The Diva Whisperer
Steven Antin has just breezed in, sunglasses on. He’s barely sat down and he’s waving to some folks the next table over. “This is totally high school,” he says. “I’ve been on the lot for several years. You see the same people every day.”
It’s a little more than a month before the release of Antin’s feature directorial debut, Burlesque. He is still deep in postproduction, but he has stepped away for a quick meal in the dining room on the Sony Pictures lot in Culver City, Calif. “I’m about to graduate—I hope!” he says, adding, “On November 24, when the movie opens.”
Whether Antin “graduates” or not hinges on how people react to his movie, an original musical that marks both the big-screen acting debut of Christina Aguilera and the long-awaited return of Cher. At this point, though, it’s hard to say whether Burlesque will be the next Chicago—or the next Showgirls.
No matter what it will be (at press time, all the studio had made available for review was a dazzling 40-minute clip reel of musical numbers), one thing is for sure: Burlesque is the gayest movie of the year, and not just because it’s a musical starring Cher and Xtina.
If Sony Pictures is high school, then Screen Gems—the Sony specialty films division that nurtured the development of Burlesque and will launch it in wide release before Thanksgiving—is the glee club. “We’ve all been to Palm Springs for the weekend, sitting at the same pool,” says Clint Culpepper, president of Screen Gems, of his personal and working relationships with the team he put together for the film, starting with writer-director Antin, producer Donald De Line, and costume designer Michael Kaplan. “We all grew up watching musicals, so for all of us to work together was kind of like, ‘Hey, let’s take these two icons and make a really fun musical!’ ”
The whole thing wouldn’t have happened without Culpepper’s guiding hand. Recalls Antin: “For several years, Clint said, ‘Will you sit down and write this fucking movie already? I know this movie’s in you. Just write it. If you write it, I’ll make the movie.’ ”
Antin had directed only one movie before—a direct-to-DVD-thriller, Glass House: The Good Mother, starring Angie Harmon—but, says Culpepper, “I knew that he could do it and he hadn’t gotten the opportunity.” The two shared a vision of burlesque—musical parody with sexual innuendo, as it originated in Europe in the 1800s, before it got muddled together with stripping. “He’d directed music videos and he really gets the whole song-and-dance thing,” Culpepper says. “And he used to be an actor, so I knew he could get the performances.”
Culpepper had confidence in Antin for another reason: They have known each other for 20 years, and they have been romantically involved, a fact that Antin would rather not discuss, beyond “It’s complicated.”
No doubt, the whole undertaking was complicated. Antin had to figure out what the story would be—Ali (Aguilera) is a small-town girl with big-city dreams. She wants to dance and sing on the stage of Burlesque Lounge, a present-day Los Angeles nightclub where Tess (Cher), the reigning former diva, runs the old-fashioned show. Antin then worked with studio executives to bring his fantasy of drama, comedy, romance, and musical diva worship to life.
As is often the case in Hollywood, other screenwriters came in to rewrite him. But unlike most credited screenwriters, Antin is humble enough to admit it. “We brought in everyone,” he says, digging into a chicken breast with steamed vegetables and brown rice. “They rewrote me, I rewrote them, they rewrote me, I rewrote them.” Among those writers: Diablo Cody (Juno); Susannah Grant (Erin Brockovich); comedian Bruce Vilanch; even John Patrick Shanley—who won an Oscar for writing Cher’s Academy Award–winning role in Moonstruck.
Burlesque is Antin’s big directing break, but this director is hardly new to the business. One glance at his Wikipedia page brings on a wave of memories: In the video for Rick Springfield’s 1981 hit “Jessie’s Girl,” he played enviable Jessie; in The Last American Virgin, he was Rick, the ladies’ man; in The Goonies, he played Troy, the preppy jock badass who was all about the cheerleader; and in The Accused, starring Jodie Foster, he was one of the drunken rapists. A role in the gay ensemble film It’s My Party and a stint as a homicide detective on NYPD Blue capped his acting career as he moved on to creating the TV series Young Americans and writing the movies Chasing Papi and Inside Monkey Zetterland.
“I don’t watch any of that stuff,” says the 52-year-old Antin, who played teenagers until he was well into his 30s. “I just can’t.” He grew up in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley, in an artistic family that was the inspiration for Zetterland, which he wrote, produced, and starred in, about a screenwriter–former child actor with a vain hairdresser brother and a neurotic mother. Antin’s real-life sister, Robin (“We talk every day,” he says), created the burlesque-esque girl group Pussycat Dolls, which Steven has had a hand in producing; his younger brother, Jonathan, a celebrity hairdresser, was the focus of Bravo’s 2004-2006 reality show Blow Out. “We have such a contentious relationship,” says Antin of his famously high-strung brother. “I’ll be at my mom’s house and he’ll be there and he’ll go, ‘Your hair looks fucking weird. Come here,’ and he cuts it, like, in the street, or by the pool. He’ll just chop into it.”
Their father, Michael, is a painter; their mother, Brenda, a former TV executive. His parents own Brenda Antin, a high-end Los Angeles antiques store where they also sell their own line of furniture. “My mom has better taste than anyone I know,” Antin says. “She is really tough. Most things that [my siblings and I] do are not good enough. She’s always saying to me, ‘When are you going to make a Merchant-Ivory movie?’ I’m like, ‘Mom, no one’s making Merchant-Ivory movies.’ Hopefully she’ll like Burlesque. She came to the set and she’s so critical of design, but she actually thought it was beautiful.”
Antin’s crystal-clear concept for the film’s visuals—a pastiche whose inspiration spans Fosse’s Cabaret to Bertolucci’s The Conformist—is what secured his leading lady. “He knew what he wanted visually, and for a first-time actor that is important,” Aguilera says. “I think it was the creative craziness I was drawn to. He brought so much energy and passion to the set. There wasn’t a day that we shot that he wasn’t completely engrossed in the film.”
Convincing Cher, though—well, that was another task. “I could have gotten Jesus to show up at a bar mitzvah easier than I could have gotten Cher in that movie,” Culpepper says, displaying his usual flair for hyperbole. Cher hadn’t done a movie since 2003’s conjoined-twins comedy Stuck on You, starring Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear. But Culpepper sent Antin’s script to David Geffen (Geffen and Antin dated more than 20 years ago; they’re all good friends now), who slipped it to his friend (and, to make the circle smaller, onetime flame) Cher. Culpepper says the Oscar-winner backed out 30 times before fully committing—no doubt more hyperbole—but by all accounts she was a trouper. “She’s exactly who you want her to be,” Antin says. “The cool chick from Moonstruck, very laid-back, mellow.”
Wait, are we talking about the same person? Superstar Cher?
“Sure, she has a lot of changes for things at the last minute,” Antin concedes, “which is sometimes daunting, but she’s never the diva presence on the set that you would think a modern icon like her would be. She’s a cool lady.”
Aguilera says much the same: “Cher tells it like it is, but in a way that isn’t rude or pushy or bitchy. She is straightforward, she is smart, and I am so glad I can say she is now a friend.”
Still, no production of this scale goes off without a hitch, especially one that’s filled with so many big personalities, on camera as well as behind the scenes. “Things get heated on a movie with this kind of a schedule,” Antin says, “where everybody’s tired from working 15-, 16-hour days. We had to rehearse on weekends and tech the musical numbers on the weekends.
“It was a total fucking nightmare,” he says, smiling. “And it was a dream come true.” Kinda like…high school.