Up until now, Paul Becker has been known as a dancer and choreographer; protégé to Kenny Ortega, who worked closely with the likes of Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cher, and Elton John. But Becker’s credits are impressive in their own right, ranging from films like Twilight, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and Disney’s The Descendants; in addition to hit TV shows like ABC’s Once Upon A Time; the Canadian edition of So You Think You Can Dance and Canada’s Got Talent; as well as a new show on Syfy, The Magicians, which premiered on January 25th.
However, Paul’s most recent project, Breaking Brooklyn, had him step into different roles as one of the film’s writers and its director, along with choreographing the film. In an exclusive for The Hudsucker, we sat down with Becker to discuss the making of the film, why he labels it a “passion project,” as well as how his career has been somewhat leading to this for a long time.
In Becker’s own words, Breaking Brooklyn is about an “unconventional family” that forms at Christmas time in New York City. The story is through the eyes of two young homeless boys (played by Colin Critchley and Nathan Kress) who are taken in by their teacher (played by Oscar winner Louis Gossett Jr.) who lives in an old theater in the heart of the city. The teacher mentors and teaches them how to dance, drawing comparisons between the boys and him with his own brother (played by Vondie Curtis-Hall) who also lives in the theater.
In a way, Becker says the story reminds him of the dynamic between him and his own brother. However, credits the film’s amazing cast for bringing his story to life with high energy dance numbers, authentic performances, and real relationships. Louis Gossett Jr. or “Lou” as Becker calls him, was the backbone of the film. Becker says it was an honor to have him agree to be part of it soon after sending him a rough draft of the script without even an audition. Becker calls Lou a “team player,” showing up to set early or coming over to his house late to go over the scripts and help him and co-writer Rory Owen Delaney make changes. Lou was also a “father figure” and mentor for the young actors, both on and off-screen. Becker’s proud to call Lou his friend after all is said and done. Becker also gives major credit to Vondie Curtis-Hall, who plays Gossett Jr’s older brother in the film. Curtis-Hall was part of the original Broadway cast of Dreamgirls and brought his impressive performance skills to set every day with his vocal range and dance ability.
In the film, the audience will see plenty of old-school Broadway and tap numbers, with a bit of contemporary hip-hop mixed in. After asking Becker how he keeps track of so many styles, having choreographed contemporary, jazz, and capoeira (Brazilian martial arts) pieces on So You Think You Can Dance Canada, Becker says he doesn’t like to limit himself. He started out as a breakdancer at the age of 12 and took classes to expose himself to other styles. Becker says the common thread is that he is able to “use movement to tell a story.” The story, rather than the moves itself, is what the audience remembers. He uses his mentor, Kenny Ortega’s, famous scene from Dirty Dancing as an example. People remember how they felt watching that moment in the film for the first time and that’s the goal.
When asked about his transition from dancer and choreographer to writer and director, Becker says “it’s always been a dream” of his, having told people that in five years, he’d be directing his first feature film. Still, he’s grateful to have the opportunity to make that dream a reality.
Back when he was going to school in Victoria, B.C., he would skip classes to join the video arts students who were all learning as they went. When he choreographs, Becker says he was always thinking about how it would look on film. Story comes first, then how to fill the frame on camera, and often the dance steps themselves come last.
As for the writing aspect, Paul says he has his mom to blame for pushing creative outlets on him, from painting and drawing to giving him an empty cardboard box and telling him to use his imagination to turn it into a plane or a car. The script for Breaking Brooklyn was born on the New York City subway. Becker says he’d sit for hours writing before meeting his writing partner, Rory Owen Delaney, who helped him turn that initial draft into a second draft and, eventually, into a film.
Becker credits the amazing team he had around him, including co-choreographer Jared Grimes, who help make some of the film’s iconic old-school tap dance numbers come to life. Becker says that having a good team made him so excited to see the film come to life that often he’d find himself laughing. He also was lucky to be able to riff off of Delaney, Grimes, and the cast, who were all just genuinely talented and nice people who were equally excited and emotionally invested in the end result as him.
As for where Becker is headed now, the film is currently in post-production being edited, but once it’s finished, Becker has plans to show it at film festivals with a wider release set for around Christmas 2016, given the film’s setting. When asked about filming in New York at Christmas time, Becker says, “The city itself was like a character in the movie.” It was like a backdrop to the devastation the kids are going through and underscores what a terrible time it is to be homeless.
Becker has also had the chance to film in China, calling the experience “awesome,” but has never been to Europe and would love to go. Regarding hobbies, Becker is fortunate enough to enjoy his work so much that he often gets caught up in it, but when he does take a break, he loves staying active by hiking, doing martial arts, and of course, dancing. But he also loves to visit his family and friends in Canada and see movies, especially double features all by himself. Becker says that after filming Breaking Brooklyn, he had some catching up to do and went to see Oscar contenders The Big Short, Spotlight, and 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi—sharing that he enjoyed all three of them. Becker speaks fondly of his home and native land, Canada, saying the country boasts some amazing talent in all areas, from dance to film.
In addition to recently filming a 2016 Superbowl commercial for Victoria’s Secret, Becker shares he took pictures on set to send to the friends who made fun of him for being a dancer so many years ago.
Although he’s also back at his writing desk with writing partner Delaney and currently working on Disney’s Descendants 2 with Ortega, which he refers to as “fun” and a “dream project,” with so much excitement and forthcoming success, it’s no wonder Becker loves what he does.
There is no current release date for Breaking Brooklyn, but stay updated on the film’s progress by checking out Twitter or Instagram. Keep up with Paul Becker at his official website and on social media at Twitter and Instagram.