From Dancer to Director

Anne Fletcher (right) works with actress Jenna Dewan on the set of "Step Up." Photo by Phillip Caruso, courtesy Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, Inc.

Of the 241 films that have grossed more than $100 million in the last decade, five have been directed by women. Anne Fletcher, director of last year’s The Proposal, is one of those women.

A dancer since childhood, Fletcher followed a roundabout path to become a successful film director. She started out as a professional dancer, eventually moved into smaller, behind-the-scenes roles on various films, and with the help of her good friend Adam Shankman, ultimately scored her first directing job on Step Up (2006). DS caught up with Fletcher to learn the details of her two-decade journey and to find out how her dance skills transfer to her work as a director.

Falling for Dance

A native of Detroit, MI, Fletcher says her dance career began as a “fluke.” At age 12, she was grounded and, as part of her punishment, had to watch her mom take a dance class. “When we got home, I thought I was being funny by showing her the combination that they did in class,” Fletcher recalls. Impressed by Fletcher’s natural ability, her mother immediately enrolled her in classes at a local studio. “From that moment on, I never thought of anything else but dance,” she says.

Fletcher spent her teenage years studying jazz, tap, ballet and modern. At 18 she moved to L.A. to kick her professional career into high gear. She was soon hired by sports apparel companies like Reebok to dance in industrials around the world.

The Game-Changer

In 1990, Fletcher met Adam Shankman when they were both hired to dance at the Academy Awards. She didn’t know it at the time, but she had made the friend who would change her life. “During our first dance job together, Anne and I locked on to each other and realized we shared the same mindset,” the director, choreographer and “So You Think You Can Dance” judge tells DS. “We enjoyed the same quality of movement. We had a perfectly matched sense of humor, and she was my favorite dancer to watch. She was sexy and elegant and simultaneously strong and athletic. I started conceiving all my choreography with her in mind.”

Soon after Shankman met Fletcher, he hired her as his assistant choreographer. She danced in everything he choreographed, including concerts, commercials and music videos, and in films such as Boogie Nights, Dudley Do-Right and The Flintstones. “In 10 years, we did more than 100 jobs together and became inextricably linked in our sensibilities and our approach to work,” Shankman says. “When I got my first directing job, she was by my side the whole time.”

As Shankman climbed the film industry ladder, moving from choreographer to director, Fletcher was right behind him. Along the way, she learned the ins and outs of filmmaking. “As an assistant choreographer and dancer, I had to understand how to choreograph for the camera and how to further the story with dance,” Fletcher says. “I also dealt with costumes, organized rehearsals with dancers and actors, and learned how to communicate with everyone on set.” Eventually she landed jobs on her own, working as the lead choreographer on Bring It On, Down With Love and The 40-Year-Old Virgin. “Being hired as a choreographer by another director is the greatest show of trust, and I don’t take it lightly,” she says. “I am there to fulfill that director’s vision and bring it to life.”

In The Director’s Chair

Fletcher’s work paid off when Shankman encouraged the producers of Step Up to hire her as the film’s director and choreographer. “I knew she was ready, and I wanted to facilitate the opportunity for her to direct the film,” Shankman says. “She did a spectacular job. I’m so proud.”

Directing comes easily to Fletcher, thanks to her dance background. “Dancers are physical creatures,” she says. “Movement and staging come to us very naturally. We can direct people to move and behave in ways that are real and interesting. Incorporating a camera is like having another element to choreograph into the scene.” Fletcher also says the sense of rhythm and timing that she developed as a dancer has helped her understand when to cut a scene, how to pace dialogue and even when to cue actors.

Follow Her Footsteps

Although directing was never part of her original plan, Fletcher is inspired by the turn her career has taken. She suggests that young dancers interested in filmmaking take any film-industry opportunity they can find. Moving up through the film industry “takes hard work, but as a dancer, you know what hard work looks like,” she says.

Not sure where to begin? Fletcher suggests working as an assistant choreographer or a production assistant. These entry-level jobs give you the chance to observe the production process while finding your strengths.

Now, though she’s established herself as a hotshot director, Fletcher hasn’t abandoned the dance world. Check out her latest choreography in Get Him to the Greek, which opens in June!

Marnie Fish is a freelance writer in NYC. She also works on the comedy and animation team at MTV Networks.

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