Director's Chair: Kasi Lemmons — <I>I Wanna Dance with Somebody</I>
Issue: November/December 2022

Director's Chair: Kasi Lemmons — I Wanna Dance with Somebody

I Wanna Dance with Somebody, the new biopic about the late superstar Whitney Houston from TriStar Pictures, is a powerful, no-holds-barred portrait of the complex and multifaceted woman behind the voice — and ultimately a triumphant celebration of her life and music. From New Jersey choir girl to one of the best-selling and most influential recording artists of all time, audiences are taken on an inspirational, poignant and emotional journey through Houston’s trailblazing life and career, with all of its high and lows, and show-stopping performances. Starring BAFTA winner Naomi Ackie as the singer, and directed by Kasi Lemmons, whose last film Harriet was nominated for two Academy Awards, the film also stars Ashton Sanders as Bobby Brown and Stanley Tucci as Houston’s legendary producer and mentor Clive Davis. I Wanna Dance with Somebody is produced by the team behind the blockbuster Bohemian Rhapsody, including producer Denis O’Sullivan and screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who was Oscar nominated for his Bohemian Rhapsody script.

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, I spoke with the director, whose credits include Eve’s Bayou and Black Nativity, and who was still deep in post at press time, about making the film, editing, and dealing with the sound and all the visual effects.

What sort of film did you set out to make? 

“I really had a personal connection to the story, as I’d written two screenplays for Whitney — one that she didn’t know I was writing, which I came in and pitched to her, and another that her father commissioned me to write for her. She made a real impression on me when we met, so I wanted to make a tribute to the person that I knew and had written for, and I also wanted to celebrate her. There was something that happened during her life where she was stripped of a lot of her dignity, and people remembered these hard images of her — and some of that she was responsible for, with her reality TV show and various interviews, so I wanted to tell the truth about it and help restore her dignity, while reminding people why she was so extraordinary. She was like this goddess or angel who was with us for a while, and I wanted to remind everyone of that.”

It’s a very tall order to step into Whitney’s shoes. What did Naomi bring to the role?

“You’re right. It was a huge challenge and commitment, and she’s this young British actress who was so prepared in every way and worked on every aspect of the character for a very long time — Whitney’s voice, her movement, her presence, as well as the emotional foundation of knowing the character and knowing what was needed in every scene. Naomi is very strong, but she also has a vulnerability that I think Whitney had. She has that side of her — a person who’s going to be super-successful, a megastar, but who’s also very human and sensitive and vulnerable. And Naomi has a beautiful and very powerful voice, and can sing in the same range as Whitney, and that was so important in making it all seamless. She is truly extraordinary in the role.”

You must have begun integrating post and all the sound and VFX during prep, right?

“Right, and we began planning all that stuff out in prep. Sound and music are like a character in every film, but especially in this one, and you can use them to such great dramatic effect. I really love working with both and seeing the way they fill out a scene and make it come alive, and it was so crucial to get it right, especially in all the performance and concert scenes. When she’s singing, you need to feel she’s actually singing live, and feel that incredible power in her vocals, whether it’s Naomi or Whitney, as we blended some of their vocals. And we had a substantial amount of VFX, especially crowd work, as we shot this with COVID protocols and had 150 extras that were supposed to look like 50,000 for the big concerts.”

Talk about how you collaborated on the look with Barry Ackroyd.

“He had a very interesting approach for a biopic, as he shot it handheld, almost like a documentary, which is how he began his career. I also found it to be very musical, and there’s this immediacy to it, and you feel the life in it. It’s like a living, breathing camera, and it’s why I love handheld and especially when it’s used for movies about music. But there’s also this quality where you feel like you’re peering in at something, and Barry gives it this intense sense of reality, which is something I wanted. He also makes it look very beautiful, and he shot with a mixture of anamorphic and spherical lenses on the Alexa Mini LF Super 35 mode, and I loved working with him.”

How tough was the shoot?

