Alek Rzeszowski is a Polish-born director, actor, editor and composer who has established himself as the affordable all-rounder in the independent Canadian movie scene. He brings his experience to bear developing new outlets for auteurs in film, television and the web.
I met Alek on my first day of university, back in 1998, and we have been separable ever since. His great claim to fame was starring in my directorial debut Spoony B, and since then I spend about 30% of my time dreaming up cool projects starring Alek that I fail to get funded or completed. One day I will make him a star. In the meantime, I thought I'd interview him about his amazing video Dancing in the Club. Take a look:
How did this film develop? There was a period there where you wrote a ton of songs, did you have the song first?
It all began with the commission to do a song for a short film named How Spoony B Got His Ho Back by one Jonathan Ball. It began a period of my life that was dedicated to making music. Not all of it was any good but I was obsessed. The “Dancing in the Club” track was written at this time. It was composed haphazardly by my friends and we improvised the lyrics and recorded the whole thing in very short order. It was years before it was suggested that I could make it into something visual.
Where did you get the idea for him/you to rip off the dancer’s arms?
As some of the more astute viewers might realize, the whole music video is in part an homage to Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall. Specifically the part of the movie where Quaid — played expertly by Arnold Schwarzenegger — grabs the villain Richter’s arms and allows them to be sheared off by the elevator they are both riding. Once you see this scene all will become as crystal clear as Kuato’s eyes.
Of course — I didn’t make the connection because Rob Vilar is playing the video’s Richter, who keeps his arms. There’s a real sense of a narrative in the video, which is lacking from the song — why was it important for you to have the video move a story forward and escalate rather than repeat or illustrate the lyrical content?
Music videos haven't had a narrative since the 1980s, if you don't count the R. Kelly oeuvre, but I think we should bring the narrative back. I sat down with a writer friend of mine — Jason Parker Quinton — and we hashed out a little story that would fit the song and build in intensity. Sort of fill in the gaps in the music. There was a rich and strange world I saw when I listened to the song. Exciting and aggressive. And I cast myself as Hans because if I’m not going to do it, nobody will.
I teach this video when I teach “escalation” in narratives — one of my core contention about writing is that you can do anything you want, you can totally pervert traditional narrative structures and even abandon narrative entirely as long as you escalate. There are a few clear examples here: the first dance partner is too passive, the second a fighter but no match, and the third holds her own (and keeps her arms) so is his match. At the same time, the phone calls to Richter escalate — first he just nods, then he responds, then he appears. Were you thinking through things in this way, or using some other patterning to organize things?
It’s a good assessment of something that was once described as “the weird part of the Internet.” I definitely subscribe to the notion that a story must escalate to remain watchable and particularly enjoy the pathos of a protagonist’s fight against odds that are ever increasing in absurdity. However, in Dancing in the Club, Hans is the bully on the dance floor. He is the obstacle and the aggressor. It is the world that must adapt to his demanding dance extremism. The impending arrival of the mysterious Richter hovers like a threat over everything, but whether it turns out to be amazing is not really the issue. The building tension and anticipation is enough.
One of the great visual jokes here is that Richter just nods on the phone the first time, as if his nodding could be heard. And then you have the wonderful visuals as he makes his way to the party, plus a visual reference to Salvador Dalí’s Lobster Telephone. Could talk specifically about developing some of these visual ideas?
We threw everything we could into these sequences. I wanted Richter to be the coolest cat that did the coolest things. A lot of it is simply missed due to the density of the visuals, so if you kids want to pause things and enjoy the tableaux, you won’t be disappointed.
Since making this thing I’ve realised that it’s not helpful to “diddle the viewers to death” as my friend Matthew Rankin once told me. Despite shortening attention spans, you just can’t do that to people. The brain synapses only fire so fast.
The Dalí Lobster phone had to be flown in from Toronto at great expense. In the end it became the production’s most expensive prop.
Where did you get the wonderful idea to match Richter’s wink to a drum hit, and also for his dancing to simply be him standing still? It’s brilliantly counterintuitive and displays him as the ultimate dance-master; he doesn’t even need to dance to be the best of all dancers.
Just the threat of him dancing is more effective than anything I could have come up with. In my extensive experience on dance floors over the years, I’ve noticed that even if you can dance well, standing in the back with a drink in your hand, looking handsome is still a more effective way to get the ladies.
I think of you primarily as an editor (and comic actor) — can you talk a bit about how you approached the editing for this film, and if there was anything interesting that you had to kill (in defiance of your intentions as the writer and director) when it came to making editing decisions?
I’ve edited plenty of music videos, so I thought I knew the tropes and tricks to the art form. When it came down to editing, however, I noticed that this thing was stranger than anything else I’ve worked on. The visual gags had to match the lyrics. The dancing/fighting sequences were oddly shot and had to be timed to the beats, plus cutting back to Richter in his lush surroundings made for a lot of headaches.
On top of it all, there was almost no coverage, so what you see in the video is almost all that we shot. I wanted to strangle the director!
Dancin’ also became a victim of its own oddness. Since it was a music video but not a real music video, as well as a short film but not really your typical short film, it was un-programmable. No festivals wanted it. It played once on Bravo Television and then became a Straight-to-Vimeo release. It is kept alive on the Internet and played at YouTube parties all around the world when the conversation dries up.
Which I’m totally cool with.