Filmmaker Michael Damian’s ‘High Strung Free Dance’
High Strung Free Dance is pretty much our new obsession. The movie brings together ground-breaking original music with an expansive mix of choreography from the Emmy award winner Tyce Diorio (So You Think You Can Dance) alongside a cast of some of the world’s best dancers.
Zander Raines, a dazzling and tempestuous young choreographer (Thomas Doherty) gives the break of a lifetime to two hopeful artists when he casts a stunning contemporary dancer, Barlow (Juliet Doherty) and innovative pianist, Charlie (Harry Jarvis) in New York’s most-anticipated new Broadway show: Free Dance. But the move throws off the show’s delicate creative balance when Charlie falls hard for Barlow while Zander embraces her as his muse.
Might Charlie find the inspiration he needs from an unexpected mentor to go after all that he wants? Or will the show’s celebrity headliner, pop star Kayla Jordan stand in everyone’s way as she tries to stake her claim on both Zander and the spotlight? The emotions run hot igniting a rollercoaster of impassioned rivalry, romance, and determination fueling the events leading up to the opening of Zander’s ambitious and innovative new musical. The question is, how much are these talented artists willing to risk for love?
High Strung Free Dance is elevated by standout supporting performances from veteran actors Jane Seymour (who reprises her High Strung role as Oksana), Ace Bhatti (Bohemian Rhapsody, Eastenders) and Kika Markham (Mr. Selfridge) and features an original soundtrack that artfully blends original orchestrations, reimagined classical pieces along with rap and pop.
Building on the fresh model set forth in High Strung (2016), High Strung Free Dance again brings together numerous dance styles and extraordinary performers from around the world as well as the same creative team, Broadway stars Michael and Janeen Damian. The powerhouse addition of Choreographer Tyce Diorio (resident choreographer on So You Think You Can Dance) and stars Thomas Doherty (Descendants 2 & 3), Harry Jarvis and Juliet Doherty alongside 80 of the world’s most thrilling and original dancers.
A colorful, dynamic neo-musical that celebrates dance, music and the boundless optimism and energy of youth, the High Strung films hit all of the right notes and make all of the right moves. Also set in New York City, High Strung Free Dance spotlights the competitive and colorful world of Broadway. It’s a story of young passionate artists who are willing to risk it all in pursuit of their dreams, even if it means choosing their art over love.
Filmmakers Michael and Janeen Damian are no strangers to telling stories. Together, they’ve written and produced 13 films, including the dance sensation, High Strung, the popular reboot of the Flicka franchise and Marley & Me: The Puppy Years for 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate/Hallmark’s A Princess for Christmas, and the award winning indie film, Moondance Alexander. For the High Strung films, the duo decided to write stories that pulled from their roots. “Janeen is a dancer, and I am a musician, ” Michael explains. “So we wanted to make a film celebrating those two worlds that mean so much to us.”
Janeen, who is the daughter of late actor James Best (The Dukes of Hazzard), spent the bulk of her career performing as an ‘A’ list jazz/contemporary dancer in film and television, but began her career as a classical ballet dancer. Michael enjoyed a career as a pop star (he released five albums and had five top 40 hits), spent nearly two decades playing Danny Romalotti on CBS’ The Young and the Restless, and wowed audiences on Broadway.
The filmmakers, who’ve been wed since 1998, both entered the world of music and dance under the tutelage of their respective mothers. Michael’s mother is a classical pianist, and Janeen’s was the artistic director of the Mississippi Ballet Theater. “The fact that they introduced us to the arts when we were so young made a big impact on who we became as adults,” Janeen observes. “The love affair started way back then, and continues today. The stories presented in the High Strung films are very personal for us.”
For Michael, the idea of showing the hard work needed to achieve an artist’s dream also struck a personal chord. “I have been a performer for as long as I can remember, but one of my biggest thrills was starring in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and working for Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber” he recalls. “It was my first Broadway experience. The show was a huge production, but no detail was too small for Mr. Webber. Every word sung or note played was analyzed and perfected; I’ve never worked so hard on a role. He inspired all of us to become the absolute best we could be.”
In a decade when the public appetite for dance and dance programming continues to enjoy great resurgence, the timing was right to make the sequel to High Strung, High Strung Free Dance. “Dance is huge worldwide,” Michael observes, adding, “It’s an international language that crosses all the borders and boundaries.”
However, by again bringing together music and numerous styles of movement in a story of both romance and struggle that reaches a breathtaking crescendo, the Damians have continued the phenomenon that audiences worldwide are clamoring for. “We hope to inspire anybody who’s pursuing a dream,” Janeen adds. “It’s not an easy road out there. You have to persevere and be both creative and tenacious, but it’s how you handle the challenges along the way that really defines you.”
