How a 'Musical Doc' Became One of Sundance’s Biggest Acquisitions
Amanda Lipitz, director 'STEP,' saw her 'hometown burning' and turned it into an inspirational movie. Here's how she did it.
There’s no razzle-dazzle, no fireworks, no mega screens. It’s only high school girls in jeans and T-shirts, stomping and clapping. And yet, the performance on stage is one of the most captivating that you’re likely to see. The work of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women’s step dance team is so powerful, in fact, that a documentary film about it had members of the cultural elite at Sundance 2017 on their feet, landing a multi-million dollar deal for distribution and remake rights from Fox Searchlight.
The film is called STEP, and it follows three black teenagers, Cori, Talya, and Blessin (who founded the dance troupe at age 11) during senior year at a charter school that promises to beat the national odds by sending all of its students to college. Being from the Baltimore area herself, director Amanda Lipitz wanted to help change the conversation about a city that indeed had socioeconomic challenges but was maligned in media portrayals such as The Wire. The talented and determined girls at the school—founded by Lipitz’s mother—were the perfect vehicle to help do so.
And then 25-year-old Freddie Gray died in police custody in 2015. The officers thought to be responsible for his death were acquitted. The reality of African American life in Baltimore couldn’t be ignored, but neither did it deter the film’s protagonists. Rather, it inspired their most explosive routine to date and gave Lipitz’s filming a true ignition point.
"You have to have a very clear beginning, middle, and end. A rise, fall, rise.”
No Film School spoke with Lipitz before STEP’s theatrical premiere about her multi-year journey to get the film made, how she managed 400-plus hours of footage, and what she learned from her background as a Broadway producer that she was able to bring into filmmaking.
NFS: How many years were you shooting with the students?
Amanda Lipitz: I started making this film in 2000. I really started shooting for the documentary portion of it in 2013. When the students were in the 8th grade, I saw the step team for the first time and thought, "Oh my god, I think there's something here."
In the 9th grade, I only filmed them stepping in lots of different types of environments to see the best way to capture sound, the type of camera, and how you move with them or didn't move with them. I did that for a year.
"You can't be defensive or precious when things have to change."
When we first started this process, my pitch to the families and the girls in the 9th grade was: Let’s change the conversation about Baltimore. Then, in the 10th grade, I did interviews where I talked to them individually about what step meant to them and why it was important to them. I got to know each one individually better. In the 11th grade, I did vérité with them for the first time, after I had ramped up and built the trust. And then, that year Blessin missed 53 days of school and was kicked off the step team, and I watched the school and her team pull her back in using step.
And then Freddie Gray was killed. I just knew that the story began with that. I watched my hometown burn on television. I saw a mother go into the riot and grab her daughter and son and pull him out and slap him upside the head, and I was like, “Those are my mothers.” So I basically scrapped all my footage previous years and started hit the ground running senior year, and really used senior year as a context because I thought it was very strong, universal beginning, middle, and end.
NFS: I really respect that you realized, as painful as it probably was, that you had to let go of a few years' worth of work to get the exact right story.
Lipitz: It wasn't painful at all because all of it was a process. I needed to be there doing that shooting. Everything led me in the right direction. It was all stuff I had to go through in order to make the film.
“We’re in this reality TV universe where people feel like they have to hear it all, and I don't think we need to.”
NFS: So then in that final year, were you in Baltimore full time, or did you have a crew that worked without you?
Lipitz: I was hiring local Baltimore crews in the junior year, and then the beginning of senior year, I had local crews. I was so lucky that I found my DP Casey Regan, and my audio supervisor Jonathan Field, through Steven Cantor who signed on as a producer. He gifted them to me.
It was hard for me to have random people come in and out of the room with the girls. I knew I needed a closely knit team, and I met them and I really liked them, and I knew the girls would really like them. They went back and forth with me basically November to January, and then in January they moved full time to Baltimore, and I went back and forth.
NFS: Aside from these years of ramping up and getting to know the families, how did you make sure that you were going be telling the girls' stories in an authentic way when you weren't from their community?
Lipitz: Well, first of all, there was no other option. I had no interest in exploiting, or manipulating, or changing something. I just wanted to show the truth and I wanted the world to see them the way I saw them.
