A Conversation with Choreographer/Director John DeLuca

I owe so much of my career to director/choreographer Rob Marshall and his creative partner John DeLuca.  It’s hard to put into words my deep respect and admiration of these two artists and men.  I find it rare to experience talent, instinct and brilliance with the kind hearted, soulful personality that exudes ease, grace and diplomacy in a work setting.

They always say the tone of a set is established from the top, and trickles down to every department and every person working to bring something special to stage or screen.  Rob Marshall and John DeLuca are such class acts, moving forward with every beat in the most respectful, loving, admiring way, and bringing each individual along for the ride.   

It makes working for and with them an absolute pleasure and creates a safe space for actors, singers, dancers, everyone involved, to bring the best of themselves.  How they operate and run a project has been my reference and I have to admit, I don’t really tolerate much less anymore.  It’s not worth it to me to be miserable making art.  I know it’s possible to work hard, be absolutely committed, and make something beautiful and worthwhile, while experiencing true collaboration, joy and fun.  

From the Academy Award winning Chicago, Nine, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean, to the Emmy winning Tony Bennett: An American Classic, John's choreography has graced many mediums.  I’ve been lucky enough to work on many of these projects, and have learned from him and Rob in the most incredible way.  

John took time out of their very busy schedules to talk with me for my interview series.  So thankful he did.  I’ll always cherish my time with Rob and John, and our conversation was a reminder of all that I love about these two.

Enjoy!           

TNH:  How does being a dancer and choreographer inform you as a director?

JD:  Being a dancer and choreographer makes you so aware of the music and the tempo and the mood of scenes.  I had a great drama teacher in college who told me we had to do the scenes without the words and he said, “if you’re really connecting with the feelings and letting it become a part of you, you don’t need the words.”  That was a great exercise and it is true.  I always enjoyed the physical side of acting and singing, or whatever I was training in, and it allowed me into that.  There is a rhythm and a physical dimension; and the architecture and the staging of a scene is the same as a dance.  

TNH:  It’s like the scene has movement and choreography, and flow as well.  

JD:  Absolutely, and then there is also a certain detail and specificity that comes from that developed eye that you get from being a dancer, then a choreographer.  There is something in that detail that can’t be matched.

TNH:  It’s almost like being able to read nuance and seeing all the fine pieces.  I remember during Chicago, shooting All That Jazz, and Rob yelling “cut” and then coming over to fix my hair.  You and Rob see ALL the details that make the whole.

JD:  It’s like painting a picture.  All those dots that do come together.  A good choreographer knows, as a good director knows, that it’s not only about the words or the steps, it’s about telling a story and communicating feelings within your concept.     

TNH:  How is choreographing for stage different than choreographing for film? 

JD:  Choreographing for stage is different than film.  For film or tv, you have to know where the camera is, and choreograph within that framework.  It opens it up to that 360 dimension.  Both are really fun.  The art of creation is similar, but the craft is different.  It’s like acting.  People always ask me how acting for film and stage is different.  And the basics are the same.  Sometimes you have to bring it down a little, classically, for film.  As long as you are feeling those feelings as an actor or dancer, it translates.  

TNH:  I remember Marion Cotillard during our Nine shoot.  Her gestures were so simple and small, but emotionally she was so expansive.  

JD:  She just freaked me out.  She was brilliant.  There is no way she doesn’t tell the truth.  A beauty inside and out.  

TNH:  All those actors on that film, I just fell in love with.

JD:  I know, I know!  And the nicest people too.  Having a good disciplined rehearsal period can’t be beat for getting to know and trust each other.     

TNH:  Do you read reviews of your work and if so, how do you separate the courage to create from the fear of how it’s received?

JD:  I don’t ever, ever read reviews.  I keep myself so far away from that because it can be torture, and it’s really just one person writing down their thoughts and everybody reading it, and it’s so subjective.  I got a review in college.  It was very positive for me, but it did say my singing voice wasn’t as powerful as my operettic leading lady.  You see, I still haven’t forgotten.  I said no, I don’t need that in my head.  I am very sensitive, so I decided to keep out of it.  

TNH: We can be our own worst critic anyways, and if we have people around us that we trust to give productive feedback, then maybe that’s enough for one’s creative process.  I imagine it could be paralyzing.

JD:  And really, no one really understands what you went through getting there.  There are so many different aspects, it’s so complex.  I am so skeptical and hard on myself that I already have enough of that in my own brain, I don’t need that outside feedback from someone I don’t know.  

TNH:  I guess that’s part of it, knowing yourself well enough to know if it will be productive for you and if you can handle it.   

JD:   And then there are people who just dive into the next project, without getting stuck in the success or failure of something.  And I think that’s great, move on.  Since film takes so long and the process takes at least 2 or 3 years, I need to stop and fill up. 

TNH:  And maybe it’s also a shedding experience.  I remember Daniel Day Lewis talking about how much time it takes him to shed the role, shed the experience.  Because you give so much, you need that time to replenish.

TNH:  When you cast dancers, what do you look for?

JD:  It always depends on the piece.  I really look for a personality, a point of view.  I love someone who throws themselves into it 110 percent, and just looses themselves in the movement and the expression of what they are doing.  You know from working with me, I almost strive for the imperfections of everyone’s personality to come out, which is different than a lot of choreographers who want that perfection of every little thing.  That doesn’t excite me.  I would much rather prefer them staying open and having a point of view about something so their unique story comes forward.  As a choreographer and director, you want to be inspired too.  I don’t love sitting in my little office creating a scene or a dance.  I like having a shape and then throwing it on people and seeing what they bring.  That’s going to be better than anything.  That is the collaboration that is gold for me.

TNH:  And when you might meet a young performer with big dreams, what advice would you give to someone who wants to work as a professional dancer, singer, actor?  

JD:  I remember as I was doing my little climb, and people would say to me “You made it!” and I would respond “It’s just a different door.” It could be a non-equity door or The Broadhurst Theatre.  It’s just your attitude toward it.  Even when I was working for no money in Boston, I felt the same way walking on that stage as I did walking out on the Broadway stage.  

TNH:  That’s a huge gift.  Because you can have this bigger vision of dreams, but it’s really accepting where you are, surrendering to the process and just showing up and doing the work.  It’s really true.  You can be on the smallest stage and make the biggest impact.

JD:  You can have these dreams, but it starts right now.  You have to find that love in anything you do.  I know working with you, you are going to give 110 percent, to whatever it is. We can be working on the movie The Terminal with Catherine Zeta Jones and Tom Hanks or at a little barn here by my house.  I know you.  I know dancers and choreographers I respect.  It’s the same thing.  It doesn’t matter where you are, you show up and give.

TNH:  Thank you, John, for your wisdom.  I love how passionate you are and I am so thankful for your sharing.  xoxo

                                               John working with Penelope Cruz during the film Nine

                                               John working with Penelope Cruz during the film Nine

                              John and Renee Zellweger on the film Chicago

                              John and Renee Zellweger on the film Chicago

                                                   Emmy winning Tony Bennett:  An American Classic

                                                   Emmy winning Tony Bennett:  An American Classic

                                                                 John teaching Zhang Ziyi during Memoirs of a Geisha 

                                                                 John teaching Zhang Ziyi during Memoirs of a Geisha 

                                                              Gorgeous dance from Memoirs of a Geisha

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