Commentary: 'Dark Streets' adds color, dance to film noir

Rachel Samuels brings sensual approach to '40s genre

"Dark" director: Fans of the film noir genre that was a Hollywood staple during the 1940s and early '50s are familiar with its black-and-white hardboiled crime classics such as "The Maltese Falcon," "Laura" and "Double Indemnity."

Film noir has faded away in recent years, but nothing is forever in Hollywood. I was happy to discover a new and very original approach to the genre in "Dark Streets" from IDP/Samuel Goldwyn Films, set to open Friday in limited release, including New York and Los Angeles. Directed by Rachel Samuels ("The Suicide Club"), "Dark" is especially interesting because it was shot in color. What Samuels has created is really a film noir musical fantasy because it also features 12 original songs and some Busby Berkeley-inspired dance numbers. These fit quite well with the story's principal setting in a nightclub in an unnamed city plagued with power outages that routinely darken its streets and buildings. With all of those blackouts, there are plenty of good old-fashioned noir moments to enjoy.

Written by Wallace King, "Dark" was produced by Andrea Balen, Claus Clausen, Corina Danckwerts and Glenn M. Stewart and executive produced by Steffen Aumueller. Starring are Gabriel Mann, Bijou Phillips, Izabella Miko, Elias Koteas and Toledo. "Dark's" original songs are written by James Compton, Tim Brown and Tony DeMeur and performed by Etta James, Natalie Cole, Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Solomon Burke, Chaka Khan, Richie Sambora and Marc Broussard. The film's original score is composed by George Acogny and features BB King and Sambora.

There's no shortage of traditional film noir angst in "Dark," whose lead character, Chaz Davenport (Mann), owns a hot new nightclub where blues are performed nightly and there's a steady parade of sexy women dancing onstage and hanging around the joint so trouble can find them easily enough. Chaz, of course, faces major problems -- like discovering if his father really committed suicide or was murdered, figuring out how not to be killed by loan sharks who want their money back right-this-minute and deciding who, if anyone, he can trust. As in any good film noir, the correct answers are that it was murder not suicide, he must stay one step ahead of the bad guys, and he should trust no one.

After enjoying an early look at "Dark," I was happy to be able to catch up recently with Samuels and talk about how she got the movie made. "I used to work for Roger Corman," she told me. "I made my first two movies, and Roger produced (them). The last movie I made for him was (the 2000 drama) 'The Suicide Club,' which was a period piece starring Jonathan Pryce that I made for about $800,000. I got a phone call from Roger's office one day a few years ago saying, 'There's this guy in Bahrain (the Persian Gulf island microstate) who's trying to get in contact with you because he saw 'The Suicide Club' and is interested in doing a period musical and thought if you could pull off 'The Suicide Club' maybe you could pull this off. Should we give him your number? Do you want to talk to him?' So I said, 'Sure. Why not? I'm an independent filmmaker. I have to talk to everyone and anyone.'"

Soon afterward, Samuels got a call from Bahrain and, she explained, "it was (from) Glenn Stewart, an American banker who's been based in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain for the past 25 years. He started telling me about this stage musical that he had done that he wanted to make into a film and that he had a small budget for. He sent me the play; I thought the music was wonderful, and I thought it had potential. Before I knew it, I was flying to meet him at an airport in Munich. It all felt very secret-agent. He's this international man of mystery; his passport is the size of a phone book. Each time I would talk to him on the phone, he was in a different country. It was sort of a fun little adventure. I was like, 'Well, I guess I'll go to Munich -- and why not? -- and see if I come back.' Here we are, three years later, and we made this play into a film."

As it turns out, Samuels' movie is considerably different from Stewart's play. "What remains the same are the songs and the centrality of the music," she said. "The play really was a musical; it was really these songs tied together with very small dialogue scenes. We had to expand the story and the characters to adapt it for film. But it definitely has remained very much in the spirit of a musical."

Asked what attracted her to the project, Samuels replied: "I have always been such a lover of musicals. I used to be in musicals all the time: When I was a kid, I was Oliver in my camp production of 'Oliver.' In my more recent past, before I was a filmmaker, I was a painter and a sculptor. That's really where I come from. I felt doing a musical was really an opportunity to create a visual world. It's a bit less about normal narrative storytelling; it always seemed, to me, much more about creating this spectacle and creating this special visual world. I was such a fan of Busby Berkeley and those old musicals. That was, frankly, the thing that sealed the deal for me."

