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'Birds of Paradise' Writer-Director Sarah Adina Smith on Capturing YA Storytelling with Dancing

Script's Editor interviews Sarah Adina Smith about the adaptation process from source material to script, the importance of how dance numbers served both story and characters, and her filmmaking journey.
Birds of Paradise, Amazon Studios.

Birds of Paradise, Amazon Studios.

Kate Sanders is 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.

Birds of Paradise fully immerses you into the world of dance and how young adults navigate loss, friendship, and family. The camera work is as nimble and flawless as the dancers it captures, and writer-director Sarah Adina Smith does a great job in conducting this locomotive from start to finish. I had the immense pleasure of speaking with her about the adaptation process from source material to script, the importance of how dance numbers served both story and characters, and her filmmaking journey.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: How did this book coming across your desk, and what was the adaptation process like for you?

Sarah Adina Smith: My creative partner Jonako Donley and I have a company called Everything Is Everything. And we were looking for source material that would allow us to make a more accessible, highly sort of entertaining and commercial studio film, because we wanted to make the leap to making films at the studio level. And our previous two features which we love so much, and are so proud of, were a bit more niche and art-house and we just wanted to have a wider reach. My agent sent me this book, it's called Bright Burning Stars, and it was a totally hooky pulpy fast read, I never really thought I'd be making a YA dance film that wasn't really on my radar. But this book was just incredibly kind of compelling. And I showed it to Jonako and she felt the same, we both kind of thought this would be our chance to be able to get a green light from a studio, we thought it was really something that we could sell and get financing for and at the same time, put our own spin on it and really elevate the material.

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We sold the pitch and then before the paperwork could even close, I bought a ticket to Paris, and just flew myself out there and rented an Airbnb for a week and it was during a heat wave, and there was no air conditioning. And I had like a bag of ice and a fan and was just writing at night when it was cool and during the day I was shadowing ballet classes and just trying to get the world of Paris in my ears and came back with the first draft after a week and then we just kept refining it. At that point we had our actresses on board - the two leads Kristine Froseth and Diana Silvers - and I met with each of them when I got back and then just started really trying to tailor the characters both to their strengths but also in ways that I knew I'd be able to push them as a director and help them stretch in their craft.

Birds of Paradise writer-director Sarah Adina Smith on set, Amazon Studios.

Birds of Paradise writer-director Sarah Adina Smith on set, Amazon Studios.

Sadie: The choreography between dancer and camera is so interwoven and greatly crafted. How much prep were you doing with your actors, your DP and your choreographer? And did you ever find moments where maybe it became a bit too meta?

Sarah: That's so funny. We did a lot of prep. First of all, the two actresses were in really intensive training for three months and you there's no way to make a ballerina overnight, but they both dove in headfirst and were really dedicated to the training so we could get them looking as good as possible on camera. But we are not shy about the fact that we had to use dance doubles and so that meant that we had to be even more prepared going into this shoot. We would attend rehearsals with my DP, my camera operator obviously, our choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall and we would study the choreography and try and figure out what would be the best angles where we could sell the dance with the two actresses and what we would need doubles for. There are also visual effects involved, so making sure we were planning very carefully what the visual effects shots were going to be because those are really expensive shots and we wanted to make sure we were using them correctly. But more than anything, I wanted to make sure that every time we were doing a dance sequence that it was furthering the story in some way. I wanted it to feel hypnotic and something you could get lost in watching. It's only interesting if it’s emotionally charged. I was really trying to make choices with camera and my direction to our choreographer that would make sure that it wasn't dance just to like take a break and do some dance but it was always furthering the story.

Birds of Paradise, Amazon Studios.

Birds of Paradise, Amazon Studios.

Sadie: What inspired you to become a filmmaker? And what kind of stories are you driven to tell?

Sarah: I was a visual artist before I was a filmmaker. And I also was studying philosophy and I think after I graduated college, I realized that, for some reason, combining my love of painting and my love of sort of thinking deeply about things, somehow philosophy plus painting equaled film in some ways for me [laughs] I think that's how it came about. I started as a painter, I started making kind of video art first. And it was incredibly experimental. And it took about seven years of writing very bad, esoteric, heady scripts, to understand finally that like, because sometimes the thing that maybe is the most intriguing for me can be the ideas, but that can make for really bad scripts, you need drama, and it needs to be character driven. It took a good seven years of writing terrible things until I think I finally cracked it open and found my voice as a screenwriter and started to understand drama better.

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I think part of the reason I wanted to get into filmmaking and not maybe stay in the world of fine art was that I felt like in success, I dedicated my life to painting, it still somehow caters to the 1% in the galleries. And I wanted to do something a bit more democratic. And same with philosophy had I stayed and gotten my PhD, which I was very tempted to do. But again, in success, you’re kind of talking to just a very select group of people in rooms in ivory towers far, far away. And I liked the idea of being able to speak to a larger audience. My ambitions as a filmmaker are that I really want to speak to the widest audience possible. And at the same time, of course, I want to entertain people first and foremost. But for me, that's not enough. And I didn't get into this to simply entertain people. I'm always trying to reach for something deeper to say, as well. And my hope with this one - you know, this is obviously for a younger audience, it's a YA dance movie, we're embracing that genre - but my hope is least some of the audience will find some deeper meaning as well.

Birds of Paradise writer-director Sarah Adina Smith on set, Amazon Studios.

Birds of Paradise writer-director Sarah Adina Smith on set, Amazon Studios.

Sadie: I get the sense that you're a storyteller and filmmaker, that's always challenging yourself and your craft. What's next in the pipeline for you?

Sarah: Oh, thank you. We have lots of different projects at different stages. There's one project that's really close to my heart, that we're working on casting now that I'm a little too superstitious to say much about. And we're also in post-production on another movie that I shot eight months pregnant in Mexico. I'm editing that now, which is really exciting and very different for me. It's a comedy, which I never really, you know, again, almost like I never thought I'd make a YA dance movie, I don't think I saw myself making a comedy either. But it's been so much fun to discover these other sides of myself.

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Sadie: Any words of wisdom for budding screenwriters or multi-hyphenate who are about to tackle their first feature project - what is something they should embrace as artists?

Sarah: I think it's really important to learn how to listen at every stage. You're going to feel this onslaught of everybody looking to you for answers all the time. But I think that you also want to be really attuned to what the universe is sort of providing you at any given moment and know that, if you're really in a state of listening, rather than dictating, you're going to come up with the most creative solutions.

Birds of Paradise is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.

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