And also, I was a part of their community because I was a part of their school community. I was there when cameras were not there. I would've been a part of their lives and a part of the step team with or without a documentary. So, even though I wasn't part of their neighborhood, I was still a Baltimore girl who cared about them and wanted their school to be successful. And them to be successful.
“The best shots were the ones that moved with the girls.”
I have made over 30 short films, and I have a tone for my storytelling. That tone is one of not just hope and joy, but also authenticity and truthfulness. I don't like to hear all the nitty-gritty details. We’re in this reality television universe where people feel like they have to hear it all, and I don't think we need to. I think you can suggest something, and I don't think you need to go any further than that.
So that made it a lot easier for them to trust me. I also think they knew that I put young womens' well being above filmmaking. All those things just made it very easy for us to all trust each other. Not that there weren't concerns, I'm sure, and nervousness, of course. But I think Freddie Gray's death actually give them the courage to do it.
NFS: You mentioned that you had researched which kind of cameras and shots were best to capture the step dances. What did you land on in terms of gear?
Lipitz: We shot pretty much on a C300, and then sometimes I had a 5D. We didn't have any fancy gimbals or anything like that, so then we just worked on filming processes.
Lipitz: One of the things I realized was that they can't step in a sound stage, or on a set. The picture looks weird. They had to be stepping in environments where it seemed natural, that are authentic. So the street, the gym, the auditorium were really good. Big sound stages with fancy lights and other things—not good. It also didn't sound as good, so the sound was really important.
The other thing I learned was that you have to move with them. A lot of times if you had been filming us, you would see Casey Regan, and I would be standing behind him with my hands on his waist, and we'd be weaving in and out of the girls as they stepped. So I found the best shots were the ones that moved with the girls.
“I knew where the musical moments were in the film when I walked into the room.”
NFS: I was really impressed with how the editing of the film captured the energy of the dance. What was your process in post for putting the story together?
Lipitz: Basically, I was shooting in March when my editor, Penelope Falk, came on board and started watching my 400-plus hours of footage. I would be driving back and forth from Baltimore and she would talk to me about what she watched that day and I would talk to her about what I shot that day. And it was really helpful because it reminded me of the past and it was keeping it fresh in my mind so I was also able to think ahead. And she also was able to hear from me what was happening in real time.
I wanted it to feel like a musical documentary. I knew where the musical moments were in the film when I walked into the room. I knew the opening was a musical number. It was the opening number that tells you who they are and why they're here, what you need to root for. You hear that again in the 11th hour when they're at the competition, but it means something totally different because you know them now.
And then I saw their college applications as a musical number. If it was a musical, papers would be flying, computers would be typing, and FAFSA forms would be printing. That's how I saw it. And hands shaking and deadlines.
Lipitz: And then, the pyramid montage [where the girls are trying to build a human pyramid for a final dance number].... I wanted that to feel like Rocky. I wanted it to be against the grain of what you expect to hear, like maybe a hip hop or a rap or a pop sound. And instead you hear violins against this team coming together and building themselves up.
I was extremely lucky that Raphael Saadiq, Laura Karpman, and Tara Stinson came on to score the film. And when I cut the graduation and they wrote to picture. So it was like writing a musical together. It was written exactly for these characters and these moments in the film that I caught, which is what happens in a musical.
Once senior year was over, I came up for air. Penny and I had a wall full of index cards and we started whittling it down. We spent sometimes 15 hours in a day editing together.
“I learned that everybody has to work at every job. You can't expect to just do one job.”
NFS: Speaking of musicals: You have a Broadway background. I was curious what you learned from Broadway that you brought into doc filmmaking.
Lipitz: All the things I just talked about. That you have to have a theme and you have to hear that theme again. You have to have a very clear beginning, middle, and end. A rise, fall, rise. There's nothing harder in this world creatively than making an original musical. It's so incredibly hard to find the balance.
I definitely learned [fundraising]. In the doc world, you gotta raise money. I learned that everybody has to work at every job. You can't expect to just do one job. You have to be really good at fundraising and marketing and creativity and having a vision. You have to listen to other people.
The biggest thing I learned is that you can't be defensive or precious when things have to change. When you are not defensive about notes, and you actually take it in and listen to it, I think that's when real creative and magical breakthroughs happen.