While we were still in the confusing, unknown thick of global lockdowns I like many others bemoaned how much I missed the unadulterated pleasure of dancing outside the overly familiar confines of my house. In her joyous ode to the expressive freedom of movement The Best Ain’t Happened Yet LA-based filmmaker Felicia Manning takes that yearning and runs with it to the panoramic vistas of Placerita Canyon, where she showcases dance as a vibrant means to release the tension and anxiety built up during lockdown. Shot on 16mm film, The Best Ain’t Happened Yet combines expressive choreography, fashion, and synthetic soul music into a poetic experimental dance film which encapsulates the liberating sensations of freedom, nature and lightness. Joining us today, we speak to Manning about her debut journey into dance film, appreciating the forced rigours of shooting on film and keeping things pure on purpose.
The Best Ain’t Happened Yet marks the first time you’ve focused on dance and motion in your work. Was this project born out of a desire to experiment with the form or simply the logical expression of the themes you wanted to explore in this concept?
This project was purely born out of a desire to experiment with dance and motion. My production designer, Katie Roseff, and I started early conversations during lockdown and knew this approach was something we wanted to experiment with. The theme of breaking free was always there and could have been executed in many ways, but dance with a fashion sensibility was the ongoing concept.
Could you tell us more about the process of developing the choreography with Maya Angel Allen? Was the choreography locked down before filming began or did having Maya onset afford you opportunities to further tweak on the day?
Maya and I started things off with a conversation. I also shared a treatment developed closely with my production designer to help get the overall feeling across from styling to location and props. Maya was able to pull a lot from that initial conversation and translate that into a first take at motion. I remember telling her “Imagine you’ve been there for someone your whole life, but now you’re the one that needs to be lifted.” I could hear her taking notes on the other end and really loved that focus she had from the start. Emara Jackson was a perfect partner and also close friend with Maya so their creative flow was seamless.
The choreography was locked in well before filming and had to be because we were shooting on film. Maya and Emara recorded some of their exploration at the studio, I watched, gave feedback, cut together some of the early rehearsals, and gave them space to explore what felt right.
I could subconsciously feel my lungs expanding trying to take in the air of the vast Placerita Canyon backdrop. How did you find that stunning location and what was it like to set up production there?
I love that visual of lungs expanding because that’s exactly what Placerita feels like. It’s this vast, mountainous space that offers so much serenity and freedom. It’s not that far out from L.A. and still manages to feel so far removed from the city. I had known about this location for years and always wanted to film something there. Of course, we chose a pretty rainy month to film in and had to push the shoot more than once. I was really concerned about the dancers’ ankles because the ground they performed on was fairly unleveled. The wind was intense that day and we lost our clouds, but overall it was an amazing place to film in. It also became a very practical choice to secure a location where we could film safely outdoors and with a minimal crew.
What led to the choice of shooting this on 16mm and how much did that format shape the production?
Of course, I could drop an artistic statement here as to why this was shot on film, but it came from a place of wanting to test the format. There is something really magical about shooting on film because you only get one real take. Thankfully, my good friend and DP, Jesse Aragon, has experience with it and made some great stock recommendations. With film there’s just no replicating a moment or playing it back.
The theme of breaking free was always there and could have been executed in many ways, but dance with a fashion sensibility was the ongoing concept.
I think shooting on 16mm impacted the production immensely and in all the best ways. We would rehearse the move and the second that camera started rolling we all felt it. Aesthetically film just can’t be replicated and the look is so distinctive. This project was not meant to dazzle nor overpower with distracting visuals. I kept it pure on purpose. Film felt like the best way to encapsulate it all and give it that timeless feeling. I’m not sure I realized how much it would shape the production, but it truly did. We had to make each moment intentional and I loved how it impacted the overall performance.
I really like the blending of fashion and dance expression here. What was it about Song of Style’s sensibility that made it a cohesive match with the aims of the film?
From the very start we wanted a look that felt timeless. It was important that the wardrobe not lend itself to a particular time or place. There was a lot of exploration in styling and we eventually narrowed it down to color and pattern based on the location. My production designer just so happened to be in the loop with Song of Style’s upcoming collection. The Mara Set had this vintage appeal and sense of elegance that felt so right for the project. It also lent itself to styling both dancers with analogous color schemes. The set was completely sold out and we reached out to Aimee Song directly with our treatment. Thankfully, that email made it through and the team managed to send samples from Aimee’s personal collection. I have so much gratitude for Aimee and the brand.
As well as the more obvious visuals of floating or reflected images you also make subtle uses of post effects. Was that something you found in the edit and how close is the final film to your original conception?
We were close to completing the edit and I just wanted to explore one more feature in the post that wasn’t too dominant. Obviously, reflection was a big part of the theme. My editor Camden Remington presented a diopter effect, we tested it, and I loved it. The final film is close to the original concept in that we stayed true to the original vision – create a fashion-led dance film. We did a lot of exploration with potential effects and post-heavy approaches, but eventually pulled back and went with more practical elements (outside of the floating). I also had a more linear version of the dance in the first cut, having been so close to it, but eventually broke free from that format.
The palpably joyous nature of the dance is further enhanced by Chiiild’s synthetic soul sound. What about the track spoke to you? I’m assuming that the music was locked in during the early stages of the project?
Emotionally the song just hit me and we were really honored to have Chiiild share the track with us. The song is uplifting, but also has a real depth and reflective undertone to it, which led to a lot of the decisions we made creatively. The music was the very first part of our search when starting the project and we considered plenty of artists. I didn’t want to select dancers or styling until the music was locked, because the song is everything. Chiiild’s music has this soundtrack level quality to it and this particular track just came with such a dreamlike appeal. It lends itself to a deeper emotion and simultaneously this sense of wonder. There’s a moment toward the end of the film when we cut to Maya and Emara just running past one another, arms fully extended, and smiling. It interprets exactly what this track feels like in one swift move.
I didn’t want to select dancers or styling until the music was locked, because the song is everything.
Given that the film sprung from that collective desire for release post lockdown, how’s it been received by audiences?
What’s interesting is that we planned to make the film during the early stages of lockdown and release it soon after. I don’t think any of us anticipated how long this might all last. A part of creating this piece was to share some form of hope for anyone that might watch. That’s been the best commentary from those watching online is the overall sense of serenity. The title of the song is so relevant to this moment the world is experiencing right now and that’s just a testament to the artist.
Do you have any new projects in the works that we should be on the lookout for?
I’m developing a narrative short film at the moment. It should be ready for production by the end of the year. I’m also developing a spec trailer for a feature I’m developing. Until then, the biggest ongoing project is raising my newborn daughter and five year old son. I was six months pregnant when we filmed The Best Ain’t Happened Yet and my five year old rolled with us to most of the scouts so it really was a family affair.
The Best Ain’t Happened Yet is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.