Interview: Sarah Adina Smith talks Birds of Paradise
James R | On 26, Sep 2021
This weekend marks the debut of Birds of Paradise, the latest from Buster’s Mal Heart director Sarah Adina Smith (read our review of the film here).
Based on AK Small’s 2019 novel Bright Burning Stars, it follows Kate Sanders, an ambitious and gifted, if tomboyish, aspiring ballerina from Virginia who, because of her low-income status, is given a scholarship to attend a prestigious ballet school in Paris, France. Upon arriving at the cutthroat, internationally-renowned institution, her confidence and emotional fortitude are tested by a beautiful, mysterious fellow dancer, Marine Durand, who recently lost her brother (and dance partner) to suicide. While confrontational at first, Kate and Marine’s relationship evolves into an emotionally-charged, competitive union beset by lies, sexual awakening and, ultimately, emotional breakthrough as they risk everything to win the school’s ultimate prize: a contract to join the Opéra national de Paris.
We sit down with Sarah to talk ballet, taking on bigger budgets and filming during a pandemic:
Buster’s Mal Heart and The Midnight Swim were both original films, but this is based on an existing book – where did the decision to adapt someone else’s story come from?
Well, full disclosure, the truthful answer is that I went from The Midnight Swim to Buster’s Mal Heart to try and make another film that was perhaps more, you know, even more authentically, authorially mine. And it’s a really hard thing to get those movies financed and off the ground. And I sort of realised that particularly in America – in some ways, I wish I was born in a country with government funding for films and art films and stuff – I needed to find a sweet spot between telling a more commercially accessible story and still being able to explore something meaningful to me and and leave my stamp as an artist. And so I felt like this movie allowed me to try that and to see what it would be like to adapt something that’s perhaps a bit more, you know… I really wanted this to be a delicious pulpy, fun watch, which hopefully surprises you with having something deeper to say at the same time. And another, you know, reason I chose this project was, the author was very generous in letting me have a very loose adaptation. So I still felt like I got to have some authorial voice in in telling the story. I got to jump into the world and the characters that they created, but then really kind of make the story my own.
“The motivation was to tell a story with a bigger budget and bring all my collaborators up with me”
Was the subject matter a factor at all? Are you familiar with ballet?
No, not at all. Actually, I took karate when I was a kid and I was really into sports. I’m kind of a method director in that like, once I’m like, OK, I’m gonna make this thing, I need to find my way in. And so I was like, “I’m gonna take some ballet classes!” And it was so humbling – it’s so much harder than it looks! And not only that, I remember I walked into like the ballet shop because I was like, “OK, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to get the outfit.” I walked in and I was like, “Yeah, you know, can you help me find my size?” And they looked at me, and they were like, “Extra extra large.” It’s just brutal. And then it’s brutal to put that leotard on and actually, like, stare at yourself in the mirror… It’s a really crazy discipline these dancers go through and they’re so hard on themselves. So it was a good experience for me to go through that and it gave me a great deal of compassion for my actors, too, as they they were going through really rigorous training every day for three months.
Did you look for actors who were willing to dance or dancers who could act?
The project really kind of started for me because Kristine Froseth was attached to this book, and I had just worked with her on Looking for Alaska – it gave me such great satisfaction to help her access deeper levels of her craft in that, and I wanted to see if I could continue that journey with her. And there was this moment in rehearsals. Kristine is a very deep well, she’s very introverted in a lot of ways. But somebody turned on some music and I saw her, like, close her eyes and kind of just start to dance and feel the music. And I saw this whole other side of her. So when I heard that there was this dance project she was attached to, even though she had no dance experience, I thought we could use dance as a way to tap into this whole other side of Kristine. And then when I heard Diana Silvers was also attached. I just thought that was very exciting – I had seen her in Booksmart and she was just incredibly charismatic and enigmatic and mysterious in ways that I thought would be really fun to explore. I met with them both and had to make sure as a director that they were going to be really up for this type of challenge, which was really, you know, no small feat. I then decided for nearly all the other roles that I wanted to cast real dancers, and then people who had never acted before and put them on screen for the first time. Because as you can imagine, you know, it’s an artistic exercise, but also very much a technical exercise, executing these dance sequences with people who are not trained dancers. So I also wanted to make sure I was giving myself some leeway and making sure everybody else was a trained dancer.
You’re really good at creating an atmosphere and mood in your films – you’re working again with DoP Shaheen Seth and composer Ellen Reid. Do you guys just have a shorthand now when crafting that?
Definitely. Part of the motivation for me making this movie also was that Buster’s Mal Hart and The Midnight Swim were incredibly tiny budgets. The motivation was to tell a more commercial story with a bigger budget, a little more room to play, and to bring all my collaborators up with me and bring my teammates up so we could grow together. Shaheen’s my cinematographer. I’m also married to him. We’re incredibly close collaborators, and he’s really more than just the cinematographer. He reads the earliest drafts and we’re talking about, you know, we’re talking about so much more – I get a lot more prep time obviously than most directors get with their DoPS! And Jonako Donley, who’s my creative partner, we’ve been producing movies together since the very first weird, experimental film I shot with er dad’s handycam after college, so she she knows me so well and is my muse and bouncing board. And Ellen, my composer, I’ve worked with on almost every project since college. I feel so lucky that it’s so comfortable to have that shorthand and, at the same time, I think we keep pushing each other and challenging each other. We hopefully don’t take each other for granted, but instead keep trying to set our sights on more and more ambitious goals together.
“I think I wrote 50 versions of the script trying to figure out how we were going to finish!”
With a bigger budget came Amazon Studios’ involvement – how did you find that experience? Did it feel like strange new territory?
I was lucky that I had experience in TV before this and so I got a little bit of a taste of what it’s like to work with studios and work with, you know, a lot of different personalities – obviously Buster’s Mal Heart and The Midnight Swim were totally independent films. And so I had to cut my teeth in TV and in understanding the politics, the corporate politics really, of these bigger institutions. But I felt really lucky that the executives we had – Julie Rapaport, Michael Chong and Ally Pennebaker – gave me a lot of trust with this movie in the development stage of the script. And then certainly once we got shut down due to Covid-19 – they were so patient, as I think I wrote 50 versions of the script trying to figure out how we were going to finish!
I want to give them credit for one thing in particular that I think, as a filmmaker, I will always be grateful for: a lot of studios would have would have said “you have to start editing”, because we had shot 23 of our 30 days when we got shut down. And to Julie’s credit, I really made the argument that I didn’t want to start editing until we’d finished what we started – I was really worried that could turn into kind of a value Engineering thing where someone says, “Oh no, we got it. It’s fine. You got enough make the movie with what you have.” Knowing that there was so much more I wanted to do, to Julie’s credit, she allowed me to do that and focus purely on writing new scenes, and writing what I thought we could achieve safely.
Finally, what’s on your watchlist?
I recently watched a movie called Brad’s Status. It’s a Mike White film and I loved it. I mean, I’m such a Mike White fan. And this movie, somehow, I missed it. It came out in 2017. It reminded me of like a really juicy Noah Baumbach movie. Mike White just has this way of observing human behaviour that’s really fresh and unique – and Ben Stiller’s performance is amazing. I recommend it.
Birds of Paradise is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.