Disney+ is entering the halls of the prestigious School of American Ballet today (Dec. 18) with its docuseries On Pointe, produced by Imagine Documentaries and New York-based media arts center Downtown Community Television Center, Inc. (DCTV).
On Pointe captures a season in the New York City institution, taking viewers behind the curtain into the lives of the students (aged eight to 18) as they pursue their dreams of becoming professional ballet dancers.
The series — culminating in the performance of New York City Ballet’s holiday classic George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker on stage at Lincoln Center — was first announced in May 2019. Though, DCTV had been building a relationship with the school well before, director and producer Larissa Bills tells Realscreen.
“From a DCTV perspective, executive producer Matt O’Neill had a relationship with the School of American Ballet over the course of several years,” says Bills. “It was in the later part of 2018 that the school reached out and approached DCTV to explore developing a project with them, at which point Imagine came on board.”
Not long before Disney+ boarded the project in September, Sara Bernstein, EVP of Imagine Documentaries and executive producer for On Pointe, had just taken up her post at what was then the newly minted documentary arm of Brian Grazer and Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment.
“What’s so really wonderful and special about this particular project is that it really was one of the first that we developed and put into production at Imagine Documentaries,” Bernstein says. “This was definitely a project that everyone at Imagine, including Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, just jumped on. It felt exactly like the right inspirational type of project that felt like Imagine. That’s how it started, and we were able to quickly put it into development.”
Gaining access to the storied school was no easy feat, and few filmmakers have gotten so far, Bernstein and Bills explain.
“People have been knocking on their door for a very long time to try and peek inside,” says Bernstein. “They’ve always been very closed off or just a little cautious and hesitant to do that, but I think that it was probably a combination of it being in the right moment for them but I also think it was their incredible trust in this extraordinary team… I personally have worked on a lot of great vérité, access type of documentaries in my past, but I think this is one of those truly special projects given that access and that trust.”
With O’Neill as EP for DCTV and Bernstein as EP for Los Angeles-based Imagine Documentaries, On Pointe is also executive produced by Grazer, Howard and Imagine Documentaries president Justin Wilkes.
Below, Bills and Bernstein talk working through COVID-19, vérité filmmaking and how On Pointe fits into Imagine Documentaries’ slate.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Were you filming or working through the pandemic? How did you navigate that?
Larissa Bills: We started shooting for development in January 2019… and we started full time production in the summer of 2019. So, by the time the pandemic hit, we had a bulk of material but the expectation was to see the year through. Fortunately, because we had been shooting and shooting and shooting, and there was such an amazing wealth of stories within that footage, we were able to pivot and focus solely on post-production and still fulfill six television hours of programming.
In terms of the storytelling… and without giving anything away, I can say we do address the pandemic, and how the School of American Ballet had to pivot, in terms of how classes were being held. Because it’s not something we necessarily wanted to skirt over. We didn’t expect it, but you couldn’t not address it, in a way.
Did you set out to make a vérité docuseries? How did you get your film subjects, especially young subjects, to feel comfortable in front of a camera to obtain that style?
LB: We did always set out to make a series.
In terms of the kids, I felt it was really… how we were set up, and that’s to have a very small footprint, to not be a distraction, not bringing in giant cameras and lighting, and I think that’s why SAB was so keen on having us because they knew that we would be small, and I wanted the crew to remain consistent throughout because I wanted there to be a familiarity and comfort so that it was always the same camera person, it was always the same sound person, and I was always there.
These kids are really super dedicated — but they’re kids. They’re highly scheduled and they’re running around and they don’t always speak in perfect sentences, but it was my goal to just leave them in their comfort zone. So, if we’re talking to them, we’re talking to them in a space that they were comfortable in, rather than setting up big interviews with big lighting. I was sort of saving that for the end, but we didn’t get there because of COVID.
I truly believe that there’s still room for real observational documentary filmmaking. I’ve worked on both sides, both vérité and then a little more skewed toward the reality structure, and this was not a time to be telling kids what to say. You couldn’t necessarily have people do things over because the school moves really fast, and they’re going to move at their pace and we were just there to capture that and I think once we sort of established that convention, there was a lot of trust and trust with the families of the students. They entrusted us to tell their stories correctly and to not put words in their mouth.
Sara, how does On Pointe fit into Imagine Docs slate and the types of projects you’re looking to work on?
Sara Bernstein: It’s been a great first two years of our division. We’ve been able to build up like a very robust slate of different documentary projects.
We really want are projects that are both really immersive and eye opening — whether it’s a project like Ron Howard’s Rebuilding Paradise [where] we embedded in the community [of] Paradise, California for a year following the aftermath of the horrifying devastating campfire; whether it’s a project like Julia Child, for example, that we’re working on with Julie Cohen and Betsy West. That is obviously a wonderful, inspirational, celebratory type of a project; or it’s something like [The Day Sports Stood Still, directed by Antoine Fuqua], that focuses on how athletes are coping in this moment of COVID and certainly in these moments of a real reckoning with social injustice as well.
It’s about hopefully getting behind projects that are really going to have an impact on the world and also hoping that these projects can be really commercially viable… Our goal is really to make quality but really accessible documentary projects across the series space, as well as documentary features and to continue to work and support the best talent in the business.