The online mien of Benjamin Nowicki

The Company

The Company
Credited as: Art Department Coordinator
Production Designer: Gary Baugh

Notes: This Chicago Tribune article Covers it nicely:

How the Joffrey fared in the ‘Company’ of Altman
Dancers describe 3-month Chicago shoot as exhilarating and exhausting
By Sid Smith, Tribune arts critic. Tribune movie critic Michael Wilmington contributed to this report

December 8, 2002

The whole thing began, prosaically enough, with a phone call: Harriet Ross, artistic manager of the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, answered to be greeted by a woman she didn’t know, representing a movie company few people have ever heard of.

Two years later, after a whirlwind infusion of stars, big shots, countless technicians and maddening schedules, this medium-sized troupe, a cherished American institution for nearly 50 years in dance, is poised to become a movie star. Artists steeped in the work of Vaslav Nijinsky, Antony Tudor and Frederick Ashton meet, or, rather, met Robert Altman, Neve Campbell and Malcolm McDowell during the three-month shoot took place all over Chicago as it focused on a story inside the life and times of the Joffrey.

And now that the location photography for director Altman’s next film, “The Company,” is over, it was, judging from a sampling of participants, exhilarating, exhausting, confusing, hectic and sometimes awful.

And indescribably wonderful.

“I didn’t become a dancer to be in the movies,” says Suzanne Lopez, who, at 31, has danced with the Joffrey for 12 years. “It’s just not something you expect when you pursue this career. Every day was a different experience. The hours are much longer, and you do a lot less dancing all day, which is actually a very bad thing for a dancer, bad on your muscles. You’d sit around for hours and get cold a lot and then suddenly warm up and dance.

“What was it like?” she continues. “Incredible.”

“A lot of hard work,” echoes another dancer, Willy Shives, “and so much fun.”

“It wasn’t so much an invasion,” says Gerald Arpino, the Joffrey’s septuagenarian co-founder and artistic director, “as an inspiration. A lot of people don’t realize who we are, what we’re all about. To have this great American director choose us is like a tribute I wish Bob Joffrey was still alive to see, a tribute to what we believe in and how we built this company. Altman said something to me near the end I’ll cherish always: `Gerry,’ he said, `you’re one rare bird.'”

Project uncertainties

In the beginning, given the uncertainties involved in every film project, no one was sure it would even happen. “I’m a big cynic when it comes to movies about dance,” says Jon Teeuwissen, the Joffrey’s executive director. “I mean, about them actually coming to fruition. I worked with the Dance Theatre of Harlem from 1986 to 1989, and the whole time they were talking about a movie, that it was just around the corner.

“They’re still talking about it more than 12 years later,” he adds. “So when the movie came up here, I thought, `Yeah, yeah, yeah.'”

He and others at the Joffrey (now performing “The Nutcracker” at the Auditorium Theatre) credit Ross’ determination and tenacity. After Jocelyn Hays with Killer Films (“Pollack,” “Boys Don’t Cry”) first called, Ross worked steadfastly to make the project gel. “She said they were doing research on a film, that they planned to visit several dance companies, but that Neve Campbell and [screenwriter] Barbara Turner were both interested in coming here and visiting with the company.”

They came and gradually fell in love. Campbell, who started as a dancer with the National Ballet of Canada in Toronto, and who has been linked romantically with John Cusack, began attending class and rehearsals. Turner began even longer visits, recording interviews with the dancers and staff. “We got a little nervous when the dancers were so forthcoming about their lives,” Ross says. “We became concerned about their privacy and reminded them they didn’t have to participate.”

Quietly, Shives, for instance, one of the company’s top male stylists, told Turner he’d prefer she stick to the basic facts of his marriage and family life. “I never wanted the limelight. My personal life is my personal life.” But others were quick to share more details, and much of the story line of “The Company,” both Turner’s script and Altman’s plentiful on-site improvisations (key to his working method), come from the dancers’ experiences.

“They actually filmed my wedding,” Lopez says. “I happened to be getting married during the shoot, and they asked if they could film it. On the one hand, who wouldn’t want Robert Altman filming their wedding? But, I was getting married, after all. I didn’t want it to interfere.” (They filmed only the receiving line on the outside steps of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue.)

Altman and Turner also took stories from some dancers and reapplied them to other performers. Lopez, for instance, was asked to re-enact a rehearsal injury that in fact ended the career of another dancer three years ago. Lopez, who witnessed the real incident, says, “I tried to play it the way she did at the time, very calmly. If it had been me, I would have been screaming.”

Altman leaned on performers who took to this improvisational style, zeroing in on the likes of 21-year-old John Gluckman, an apprentice who joined the company full time this season. “I did some stuff originally written about Davis Robertson,” another major male lead, Gluckman says. “I play a young dancer who mistakenly takes a rehearsal spot usually occupied by someone else. That dancer kicks me out, and Altman told me, `There’s no script. Just play the scene as if it were happening.'”

The dancers sometimes worked 12 hours for six or seven days, surviving their annual fall engagement of “The Taming of the Shrew” during the shoot. Arpino and Teeuwissen credit the dancers and the ballet masters for walking this tightrope. (All 41 dancers and much of the artistic staff are paid talent in the movie, and the company got an undisclosed fee for the rights to its story as part of the film’s $10 million budget.)

