Steven Antin On Burlesque, Wooing Cher, and Discovering Ian Somerhalder

Writer-director Steven Antin would like to set a few stories straight. First, he wasn't born in Portland. He's a native New Yorker who grew up in Los Angeles, where he and his now-famous siblings -- stylist Jonathan, Pussycat Dolls founder Robin, actor Neil -- all wound up working in showbiz. Antin barely knew Cher before she agreed to star in his new film, Burlesque, though they both reportedly dated music mogul David Geffen at different times, years ago. And contrary to the notion that he's come out of nowhere to direct the razzle-dazzliest film of the holiday season, Antin's an industry veteran who's spent a lot of time hustling to bring his passion project to the big screen after a career in which he's gone from teen movie actor to indie filmmaker to television producer and beyond.

With Burlesque, Antin changes course yet again. Imagine a modern-day Cabaret with a dash each of Gypsy and Coyote Ugly -- and 10 times the sequins, false eyelashes, and soulful crooning -- and you've got Burlesque, a glossy modern musical that pairs Christina Aguilera in her big screen debut with Oscar-winning pop icon Cher. Antin spoke with Movieline to address rumors of backstage squabbles and discuss the history of burlesque as vaudevillian entertainment, the long road he took to bring Burlesque to the big screen, his secrets to making women look beautiful, how he discovered Ian Somerhalder ("One of the most beautiful specimens I've ever seen in person"), and how help from friend David Geffen -- and Jodie Foster, circa 1988 -- made Burlesque possible.

Some folks may not realize it, but they first got to know you decades ago as the actor who played Troy in The Goonies, Rick in The Last American Virgin, and Jessie in Rick Springfield's "Jessie's Girl" music video. You basically spent the 1980s stealing every young guy's dream woman.

I did. I seemed to be cast in that role a lot back then. I always wanted to be a filmmaker, but I started acting when I was 9 years old. I looked a certain part that I wasn't, really. I played, you know, a high school jock with a lot of attitude or a spoiled rich kid, and I was neither of those things. I was from a very working-class family in Van Nuys. As I started to mature, I started to get more interesting roles, and I really wanted to explore other possibilities. I think that I was a competent actor, an OK actor. I don't think I was a great actor or a movie star, and I realized I wanted to be doing something else. I think that I chose the right path, because I feel confident in my ability to direct and I think I'm going to hit a lot of movies out of the park.

Did you make a specific decision to shift gears at a certain point in your career?

I don't really remember what the catalyst was, to be honest with you, but I do know there was a period of time when I really felt like I wanted to do something more than just be an actor. Actually, Inside Monkey Zetterland was originally a book of short stories that I was writing called Campfire Stories. I was doing The Accused with Jodie Foster and she knew I was writing these stories and kept saying, "Let me read them!" I was nervous to let her read them but I finally let her read several of them and the next day on the set she said, "I've got to tell you, it's not really a book." I was devastated. But then she said, "It's a movie! Why don't you write this into a movie? You've been reading scripts since you were a child; you know how to write a script, so write a script." And I did.

So we can partially thank Jodie Foster for Burlesque, because she's indirectly responsible for you becoming a writer-director in the first place?

I don't even know if she knows that, but yes!

Burlesque was not your first directing gig, but it is your biggest to date. Why was this the project that you decided to go all in for?

Well, there were several movies that I was attached to that didn't get made. I actually had a movie green lit at Disney the same week Burlesque was green lit -- a movie for Disney called Mash-Up, about a high school marching band. There are a lot of stories spinning around Burlesque that suggest that I kind of fell into this, but I had many situations that were in play, balls in the air. I'd directed a bunch of music videos, and financed and directed my own commercial spec spots, and shot Pussycat Dolls show after Pussycat Dolls show after Pussycat Dolls show and edited them at my own expense to create a director's reel for myself. The development of this movie was four years in the making, so I was writing this for nothing while I was getting paid and doing other things at other studios - producing TV shows and reality shows and things like that. I had to make a choice that week: Do I make Burlesque or do I make Mash-Up? And I chose Burlesque.

When the first trailer for Burlesque came out, it was really easy for pundits to evoke film references like Showgirls or Glitter, but it seems to more closely owe a debt to film musicals like Gypsy or Cabaret. To what extent did you try to pay homage to those classic film musicals?

There are many homages in the movie, and really it makes sense for the movie to be one giant homage -- because that's what burlesque is. I don't know that many people have connected that linear thread. Burlesque in its original form in Europe in the 1700s was a pastiche of entertainment that was all taken from other things; popular plays of the time, popular songs of the time, parody, political events -- it was all sort of a big fun pastiche of entertainment and parodies and song and dance taken from other shows. Really, it was homage to anything that was popular at the time, and that's why it appealed to mass culture. It had nothing to do with the sexually charged burlesque that people know today. People brought their families to burlesque shows -- it was an offshoot of early vaudeville. So it made sense for the whole movie to be homage, and I really hope that people at some point tie that together. There's something a little bigger and smarter here that movie people are sort of connecting.

Numbers like "Long John Blues" show that humorous, playful side of burlesque -- and so does Kristen Bell, who's absolutely fearless in her performance, particularly in that scene.

So fearless. She really came full speed ahead at me, met with me and said, "I want to do this." Kristen Bell is rare as an actress, because she's the type of actor who jumps out of a plane without a parachute -- from a totally fearless place, which is really refreshing and inspiring. She has complete faith and support in the filmmaking process and the director.

Speaking of supporting cast members who make an impression, you cast Cam Gigandet as Christina's love interest and have him appear fully nude, save for a strategically placed box of snacks. Was that an ad-libbed moment or do you have some sort of brilliant product placement deal in place with the Famous Amos cookies people?

[Laughs] Gosh, we so didn't! There are so many things in this movie that make me wonder if I'm going to benefit from any of it. I re-wrote the lyrics to Christina's song "But I'm a Good Girl," and I talk about the Beverly Hills Hotel, Dan Tana's, the Chateau, Agent Provocateur... that's really a love song and homage to Los Angeles. I keep wondering, am I going to get a free steak at Dan Tana's for this?

Surely at least one. That brings up a question of setting; this aspirational showbiz tale could easily be a New York story or a Los Angeles story -- why did you set it in Hollywood?

I'm an L.A. guy. Actually I was born in Queens, in New York, contrary to what IMDB and what different people write online. Somehow there was this weird thing where someone said I was born in Portland, and I just was not. It's so wrong. So for the record, I was born in New York City. I've always had a love affair with New York City and I've threatened to get an apartment there one day. But it just made sense for me to set Burlesque on the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles. It's a place I know intimately well and love, and I think there's a great story to be told with L.A.

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  • parker says:

    what happened to his face?

  • Leslie Look says:

    Hey Steve.. I have an amazing Idea for a MOVIE and I like your style!!! It's a subject that is going to get ALOT OF PUBLICITY.. AND MAKE YOU even more FAMOUS. I have devoted the last 20 years to helping the youth on Martha's Vineyard and this Movie could not only help alot of young adults but has the potential to surpass "precious " in the ratings !! I'm very serious about this and I'm going to keep plugging this until I find someone who will listen and make a movie out of this,, Look me up on facebook if you want to know more about me .. of course it's my daughter that has put most of the info up on it. I never have time to go on it .. best way to contact me is e-mail or phone.. Sincerely, Leslie Look