BATTLE OF THE YEAR
Finding the Dream Team
The cast of Battle of the Year combines experienced actors with top street dancers to create a visceral and authentic picture of the reality of life as a b-boy. "It's a really good mix," says Amy Lo. "The actors were really respectful of the dancers, who are most often the unsung heroes in a situation like this, but we give them all their moment at center stage."
Josh Holloway plays Jason Blake, the down-and-out coach who redeems himself as he teaches the boys to trust him and each other enough to become a real team. "I wasn't familiar with Josh from his role on 'Lost,' but from the moment I met him, I just liked him," says Lee. "He's a really genuine person and very professional in his approach to the work. During rehearsals, I was blown away by the way he redefined the coach. He really dug deep into this character and brought such depth and humanity to it. A really good coach is a mentor and Josh achieved that with a lot of the guys on screen, as well as off camera."
Holloway admits to being a closet b-boy enthusiast since his days as a high-school basketball player. "I've been into dancing my whole life, but I never threw it out there in public," he says. "My basketball team had some really good b-boys on it and we even integrated moves into our warm-ups. When I saw the documentary, I was astonished by the athleticism and the evolution of b-boying."
But even more than the dancing, he was drawn to the coach's story. "It grabbed me," says the actor. "I know from my own experiences how much a coach can shape your life. In this case, the coach has as much to learn as the team."
Two years before the story starts, Blake lost his family in a car wreck. "He just checked out and became a serious drunk," Holloway says. "It's a painful struggle to come back. He's an alcoholic and he can't let go of that yet, because it's his survival mechanism."
Eventually, he finds a scribbled note in an old coaching notebook that gives him the key to reaching his team. "It's something his wife wrote years ago," says Holloway. "Change how you think, change your life. He rediscovers that and implements it in his coaching. The difference now is that it's being reflected back on him."
Taking his role to heart, Holloway worked with the dancers to bolster their confidence in their untried acting skills. "Josh was really generous with his time and his spirit and his energy," says Lee. "I think the b-boys really felt that and appreciated it."
"I was just so inspired by every one of these guys," the actor says. "The things they can do physically are amazing, but their spirit and the energy are even more so. As someone who is a fan of this type of dance, I was blown away by what these kids could do. It was truly like they were in an anti-gravity room.
"And Benson brought passion and an incredible depth of knowledge on this subject," he adds. "He didn't just make a dance movie. He's trying to tell the deeper story of this culture and what it grew from."
Blake's revitalization is engineered by his old friend Dante, the hip hop impresario played by Laz Alonso. "Dante offers Blake this job trying to pull him out of his depression," says Vinson. "Laz brings a lot of humor and swagger to the part. It's a lot of fun to watch him work."
The two characters go back 30 years to their days on dance crew together. "Dante became a hip hop mogul," says Lee. "Blake became a coach for a championship basketball team. But losing his family sent him spiraling out of control and into alcoholism. Dante really wants put together a team to go to BOTY, but he also sees this as an opportunity to help his friend."
Alonso's performance redefines the image of the hip hop mogul, says the director. "The cliched portrait of a blinged-out record executive is over, because hip hop has evolved. Moguls like Jay Z and Russell Simmons are extremely intelligent, savvy and cultured. That's what we needed to see in Dante. No one could have personified that better than Laz. He's a phenomenal actor who figured out a very refreshing take on the character."
Alonso grew up b-boying and starred in the sensational urban dance film, Stomp the Yard, but even he is awed by the new wave of breakers. "Being in this film is something really special for me," he says. "It takes me back to when I was a kid, although this is a whole different level of b-boying. These guys are doing all kinds of aerial work, that we never dreamed of. You're going to see how it has continued to grow over the years."
The actor brings his unique charisma to the character. "Dante has a certain swag," says Alonso. "He's totally confident in the way that comes when you know how successful you are. He's an alpha and he knows it."
Dante has noticed that while the rest of the world has embraced b-boying, the U.S., where it originated, no longer has respect for the art form. "At BOTY, we are getting our butts handed to us by the Koreans or by the Russians or the French every year," Alonso says. "He decides to put together a Dream team to bring the title back where it belongs and the same time reach out to an old friend who is in trouble."
Alonso says he enjoyed working with Holloway. "Josh is a professional all the way," he says. "So many of his scenes are essentially monologues and he found a way to make every speech sound brand new, so I have a lot of respect the work that he's done in this film."