Was it easy to change the original material to the extent she did, given that Stewart had created the play and was producing the movie? "What do you think?" Samuels said with a laugh, agreeing that people who create something typically don't like to see it changed. "Let's just say it definitely took a while, and it was a process developing the play into a screenplay, which probably took about a year itself. And this was the first movie that Glenn had been involved in; he had been involved in theater previously. I think that's always a learning process. But I think everyone ended up happy with it."

Hearing that a year went into getting the script right, I asked her why the process always seems to take that long, or even longer. "That is a really good question," Samuels said. "We had a screenwriter who was adapting it -- Wallace King, who's actually a wonderful writer. She's mostly a novelist; she's had a number of novels published. It's really just this back and forth. I mean, the writer writes something, it takes a couple months, then the director and the producers weigh in. Sometimes people have differences of opinion, then the writer goes back and tries to incorporate those notes. And then the director and the producers weigh in again, and it ends up taking a year somehow, always."

At the same time, Stewart was busy arranging the film's financing. "This was his first foray into film," Samuels said. "Since he is a banker in the Middle East, he ended up putting together a film fund called Sherezade, which has gone on to also finance a number of other independent films. So I guess he enjoyed the experience, and it's benefited many other filmmakers now. Of course, this is a good source of money for indie films as everything at home seems to be drying up. Maybe the Middle East is the next source."

Focusing on "Dark" as a noir film, Samuels said: "I'm such a fan of noir, but I really wanted to try to take a different and original approach and to do it in a sensual way. While I love all of those old (film noirs such as) 'Touch of Evil' and 'Sunset Boulevard,' it is that black-and-white and (windows with) horizontal blinds -- it is very austere visually. My idea was, 'Can I still get across all of the disorientation and alienation of noir, but using color and movement and dance and all of the sensual part of film that usually is not a part of noir?' That was my hope."

Shooting took place, for the most part, in downtown Los Angeles. "Downtown L.A. is always an adventure," she said. "Finding the locations was another really big challenge because downtown actually is filled with such gems of art deco architecture. But they're hidden, like the Tower Theater that was our main location. It's on Broadway. If you drive along Broadway you'll never even notice it because there's, like, 12 taco stands and T-shirt places in front of it. So you really kind of have to dig. I spent months and months (scouting locations). We had a very small budget, so for us, production design essentially is locations. We were able to bring in set decoration to the locations, but so much of the design of the movie was really finding these locations."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Samuels said: "I just love production, so I'm like sick in this way. The more things are heaped on top of me, the happier I am -- I have a harder time when nothing's going on. I like when there's 700 things happening at the same time, which is basically how our production was throughout. But definitely, shooting the dance sequences was a huge challenge because we shot the whole film in 28 days and for a very, very modest budget -- it was well under $5 million, let's just say. For the dance sequences, we had very little rehearsal time because of our budget issues, so we had to rehearse and light in the morning and then shoot the whole dance in the afternoon. So I generally had about four hours to shoot each of those dance sequences. With a movie like 'Chicago,' I'm sure with any of those dance sequences, they took about three weeks to shoot.

"Shooting those sequences in four hours was pretty incredibly challenging. The way I did it was I had a crane, a dolly and a hand-held camera shooting at every moment. It was like an intricate math problem to plan shots. Each of my shots had three moving cameras going on at the same time; that was the only way I was going to be able to do those in four hours."

As for her future, Samuels said: "I loved working with dance -- it's just so exciting. I found choreographing the camera (and) choreographing dance to be such an incredibly fun thing to do. I would love to do something again involving music and dance. I also have this secret desire to do a science fiction film. The thing I really loved about making this film was creating a unique visual world, and I feel like sci-fi is where you get to do that the most. I would just love to really create a completely unique world. And I would love to be able to get to make a film with a big Hollywood budget. I feel I was able to make something that looks pretty awesome on a very small budget, and that if I really had all the toys and all the resources, I'd be able to make something truly fabulous."

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