Talking with Matt Besser About ‘Freak Dance,’ improv4humans, and the Upcoming UCB Book
Freak Dance, the musical/dance movie parody written and directed by UCB’s Matt Besser and co-directed by Neil Mahoney, follows a rich ballerina named Cocolonia who meets a ragtag group of street dancers named Funky Bunch, Sassy, Barrio, and Egghead who are forced to save their run-down studio after it gets shut down by the fascist building inspector for not having an egress (the original UCB theater was shut down for the same reason in 2002). While there are plenty of slickly shot dance scenes featuring winners from America’s Best Dance Crew and So You Think You Can Dance busting their moves, the comedy is provided via UCB originals Besser, Matt Walsh, Amy Poehler, and Ian Roberts, cameos from Horatio Sanz, Casey Wilson, and Tim Meadows (as “Irish Cop”), and song titles like “Work That Butt,” “Too Dark To Pee,” “Weed Is Bad,” and “I Can’t Read.” And whether you’re a sincere or ironic dance movie fan, Freak Dance‘s mashup ensemble of improv performers and accomplished b-boy dance crews form a world that manages to succeed for those who take dance movies as legitimate entertainment, as well as for those of us who can’t watch Step Up 2: The Streets without cracking up.
Freak Dance recently wrapped up a nationwide tour including stops in Los Angeles, Atlanta, D.C., New York, Philly, and Boston, where Besser presented the film, conducted improv workshops before or after, and in the case of UCB East’s screening two weeks ago, treated the audience to a live dance crew performance. The following day, I sat in on a live SiriusXM call-in show Besser hosted with fellow UCBer John Gemberling, where I got a chance to talk with him about his podcast improv4humans, the allegedly in-the-works UCB book, making Freak Dance, and why watching films on acid is awesome.
So why a dance movie?
Well, because dance movies always seem to have the community center get shut down. It’s even in some of the modern dance movies like You Got Served and Step Up, and the dance contest has to be won for everything to be right. And when we got shut down we lost all our money, so we had to do these improv shows to raise money, so that just got me on the same track as those dance movies. I watched Electric Boogaloo, then You Got Served came out and I started watching the new wave of dance movies and they just cracked me up. I was both impressed by the dancing and couldn’t believe how bad the acting and the stories always were, so I was impressed on two different levels that inspired the comedy. I wanted to do a movie that had really good dancing, not just mock bad dancing, so that’s why we used real b-boy crews in the movie.
You worked Freak Dance as a live show for two years, then filmed it in 13 days. 13 Days! Would you do that again?
No, I never wanna…I mean, you just have to, that’s the thing. You always want more time, but every day is a ton more money, so you’ve just got to do what you can afford to do. But luckily we had rehearsed it — the rehearsal process was doing it for two years. If we hadn’t had that, we wouldn’t have been able to do it in 13 days, no way. Because you have to be really tight, especially with choreography and singing — you can’t just show up to set and all of a sudden everything’s great. So that was the only way we were able to do it, with that two-year run first. Once we moved it into film, everyone was way dialed into their characters. We had worked with every line of dialogue to the point where we were happy with it, everyone knew their songs well, then we got dance doubles to do all the difficult dancing. So the comedy skills and the singing skills were already there, and the dancing skills we brought in for the movie.
Where’d you find all the dancers?
We put out a general call, got into the dance scene, used our contacts, and got in touch with America’s Best Dance Crew and ended up getting winners from that show, so we got the top b-boy groups around. We pretty much used everyone who auditioned — every extra was a dancer. There were no actors, every single extra was a dancer who auditioned for us. And if they got lead roles, most likely they were a finalist on America’s Best Dance Crew. One of the leads, Joshua Allen, he won So You Think You Can Dance. And Peppa Yuan, she’s just a complete pro in every single dance movie that comes out, so we were very lucky.
Can you tell me more about Brian Fountain and how you two created the musical aspect of Freak Dance?
Yeah, and even more than that, Jake Anthony and Michael Cassady, who plays the lead character Funky Bunch, he wrote the original score. I wrote the first draft with Brian Fountain — he wrote a lot of the songs with me and we collaborated on the lyrics. He’s a musical theater guy and so is this guy in LA Jake Anthony, and they taught me through trial and error how to write a musical. The first draft was a lot different than how it ended up, so I got a real education from all those guys.
How was the experience of being a director?
I always like being a director in terms of giving acting notes and punching up on the fly. I don’t have the skill set that my co-director Neil Mahoney has of being more of the visionary of the film, of the look, how it’s cut, and how the choreography is shot. He really brought in that. It was a total collaboration.
You mentioned in a past interview that you shouldn’t parody a kind of movie but pay tribute to it.
Yeah, that’s something we learned from our mentor Del Close. We’d do these improvised movies where we were making fun of the movie and it never worked as well as when we had the mindset of, as Del put it, “to put it up on a pedestal” and worship the movies; instead of looking down on the genre, look up to it. It seems to elevate the creativity. I guess it’s just a mindset, but it does seem to make for better comedy.
It seems like whether you hate or love dance movies or musicals, you can still find a way into Freak Dance.
Right, and I both love and hate dance movies for sure. I thought the musical aspect of Freak Dance was a good contrast to how dancers always try to come off as really tough in those movies — they’re trying to literally come off as gangs like as if the Crips and the Bloods are also dancing in addition or instead of fighting with guns and knives and stuff. That’s something that’s common to all dance movies — there are actually evil dancers out there. It’s not just enough to perform dancing, you aggressively have to dance better than other people and that’s how you humiliate them.
There’s this YouTube video of a woman reviewing Freak Dance I found, and at one point she tells the camera, “This is the sort of movie I imagine people who smoke a lot of pot and do a lot of acid would really really love.”
[laughs] That’s definitely true, I mean it’s a very stylized movie. If you’re into stuff like Rocky Horror Picture Show you’re gonna be into this movie. Upright Citizens Brigade sketch humor is this particular kind of humor — if you’re into that kind of humor, you’re gonna be into this movie. I take that review as a compliment. And I think it’s telling, when people take that as a negative, of what kind of personality they are. You’ve got to send me that link, I wasn’t aware of it.
How’s improv4humans going? What have you learned from audience-free improvisation?
It’s pretty much what we do on stage in ASSSSCAT but in the audio form. There was a lot of worry that it would be different, but once you get used to an audience not being there, everything’s okay, and I think there are a lot of things you can do in the audio-only format that you can’t do onstage. You can be more subtle and soft and have the acting be more the way you’d act in a film versus the way you’d act onstage. You might lose physical humor, but I think everything else is still there, maybe even some more.
One last question — I’ve heard here and there about an upcoming UCB book. Is that coming out sooner or later?
We’ve been working on that for five years and we are definitely almost done, I can say that. We’re down to the final read-through. I think as far as UCB goes, this book will be the final missing step.
Freak Dance is playing at Bonnaroo this Saturday and currently available on OnDemand, but if you aren’t lucky enough to have a fancy cable system setup, you can catch it when it releases on DVD and Netflix July 10th.
Megh Wright misses Harrisburg, lives in Brooklyn, and answers phones in Manhattan.