Soho never sleeps. At 7:30 on a Sunday morning, there’s still music and flesh in the ballroom of London’s Soho Revue Bar, the house that porn baron Paul Raymond built. Disconcertingly, the music is a sweet piano rendition of “Begin the Beguine,” and the exposed skin is down to the rehearsal gear worn by the three friendly dancers warming up with pliés and turns. The result is a long way from Soho bump and grind.
Upstairs in the Piano Bar, it is a different story. A crew from ALM Talkies and February Films is jammed into the tiny space, and there's energy in the air – not least since director Abner Pastoll and his director of photography Kathinka Minthe are discussing how best to bathe the room in a deep red light. But the real spark in the room is coming from their subject. Against one wall, a brunette in a red latex dress split way up the right side is miming to playback of a song. She does it in silhouette, then in profile, and eventually looks to camera, backlit by the color of blood to no small effect.
This musical number and the feature film which it climaxes are her brain child. The film is “Dirty Step Upstage;” the lady is 27-year-old actress Amber Moelter. And despite the high style, the fetish outfit and the blood-red wash, she's here to tell a true story. Sort of.
In January 2006, Ms. Moelter found herself in trouble. “I had the chance to go to the MIDEM music festival in Cannes with a producer,” she said. “I can't say ‘no’ to an interesting offer, and at the time I had turned more to singing than acting. So I said ‘yes.’ ”
At MIDEM, things went completely off the rails. She’s coy about naming names, but a miserable sequence of events left Ms. Moelter not only broke and isolated, but also in some fear for her own safety and unable to leave.
“It became a real drama, with things happening every single day,” she said. “But even while it was going on, I was writing every moment down and thinking, ‘Wouldn't it be interesting if someone could film this; if there was a behind-the-scenes video of me in this situation?’ ”
A year later, with her Cannes crisis behind her, Ms. Moelter was looking for a story on which to base a feature film of her own. Discovering her old notes, she realized that she already had a very substantial story to tell.
So right before MIDEM in 2007– one year after what had happened there – Ms. Moelter went back to Cannes with some actors, and “Dirty Step Upstage” took shape. Embracing the opportunities provided by digital video, she shot on the fly with no script and let ideas evolve daily.
“We didn’t shoot a lot in the market itself, and we didn’t recreate everything that happened to me,” she said. “But I wrote in certain aspects, like the singer trying to launch her career. I introduced a love triangle, added blackmail and jealousy and revenge, and I guess my imagination just went a bit crazy. And along the way I just became a de facto director. And a DP, and a writer, all on top of acting in it as well.”
The result is a grainy and disorientating atmosphere, with events only glimpsed and half-understood. Actors audition, characters spy on each other constantly, a producer promises fame. It’s all threats and menace and voyeurism, and it clearly spins-off from Ms. Moelter’s own experience.
“Although 'Dirty Step Upstage' is different from what actually happened to me, the film is still a very dark piece,” she said. “Even I was a little surprised how dark it has become. There’s a lot of rage in it toward men who take advantage of young actresses. And it’s a warning for young girls that such people do exist.”
In Soho, the crew has moved down into the ballroom to shoot a complicated dance routine with Ms. Moelter and three other dancers. It's a demanding environment. “Switch off the air conditioning,” Ms. Minthe called. “It's going to be tough, but I need the hazing.” She gets what she wants.
One of the dancers is Kourtni Lind, who recently made an impact on the American TV show “So You Think You Can Dance,” but whose ties with Ms. Moelter go back much further.
“As a teenager I trained at Dance Tech, a Minnesota dance school owned by Kourtni's mother, and grew very close to Kourtni in my last year of competitive dance. Nearly 10 years later, and having seen her on ‘So You Think You Can Dance,’ it's been fantastic to offer Kourtni her first professional music video gig as well as her first trip overseas.”
Stage smoke is wafted across the set. Everything seems so cramped, the dancers' energy rebounding off the walls. At one point in the routine, a male dancer throws Ms. Moelter bodily toward the audience, into the smoke. She practically lands in their laps, the floorboards rumbling every time she hits the deck.
The choreographer behind this intense routine is Oz Morag, who is sitting at the back of the ballroom and watching closely. He first choreographed for Ms. Moelter at the London Studio Centre in 2003, and was working as the head choreographer for “So You Think You Can Dance?” in Israel when she recruited him to create a dance routine matching the drama in her story. In addition to creating a visible rapport on set, bringing friends such as Mr. Morag and Ms. Lind on board has fueled the creative drive Ms. Moelter is bringing to a very personal project.
The whole of the ballroom stage is draped in hanging scarlet fabric, turning the porn palace into a scene straight out of “Twin Peaks.” Given that Ms. Moelter’s film switches from rough digital video menace to a glossy musical number, this Lynchian dislocation is hardly an accident.
The finale that February Films has been brought in by Ms. Moelter's production company, ALM Talkies, to create is a surreal mirror-referencing of other events in the film, a warped reflection on 35mm of the narrative caught in Cannes on handheld DV. “The song is really just for my character,” Ms. Moelter says. “In the story, she’s taken another song and remade it and is launching her career with it. She didn’t intend to be a singer but she’s going to outdo the other characters in the film, and that’s her dirty step upstage.”
With perfect irony, Ms. Moelter's song may now be taking on a life of its own. “We recorded it in Chicago and got a really great response. We even got guitarist Rowan Robertson, who played with the band Dio when he was a teenager, to do the lead solo. People are talking about actually wanting to release it as a separate song. When we get distribution for the film we might release a music video at the same time, and go on any type of show that might be interested in either filmmakers or in musical acts.” In line with Ms. Moelter’s belief that asking for things will get you them, Mr. Robertson is here too – only hours after flying in from Los Angeles – to take part in the shoot himself.
You wouldn’t know it from the energy level on set now and audacious moves like flying in Mr. Robertson, but Ms. Moelter’s uncompleted film hung in limbo after the initial Cannes shoot and progress toward a 2008 release stalled.
Then two things happened. One was the arrival of Bill Casale, now one of the film's producers. “Billy doesn’t know how to accept the word ‘no,’ ” Ms. Moelter said. “As a woman producer I’ve been well aware sometimes that I've been humored but not taken seriously at all. Now, with a clear vision and a part-finished film and a man who says ‘I’m the producer,’ attitudes can be quite different. But that’s fine. People can think I’m ‘just’ the director – for now.”
The second thing that happened was that Ms. Moelter noticed the calendar. “When I was formatting my trailer, trying to make the complex ‘Dirty Step Upstage’ storyline make sense, I happened to come across ‘sex, lies, and videotape’ and realized I had made something with many similarities. Their trailer and mine run in parallel, both films have two women and two men, and my film is certainly about lies and sex and videotape. I think I was paying homage to it unintentionally. And next year is the 20th anniversary of ‘sex, lies’ winning the Cannes Palme d'or, and obviously Cannes is at the heart of my story and where I shot. So it was all just too perfect. There were all these elements about ‘sex, lies’ that were relevant to my film, and 2009 is just the perfect year for ‘Dirty Step Upstage’ to come out.”
The dance routine ends with Ms. Moelter dancing solo. The latex dress stops swirling, the smiling dancer takes her ovation. Everyone else has vanished, so she has the solo spotlight. She’s also wearing gloves the color of blood.
“I have come to terms with the darkness in this story,” Ms. Moelter said. “We are all using our own names in the piece, and I’m not the prettiest of characters towards the end of the film, but I’m fine with that. I wouldn’t give up any of the experiences I have had, even the bad ones. My worst experience has turned into a movie.”
She bows and exits the spotlight – for now.