When a video of an ebullient dancing girl in a funky jacket hit the Internet last January, it immediately struck a nerve. Billed as “a music video of epic proportions,” that eight-minute clip of a ballerina gone rogue on the streets of New York was merely a teaser of what was to come. Nearly a year later, director Jacob Krupnick’s vision of creating a feature-length music video has been realized with Girl Walk // All Day, which was released in installments on Gothamist.com and in full at an event yesterday in Brooklyn.
A 70-minute film-cum-video set to mash-up superstar Girl Talk’s latest album, All Day, Girl Walk // All Day follows three central characters as they embark on a dawn-till-dusk improvisational dance through the Big Apple. Starting in an austere ballet studio, The Girl (Anne Marsen) breaks free of her stifling routine, hops on the Staten Island ferry and boogies the day away, hitting iconic sites such as Wall Street, Yankee Stadium, and Grand Central Station before instigating a giant dance party in Central Park. Along the way she encounters The Gentleman (Dai Omiya), a dapper tap dancer, and The Creep (John Doyle), a lascivious street dancer and, offscreen, becomes a New York phenomenon. Marsen’s moves attracted scores of fans, including the producers of legal drama The Good Wife, who dropped the dancer into a cameo in one episode and then made more room for her as a recurring character in the show.
For Krupnick, the inspiration for Girl Walk // All Day came a few years earlier when he met amateur dancers Marsen and Doyle for another project, Move. Excited by their dance styles, both rooted in professional study but each totally unconventional, he was compelled to create a long-form dance piece that would showcase their particular skills. When, last fall, he heard the latest album from Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis), a frenetic and highly danceable mash-up of different genres and eras of music, he knew he had the perfect soundtrack for his homage to dancing like no one is watching.
Funded with nearly $25,000 generated from 577 supporters through Kickstarter, the production of the film, which is not officially affiliated with Girl Talk, was a guerilla effort of epic proportions. With a staggering 50 shoot days in just over two months and a regular crew of only three–Krupnick, a second cameraman, and a PA to carry around a boom box–the film was shot on HD SLRs, and equipment, including a Steadicam, was limited to what could be schlepped around town by bike.
Budget considerations aside, Krupnick says the tiny crew also allowed them to be as invisible as possible to passersby, making the dancers seem fully integrated into their surroundings.
“I wanted the combination of dance and music to glorify the dancers’ movement and make them constantly noticeable,” says the 28-year-old director from his Brooklyn home, describing the fluid filming style as “being on the tail of the dancers as they swim through the street.” “We chose not to show a lot of reactions on the street because I really wanted to hang with the dancers and for it to be more about their internal story. To have their interpretation of the world normalized so that all the commuters not paying much attention would become the weirdoes in some way.”
In speaking with Krupnick about the film’s many production details, it became clear that there are life lessons in his experiences making a feature-length music video with few resources, no permits, and a passion for unbridled public displays of dance. With that in mind we’ve extracted five essential insights from Girl Walk // All Day.
1. Screw the permits, make a statement
While remaining inconspicuous was one good reason to roll with a small crew, the fact that they had no filming permits was another. The decision to cut the red tape was in part one of convenience as some early attempts to get permits failed. But the backbone of the decision, says Krupnick, came from his feelings about public space.
“What the film is trying to do on a symbolic level is make a case for people being able to do what they want in public space and defend what public space is. I think that New York is probably the most regulated land in our country, outside of something like the Pentagon. People who live here basically consent to the fact that you can’t play music outside, you can’t dance wildly, you can’t have a BBQ in a park. There are all these restrictions that become invisible if you live here and you acclimate,” says Krupnick, who wrote his university thesis on the influence of shopping architecture on public space while studying sociology and urban studies at Vassar College. “So, although the film is an incredibly good time, I think that for people who do think about some of these things, about what the city is really like and what it’s like to live here, it offers a lot of things to think about.”
2. Outsmart, outwit, etc.; just know the rules
So, was there much interest in their unpermitted antics from law enforcement officials? But of course, this is New York after all. Still, Krupnick says he remained beyond reproach by knowing–and bending–the letter of the law.
