In advance of the release of the new documentary Ballet 422 from Magnolia Pictures, our interviewer Anna Tatarska recently sat down with its director, Jody Lee Lipes, to discuss his methods, cinematography, and working with Judd Apatow on his new film.
Note. Some answers have been slightly condensed.
Before we start discussing “Ballet 422” in particular, I was wondering whether you could describe your relationship with dance and music culture? It seems like it is a recurring topic of your directing path so far.
It is a coincidence. I think I’m interested in artists working, people who are really invested in what they do and work really hard at it. It just so happens…ballet dancers and choreographers are some of those people. [My previous doc] NY Export: Opus Jazz with Ellen Bar, who also produced this film – and who’s also my wife – was like a hired-hand job but the thing that really excited me about it and got me invested in it was when I started to learn about Jerome Robbins and just what kind of person and artist he was. His pursuit of perfection, that became a challenge to me. That was what it was about to me. I’ve made two feature-length films. The first one was named Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be The Same and came out in 2010. It was about this young artist, who at the time was about 30 years old, having his first major show in a new York Gallery. Just a process of him putting this show together, all the pressure and strain on his personal relationships… All that stuff leading up to it, it’s just a very emotional, volatile time. Here, we’re kinda doing the same thing: looking at an artist getting ready for a big opportunity and following a process of them putting it together. That one happens to be about fine art and this one happens to be about ballet. But they’re really the same story in a lot of ways, just about very different people.
The world of ballet, especially of New York City Ballet as an institution, seems very hermetic. How did you become an insider enough to be let into it?
Well, a lot of that comes from Ellen, because she is the person who hired me to make New York Export and was a soloist and dancer at NYC Ballet for 13 years. So she was in this re-staging of Opus Jazz with her best friend Sean when they were both still on the core of NYC Ballet. They were like, “Oh, wouldn’t it be cool if this was a film, because it’s about kids on the streets of New York, wearing sneakers and street clothes.” It seemed like a good idea to shoot in the real world. We started trying to put that together and then they hired me to write the script. I co-directed it with Henry Joost and was the cinematographer, so I got to know the ballet world fairly well. I met and worked with a lot of the dancers. When you decide to make a verite project about something, usually the obstacle is the trust part of the equation, people are like: “Why is there a guy with a camera pointed at me? Is it OK for me to be myself and real with him?” But because I knew so many people already, that was a huge help. Tiler [Peck] and Amar [Ramasar], who are both dancers in Ballet  played big parts in Opus Jazz. Other dancers knew I was involved in that project, so that really helped too.
And how did Justin Peck become your protagonist?
I had seen him a couple of times backstage while working, but never talked to him or even said “Hi.” But Ellen was moderating a program at the Guggenheim that was about Justin’s work and I went to this thing because my wife – girlfriend at the time – was doing it. I was really fascinated by Justin for a lot of reasons. “Whoa, this guy is really smart!” – it struck me. It was different than I thought it would be. I was curious: why is this so engaging? Usually, ballet is a little bit boring and he seemed to have found a way to get around that. And when I actually saw that ballet that he was talking about at the Guggenheim, I was blown away. It was exciting, entertaining to watch. There’s not a full narrative, but implications of narrative to latch onto, which is very helpful when you’re not a ballet expert. But also, people who are in this world, who are savvy and cultured in that way, are also really excited about it. So it reaches both audiences. [After that] I went up to Ellen and the other producer of this film, Anna Rose Holmer, and I was just like “Hey, guys, did you shoot any footage of him while working?” I thought they might have, ’cause that was his first major thing for the company. They didn’t. I suggested next time he does something, we should shoot it, ’cause 30 years from now, that’s gonna be amazing stuff to have. And a couple of weeks later, all of a sudden, a choreographer had to drop out of a project, and he was the replacement. I went to him with Ellen and asked whether we could try and shoot with him for a day or two and if he doesn’t like the way it feels, or we think it’s boring, we’ll stop. He was okay with it. And it never stopped.
What were your expectations? Has your collaboration met them?
Justin was totally comfortable with us shooting, not being… weird about it? [laughs] I just feel like he was genuinely letting me in and there wasn’t anything he was hiding. That’s just the way he is: very blank physically, not being stressed out or flustered, does his job very methodically, one step at a time. He’s not the most verbal or expressive person in terms of how he’s feeling at every moment. What’s interesting is because he’s blank, people often project the way they feel onto him and they’re so sure they are right.