“It was pretty tough. Look, I shot Harriet in the woods at night (laughs). But this was hard in a different way. You’re shooting these huge musical numbers and guiding an actress who’s in almost every scene, and it was very intense. Luckily Anthony McCarten writes such great scenes that a lot of it was very joyful for me, despite all the stresses. We shot mainly in Boston for the tax breaks, in a big, new, empty building, where we could build sets and also have our department offices all under one roof. We also shot a lot on-location, and Boston doubled for New Jersey, where Whitney grew up, and we used some big local theaters for the concerts. We also shot in LA at the Beverly Hills Hilton, where she died, and at a mansion we used as Whitney’s home.”

Dealing with all the vocals, and recording the concerts and performances was obviously key?

“Absolutely, and we recorded all Naomi’s vocals live on-set. We also had the great John Warhurst as our sound designer and sound editor, along with the same great sound team that won the Oscars for Bohemian Rhapsody, and so in post we’ve very carefully blended her vocals with some of Whitney’s and made sure it really looked like it was coming out of her mouth, and not being lip-synced. John actually showed me how it’d work when we began prep, and how you could start a song with Naomi’s voice and go seamlessly into Whitney’s voice, and it was mind-blowing, and we used that process to great effect. For instance, when Naomi sings ‘The Greatest Love of All,’ which is one of the first songs she performs, the whole first verse is Naomi, and then it goes seamlessly into Whitney’s voice, and that seamless transition is a tribute to John’s amazing ability to edit sound.”

Where did you post?

“We began in Boston in a tiny editing bay, and I did my director’s cut there. That’s my favorite time in the whole post process, as it’s just me and the editor alone with the material, and it’s so creative. It was winter and we felt very cocooned. After that, we moved back here to LA, and were based at Tribeca West for the rest of the editing and sound work. Of course, suddenly the post team has grown a lot, with the producers and various departments, and people weighing in on the different cuts, and then all the VFX begin to come together, along with all the music and sound, and the whole post process just gets bigger, and it’s exciting.”

Do you like the post process?

“I love it. For me it’s the most creative part, as you’re basically rewriting the film. The script that Anthony wrote and the movie we’re now posting have a relationship, but the rewriting process in post is about finding the core of the movie, the core of the story and its characters.”

Talk about editing with Daysha Broadway.

“I’d never worked with her before, but she came highly recommended by my regular editor Terilyn A. Shropshire, and she’s this up-and-coming talent who just won an Emmy, and we really hit it off. At the start we were tossing cuts back and forth a lot to the composer, and getting her involved. She’s an amazing talent, and sometimes in a music movie like this the score isn’t so important, but it really was crucial in this, especially for all the dramatic sequences.”

What were the big editing challenges?

“We shot a lot of footage and all of us, including the producers, love all the material, so we basically have an embarrassment of riches, and the big challenge is trying to fit it all into a theatrical release running time. We don’t want to cut anything, but you have to keep the pace up, keep it engaging, especially with the wonderful musical performances. That’s a big challenge. Do you need the whole performance? Or is there a really smart way to edit them, and cut out of the song and go into montage? We’re very attached to the music, but there’s just not room for every song, every performance. That’s been a hard puzzle to solve.”

Like all period pieces this has a lot of VFX. What was entailed?

“We’re still hard at work in post, and the picture hasn’t been locked yet, so we’re still waiting on some of them to be completely finished. We’re getting close to the end, but it’s still very much a work in progress. Our VFX supervisor is Paul Norris, who won the Oscar for Ex Machina and did Bohemian Rhapsody, and all the effects were done by Zero. The big thing was dealing with all the crowd and audience scenes at concerts, and working with Paul, I learned a lot, as they used this technique, volumetric capture, which I’d never done before, and that was amazing. We had these weekly VFX meetings and I get to watch the progress, and it’s almost like getting Christmas presents, seeing shots and scenes gradually come alive as we add VFX for all the audience and crowd shots. And then there was a lot of clean up and some fixes.”

How involved are you in the DI and how important is it to you?

“I’m pretty involved in it and getting the look right, but I leave all the initial passes to my DP and the colorist, and then I go in and give my notes and we gradually refine the look and all the colors.”

So far, has it turned out the way you first envisioned it?

“It really has, and in some ways it’s exceeded all my expectations. I’m very proud of what we accomplished.” 

Click Here for insight from editor Daysha Broadway.