Dance the night away with Audrey Rumsby’s ‘Barry & Joan’
Audrey Rumsby’s new documentary is celebrating life, love, and dance with an eye towards joy. Rumsby is a filmmaking based in California who was deeply inspired by the English dancers Barry and Joan Grantham. Rumsby took ‘eccentric dancing’ lessons with Granthams when she was 20 years old, and now she wants to highlight their 70 year relationship with film.
Over the course of three years, Rumsby shot her film in London and brought her vision to life. We were lucky enough to speak with the talented filmmaker, and she gave us the scoop on everything Barry & Joan.
Tell us about your history in filmmaking. How did you start your journey?
I got into filmmaking out of necessity. My background is in theatre. My dad was a professional actor in England before I was born, and when I was a child my family founded American Youth Shakespeare in Silicon Valley. The company has been going strong for almost 19 years now, and gave me the opportunity to be an actor, choreographer, director, set painter, and producer for many many productions in my youth. When I turned 18 I went to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and it was from there that I met Barry and Joan. I knew that their story had to be told, and since my background is in theatre my immediate thought was to write a play about their life. I realized very quickly that a play wasn’t the right medium. I didn’t want to hire actors to play Barry and Joan. I wanted to show them in reality. So I thought a documentary would be perfect! I figured out the basics from doing a lot of reading and becoming acquainted with filmmakers I knew. I was a skilled director and producer already, so I figured I could teach myself how to manage the process and hire people to do what I couldn’t. That’s a philosophy that’s stayed with me since the beginning. I believe I can accomplish any project as long as I focus on the things I’m very good at, while hiring and trusting people who are talented at the things I’m not. That’s how everything started.
Your new documentary is about your former dance teachers, Barry and Joan Grantham. What inspired you to tell their story?
They inspired me to have a successful outlook on my life as a creative and as a human being, and that’s something that applies to everyone. I felt that if I was so inspired by them, it was likely that many others would be inspired too. It seemed a terrible shame to me that Barry and Joan had been under the radar for so long. I experimented bringing actor and dancer friends with me to their workshops and sure enough, everyone I knew couldn’t believe they hadn’t heard of these amazing people before. They lamented not knowing about them so much earlier. So did I! I felt it was my responsibility to make sure that their story was told and spread to as many people as possible.
What did you learn about Barry and Joan during filming that you didn’t previously know?
Their stamina is incredible! For two people in their late 80s at the time, it was already obvious from my brief interactions with them that they were unusual people. However, I was unprepared for how physically and mentally fit they both were on set for days at a time. We would work with actors in rehearsal, learn new choreography, practice for 4 more hours, then shoot until late in the evening. I along with the other younger members of the group were tired long before Barry and Joan were. it was a remarkable thing to be in the room with them. You could tell that they came from a very different time in the theatre, when expectations and standards were higher than what we have today. They also never got grumpy! Audiences have commented on how joyful and delightful Joan looks in every shot. She’s like that every moment of the day!
How big a role does dancing still play in your life?
I’ve been dancing since I was a toddler, and I still do it as much as I can. I was a competitive Scottish Highland Dancer for 15 years, and that gave me the strength to be able to move into other forms like Hip Hop and Jazz. I performed as a lead dancer at the London 2012 Olympics, which gave me a lot of confidence in my ability. I direct a lot of theatre, and my dance background helps tremendously with that. I tend to focus on dynamic movement and choreographed blocking in my productions. I’m currently working on a screenplay for a feature musical. I’ll be appearing as the lead in that film, so I’m getting my dancing shoes out again right now!
Barry & Joan was filmed over a period of two years. Did the length of the schedule make it difficult to pitch to financiers?
I was uniquely blessed to work with a flexible financier named Cathy Bonwick. When I pitched the film, the initial idea was much, much smaller than the end result. Initially we were planning to do just one brief shoot in London, and make a simple, short film out of that. This was to be my first film, so I thought I’d start with something manageable and brief. Cathay loved the idea, and it was relatively low in cost, so she got onboard right away. When we returned from the first shoot, we realized that we had something special. I got a great editor onboard named Eric Pomert, and he became an integral part of the process at that point. He thought we had enough of a story to make a feature length piece, and in order to do so we would need more footage. When I proposed that idea to Cathy, she agreed to move forward. She was a creative partner on the project from day one. We worked together on every major decision, and she became invested in it personally as well as financially. This is an unusual way to finance a film, piece by piece, but it meant that every decision was carefully thought through, and allowed us creative flexibility.
For example, we initially never intended to have animation in the film. We thought of that about a year into the process, when a method for demonstrating Commedia dell’Arte seemed necessary. At that point I pitched the idea to Cathy, and she okayed that additional cost. It went like that for the entire process. Piece by piece, need by need.
You managed the legal and financial side of the documentary. Was it difficult to juggle these aspects of the production with the creative side of things?
Yes, it was difficult, but in a very rewarding way. I was often spread too thin during this process, as the film wasn’t my only job. I was featured in and directed several plays during the time we made Barry & Joan, so my workload was at an all time high. My life would have been much easier if my responsibilities had been limited to the creative. However, I would not trade the legal and financial experience I’ve gained for anything. The amount of information I’ve learned about the dos and don’ts of film finance and legal could fill an entire manual. I’m currently putting all of that knowledge to great use in my current projects.
Your sisters Jeanette and Evelyn Rumsby appear in the doc as dancers. How was your experience working alongside family?
