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Kevin Tancharoen's 'Fame' for the 21st century

The director, younger than the original 1980 film (but also a fan of it), wanted a remake that would be a product of its time.

September 28, 2009|Rachel Abramowitz

Kevin Tancharoen, the 25-year-old director behind the recently released remake of "Fame," wasn't even born when Alan Parker's original film stormed theaters back in 1980 and became part of the cultural conversation.

The movie, about a group of down and dirty kids struggling to make it in New York's High School for the Performing Art, was the original anti-"High School Musical." It wallowed in the grittiness of a pre-Giuliani New York, back when talented kids still dreamed of honing their craft and hoofing it on Broadway, rather than just becoming an instant YouTube celebrity. These kids faced the social ills of the day, and yet boogied resolutely to Irene Cara singing: "Fame! I wanna live forever!"

So when Tancharoen was called in to discuss a remake with producer Gary Lucchesi, "My initial gut reaction was a little violent," he says. "I loved the first one a lot. I had put it on a pedestal as one of the only raw, gritty looks into being a performer. It reflected the '80s, and it was a movie that I watched almost every year."

Still, Tancharoen was intrigued with the idea of updating "Fame," telling Lucchesi he didn't envision an exact replica. "Coco, Leroy, Bruno, Ralph, you cannot cast them again," he says, reeling off the names of the first film's main characters. "If you recast them, you will already have people who hate it, and I know there will be haters no matter what. You can, however, take the original idea and core message and integrity and play it to 2009."

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday, October 02, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
"Fame": An article in last Saturday's Calendar about "Fame" director Kevin Tancharoen referred to the '90s hip-hop group Kris Kross as Criss Cross. In the same story, the Swedish pop group A*Teens was misidentified as A-Teens.

Just a Valley guy

On a recent afternoon just days before the release of his movie, Tancharoen was camped out in a Starbucks near his longtime home in Van Nuys, where he grew up with his mom, an artist, and his dad, a transportation coordinator for movies. Dressed in jeans, a gray, long-sleeve T-shirt and spectacles, the low-key Tancharoen could pass for a regular Valley native. In fact, he's been working in the entertainment business for more than a decade, as a dancer, choreographer, remix master, videographer and reality-show creator. At 14, he went on Britney Spears' "Oops! . . . I Did It Again" tour as a dancer for the opening act, the Swedish A-Teens. By 17, he was directing Spears' racy "Onyx Hotel" tour, as well the tour videos, and choreographing Spears' romp with Madonna in the "Me Against the Music" video.

Tancharoen in fact began dancing at age 6, when his mom dragged him to his much-older sister's dance class, and he began aping her moves. "There was something really cool about this little Asian kid who knew how to hip-hop dance. I ended up joining this dance troupe, and we performed at Black Expo. I wore my clothes backward like Criss Cross," recalls Tancharoen.

Despite his appearance, he insists that he's always been a techno-nerd at heart. While the other, much older dancers were going out at night, he was back in his hotel room teaching himself video editing and music producing on his computer as well as learning as much (regarding remixing, lighting, etc.) as he could from his slightly older teenage buddy and mentor, Wade Robson (now a judge on "So You Think You Can Dance"), who directed Spears' "Oops! . . . I Did It Again" tour, and also hired Tancharoen as his assistant on 'NSync's 2001 tour.

One thing that Tancharoen was sure about in his quest to remake "Fame": He didn't want to cast any famous names. "I wanted relative unknowns," he says. "That was part of the charm of the first movie. The movie is about people who want to better themselves. If you had cast a Zac Efron, you would have blurred that end. Superstars trying to be superstars -- it wouldn't have worked for me."

Search party

The filmmaking team conducted a six-month casting search all over America to land a group of relative unknowns, and then put them through boot camp to make sure they could actually sing and dance as their characters. "The script took massive shape-shifting once we cast," adds Tancharoen. The veterans who played the teachers -- Charles Dutton, Bebe Neuwirth, Kelsey Grammer, Megan Mullally and even the original "Fame's" Debbie Allen -- ended up improvising lines taken from their own life experiences to help coach the young actors. The script was also molded to the kids who were cast: "It was art imitating life," says the director. "They were playing their lives, kinda."

Given his background, Tancharoen was never satisfied just shooting coverage for his dance sequences but rather meticulously planned out each shot, shot the rehearsal with a DV camera specially fitted with 35mm lenses, and then pre-edited the sequence before committing any of his ideas to film. "You pace it out like an action movie with a car chase, " he says. "I learned that from watching documentaries about Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly. Donen had a stopwatch around his neck for every dance sequence in the movie."

The $18-million film -- which opened this weekend, taking in a disappointing $10 million -- does maintain some of the veneer of grit and high energy of the original. The kids still break out into a spontaneous flurry of dance and song, which this time includes hip-hop call outs. Yet Tancharoen decided to forgo all of the original music, except for "Fame" and "Out Here on My Own," deeming it too '80s.

He also chucked much of the darker social undercurrents of the first film, the story lines about drug addiction, abortion and closeted sexuality. It wasn't a case of pandering to a happy "High School Musical" fan base -- Tancharoen says those issues simply felt outmoded in 2009.

"Let me tell you about the issues that were in the first film," he says. "The tortured homosexual coming to terms with his real identity? Come on!" he says with cheerful disdain. "In performing arts school, that is not a problem." --

rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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