Interview: LUCIE PANKHURST, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

A former dancer herself, Lucie Pankhurst has choreographed and movement directed for television, theatre, commercials, and film. The films she has worked on include Florence Foster Jenkins starring Meryl Streep, Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie, and Snow White and the Huntsman starring Kristin Stewart.

More recently, she was the choreographer for one of my favorite films of the year, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. You can check out my video review of the book and the film here. I was thrilled to have the chance to chat with her about what it's like to choreograph for film and her work on the Guernsey movie.

Lucie Pankhurst
How did you first become interested in choreography? 
I fell in love with music first and by the time I could toddle, I was wigglin'! Music evoked stories and feelings in me that I could live out and exorcise through dancing. My parents were supportive of this development, for which I'll always be grateful, so I started doing creative movement classes before committing to the absurdly short life of a professional dancer.

I understood how short it was going to be, so prioritised performing while I could and learned from some of the most gifted and successful choreographers at that time, but I'd been steadily working as a choreographer all along. For me, choreography, the making of the dance, was part of being a dancer...and, in truth, when you've been doing it for all of your conscious life, your default setting is to see and experience life in terms of movement and dance.

Glen Powell and Lily James
What's the process of choreographing for a film like? 
It depends on the requirement, on how much the dance has its own significance within the narrative. So, Florence Foster Jenkins had an uncut sequence of dance, because that character was taking the floor and dancing, as part of his story. That lead to three months of tutoring, as well as the choreography of the sequence itself. With Snow White, the movement on screen was incidental, used in this case to show Snow White and her Little People getting more comfortable with each other and having a moment of enjoyment while on a dangerous quest.

In any case, the script is first to contextualise the movement, followed by the music for me to prepare for the first meeting with the director, who'll describe what they want the scene(s) to serve. Then, communications with the 2nd A.D. to schedule sufficient rehearsals, which will be filmed and shared with the director, producers, costume department and talent in question to practice and refine before shooting.

How would you say choreographing for the screen is different from choreographing for live dance or theatre? 
With live dance or theatre, you have to put emphasis on links and continuum in a way that is eradicated by the editing process of television or film.

The choreography in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is beautiful. Was there anything in particular that inspired you? 
Thank you! My inspiration was easily found. I love jazz music of pretty much any era with a fervent passion, so the scene in the jazz club was dreamy for me. As usual, I research and check that I'm historically accurate - a process that is inspiring enough in itself. Lily James has a dance background, so could pick up choreography pretty much through osmosis and Glen Powell committed his efforts and attention to the task with an energy that was an utter credit to him!

From the Guernsey movie
How does choreographing something set in a historical period like the Guernsey movie or Florence Foster Jenkins differ from something like Maleficent?
If I'm working on a scene that demands historical dance, it really is my duty to all who have gone before to research as thoroughly as possible. Maleficent, although set in a fairie tale, was an approximately medieval fairie tale, so I researched medieval dance and the special interest groups that keep this alive.

Do you have to take the costumes the actors will be wearing into account while choreographing? 
The ladies and gents of the costume department are often wonderfully a few steps ahead of me and insert crafty elasticated gussets and splits into skirts...!!

How do you work with lead actors like Lil James and Glen Powell who might come in with varying levels of dance experience and need to be worked into dance numbers? 
I work as required and as rehearsal and availability render possible. Often, the actor in question will proactively request what they feel they need.

What was your favorite part of working on the Guernsey film? 
This isn't a great answer, but all of it. It was a joy working with the director, Mike Newell, who also had a great appreciation of the impact of well-captured dance in a scene. Lily James and Glen Powell couldn't have been more gratifying to work with and to top it off, I had wonderful dancers!

Is there anything that you're working on now that you're excited about?
I've just finished filming the Horrible Histories Movie, which was a fairly relentless series of I'm pretty excited to see how that comes out!

You can find out more about Lucie Pankhurst from her website. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

Photos taken from Lucie Pankhurst's website or from the Guernsey trailer. 
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