“We were very careful at the beginning to learn the law inside and out in terms of exactly the kind of equipment you can have and be considered a non-commercial operation, and therefore someone who can’t be shut down,” he says.
Private buildings, such as the Plaza, proved most difficult to shoot in, though a polite request, a super-fast tap sequence, and a wink-and-nod from a benevolent security guard did the trick. And a scene in front of the New York Stock Exchange understandably drew “an incredible number of exchanges with police officers” who turned out to be more curious than concerned.
It was for the film’s climactic final scene, however, that Krupnick had to get crafty. Where his crew of three could easily fly under the radar, he needed more cameras to shoot over 100 people dancing, which would have required a permit. And getting 100 people to dance euphorically required music. Rather than draw unwanted attention with a boom box, Krupnick brought in a saxophonist friend to break out some smooth, innocuous jams to the same cadence as “All Day.”
3. Be prepared for unexpected pivots
For an improvisational dance film without any dialogue, GW//AD was remarkably scripted, with directions ranging from general moods over the course of a track, to specific movements and reactions at specific points of music. Within those parameters the dancers had the liberty to add their own flavor, yet it was an unceremonious ejection from Yankee Stadium that proved most pivotal.
As part of the narrative, The Girl tries desperately to get people to dance with her, so at Yankee stadium Marsen sought to get a crowd reaction by jumping on a railing, dancing, and running through the crowd. Naturally. She was swiftly grabbed by security whose reason stopping her was that she was scaring the fans. Chants of “bring her back” suggested otherwise.
Krupnick says that his reaction in the moment was to follow her and the guards at a distance while she was getting booted from the building, shooting video with a small point-and-shoot camera to avoid detection– and ejection.
“We decided to build that into the film,” he says, adding that the incident happened six weeks into shooting. “Something like that was a good example of evolving the story so this gem makes sense within it.”
4. Don’t count on New Yorkers to give a damn
If dealing with the unpredictable is important, so is dealing with dashed expectations. It’s not unreasonable for someone to assume that the antics of GW//AD would draw some sidelong glances. In fact, Krupnick anticipated strange looks and had planned specific dance reactions to them. Instead, nothing.
“People were totally disinterested and stone-faced 99% of the time,” he says.
Given that he intended to shoot and edit the film with few crowd reaction shots in order to focus on the dancers, it wasn’t a huge concern. Still, there were a few moments where the complete apathy was a bit disappointing.
“At one point, I wanted John as The Creep to storm 5th Avenue and really create a scene among the shoppers. So we filmed on a really beautiful Saturday and there were just scores of people outside of Bergdorf Goodman. Here he is tearing it up through the very wide sidewalks on 58th street with some pretty vulgar dance moves and no one is paying attention at all,” says Krupnick. “There’s the occasional glance because his moves were so large and it was pretty easy to see that we had a camera because I was standing on top of a trash can a block of way with a zoom lens, but we were so amazed that he didn’t have opportunities to interact with people.”
Happily, one very important someone gave a damn about what was going on. Famed Times Style photographer Bill Cunningham caught a glimpse of the action and ended up shooting a series with John Doyle that ended up in the Times.
5. Don’t underestimate the sweat equity
A photographer by trade, Krupnick was motivated to create this ambitious project by “videos that look totally pro for bands that you just know can’t have that much money”. Indeed, his familiarity with and access to HD SLRs meant the tools were at hand. He just had to grab a few crew members, figure out how to use master the Steadicam, and start dancing in the streets, right? Well, not so much.
“In my personal work as a photographer I’ve tended to work on things alone. But my sense of how many layers there are to the filmmaking process and how much help you need, couldn’t really have been more mis-estimated,” he says, noting he wasn’t prepared for the amount of time needed to personally handle detailed minutiae, asking for endless favors, and staying motivated. “I didn’t think it could just be an army of one, but I spent time much differently than I anticipated. I’m certain that I will never make another film without a wiser sense of what I need to actually make it.”
Still, the effort was all worth it, particularly considering one of his goals was to create something that commanded attention. “I’ve just always loved the music video format and I wanted to see if we could make something that could hold your attention over a really long period of time.”