The Long, Unlikely Road to Austin

Dayna Hanson’s Improvement Club premieres at SXSW. 

It’s a warm Saturday evening in 
Austin and the first week of SXSW is underway. This is the indie movie portion of the famous indie music festival, and a strong Northwest contingent is at the Alamo Ritz Theater, waiting for the premiere of Improvement Club.

Along with writer/director Dayna Hanson, producer Mel Eslyn, cinematographer Ben Kasulke and other member of the cast and crew, a sizable audience has shown up. Hanson, known in Seattle primarily as a dancer, choreographer and performance artist, sits in the darkened theater nervously awaiting the opening of her first feature film.

Improvement Club is a mockumentary—“super hybrid, absurd and surreal,” as Hanson describes it—and part of its premise is that, unable to connect with critics in New York, the movie finds a home in the freak-friendly Northwest. Would Austin get the joke?

“When you’re performing, you feel like there’s something you can do,” she says a month later, over coffee in downtown Seattle. “You can do your best, you can knock it out, you can really kill it. In a movie, it’s like, ‘I’ve already done it.’”

Improvement Club turned out to be just weird enough for the SXSW crowd. The audience was engaged, gathering steam with their laughter as the film progressed.

“It could’ve gone another way,” Hanson says. “To be an artist, you’re ready for anything. To feel that all these things are lining up—we’re here, we’re in the theatre, it’s Saturday night and people are enjoying it and laughing—felt pretty good.”

That the premiere came together at all was a symphony of last-minute cooperation and plenty of burnt midnight oil.

Improvement Club is a fictionalized adaptation of the making of Gloria’s Cause, a dance theatre performance originally commissioned by On the Boards in 2009. Gloria’s Cause tells unsung stories of the American Revolution, like the woman who masqueraded as a Minuteman and what George Washington really thought of his troops. It also features a woman (Peggy Piacenza) as a bikini-wearing, philosophical bald eagle.

The principal cast appears in the theatre piece and the film as dancers and their backing band, Today! The film is partially based in reality, featuring goofy dance rehearsals, backstage antics and emotional developments true to the making of Gloria’s Cause. It also explores the self-doubt that plagues many artists à la Waiting for Guffman.

Hanson submitted an unfinished Improvement Club to several festivals for consideration in the fall of 2012, though she had her heart set on premiering it at SXSW. “The personality and the spirit behind it is one that I really feel an identification with,” she says. In mid-January, Eslyn called her with the news that not only had it been accepted to SXSW, it was also one of eight films included in the narrative film competition.

There was just one problem: It wasn’t done.

Needing sound mixing, color correction and titles, Hanson gathered a crack team of experts to polish the film. Sound designer Vinny Smith happened to be available during the window between the SXSW acceptance and the deadline for the final version. Hanson learned from him very quickly about foley processes—the re-recording of music, dialogue and the sound of dance steps to synch with the visual. “It’s surprising how much of the sound you hear in the film happens after it’s been shot,” she says.

With post-production finished, Hanson FedExed the final version of the film to New York, where it was converted into a digital cinema package (DCP), the format festivals require for competition entries. With a fast turnaround, the conversion company sent the film directly to SXSW to meet the deadline.

When Hanson and Eslyn arrived in Austin several days before the March 9 screening, their LA-based PR firm had scheduled interviews with blogs and the local NBC affiliate. They also had an invitation to a filmmaker’s luncheon at From Dusk Till Dawn director Robert Rodriguez’s studio.

“His word to us was ‘I hope you fail miserably,’ and I think everyone got it,” Hanson says. “It was the most well-intentioned welcome to the experience that’s not about making a deal, it’s about doing what’s in your heart.”

Hanson and Eslyn postered around town every morning—only to find their flyers covered up by the afternoon. They enlisted a local friend to dress in Revolutionary War-era garb and march down 6th Street handing out fliers. The night of the premiere, their pavement-pounding had brought in an enthusiastic crowd.

“Into the third act, people were vocalizing over things, small details, and I felt, This is registering,” Hanson says. “It’s this strange film and people are right there with it.”

Principal dancer and collaborator Wade Madsen’s flight was delayed in Denver, so he missed the opening. He attended the following day’s screening with Piacenza.

“Everything from the rough cut I had seen had changed a lot,” he says. “It became more of a movie—an interesting movie.”

“Anybody who makes a feature film, hats’ off,” says Hanson. “I can’t even believe it gets done.”

Pictured above: Dayna Hanson and Wade Madsen in Austin. Photo by Mel Eslyn.

Improvement Club shows at SIFF on Tuesday, 6/4 at 7 P.M. (SIFF Cinema Uptown) and Wednesday, 6/5 at 4:30 P.M. (Harvard Exit). Check out the trailer below!


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