When director Peter Chelsom suffered through the making of “Town & Country,” which turned into one of Hollywood’s most notorious big-budget boondoggles of recent years, he wondered whether it might be a career-ending failure. But Chelsom hasn’t just survived “Town & Country”–he’s flourishing, thanks to the surprise hit “Serendipity” and now his new film, “Shall We Dance?,” which he’d just screened for a Dallas audience the evening before an interview with the press. “That standing ovation at the end of the film was so rewarding after what I’ve been through,” he said with relief. “That reaction last night here in Dallas was the first time I thought, ‘Oh, well, maybe I’ll get another job.’ Because I really did get to that place after ‘Town & Country,’ which I could have gone down with. It could have all gone south. If it had not had seventeen postponed release dates, literally, and all of the bad press about it, and [if it had been made] for the original budget of $40 million instead of $90 [million], it would have come in under the radar and it would have been fine. Like a lot of films, it didn’t totally work–though I think the original script worked better than the final film, unfortunately. Diane Keaton used to say to me, daily, ‘You are never, ever going to have an experience as bad as this ever again.’ She acknowledged it to be the worst Hollywood experience she’d ever had. I consider it my greatest achievement–surviving it.”

Richard Gere, Susan Sarandon, Jennifer Lopez and Stanley Tucci star in “Dance,” an English-language version of Masayuki Suo’s well-regarded 1996 Japanese film about a depressed businessman who seeks to revive his spirits by secretly taking up ballroom dancing. Chelsom was a great fan of the original–so much so, in fact, that initially he resisted taking on the project. “I had seen the original and loved it,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this, because why remake a gem that was so perfect? And in fact I lied to Miramax when they first sent [the script by Audrey Wells] to me. I said I’d read the script, and it was not for me. I hadn’t read the script. A year later, they sent me the script again, and I was told there had been a lot of rewriting. So I read it. There had been no rewriting. But I read it and phoned them and said I thought it was much, much better. The truth! The fact is that it had always been good. And what came across was that it could translate to an American world and setting. The Japanese had relied on the taboo against ballroom dancing quite heavily. I realized early on we could make a movie [in which] the taboo in the American story would be if you’re living any kind of a dream, there’s a certain shame involved in raising your hand and saying, ‘Actually, I’m not happy.’ And to have Richard Gere, the man everyone wants to be or to have–depending on your preference–with Susan Sarandon as the sexy wife, with a charismatic family! Generally, it’s almost a better arena to have a man that has everything, but is lacking something–in other words, the man that’s living an ideal, but not a life.”

So Chelsom said yes the second time around, and watched the original again. “I saw it again in pre-production, would sometimes analyze bits of it, just bits,” he recalled. “And then I didn’t watch it at all until halfway through my filming…and I confess to absolutely copying the original, absolutely copying the camera moves in a couple of places. But most of the time not. I wasn’t going to be perverse about it and avoid all references. It was almost like putting a filter on something that already existed. We weren’t changing it so much–we were just looking at it from a slightly different perspective. The themes in the movies are slightly different. Jennifer’s part [as the troubled dance instructor] is not as prominent as in the original because ours lands more in the marriage. I think the biggest thing that everyone notices is that [Richard] takes his wife to the party at the end–and that’s a huge statement in the difference between that film and our film. Our film tends to land more in the area [of] being a film about a marriage. In other words, our film probably says that yes, you absolutely sometimes have to do something by yourself, for yourself. But in the American tradition of romantic comedies of a certain budget at a commercial level, it would have been unforgivable if he hadn’t taken his wife to the party.”

Chelsom was actually born in Blackpool, the site of the world championship ballroom contest mentioned in the picture. “It’s a coincidence–it’s not how I got the job,” he insisted. “But it was part of our culture. We were sent to ballroom dance class at the age of nine. I do think I’m a closet dancer. I’ve always loved it, and I’ve always wanted to film it, and I’ve actually squeezed it into my other films in a totally unjustified way. So clearly there’s been this dance that wanted to get out.” But capturing so much dancing on film required a lot of effort, he admitted, on the part of both cast and crew. “Technically, if you have people with music playing, people dancing to that music, talking while dancing to that music, singing in cases while talking and dancing to that music, it really is hard–you have to have a thump track which plays the beat only, which you filter out later. And then the continuity is a nightmare, because you’re doing a scene here, and there’s other people in the studio dancing. If you do a second take, then they’ve got to be in exactly the same place, even if they’re just…walking around. Then in the edit, if you shorten a shot, the rhythm’s gone, the sound’s gone. [You] re-edit the music, the dialogue’s now out of synch. Bring that back in, it doesn’t look good–you start again. It’s really quite complex.”

For Gere and Lopez, the dance moves themselves were demanding. “He’s not a trained dancer,” Chelsom said of his leading man. “For ‘Chicago,’ he just learned to do that tap routine, specifically. But he loves it; he’s very athletic.” In fact, Gere worked on the dancing a bit too hard. “He became obsessed with it,” Chelsom said. “I did say to him early on, ‘You can’t be too good, Richard, because of the character…Then a week before we started the shooting I saw his rehearsal and said, ‘I think you’re too good, and we have to do something about this.’ What we realized was that we could save all the stops being pulled out for the competition and grade it backwards as a man improving, and it seemed to work.” For Lopez the problem was different. “Jennifer found it to be really, really trying,” Chelsom said. “She’s a really fit girl–she works out every day. And yet she’d do an hour’s practice on the waltz and would ache in places she didn’t know existed the following day. Richard said the waltz is the hardest. The slow waltz is the hardest, because you’re gliding and you’re holding postures, and you’re on your toes and you’re sinking lower. It really is balance and posture, and your legs kill you after awhile….These dances they do in competition are sometimes only a minute and a half, and they’re exhausted. It’s like a sprint.” Chelsom, the closet dancer, also admitted, “I leapt in [the dance classes] here and there, because I love to be able to feel what it’s like to try to do something. I’m not a great dancer, but I did enjoy leaping in.”

He sounded just like the character Richard Gere plays in “Shall We Dance?”