Blake is assisted in his coaching duties by a wisecracking junior member of Dante's organization named Franklyn, played by Josh Peck. The actor, best known for his role on the Nickelodeon sitcom, "Drake & Josh," kept the laughter going both on camera and between takes.
"Josh Peck has a natural exuberance," says Lee. "He channels old-time comedians like Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, and Jackie Gleason. He is one of the funniest actors I've ever met. The whole crew was rolling on the floor at his improvisations. He is also extremely intelligent and really funny at the same time. He brings a levity to the film that's very important. Blake is pretty hardcore in his training, and Franklyn adds a bit of comic relief to those scenes."
"I love watching Josh Peck tear it up," says Holloway. "He threw out things all the time that weren't scripted and I would have to try to hold it together. He's just funny as hell."
Peck appreciated the opportunity to create a character in his own image. "Everyone was so generous in allowing me to bring my own spirit to the part," he says. "Benson was always such a calm force on set. It was great getting to see him spread his wings and come into himself as a director in his first feature. I fell in love with the documentary, so I was really happy to be a part of this."
Growing up in New York's Hell's Kitchen, Peck was familiar with hip hop culture. "Sure, I'm a white Jewish kid," he says. "But in my neighborhood, when you graduate from Hebrew school, you're inducted into the Run-D.M.C. boot camp. It was always a part of my life and I love it."
While attending the Professional Performing Arts School in Mahattan, Peck studied musical theater. "I'm also experienced in Bar Mitzvah dancing, quinceanera dancing and weddings. Anywhere dancing is promoted and appreciated, I'm involved somehow," he says. "I always had a little bit of rhythm, perhaps more than people give me credit for. But I dance mostly by myself, alone, and it centers me."
In this film, however, he remains on the sidelines, dance-wise. "Franklyn is a dancer in his heart, but nowhere else in his body," says Peck. "He's not the most physically gifted cat in the world. I think he would love to be a dancer, but he became an assistant at Dante's company instead. When Blake signs on as coach, Franklyn becomes his assistant because he has so much knowledge about dance and the hip hop world."
Peck believes audiences will be blown away by the level of dance in Battle of the Year. "These dancers are like superheroes," he marvels. "They are so talented and at the apex of what they do. It is such a different world than anything I've ever experienced. Dance is an equalizer. There's no advantage because of who you are or where you came from. It's purely based on skill and on how hard you've worked."
At Franklyn's urging, Dante brings in Stacey, a choreographer who works with the crew to refine their routines. "We wanted to redefine some stereotypical characters as much as we did the urban dance genre," says Lee. "Stacey is not the usual babe-in-the-woods who comes from classical dance. She's an empowered and talented choreographer who can throw down just as hard as the guys. It's beautiful to see that synergy and have a character that avoids the typical clichÃ©s. She doesn't bring Blake back to life by becoming his romantic interest. They are comrades working together on a mission. She shows him that it's OK to take a look around and see life again. The way that they handled it was really beautiful and very natural."
Ten years of jazz and contemporary dance training prepared actress Caity Lotz to play the role. She began b-boying at the age of 17 and performed with the San Diego-based company, Culture Shock. "It was all hip hop and breaking," she says. "It was the first time I saw b-boys flipping and all that stuff. I've always been very acrobatic, and combining that with the dance drew me in. It's such an in-your-face performance style and so much fun."
Her character faces obstacles almost immediately, first with Blake, who doesn't see the need for a choreographer, then with the boys themselves, who assume the sweet-faced blonde is in over her head. "My character has a lot to overcome," Lotz says. "Blake knows b-boys and he knows teams. But he finally realizes that the performance is all about choreography. She brings that aspect of it. She is an amazing choreographer and she knows the guys need her, which helps her handle them."
Grammy-winning recording artist Chris Brown plays Rooster, one of the most outstanding dancers on the Dream team. "I wasn't really familiar with Chris Brown's music, but I was completely blown away by his talent," says Lee. "Chris is the consummate performer. He really respects the craft of b-boying. He trained rigorously and his natural swagger is perfect for Rooster. He owns this character and there's no doubt that he's one of the best dancers out there today, but he's one of the boys on the set. He doesn't play the diva card at all."
Rooster becomes one of the group's leaders, which the filmmakers say came naturally to Brown. "Chris brings so many things to this role like this," according to Vinson. "It was a privilege to watch him work and he was a lot of fun to have on set."