We were delighted to sit down with Michael Damian and talk filmmaking, creativity and a career in the spotlight.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you start your journey?
I would say it started around 1995 when I began to get interested in the whole aspect of filmmaking. It was born out of my love for acting. Having worked with some wonderful directors over the years as an actor. I purchased two Arriflex 16MM film cameras. I studied everything I could from Loading, shooting, and processing the film.
I bought an editing system and made my first short film, Finders Keepers. Always striving to pack as much technical information I could find into my brain. I remember visiting the Camera house guys at Burns & Sawyer after my workday on Young and the Restless and just really immersing myself in everything I could pick up. I bought this fantastic book Shot by Shot by Stephen Katz. It is a must-read for filmmakers.
Who are your current influences?
I’m influenced by film, music, art. Anything that can creatively stimulate me.
What five TV shows do you think everyone should watch this year?
This is Us, The British Bake off, Babylon Berlin, The Crown.
Cat or dog?
Doggy, my sweet baby Bella.
What was the one movie you saw that made you want to go into film?
Tell us about your career before you found film.
I started in music, coming from a family of nine. All of us taught multiple musical instruments from our classical brilliant pianist mother, Maria. We formed a family band and traveled and performed all over for several years. I got my big break when I had a hit record, “She Did It” when I was 17.
The producers of Young and the Restless saw me on American Bandstand and wrote the character Danny Romalotti. I played that character for about 20 years and had several major concert tours as a pop singer simultaneously. Had a dream come true when my record Rock On went #1. You got to check out the music video.
Play Joseph on Broadway in Andrew Lloyd Webber‘s Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, where we broke box office records for the highest-grossing revival.
What music inspires you to create?
I love listening to all kinds of music. From rock, pop, R&B to classical, Andre Bocelli is one of my favorites.
Talk us through your creative process.
My creative process is to dream big, start with a positive attitude and do your best not to get discouraged. Try not to redo what you’ve done day to day. Keep moving forward then step back to look at the whole picture. Before you begin your tweaking.
What tips do you have for new filmmakers?
I would read the book Shop By Shot. Keep in mind technologies have changed a bit with the digital cameras but the basics are still the same. write, produce direct short films and make sure you hire really good actors.
What part of filmmaking do you geek out about the most?
All of it . . .
You’re very hands-on with your projects. How hard is it wearing all the hats?
For me, I feel comfortable since I’m also an actor and enjoy communicating with actors. and I feel I understand what it’s like and where they’re coming from. I also love the technical side so I enjoyed communicating with the crew and being a musician I have a special relationship with the composer of our film Nathan Lanier.
Who is absolutely brilliant by the way! I also enjoy working with all the different songwriters and producers on the pop/dance tracks for the Soundtrack.
If you could only watch one movie for the rest of your life, what would it be?
Star Wars: A New Hope! But if you could let me watch two more I would say all three of the first original Star Wars.
What’s your next project?
Janeen, my writing producing partner and fabulous wife are working on three different scripts at this moment. Christmas in Transylvania, Much ado about Christmas and the Christmas waltz. OK you know, we can see we’re big Christmas fans.
Have you worked with mentors in the past?
Garry Marshall, Andrew Lloyd Webber, James Best.
How would you recommend people go about finding them?
That’s something that every individual is going to have to find a way to achieve on their own. There is no handbook on how to find and build a relationship with a mentor, at least none that I’m aware of. If you have someone (Director, Writer, Producer) that you admire, then reach out to them on social media or go through IMDBPro and try to get them a message through their manager, production company and ask if you can shadow them on a set.
What has been your biggest failure?
I don’t think of the word failure or give that word any power. If things didn’t turn out the way you would hope they would have, but you were able to learn from that experience and spin it around to a positive, then it is not really a failure. It is a learning experience.
What’s your filmmaking mission?
To tell stories that inspire people. Make films with a positive message and entertain.
Name the most important thing you want viewers to experience when watching your movies.
I want them to have a great escape experience and hope they don’t feel like they’re watching a movie but they’re living that moment. At the end leaving them with a good hopeful feeling inside.
What has been your biggest success?
My marriage to Janeen.
Can we expect to see any episodic television from you anytime soon?
I don’t have that on the schedule right now but I am always open for new experiences.
What’s your five-year plan?
Make as many awesome films as I can and make as many people happy as I can!
What indie filmmakers should be on our radar?
Janeen and Michael Damian.
What’s your favorite film of all time, and what did you learn from it?
Star Wars! Look to the stars and dream big.
Who would compose the soundtrack of your life?
I think that’s probably the most thought-provoking questions I’ve ever been asked.
All right here it goes John Williams, John Barry, Jerry Goldsmith in a Nathan Lanier working together in perfect harmony.