A couple meet on an abandoned basketball court. First tentatively sounding each other out, they eventually combine for an extended dance piece that celebrates physicality, communication, collaboration and basketball. Using the movements involved in the sport as a springboard for inspiration, Joy Isabella Brown’s Box Out — created with Jacob Jones The Company for the Films.Dance initiative — is an ode to its unique, combative and searching movements, taking place against a stylish grey setting with open skies and the sea behind. Wide shots are used sparingly, the camera preferring to track closely to the dancers’ bodies, creating an immersive and visceral feel. The dancer turned director joined us to discuss her transition behind the camera, her personal relationship with basketball, finding an artistic setting for the sport’s movements, incorporating camera movements into the dancing itself, and finding the flow of the final edited piece.
I’d love to know about your involvement with the Films.Dance initiative? We have already spotlighted a few on DN!
Films.Dance was birthed amidst the chaos of the pandemic. It was designed to help provide exposure for dance as an art form and to connect the dance community globally. The focus was always non-traditional collaborations and the initiative has definitely created unique connections between the dance and film world globally.
This is your directorial debut. What was it like making that transition from dancer to director?
The transition felt way more natural than one might think. I’ve been unofficially directing and designing projects on film for about a year now but this was my first opportunity to put those skills into practice in an environment like this. I think as a dancer I knew how it felt to be directed and what I did or didn’t like about relationships with prior directors. So I really wanted to honour dancers overall: that all started with doing my best to respect the vision of Films.Dance and Micaela Taylor and Jermaine Spivey as they built the movement.
To me the film feels like a celebration of the physicality of basketball. Why was this something that you wanted to explore?
I was proposed the idea to work on this specific film by Jacob Jonas. We had been in talks for a while about me directing a short for Films.Dance and this one just made sense. It was something I could connect with topically and I adore the dancers in the film. I grew up playing basketball with my dad. He was the star of his basketball team when he was younger and used to take me and my brother out often to play and practice. It’s a language and energy I’m familiar with.
My biggest priority is incorporating camera movement into every piece I work on.
How did you work on the choreography, especially how you collaborated with basketball consultant John Mosley?
The choreography was solely that of Jermaine and Micaela. They’re brilliant. My only role in this was to help segment and sort of ‘stage’ their work once we got to the court setting itself. I did manage to sit in on two of their rehearsals during the developmental stage. We talked honestly a lot. Mostly about finding things that honoured the sport and paid homage in a way that was articulate yet still remained subtle. John Moseley coming into rehearsal was such an honour. He was the missing key to this piece. He gave so much insight into a basketball player’s specific body position and terminology, it was incredible to hear. I sat there as he worked with the dancers and filmed everything to listen to on repeat later on.
I can feel a narrative here, moving from attraction to collaboration. How did you to get a sense of character and conflict through the movements and cinematography?
My biggest priority is incorporating camera movement into every piece I work on. I tend to film a lot of my work myself, and finding ways to highlight detail is what I enjoy the most. For this piece specifically, I wanted to incorporate that intention. We did quite a few takes of each section of movement. Our DP and camera operator hero Julia Swain was such a trooper. We would do rounds of filming focused on the hands, the feet, tracking different body parts. This is where I find my happiness within cinematography and it’s definitely what I planned the most before the shoot.
The music helps to give it a propulsive force. Walk me through the collaboration.
I had found a reference track and that was hard because it informed the piece and my editing so deeply I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to hear anything else that would connect with the work. Ian Chang and Topu Lyo were two incredible artists brought onto the project after I chatted with Jacob about what I wanted for the piece. It was essentially a marriage of percussion and strings. They were perfect, I was even happy with the first draft! We did a couple rounds of notes past that point, then the whole thing really came together quite quickly.
I also love the way the baggy clothes move as well. Is it a challenge for the dancers to move with these clothes?
The wardrobe was inspired by how the dancers dressed naturally. I had been in Big Sur with Jermaine the week prior and noticed that he often tended to wear layers. That was the reference for him. Similarly for Micaela. Christian Stroble pulled incredible pieces for this from Greg Lauren. I think he Facetimed me once before the shoot day itself to sample some options. We outfitted them the morning of the shoot and it was perfect. Honestly the layers probably helped keep out some of the dampness of the court. It was a nasty day weather-wise.
It will always be a balance for me of being the person in front of and behind the camera.
There is this lovely, grey scenery behind the dancers, which in its colour allows one to focus more on their movements. How did you find the right location?
Jill Wilson is a location scouting legend. She is a producer for Films.Dance and had pulled some options to show me early on in the process. We drove down to view the location together about a week before the shoot. Honestly a lot of places fell through; I think I originally wanted this piece to exist indoors but we saw the spot and honestly, it just worked. It was stunning.
What was it like finding the flow in the edit of the piece? There are quite a lot of cuts but it never feels rushed.
Editing has always been a meditation for me. I think I locked myself away for about two days to play with this one. I usually start in the middle. I think the first sequence I put together was the confrontation sequence that happens mid-piece, about halfway in. I think I started with that energy and then narratively worked backwards as to how the characters would get to that point emotionally. It’s a nice flow, I ended up liking it quite a bit.
What are you working on next?
The year has been and will continue to be a bit of a blur. I’ve been choreographing quite a lot of camera movement for various music videos this past month as well as operating behind a camera for projects as well. It will always be a balance for me of being the person in front of and behind the camera. Always doing both; finding a balance continually as time goes on.