Brown has been interested in b-boying since he was a kid and his natural aptitude for dance helped him pick up the finer points relatively quickly. Still, he says this was the most difficult dancing he has ever done. "Nobody's faking anything here," says Brown. "Working with these guys was inspiring for me. They really pushed me to do my best because they were so serious. They were always willing to show me how to do a move and they were really encouraging. I learned a lot and I think I walked away from this movie with a lot of new friendships."
Brown says he loves acting and is always open to an interesting part, but he was hesitant to accept a role in a film about dance, especially since he is already well-known for his musical performances. "The script was incredible, though," he says. "The characters and the story made me want to be a part of it."
Brown quickly learned that there's a big difference between performing and battling. "When I go out on stage in front of 15,000 people, I know they came to see me," he says. "Battling is ten times as hard because you face the judgment. If you mess up, they let you know."
The filmmakers were especially sensitive to representing real life b-boys when it came to casting the dancers in the film. The director and producer held four all-day sessions in several cities, bringing in dozens of potential team members to compete for a limited number of spots, just as the characters do in the film.
"To make a b-boy movie, we needed to have b-boys in it," says Lee. "What they do is very difficult. We couldn't just hire actors or other types of dancers, because it is so specific. We had auditions throughout the United States and we brought in some of the best b-boys around to play our Dream team."
Winning the trust of the b-boy community was a slow process. When breaking was the biggest pop-culture fad of the 1980s, many movies tried to portray the culture and most got it spectacularly wrong. "The b-boy community became very insular," says Lee. "It went back underground in order to evolve. Because their image and their culture has been misrepresented in films for so long, b-boys are very skeptical about movies. They are not trustful of media people."
But the reputation Lee built with Planet B-Boy opened doors for the production. "They understood what I was trying to do," he says. "When word got out in the community, they were very supportive."
The majority of the dancers in the cast are actual b-boys who underwent an extensive casting process that included documentary-style interviews to assess their personalities and on-camera charisma, as well as dance auditions. "We asked them why they became b-boys and what it all means to them," says Lo. "Of course, we had them come in and dance. The two things together allowed us to see where they were coming from and helped give us ideas and inspiration for the characters.
"It was important to us that they represent themselves," she adds. "They don't have a much of a voice in movies or in mainstream culture. They don't get featured front and center."
Using footage of the interviews and dance auditions, Lee and Lo put "screen tests" of each promising dancer to show to the rest of the production team at Screen Gems. The final crew includes performers with colorful names like Lil Adonis, Kilowatt, Mayhem, Abstrak, Gillatine, SamO, Flipz and Do Knock. "A b-boy name is pretty much everything to a b-boy," says Do Knock, whose given name is Jon Cruz. "I remember the first time I heard a person on the East Coast call me Do-Knock. I thought, I never even met that guy before and he knows my name. It's like a stamp. When people start calling you by your b-boy name, you know you've made it."
He says that he has known many of the dancers on the shoot for years, if not personally, at least through their postings on the Internet. "It's just crazy to see them on this film with me. It makes me happy because I feel so connected to them. B-boying is like one family. We have one voice. I can go to Korea and not speak a lick of Korean, but I can chill with one of the b-boys out there, because of that connection."
Of the 13 dancers who make the final cut, Do Knock is the one who challenges Rooster for leadership of the crew. "Do Knock is actually a famous b-boy," says Vinson. "He's in the documentary and he is really an exceptional talent. He moves like nobody I've seen. Do Knock, the character, and Rooster have an ongoing beef that may or not be about a girl. They're very competitive and split the team into two different factions."
Rooster and Do Knock's competition threatens to derail the team before they ever get started, says Lee. "They are two guys who need to let go of their egos and transcend the bickering. Ego is a very dangerous thing on a team like this. It gets in the way of your performance, your concentration and your teamwork. Their story is about letting go of that in order to work for a greater good."
The filmmakers were confident that they had great dancers and gave them the support they needed to blossom as actors. "We focused on finding engaging personalities who were comfortable in front of the camera," says Lee. "Most of them had never acted before, but because they play characters or take on different personas when they dance, they understood performing.
We rehearsed for about two months, split between dancing and acting. One of the toughest things for any performer is to be themselves on camera and that's what we wanted from them. That was integral for these guys to achieve the level of acting that they did in the film. And they far exceeded what we expected of them."
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