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July 2005
Mad Hot Ballroom : An Interview with Marilyn Agrelo

Mad Hot Ballroom : An Interview with Director Marilyn Agrelo

By Wilson Morales

Currently playing in select theaters is the sensational documentary called "Mad Hot Ballroom". It's about the lives of kids as they journey into the world of ballroom dancing and how it changes their perception on life. The film has won numerous accolades and is well directed by Marilyn Agrelo, who makes her directorial debut after producing so many indie films and documentaries. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Ms. Agrelo talks about her approach to the film and learning some lessons as a first time director.

What were you doing prior to being approached by Amy to direct Mad Hot Ballroom?

Marilyn Agrelo: Well, Amy (Sewell) knew me for a very long time and knew that I was in the production business. I had been a producer for many knew and had worked on other people's shorts and independent films and had done commercials and that kind of stuff. I was a person that she knew from the production world and she was so in love with this little story and came to me and said, "Please, make a documentary about this with me?"

Knowing how long it takes to make a documentary, were you prepared to spend as much time as you did with this film?

MA: As I got more and more into developing the story with her in preproduction, I knew that this would probably eat up a good year of my life, easily. I was really happy to have this gem of a story come to me and it felt like the thing I had been waiting for, so yes, the answer is definitely yes.

How long did it take to scout the schools and then decide on the three schools you chose for the documentary?

MA: We started seriously moving the wheels in motion in preproduction in September of 2003. Amy's idea was to originally follow the Tribeca school again because that was what her article was based on, The Tribeca school of 2003. My idea was that we have a diverse city in New York and the kids in Tribeca tend to be pretty affluent and at least those kids will be going to college. They are all uniformly in the same place, but my idea was to see a kid who is going through this parallel experience that is not set up. Let's look at the outer boroughs and let's look at some kids from disadvantage economic backgrounds. Let's look at all those things. So, we started to scout schools and we looked at about 20-23 schools and for some reason, I had it in my head that 3 was a very good number. Let's contact three schools and we liked the Tribeca kids. The Tribeca kids were really verbal. For the most part, their parents are very well educated. They speak very well and have a lot to say and that was a great thing for the film. We found a school in Bensonhurst and those kids were like my working class kids. They were very uncomplicated and they were from the neighborhood. A lot of them will probably stay in the neighborhood. They were pure little uncomplicated kids who were very enthusiastic. That was a very good ethnic group in that class and I liked the dance teacher and we chose that school. And then we found a school in Washington Heights, P.S 115, and those kids were just so beautiful and I knew that they had done well last year and their teacher, Yomaira Reynoso, I knew would be a great character because she was so driven and so passionate. That felt really right and those were the 3 schools we chose because they all brought something very distinct from each other to the table and I thought that would make a very good contrast.

How open were the teachers and students in letting you film a part of their lives?

MA: We had to do a lot of explaining. The New York City Department of Education initially told us sure in letting us do a documentary about the dance program, but I don't think they thought it through because about two weeks before we were going to shoot, they called and said, "Wait a minute! You guys want to shoot during school hours?" We were like, "Yes". We already had the crew hired and the equipment bought and all this other stuff, and they said, "Sorry, no way!" We had to go through so many hoops and call up everybody that we knew to help intervene to get us in there and it all worked out in the end. We had to get releases from all the parents from every kid. In the end, we ended up with about 750 releases. Some parents were a little reluctant. They didn't know who we were and why we were there and that their kid will be seen on camera and I believe one kid's father did not want her to participate and we ended up cutting around her, but for the most part, everyone was miraculously open to letting us in. Kids opening up in front of us, but also their parents and teachers letting this happen and we had very small camera equipment and we were a small crew of four women. I don't know if that factored in any way but we certainly weren't a threatening presence or a big movie presence at all. We just developed an intimate presence and people sort of just got use to us being around. It was all very close and unobtrusive and it worked in our favor.

What were the challenges as a first time director?

MA: Well, there were so many challenges. I had a specific vision for this film. I wanted the city to be a character in this film and I wanted a lot of things but one thing I did know was to surround myself with strong people so that it would be a collaborative effort. My cinematographer Claudia; I had seen from her reel that her documentary work was of a very sensitive nature. There was something very delicate about it. I can't really explain it but it was the same feeling I wanted here and Claudia and I really worked extensively before shooting to figure out how we were going to shoot this and she helped me a lot. There were so many things for me to learn and it was vastly different than producing and not because I had been in the production world for so long. I know how the unit works together and pulls together and especially working on independent films where the roles are sort of blurred because everything is so low budget and so the producer jumps in often in editorial places where in big features it wouldn't happen. It wasn't a huge leap but in some ways it was. In working with my cinematographer, who is very experienced, we developed a style of shooting the film, which was at a very low angle so that the viewer feels that they are right there with the kids. It's at their eye level. We did things like getting the kids to talk to each other in groups instead of talking to me or the camera and little things like that I learned as we kept going. It was a technique that unlocked them. It made them feel unself-conscious because they were talking to each other and sometimes playing a game, these three little boys from Bensonhurst were more engaged in playing a game than being interviewed, and things like that; little lessons that I was picking up on how to get what I wanted.

What was it like working with the kids?

MA: In the beginning, this film was going to be more about the ball room dance program and I thought the story would really be told mostly from adults because I didn't the kids would be articulate enough to help me really flesh out this story. I wanted this film to play out almost like a narrative film and not use a narrator to be the voices of the characters and I thought those voices would probably have to come from adults; but once these kids started talking about their lives and how they felt about the opposite sex and one kid goes, "Girls are alright. I judge by their inner beauty and their outer beauty." And I was like, "Oh my God", these kids are thinking. They have stuff to say. The girls in Washington Heights, when they talk about the boys that they want to be with, it's different from when the girls from Tribeca talk about them. The girls from Washington Heights are talking about how they don't want drug dealers as boyfriends. The kids revealed so much and I had shot a bunch of interviews with the adults, but I hardly used any of it because the whole film took a turn for me and was almost exclusively in the voices of the kids. They were awesome. They are at a good age. They are not kids anymore but they are not teenagers yet. They are not rebellious. They still have some innocence and they are at the brink of discovering so much and they are still willing to let you in. Working with them was amazing.

What do you hope people get out of this film?

MA: To me, this is not so much a story about dance; yes, it's a dance film in a way because of the dance class and the competition. The dance subject was a vehicle to get from A to Z and I want people to take away with them the essence of what this is. Right now, we are at a place in time where our country is divided politically. We have war talk, and we are in a war, and there are red stages and blue stages and there are a lot of documentaries reflecting the times that we are in. I think that my film has some universal themes about hope and about achieving your dreams; uniting together and these are the things that I would like to resonate with people when they leave the theater.

What's next for you?

MA: Well, I started another documentary a few years ago which I would like to finish. It's about my family. I was born in Cuba and I have a cousin in Havana who's a very famous cinematographer and there's that side of the family and there's the side that came when I was a baby and the documentary is about two opposing views. I have also received some scripts for narrative features that I'm looking at and I think that the very next thing I do is a narrative. It's very exciting.


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