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Maryland native Duane Adler's first film as writer-director is multicultural

With "Save the Last Dance" and the shot-in-Baltimore "Step Up," Duane Adler established himself as one of the go-to screenwriters for 21st-century dance movies. But apparently that wasn't enough.

"Make Your Move," a multicultural dance drama with tons of "Romeo and Juliet" undertones that opens in theaters today, marks Adler's debut as both screenwriter and director. Not that he didn't like what other directors had done with his earlier projects, he stresses. But this one was too much his baby to hand it over to anyone else.

"I felt I was the best person to interpret this story — and as a writer, I don't always feel that way," says the North Carolina-born Adler, 45, who grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and Odenton and graduated from the University of Maryland, College Park." Directing is a different beat. It's time-consuming, it's hard. I think you have to be really passionate if you want to go down that road. But this [story] was an idea I had, and I did want to direct it from the start."

Getting "Make Your Move" made was a tough slog, Adler says, one that spanned more than seven years. It started with an idea he had to make a tap dance movie with Savion Glover ("Bring in 'Da Noise, Bring in 'Da Funk"). But nobody seemed interested.

"I pitched the heck out of it, and we couldn't get anybody to pull the trigger," he says. "Then we moved on to other things."

Soon, he had another idea, a story centering on an American boy and an Asian girl. "They were not dancers in this story, they were musicians," Adler says. "He was a boy out of Chicago, she was out of Tokyo. They met online, they started a co-operation. Then they met and had some family traumas they were dealing with."

Recalling the tap idea he'd never entirely abandoned, Adler began wondering if maybe he couldn't fuse the two. But a problem remained: Tap just wasn't seen as cool. "People would kind of gloss over when you said the word 'tap.' They would say it's no modern art form," he says. "And I would argue back, no, there's some really cool stuff happening with tap."

So there was the immediate challenge: making tap cool. Frustrated, he sat at his computer one day and started typing terms into Google. First "Tap," then "funk," "dance" and finally "taiko," a Japanese drum with a big, reverberating sound that had caught his fancy.

That connected him with COBU, a Japanese dance troupe out of New York. Inspired by their high-energy shows, he came up with a storyline that incorporated elements of both tap and a COBU-style show and — finally — found a producer in Hollywood veteran Robert Cort who "believed in me as a director."

Adler says he's perhaps most proud of the diverse cast he assembled for film. "Make Your Move" stars Derek Hough, of ABC's "Dancing with the Stars," and Korean pop-star BoA. Members of COBU appear in the film, and the supporting cast includes Will Yun Lee (CBS's "Hawaii Five-0") and Wesley Jonathan (TV Land's "The Soul Man').

"Our industry's changing daily," Adler says, "but there's some trepidation when it comes to cross-cultural love stories and cross-cultural casting."

Still, Adler is optimistic that audiences are ready to embrace such a polyglot cast in a film that centers on conflict among people, not races.

"Not one time in this movie is race an issue," he says. "Not one time does anyone say, 'You can't be with that girl because she's Asian," or 'You can't be with that boy because he's white.'

"I think our cast reflects classrooms of today. It reflects a young generation that's growing up with an African-American president. … In that regard, we are a brave movie, that we embraced the multicultural aspect. It's one of the things that I'm most proud of."

chris.kaltenbach@ baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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