My sisters and I have worked together in theatre for many years. We’re very close and we have a lot of fun together, so it made sense to bring them along for this project.They’re also fiercely supportive of me so it seemed like a smart choice to surround myself with people who have my back no matter what. Jeanette (my middle sister) helped me write up the business plan for the project even before we pitched to financiers. Evelyn (the youngest of us) had been dancing and singing for many years by the time we shot the film, so it was great fun teaching her the choreography. We had just one week to shoot the material with my sisters and the young american group, so I taught my sisters most of Barry’s choreography weeks before we arrived. That helped us have a leg up once we got there.
How did you go about shooting the dancing scenes? How many cameras did you use?
We used just two cameras for all the shoots. Our cinematographers had to be very agile and constantly prepared to follow us, since Barry could start dancing at any moment!
What was the most difficult aspect of Barry & Joan that you ran into as a director?
Because this was my first foray into filmmaking, I knew I was going to rely heavily on a great team. Assembling that team was a trial and error process, with several major hurdles. Throughout the process, I had to act quickly to replace two cameramen, our entertainment lawyer, and a producer. Those people turned out to be a mistake, and I replaced them very quickly. Sometimes it was hard I had to stay constantly on the ball in order to notice when things were mismanaged, which was tricky given how new I am to this industry. I needed to predict potential problems that I’d never experienced before, and that was a tall order. It felt like being CEO of a startup, and that’s the mindset I took on while managing the process.
You’ve worked as a producer, actor, director, and dancer. Which role do you prefer and why?
The answer to this question changes depending on the project. I’ve learned over the past few years, as I’ve settled into my own personality, that I’m much better suited to leadership roles. I’ll be honest, I have a hard time keeping ideas to myself. I love nothing more than bringing a seed of an idea to fruition. That really gets me going, and when I work as an actor or dancer I’m just a part of that process. I love creating dreams and also making them come true. As a director I get to do that, and it’s my favorite role to have in any creative process.
Commedia expert and consultant Didi Hopkins appears in the film. How did you go about reaching out to her?
I met Didi Hopkins at a Commedia play in London back in 2010. I’d just come off stage after playing the traditional commedia character ‘Pedrolino’ and she introduced herself to me. She told me about Barry and Joan Grantham that day, so I credit her with the fact that I ever met them in the first place! When I told her I was making a film about them, she was immediately supportive. She very graciously did several interviews with us, and provided the narration for the Commedia animation in the film.
Do you feel that your experience as a performer has helped you as a director?
Yes. absolutely. I’ve received a very flattering compliment from actors quite a few times, that I seem to understand what they need and how to communicate with them. As an actor I love feeling like my talents are being utilized, so I understand how to make other actors feel that way. I believe it’s so important for actors to feel trusted, inspired, and free to express. That’s the environment I always try to create when I’m directing. I also try to understand the needs of other members of the creative team and crew, which I’m getting better at every day.
Can you tell us one lesson that you’ve learned from Barry and Joan Grantham?
One of my favorite lessons from Barry and Joan is that being the most authentic version of yourself is always the right thing to do, and to always, always, have fun. They have a radical lifestyle for their age and I loved that about them from the beginning. They continue to work and play and have a jolly time because it’s what they want to do. They’re always authentic.
What is the biggest thing you want audiences to take away from Barry & Joan?
I would like audiences to leave feeling hope and joy for their future. We’ve already received tremendous feedback from audiences, and one of the biggest takeaways has been about age and how that relates to work. People have loved Barry’s fierce advocacy for working and having fun at an old age. Our hopes and dreams and our work can continue for as long as we want! We don’t have to retire or dismiss the magic of life when we get old.
Were there any documentaries that influenced your approach to Barry & Joan?
I had seen Iris, and Jiro Dreams of Sushi prior to making Barry & Joan. Those films were both beautiful and shared a unique look into the lives of people of age. Those films gave me some great ideas for how to approach Barry & Joan through film.
What has been your greatest professional success?
I would have to say that my favorite professional success has been in the completion and sales of the Barry & Joan documentary. Not necessarily because it’s the best thing I’ve ever done, but because of how huge a challenge it was and what I learned. It’s also set off a domino effect of many other successes and a new phase of my life. I’m uniquely proud of Barry & Joan because of that.
How about your biggest personal failure? What did you learn?
There’s one particular moment in my life which sticks out like a sore thumb. It left a mark on me that permanently changed how I use my ego. It happened when I was at drama school in London. We had a big performance of solo material, and I was to do the piano accompaniment for my friend’s performance of a broadway song. It was a tough piece of music and I didn’t have the time to prepare it properly. At the performance I got started ok, but halfway through the song I fell apart. He was a brilliant singer who trusted me and I completely failed him. It felt horrible to let another performer down, and in such a public way! I was overcome by my ego and desire to show off, and I have never made another mistake like that since. It showed me that my ambition can get the better of me if I don’t prepare myself well.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
Use the word “We” as much as possible, but don’t ever say “We Can’t”. Remember that you’re part of a team, and in film you have to trust the people around you. Show them the utmost respect and that’s what you’ll get in return. When things get gnarly and difficult (and they will!) try not to make excuses. You’ll want to, but don’t. Hire who you need, fire who you must, and get on with it. Always remember that financiers shouldn’t care about what you personally want for yourself. Nobody wants to shell out a load of cash to make your passion project just because you want them to. When fundraising, focus on the “Why” of the project, and how it’s going to impact the world around you. Keep your vision big, grand and exciting, even though it may seem silly like a pie in the sky. It’s not anyone else’s job to believe in you. Make believing in yourself a full time commitment no matter what happens. Expect hurdles, and they don’t seem like such a big deal when they show up. Don’t ever set parameters for what you’re capable of. The whole idea of being fearless is nonsense. Fear is a healthy part of being human, and a sign that what you’re doing is big and challenging. That’s good. Real strength and creativity is in the ability to keep going even though you’re afraid.