For writer / director / producer Andrew Adamson, tying a love knot around some of the best elements of seven Cirque du Soleil live shows that play in Las Vegas was a journey into magical realism. Executive producer Cary Granat and Reel FX Inc. had been discussing the possibility of collaborating with Cirque du Soleil on a project for quite awhile when he approached Adamson about the idea of crafting and directing a Cirque-based feature film. Granat is the former CEO of Walden Media, which collaborated with Adamson on the first two films of C.S. Lewis’ beloved The Chronicles of Narnia series. Adamson is also a producer on the third film, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
“We had to find a natural, cinematic way into the world of Cirque,” says Adamson. “I started thinking about the way Cirque live shows work. T here is a very dreamlike quality about them. A thin thread of narrative that weaves in and out of each but allows these acts to exist within the worlds that are created. I thought this movie could do the same thing. I could find a narrative that threads these completely different shows together.
“I came to the idea of these two people who meet in a real-world circus. She’s a young girl looking to escape her life. She sees this aerialist and instantly falls in love with him, but when their eyes meet he slips and falls. He drops right through the circus ring into another world and drags her with him. They spend the rest of the film looking for each other in these worlds that exist in a limbo state, kind of a space between life and death, a world between worlds. Ultimately they come together in a dream fulfilling aerial ballet. An act that hangs in the balance between beauty and danger.”
Like the live shows, the film eschews dialogue, using music and the marvelous expressions of the performers to move the narrative forward. But it was never the filmmakers’ intention to simply capture the live shows. “What I wanted to do” says Adamson, “is take the audience to see these shows in a way that they hadn’t seen them before, to get the camera in close and give a different perspective of what these artists do and show that perspective in high speed, slow motion 3D.”
Executive producer Cameron, whose company CAMERON | PACE Group shot the film with his FUSION 3D camera system, says the film feels “as if you strayed into a circus in a dream. From the beginning Andrew had a fairly clear vision of what he wanted to do and it continued to evolve. As a producer, I kind of acted as his sounding board. The goal was to really celebrate the physical artistry of everything Cirque du Soleil is about, the design, the beauty and grace of those performances.
“Andrew had to walk a fine line working with such diverse elements from these shows. It was never meant to be about effects but to showcase the raw, pure physical human talent and their amazing ability. While it starts in this sort of run down circus, it plays out as discovery of this other dimensional circus world they fall into, but it is still very much a circus. There are wires, harnesses and you see it all, no effects hiding it. In seeing it, you experience the ingenuity of staging, costume design, the strength and agility of their talent that seem so effortless, so fluid. But the preparation and work that goes into it is anything but effortless. What you see is pure Cirque.”
Adamson drew inspiration from such classics as Walt Disney’s Fantasia, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Peter Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake ballet and his own personal experiences from watching a traveling circus show in Mexico in 2000.
“It was a Fred Flintstone themed travelling circus. I remember the ringleader had a lot of years on him, the lion had no teeth and one of the trapeze artists was a large woman wearing a star-spangled bikini. It was almost an empty house and had definitely seen better days,” he recalls. “But there was this sort of sad yet beautiful element to it … bittersweet … one of my favorite emotions. That was in the back of my mind. So I set the opening of this film in a circus that was connected to no time or place. I really wanted it to feel like a traveling neighborhood circus that could be anywhere.”
At first Adamson wanted to use actors in the key roles, “but I also knew that I wanted to end with some kind of beautiful romantic straps aerial act.”
“To teach a normal person to do (aerial) straps, to perform at this level takes years,” says executive producer Jacques Methe of Cirque du Soleil. “The way to go was to take Cirque du Soleil performers and teach them to play the part. At the end of this film, they are both flying in each others’ arms. They need the skills and training of a real Cirque du Soleil performer. Igor and Erica have worked on several of our shows for years. They are not only wonderful acrobats, but because of their Cirque du Soleil training, they have learned to become characters. In any Cirque du Soleil show, everybody is a character and plays some part. So we knew these two had the acting skills because of their years with Cirque du Soleil.”
Erica Kathleen Linz was 19 when she joined Cirque du Soleil shortly after graduating from high school. “I grew up as a gymnast and a singer, which led to theater, so I have flip-flopped between acting and acrobatic roles, and recently I’ve been doing an aerial straps duet which fits into this whole theme,” Linz says. Landing the film role gave her an opportunity within Cirque that she had never known before. “There’s never really been an opportunity for anybody to kind of float through the shows, participate in what they do every night and get a feel for each show’s culture. Every show is sort of like its own family, has its own vibe, its own set of nationalities and sense of humor. Personally, it’s been unbelievable for me.”
Although she and co-star Igor Zaripov have performed in the show KA, neither performed a duet together before Cirque du Soleil Worlds Away. Zaripov, who joined Cirque du Soleil in 2002, grew up in a Russian circus family that had been in the business for more than a century. He has been an aerial acts acrobat from his first stage appearance at 11 for the Moscow Circus. He traveled with other circuses around the world honing his skills. When he joined Cirque du Soleil, he performed in KA for five years as the Firefly boy and in Cirque’s adult-themed Zumanity for several years. “I had never worked closely with Erica before but we had to get into it really quick (the first time for the love scene of the final act) and it was really nice,” he says.
What they do, although an outgrowth of KA, was created specifically for the film — a romantic aerial straps ballet which captures the ascendancy of love. “What you see is how these two learn to trust each other so completely. Her life is literally in his hands … an act of total surrender,” notes Cameron. “The acting is inferred by the physicality of the moment. And the grace with which it is done is simply beautiful.”