Neve Campbell Didn't Just Persuade Robert Altman To Direct Her Ballet Drama The Company, She Also Pulled Off A Turn As A Bun-Head Herself
TORONTO--Neve Campbell knows it was crazy to write a Robert Altman movie about the world of dance before knowing if Altman was even interested in making a dance movie. But that's exactly what she did with The Company, which opens in Vancouver on Friday (January 30).
The Scream queen and Party of Five graduate laughs when asked why she was so presumptuous. "How did I know I'd get him? I didn't. I had a feeling. There's that part of me that was like, 'Oh, we'll never get him.' But you've got to try."
So Campbell sent Altman her script about life in a modern-dance troupe, and he did just what you'd expect a legendary septuagenarian director with credits ranging from M*A*S*H to Gosford Park to do with a project from an actor in her 20s who not only created the story but also wanted to star and produce: he passed. But Campbell wasn't willing to take no for an answer.
When most young actors are billed as producers, it's because their manager negotiated the credit for extra cash or credibility, but Campbell genuinely set the stage for The Company. She also stars as a lead dancer in this loosely structured, improvised look at the backstage and on-stage life of a ballet company, featuring Chicago's Joffrey Ballet as itself. Other name actors in the film are Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange) as a fictional artistic director and James Franco (Spider-Man) as Campbell's beau.
At the 2003 Toronto International Film Festival, Campbell tells a handful of journalists that she originally sold the idea of starring in a ballet film to a major studio seven years earlier. It seemed like a perfect vehicle for an actor who trained with the National Ballet of Canada before joining the cast of Phantom of the Opera and making the switch from dance to acting. The studio was interested and hired a writer to develop it. "They had an idea in their mind of what they wanted it to be," Campbell says. "And what they wanted it to be was a movie with Neve Campbell in it that happened to be about dance, instead of a movie about dance that happened to have Neve Campbell in it--which is what I wanted."
When that project stumbled, Campbell went looking for her own writer and hired Barbara Turner, best known for the scripts for Pollock and Georgia (which features her daughter, Jennifer Jason Leigh). Campbell and Turner spent months observing the Joffrey. They built a documentary-style screenplay full of incidents and anecdotes that lacked a traditional plot; in other words, they built a Robert Altman movie.
"The reason we wanted Altman is because we admire his work," Campbell says. "So do you want to set out and write a story that all of Hollywood will finance and it won't be interesting to you because it's not your style of film? No. You want to make the kind of film that you are attracted to and that you relate to and will tell your story in the best way. That's what we wrote and it happens to be what Bob likes to make."
Altman confesses that he had no interest in making a movie about ballet. "It took a lot of convincing," he says. He read the script as a courtesy to Turner, his friend, and when she asked for his response he told her he didn't even know what it was about. Altman flashes a grin. "I said, 'I don't understand it. I couldn't follow it. And I don't know anything about it. It's pointless for me to do this.' "
Campbell was determined to change his mind. "I started...bringing him dance pieces and showing him dance pieces and introducing him to choreographers and just talking to him about my passion for dance and why I'm passionate about it; why I felt dance is amazing and that dancers are amazing. He just got more and more interested. And I think Bob is really into artists, and when he saw how committed these dancers are and what great artists they are, I think that was, in the end, the story he wanted to tell."
Says Altman: "She [Campbell] wanted what she said was a truthful movie which she could dance in as a ballet dancer but without all of the histrionics. And so I said, 'That sounds good to me.' If this had had some story that would make it a hit film, I would not have been interested in it." He was also impressed that despite Campbell's plan to star in the film, it didn't seem like a vanity project.
In order to avoid any perception of the producer as a prima donna, Altman had one condition for signing on. "I said, 'Neve, we're gonna go--now here's the rub. You're not a movie star. This is what you said. You said you want to be just a member of the company. So go sit with the company, live with the company, and I'll see you when I see the company.' And that's what she did. She didn't have a dressing room. And the dancers--it was very important, because then the dancers trusted her and they made her a part of their group. She became one of them."
Campbell says she had no problem with Altman's terms. "I was so happy just to be dancing there with them that that's what I wanted it to be anyway. I didn't want it to ever feel as though I was separate from the company."
Despite breaking a rib just three days before shooting started, Campbell did all her own dancing and rehearsed eight-and-a-half hours a day for over six months to prepare for the role.
Altman says all Campbell's work paid off in the dance scenes. "She could fit in that company and do two seasons with them right now. She would be a middle dancer with the company. I would say half of the women in the company are not quite as good as Neve and the other half are probably a little better."
The Joffrey's real-life artistic director, Gerald Arpino, was also impressed. At the end of filming, he invited Campbell to remain with his troupe.
Campbell was flattered but not tempted. "I love dancing. I am happiest when I'm lying on a floor in the morning in a dance studio. I'm used to those smells and those sounds and being with myself and with my body and dancing. Those are my elated moments in my life." But she knows she wouldn't last very long back in that world, which is why she left it in the first place. "I have arthritis in my neck, my hips, and my feet already of a 50-year-old. I had that when I was 23. I've had surgery on my feet. I've just gone through a lot, so at some point I just had to be realistic."
Both Campbell and Altman say the movie turned out exactly the way they'd hoped it would, even though Altman says he never did look at the script again after the first time he read it. "I love it," he says. "I wouldn't do a thing different."
Campbell agrees. "I would say it's pretty much identical to what I envisioned--which is ridiculous. It's a rarity even if you have a full-on script, know who the actors are going to be, know what the director's going to do; you rarely get that. It's absurd how I was able to express to Bob what I wanted and he happened to envision it exactly the way I saw it in my mind. It's amazing, it's kismet."