, it’s not like A Chorus Line, and it’s not like a Janet Jackson video, where we’re trying to synchronize everybody and have them all on the same beat at the same time. There needs to be a loose quality about this in the same way that when people get together and dance, nobody’s planning it, it can’t look choreographed.
MATRIX: Does it differ when the dancers come in and you evaluate what their abilities are on something quite freeform, compared to a very orchestrated type of arrangement?
There are elements here that are very orchestrated. Spatially, this is very tightly orchestrated. There are certain numbers of couples dancing with each other who get placed, then there are a certain number of people who are rovers and move throughout these couples, then there are a certain number of people who change partners, so it’s like a chemical mix. You want to come up with the right mix so it looks a certain way, and if you say stop, everybody knows where they are, so when you say, “Let’s take it from here”, it doesn’t look like mush. It’s got to look tight and tough, it’s got to look like some very bad ass dancing going on.
MATRIX: How much do you liaise with the costume department?
CHARLIE: I’ve worked very tightly with the costume guys. The costumes have been a consideration from the beginning, and we are working with costumes every day. Part of the costume is veils or flowing shawls that are part of the choreography. In terms of the make up guys, as in the first MATRIX, people are covered with plugs, they are covered with prosthetics with which they can then be jacked into the Matrix. Surgical glue is used to attach these to people, and we’re just going to be aware. The dancing is so high energy, there’s a lot of partnering going on, and there’s a lot of lifting going on that we have to work with so we don’t destroy the plugs and pull them off each other, and so forth.
MATRIX: Will you yourself do any dancing on film?
CHARLIE: No, I’m working with an assistant, and we’ll probably have a couple more assistants on the shoot. My primary responsibility is going to be to interact with Larry, Andy and the First AD on shoot days, my first assistant will be running the dancers, and then other assistant demonstrators will be running the large groups.
MATRIX: How many days is the shoot going to be?
CHARLIE: I don’t know. It’ll just be as long as it’s going to be. Right now it’s scheduled for six days, but it’s a big scene and these guys do things right, so if we need more time, we’re going to take more time.
MATRIX: Have you seen the first film?
CHARLIE: Oh absolutely, I’ve seen it many, many times.
MATRIX: When you got the call to choreograph THE MATRIX 2, was there any thought about where dancing would fit in?
CHARLIE: The call came with a description of what the Directors were looking for. When they got in touch with me, the problem was laid out: we’re working with this number of people etc. This is the top of this field, I think, it’s very exciting working with these guys and we’re going to do our best work. Everybody is going to do their best work and that’s always great, it’s really exciting. It’s exciting for everybody, no matter how much experience they’ve had or wherever they come from, it’s just a thrill to be part of this movie history.
MATRIX: Thanks Charlie.
Interview by REDPILL