He does feel contained, but on the other hand, the art that speaks through him is extremely expressive. It’s a fascinating paradox that immediately makes the film more intriguing.
I think it’s all true. But it wasn’t luck. It was Ellen, I, and Anna. I literally got to see him work with a dancer on stage in front of 200 people and to see how he behaved being watched, doing his job, he handled it very, very well. Then I got to see his work, his first big opportunity. Then watched the head of the company make a speech about him after the fact and how he reacted to that… which was, again, totally blank – in a good way [laughs]. There were a lot of signs telling me I could watch this guy for a while.
You are an experienced cinematographer. What was your visual concept for this film? There’s music and dance here, but you were not making a musical.
The way I think about verite filmmaking is like the visual part is non-existent. It’s not what it’s about, it’s about the story, about being in the right place at the right time. I don’t really care how it looks. And in terms of music and tempo, it’s more about moving it forward, less about choreography. Also because this is not a film about dancing. It’s not about telling the story of the dance that’s happening in the film, but what’s important is watching someone do their job. Whereas Opus Jazz was about the dance and telling the story of choreography, this is kind of the opposite. The end result, the product, is not that important here. I don’t want to make people feel like they’re robbed of that, but it’s not the focal point.
Is switching sides from cinematography to directing easy for you in general?
I actually don’t really feel that way. When I’m on a project, I wanna be on as a DP, I am making sure the camera is in the right place to tell the story, making editorial decisions on set, making sure that things feel the right way. I’m thinking about what you see and what you don’t see. When I think about [aesthetics], it’s usually because I don’t care much about what I’m shooting…
…So that happens?
Yes. I mean, I do commercials… I’m not always doing things for creative reasons, it’s my job…
Of course, prestige doesn’t fill the belly… Tell me this: Justin is amazingly focused. Is this a feature you share or has filming him taught you some?
I think so. I think I’m pretty focused myself. Part of the reason why I’m making movies about stuff like this is because I wanna be better at making things. It’s part of the reason why I’m a DP too, because I get to see – really intimately and closely – how other people make creative decisions and handle themselves, behave, treat other people when they’re the center of the project. I’m always trying to learn and I definitely have learnt from Justin. What I admire about him the most is that he’s always working on the next thing. And it’s not really a struggle for him. He’s working on this really huge ballet right now that’s about to premiere next week [“Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes,” which Peck choreographed for the David H. Koch Theater as well as partly subbing for an injured dancer.] and he’s already deep in three other projects. Totally unfazed. For most people, it takes a lot to get that one idea, to do it. Having more than one thing going on is overwhelming. To him, that’s just how he is. Lena Dunham is a little bit like that as well. That’s really admirable to me.
Now that you’ve mentioned Lena, you DP-d Tiny Furniture and went on to work on Girls, where you met Judd Apatow, whose film [Trainwreck] you then DP-d. It seems like once you’ve worked with someone, you stick together.
I think anybody’s like that in any way. In the film business, if you find someone you work well with and fill a role for each other and support each other, you stick together. ‘Cause it’s really hard to find people like that, who are on the same page as you.
At what stage is your collaboration with Judd?
I just started doing the color for Trainwreck this week, the finishing. I’m still working with him in that capacity. I don’t think Judd has ever used the same cinematographer twice… but I hope we get to work together again. We’ll see what happens!
When you’re directing and someone else’s DP-ing, do you find it bothersome?
A lot of times, people think it’s this weird thing: if a DP directs, it must be tough for the other DP. I think that’s a really weird [attitude] because when Warren Beatty directs a film, everybody’s like “Oh, he must be great with actors because he’s an actor.” I think about it more in that way. I have the language, I have an experience to really communicate with the DP. Sometimes when I watch other directors talk to their DPs, I cringe a little bit and think they should rather use a different word, or that they’d get a better response like this. I’m sure they were thinking the same thing about me when I was directing actors because I lacked experience at that. But just like any DP-director relationship, if you find the right partner, it will work well. Any problems I had in the past came from me, actually not being controlling enough.
Are you committed to the “indie” zone of the film business, or has stepping out of it been an encouraging experience?
Judd’s movie was a studio film and I got to see this world, once at least. It didn’t seem that different to me than working on indies or commercials. I’m actually more of a studio person in a way, in terms of the scale I think, maybe less in terms of the content I’m attracted to as a director. Hopefully I get to direct a proper, scripted feature film soon. And if that turns out to be a studio film that’s great. And if it’s an independent one – that’s great too. I don’t see a huge divide between these two things.