Paul Becker is a choreographer, but don’t assume that means he is solely involved in putting dancers through their paces. Involved in choreographing scenes on television (Riverdale, Once Upon a Time) and films (Suckerpunch, Deadpool, Ralph Breaks the Internet), Becker has now moved forward with a career directing films. With his debut, Breaking Brooklyn, Becker has crafted a film about music, dance, race, and family around the distinctive talents of Louis Gossett, Jr.
When Becker was primarily choreographing scenes, he would receive a script with a notation from the screenwriter that the characters danced, nothing more. He would read the scene and what story was being told, and then shoot it from different angles to capture the dynamics. It’s that attention to the story that helped him to transition from choreographer to director.
The first-time director had worked with the likes of Robin Williams, Carol Burnett, and Ice Cube, but he admits to nerves when putting the likes of Gossett and Vondie Curtis-Hall through their scenes. “I grew up watching Iron Eagle, so I knew Lou had some drill sergeant in him that made him great for the role,” he shared. “But this was the first time I wrote, directed, and choreographed, so I sat in the chair and learned from those guys. We would have a discussion and then I just gave them the floor. They always come prepared.”
Because Becker is so in tune with music and rhythm, he was able to extend grace to those who became part of his team, recognizing that they each had distinctive voices to share. One of the ways this voice shows up in the film is when the brothers encounter a street musician who is bucket drumming. “That guys is actually one of the best bucket drummers in the world, playing for musicians like Alicia Keys,” Becker shared. “He started off on the streets because that’s where he felt comfortable. He wasn’t an actor but he brought what we needed. When I wrote the scene where the brothers encroach on his space to make money, I didn’t know the terminology, but he told me that’s called “juicin’ my spot,” so that’s what he said in the moment.”
Becker admits that there are some autobiographical pieces in the story that finds two young white brothers taken in by an African American dance teacher when their father gets in trouble and they’re living on the street. While it’s not a true story, the elements Becker was able to incorporate from his own childhood made it magical to nudge his mother or a friend as they watched the film together. Watching his created narrative unfold was a reminder of the things he has accomplished, and the power of music in his life and in the lives of others as told through dance.
“I think it’s the rhythm of life,” proposed the writer/director. “The beat going through all of us, like our very heartbeat. Hearing the music outside of us facilitates that. Even if we don’t always think we hear it, it’s there. It’s an energy thing.”
The Canadian-American knows that the story he shares touches on the magical and the musical elements of life and of family, but he’s also crafted it in a way that brings race to the forefront. While he lives in the United States, he regularly works in Canada, and traveling back and forth across the border accents the dynamic differences between the way the two countries react to differences in background and ethnicity.
“As a Canadian I observe,” admitted Becker. “It still goes on in Canada. My eyes have become even more open because I have a biracial daughter. So when I wrote the story, I was more sensitive to it and to the climate.”
The push toward love and understanding happens in the film, but there is no sure-fire path to help those who have been bred with racist views, Becker says. Still, he hopes his film will push audiences to consider more of their own understandings about how the way that the world works and how they can make a difference.
“As a filmmaker, you want to leave people thinking, to take them on a journey. You hope that they’ll question their morals and life, and leave the theater in thought. With Breaking Brooklyn, you have two white kids being helped by an African American man when they’re homeless. It’s unconventional because they’re living in a theater with a single grandfather and his granddaughter, and they’re in trouble.”
Breaking Brooklyn is available Tuesday on DVD and Digital On Demand.