Enjoyed working with troupe

Altman says he enjoyed Chicago greatly — he and wife Kathryn stayed at the Four Seasons — and he waxed especially enthusiastic about working with the Joffrey troupe.

“Kathryn and I love Chicago and I only wish we could get here more often,” he says. “We’d really like to bring `The Company’ back here for the next [Chicago] Film Festival.”

Altman says that directing the members in their largely improvised roles was a joyous experience. “It was wonderful. It’s definitely going to change the way I direct from now on. These dancers are great; they’re so talented and so physically adept — and they give so much on camera. When I get to my next film [the HBO production `Mata Hari’ with Cate Blanchett], I’m going to carry over some of the things we tried in `The Company.'”

McDowell, who plays an Arpino-like artistic director, followed his real-life counterpart around, showed up at events about town with him and even took to wearing Arpino’s trademark, wraparound scarves. “My only instruction was to play me not as one of those gross, grim characters he sometimes plays, like in `A Clockwork Orange,’ but more like H.G. Wells in `Time After Time,'” Arpino says.

Arpino is not in the movie, but, after McDowell sat in on a business session between Teeuwissen and Arpino, he and Altman persuaded Teeuwissen to play the executive director in one scene.

“I really agonized,” he says, eschewing every American’s supposed dream to be in the movies. “The character is in an adversarial relationship with the artistic director, and I worry people will assume that’s our relationship in real life. It isn’t.”

After the project got the go-ahead last summer (the Joffrey says Altman delayed a more lucrative Paul Newman movie), Teeuwissen gave up his office in August and relocated to a small, closetlike space to accommodate some 30 movie staffers. But all proved worth it, he says now.

“The U.S. premiere will be here in Chicago [probably next fall], as a benefit for the company, and there will be other benefit screenings in other cities,” he says. “Beyond that, to have the company memorialized in this way, by such a respected filmmaker, will bring us a whole new cachet.”

“I may not be dancing in 10 years,” says young Gluckman. “Think what this will mean to look back on.”

“These days,” Ross says, “we’re all missing those film people very much.”

Plot Outline: Ensemble drama centered around a group of ballet dancers, with a focus on one young dancer (Campbell) who’s poised to become a principal performer.
Directed by:
Robert Altman

Cast overview:
Neve Campbell …. Ry
James Franco …. Some guy
Malcolm McDowell …. Gerald Arpino


A reminiscence I shared on Roger Ebert’s blog:

I know that blew some cobwebs loose for expatriated midwesterners around the world. I can almost taste the smokiness in my mouth, better than the finest of pipe tobaccos. And the twin fragrance of autumnal detritus, the smell of leaf flesh in mild decay after a crisp rain.

Since I am reminiscing about autumn, I have always wondered about an Ebert moment that never happened. I was working on a Robert Altman film “The Company”, filmed almost entirely in the building on the NE corner of Lake and Wabash. The building had been vacated, and was in terrible disrepair. So I’m sure the producers were able to rent space quite inexpensively. (Yet we had Charlie Trotter’s as our caterer for a few weeks – go figure). Ourselves and the Joffrey Ballet chased around the hallways like children. Sometimes I recall it as melancholic working long hours in our hidden palace of urban decay. But mostly I recall the warmth, the building started each day with a chill (there was no working heating at the time) but the film lights quickly provided some heat, and the bodies of the dancers and our crew enjoying our enforced closeness. Aside – I’ve never witnessed such metabolism. The dancers would visit the craft service table and rip through it faster that an angry teamster. Consuming copious amounts of snack food which would cripple a doughy Polish/Irish hybrid like myself, but which fueled the precision instruments which were their impressive bodies. They burned more calories standing still than most people do at a jog.

The atmosphere was loose, as was Mr. Altman’s style. But he was both in control yet inclusive, a difficult balance. At the end of each day he invited the entire crew, dancers, PA’s, producers, everyone-to watch the days rushes. I think it was the first film he had shot on video and was thrilled to be able to do so. Pizza from Giordanos and wine were often served. It felt like an afterschool pizza party after theater class. That sort of thing just doesn’t happen in Hollywood.

On warmer days, Mr. Altman would sometimes sit in the front of the building on a folding chair during breaks, cracking pistachios, just watching the ebb and flow of Wabash street. It was a great image, a film legend camped in front of our building like it was his porch. Just another old man among many watching life pass by on a folding chair in front of a portal all the way down south to Calumet City on that day.

One late autumn day, a warm one – the hawk had a day off, probably visiting friends in the UP that day. I was walking into the building and I saw Roger walking by, our eyes met and I gave him a big smile of recognition but didn’t speak. I have always wondered what would have been if Roger walked by on his lunchtime stroll to Marshall Fields for some Frango Mint icecream pie and a coffee in the Walnut room, and stumbled upon Robert Altman casually cracking nuts on Wabash Ave. To be a fly on the wall on such an autumn day.

Ebert: I hope I smiled back.

That building still held the old demonstration theater of the College of Surgeons, right?