South By Southwest Film Interview – IMPROVEMENT CLUB director Dayna Hanson

By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/09/13 02:04:40

“IMPROVEMENT CLUB is a hybrid feature film that uses dance and original music to tell a story of the humiliation and joy of making art. When a big-time producer backs out on them, a small, avant-garde performance troupe with a political message struggles to find their audience—and the motivating force behind their work. Their desperate desire to express themselves takes the Seattle-based ensemble into the backwoods of the Pacific Northwest on a surreal pursuit of trust, togetherness, and the true meaning of creativity.” Director Dayna Hanson on “Improvement Club” which screens at this year’s South By Southwest Film.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience?

This is my first SXSW experience, though I have been to Austin many times, performing my own dance theatre work and collaborating with Austin-based Rude Mechs, a devised theatre company based in East Austin. The performance that inspired IMPROVEMENT CLUB, a rock-fueled investigation of the ironies of the American Revolution called GLORIA’S CAUSE, was my last excuse to be in Austin; my group and I performed it at the 2012 Fusebox Festival.

What do you love about Austin?

My list of things I love about Austin is long, but at the top of it is the spirit of the people I’ve met there. Austin people are genuinely welcoming and open, and I always get the impression that everyone is going about pursuing their passion, no matter what that is. In Seattle you fight against feelings of being bogged down or held back or depressed by the lack of light and I don’t feel that in Austin. I also can’t resist the Western thing.

Tell me a bit about your background and what led you to film.

My background is in dance theater. After studying fiction writing in college, I made a career as a choreographer and multidisciplinary artist. I’m a Guggenheim Fellow and USA Oliver Fellow in dance. With my former company, 33 Fainting Spells, I began making dance films; the first, MEASURE (2000), can be found on First Run Features’ Dance for Camera DVD. Over the last six years I’ve brought narrative back into my film work, sometimes blending story with dance and performance elements. IMPROVEMENT CLUB is my first feature and it’s fitting that it should have a hybrid quality; semi-autobiographical, self-mocking narrative; original music; improvisation and dance all in a swirl together.

What was the biggest challenge, or challenges, in making the film?

Though my production crew was beyond awesome, there were only six of us. That was really tough. DP Ben Kasulke (Keyhole, Your Sister's Sister, Safety Not Guaranteed) was also first camera operator and, together with second camera operator Jacob Rosen, did any gaffing we managed to do. We had a rotating team of sound recordists; production designer Tania Kupczak was far more than a production designer; my first assistant director, Jody Kuehner, helped me immeasurably though she’d never worked on a film before. I found it challenging to act, produce, costume and direct my ensemble cast of eight, especially because, to a one, they are almost all slightly renegade in one way or another. I love everyone, and I loved our intimate, idiosyncratic set, but there were moments when I was thought I might be losing my mind. One night I even asked my boyfriend, Dave (also in the cast) to take me to the hospital. It didn’t turn out to be necessary but that struggle to keep my head together while doing way too much was by far the biggest challenge I experienced—though it may have fed into my own character development in a helpful way. On my next film I would like to keep the same intimacy and positive atmosphere with a larger crew.

What was your favorite moment out of making the movie?

We shot a scene in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night. I had an image of what it would look like ahead of time, but it turned out nothing like that mental image. It was way better. Unimaginable. Though the experience was uncomfortable and slightly scary (there was a bear at large in the area), there was a feeling among all of us that this was an amazing, unforgettable, magical moment.

What keeps you going when you make a movie? What drives you?

The idea of a bourbon at the end of the day helps, but so does the sheer work and excitement of pursuing these sometimes ineffable, mysterious qualities that you seek in making your film. When I feel I’m getting what I’m seeking, or even better, getting something else by accident, triggers a pretty powerful reward response in my brain.

Tell me about the technical side of the film; what the film was shot on and so forth.

I’ve known DP Ben Kasulke since 2000, when, as a total novice, I was struggling through post-production on MEASURE. We collaborated on numerous short dance films over the years and have wanted to work on a feature together for some time. In 2011, Ben had three weeks open during the best time to shoot in Seattle in August, and we went for it knowing there was barely enough money to get through principal photography. We shot on a Canon 7D and a Canon 5D, a budget-driven decision that worked quite well for us.

What do you want audiences to take from the movie?

Actually, I’m more interested in learning what SXSW audiences come away with after seeing IMPROVEMENT CLUB than in expressing what I hope people take away from it. As an appreciator, I like art experiences that are open-ended enough for me to make my own connections, to be stirred up. Still, IMPROVEMENT CLUB tells a straightforward story with characters and events that are very close to my heart. I wanted to express my point of view that performance is like a sacred conversation between artist and audience, and there is dignity, humility and need on both sides. Hopefully that notion plays out as audiences watch the film.

How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?

I think that because of social media, critical response to film serves a different purpose than it used to. Perhaps more than determining whether a film fails or succeeds, critical response by disparate voices coming from a range of outlets can trigger dialogue about a film of any scale. Discourse about a film seems like one of the most important variables in its life cycle.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, what is the future release plan for the movie? Where would you like it to go?

IMPROVEMENT CLUB has been submitted to a rather long list of festivals and we are currently waiting to see what develops. There has been a lot of interest in the film since the SXSW 2013 line-up announcement. It’s a one-of-a-kind film and we are extremely curious to learn what’s next for IMPROVEMENT CLUB, both in terms of future festival screenings and release possibilities.

Alamo Drafthouse and Paramount theaters in Austin aside, if you could show this movie in any cinema in the world, which one would you choose and why?

That dream will come true this week. Alamo Drafthouse aside, I would love to screen the film at the Longbranch Improvement Club on the Key Peninsula of Puget Sound, where the final scenes of IMPROVEMENT CLUB were shot. The people of that community were so welcoming of our production and so gracious that I would love to bring the film back to share with them.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking or texting during a screening of your film?

I would probably say nothing. I would become very upset and angry and I would probably hold it in.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. I was curious if you had any advice to aspiring filmmakers?

IMPROVEMENT CLUB is an odd, singular film and it really did come straight from my heart. Because of the people in it and behind the camera, it has a lot of soul. I’m proud of this debut feature! The profound validation I feel in being accepted by SXSW and included in the narrative competition can extend to all kinds of aspiring filmmakers who are either attempting their first long-form project or realizing something non-formulaic and out of the ordinary.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have seen at a film festival?

With my former dance company, I co-curated a dance film festival in Seattle for several years that essentially introduced the Seattle community to the genre of dance film. Watching a 35mm print of ROSAS DANST ROSAS, a stunning, feature-length dance film directed by Thierry de Mey and choreographed by Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker, was an unforgettable thrill—especially because we brought it!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2013 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 8-16. For more information on the film’s screening, point your browser to

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte Facebook: jasonwhyte

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