‘Fame’ Director Tancharoen Grilled

“I didn’t want to turn it into another ‘Hairspray’ where people just turn to camera and start singing.”

Last Updated: September 23, 2009 @ 5:57 PM

Twenty-five year old Kevin Tancharoen wasn’t even alive when "Fame" — the classic 1980 film about a group of aspiring performers at a high school — was released. But Tancharoen was immersed in his own glamourous world as a teenager himself, dancing and choreographing for the likes of pop stars Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.

It was that background that attracted producers to Tancharoen, who directs MGM’s reimagined version of the film, out Friday. Next up, he’ll take a turn away from music-based film with Universal’s "Arcana," a science fiction film comparable to a live-action graphic novel being produced by Brett Ratner.

TheWrap talked to Tancharoen about what Spears is really like, how his dance background impacted his filmmaking and the national obsession with music-based programming.

How do you overcome the stigma of people who think, "Ugh, another remake?"
I know it’s called a remake, but I feel like that word is thrown around. You can’t consider "Batman" and "Star Trek" a remake. The core idea of the first film is all we took: four years and New York Performing Arts school and tracking them from auditions to graduation. Other than that, all the characters are different. We kept "Out Here On My Own" and "Fame" and the cafeteria scene.

 
This is MGM’s only film this year and they’ve had a bunch of exec upheaval this summer — there’s gotta be some pressure there for you.
I’ve thought about it, but I can’t let that kind of pressure get to my head. All I had to focus on was making the best version of the movie possible and I really hope it does well for MGM because they’ve been so supportive of the film.
 
Music-based films can often get pretty cheesy and kitschy. How’d you avoid that?
I lucked out because the first "Fame" is not a musical — it’s a drama that has music, but it’s not a musical. Musicals turn to camera and sing their emotions. We don’t do that. All of the songs are integrated into the story line, so if they are singing, they are in singing class, or dance is at a performance. We don’t have the taxi cabs. We wanted to make sure everything seems organic.

 
You’re 25 — you weren’t alive when the original came out. What was your familiarity with the film before you signed on?
I first saw the movie when I was 12 and loved it ever since. I held it up on a pedestal and thought it was one of the first of its kind ot be about young people but also be realistic. Whoever wrote that damn "Fame" song, I don’t know how they made such a catchy chorus, but it caught lightning in a bottle.
 
You have a background in dance, right?
When I was around 15 I danced for Britney Spears at the VMAs, and a friend of mine, Wade Robson, was choreographing for her at the time. So I started working with her and other artists like Christiana Milian and Christina Aguilera . Then Britney was getting ready for her next album and she asked me to do direct her tour and I had just turned 19. I did all of the video segments. 

 
So you were right in the middle of that teen queen, boy band era?
I was in the middle of that generation and and it seems like all of that kind of fan craziness has shifted to the Disney Channel. It all went to Miley and the Jonas Brothers and it’s quite interesting how Disney has become the new MTV.

 
What has it been like to watch Britney go through so many ups and downs in both her personal and career life?
I always knew her as a person who was a hard worker and a girl that doesn’t stop. She’d be in the recording studio, at dance rehearsal, and then back on the bus and in between all of that are interviews. I always saw that side of her. I never really witnessed the party side — the public tabloid side of her life that everyone knows.
 
How did you make the jump from dancing to filmmaking?
My agent called me and said "they are remaking ‘Fame’ and the producers want to meet you." They liked that at a young age, I was surrounded by singers, actors, and dancers and thought that was a unique perspective in being immersed in the world of fame. I told them I liked "All That Jazz" — the Jean Kelly, Fred Estaire kind of world. I didn’t want to turn it into another ‘Hairspray’ where people turn to camera and start singing.

 
Your background must have played a big part in the filmmaking process.
Yeah. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a hip hop movie like "You Got Served" or "Step Up" because those already exist. I’ve never liked this MTV style of cutting and shooting coverage — a bunch of people in the room shooting the dance from difference perspectives and you cut it all together later. I always responded to the way Bob Fosse shot sequences. He was at the right place at the right time, and everything was well paced out and storyboarded.
 
Sometimes when you hire actors who are good dancers, the acting really suffers as a result — like in "Center Stage." 
We hired actors first, not dancers. "Center Stage" was about a hardcore ballet company with prima ballerinas who are supposed to be amazing. The thing about "Fame" is that you need imperfections so it seems like they’re really in high school. If they were at the top of their game freshman year, then why are they training in the first place?

 
MTV recently aired a reality show about a performing arts school called "Taking the Stage." What’s the fascination with these places?
It feels like it’s a place where everyone’s having a good time. It’s a magical idea about a school where in class you’re learning dance instead of math. It seems like an easy, fun school but the truth is that it’s really a difficult school because of the competition level and the expectations put upon you. You’re constantly in a competitive mindset — every day is an audition at these damn schools.