If you took the mockumentary style interviews of Modern Family and complemented it with the reality competition series of So You Think You Can Dance, you’ve got the visual ballpark of the new docuseries, The Big Leap on FOX. In fact, many of the players from SYTYCD have lent their talents to this show-within-a-show, namely choreographer Christopher Scott, also a producer on The Big Leap. Inspired by the U.K. reality format Big Ballet, the show takes the viewer behind the scenes of a dance competition where age, body type, and gender are all fluid, and all are welcomed.
The title is a metaphor for taking a risk with the high stakes of the show featuring contestants competing to dance the coveted roles of the Swan, the Prince, and company in the re-imagining of the classic ballet Swan Lake. What is mostly encouraged is their desire to dance whether they are classically trained or not, and the willingness to talk on camera about their innermost private lives to the invasive producer Nick Blackburn played by Scott Foley. It turns out that doing interviews was a happy accident in The Big Leap which creator Liz Heldens stumbled upon, so having Winer on board played a serendipitous part in that.
Breaking down the fourth wall is where executive producer and director Jason Winer shines, as he is the brainchild behind the interviews of Modern Family, where he was recognized with the DGA Award for “Outstanding Direction of a Comedy Series” for the pilot, and received Emmy, Peabody, PGA, and AFI awards as the producing director of 22 episodes over the show’s 11-year run.
Below The Line spoke with Jason Winer about what attracted him to jump onto The Big Leap. He reveals what storylines have made it into the show that mirror the cast and crew, and how his varied experience informs the way he directs. Developing television series from the pilot and putting his directing stamp on them throughout has put him on the map, but how he got there could be the makings of its own half-hour musical dramedy. Winer discusses his creative journey to becoming a multi-hyphenated creator, writing, producing, and directing original programs.
Below The Line: One of my favorite shows is So You Think You Can Dance. Was The Big Leap inspired at all by that?
Jason Winer: I was a huge fan of that show. When I read the script, of course, I thought about it. Our choreographer on the show is Christopher Scott, who people know from So You Think You Can Dance, and his co-choreographer is Comfort [Fedoke], who is also in the show, who people know from So You Think You Can Dance so their DNA runs deep.
BTL: Your DNA, so to speak, is that you develop pilots and you follow through the course of the series.
Winer: First of all, thank you so much for noticing that. That is something that I do and something that I believe in. I think the tone of the show is established over the course of the first season. It’s really difficult to have a unique tone, something that breaks through and makes a show feel different and special. I like to say that the process is the product so, if you want a different product, you have to invent a different process. That inventing of the process takes more time than just the pilot. It’s not only important to make sure we discover all there is to discover about a unique tone, but also has a kind of fulfillment of a specific promise I’m making actors as I’m pitching them to join us in the pilot that I’m gonna be there. For me, it goes back to the success of Modern Family, having been through the whole first season. There’s so much we discovered about the process and the tone and so much we established about the chemistry of the ensemble through the course of the whole season. I was a younger man and had more stamina and directed every other episode of that season. I was an animal just prepping and shooting! But the experience of that is what taught me this lesson about the evolution of chemistry over the course of a full season.
BTL: Were you a natural choice in this series because of your experience in breaking the fourth wall which is what you did in Modern Family with the interviews?
Winer: The idea of the interviews didn’t come up until the second episode. There are no interviews in the pilot. It was something that occurred to Liz [Heldens] as a device and then felt natural once we got deeper into the show-within-a-show. That’s why I was insistent on directing the second episode too because in this show, almost unlike any other broadcast show, the second episode is as much a pilot as the pilot. The second episode is taking us into the world of what the series will be in a way that the pilot doesn’t do because it’s a special episode where everyone is coming from their lives and auditioning for the show. I felt that if I’m gonna guide the season, I had to really get my hands dirty with that second episode as well.
BTL: What attracted you to this project?
Winer: Being a theater nerd, I just flipped for the script. The dance aspect of it and the idea of people that are passionate about performing and discovering that part of themselves really spoke to me. I just freaked out for it. I had been looking for a one-hour pilot to do for a very long time and considering scripts for probably six years, but hadn’t decided on the right thing and was always drawn back into the comedies. Then Michael Thorn, the president of Fox, knew that I wanted to work on a bigger visual palette so, he reached out right after they decided to pick up this script.
BTL: Is it true you had some background in musical theater?
Winer: I confess to being a theater nerd. I went to Northwestern and I studied performance, which is a very heavy version of a theater major combined literature with performance. I double-majored in art so I was an art nerd too, specifically photography. But I can’t sing at all so, I envy people who are musical. My wife was on Broadway so, I’m very much drawn to musicality and I love the way that it pushes visual filmmaking. That’s what I love about doing shows with music and dance and I saw that potential in this. But as a small kid before it really mattered that I couldn’t sing I did do musicals. I did the musical When It’s Dark Enough You Could See The Stars when I was eight years old where I played a mute so I didn’t speak or sing! In high school, I did South Pacific where I played Sergeant Billis, who also doesn’t sing well. (laughs)
BTL: Was it ever in the back of your mind to become a director?
Winer: I didn’t know I was gonna be a director. I was a performer and did lots of theater. I also was a writer and a photographer and in college studied all three things without thinking I would combine them into directing. I didn’t actually direct the first short film until I was 29 years old. It hadn’t occurred to me to put it all together but, when I finally did, it was like a matrix moment for me where I was behind the monitors directing this short that I was spending all my own money to make and feeling like, “Holy crap. I know how to do this.” This combines all the things that I’ve been studying and working on one way or another my whole life, but I just never put them together this way. From that moment on, that’s what I knew was the thing. I really benefited from not knowing what my dream was and studying a lot of things so, I use all of those things now in what I do.
BTL: How has studying improvisation informed you as a director?
Winer: Your path colors what you put on screen. The way you see a scene or pitch a line comes from your experience. It certainly affects the material you’re drawn to doing and the stories you want to tell. My experience as an improviser colors how I approach directing greatly. I studied with Del Close, who is the guru of improvisation and goes way back to the first season of Saturday Night Live and the founder of Improv Olympic. I consider that my grad school. In directing a scene, I do like to improvise and encourage actors to play. I cross shoot a lot so everybody is on camera all the time so, both sides of the scene can be captured simultaneously where people can overlap and improvise, which I think is a signature thing in my style and it’s in the show for sure.
BTL: In The Big Leap, what is the thing you like to do most? Is it producing or directing?
Winer: I love my partnership with Liz Heldens, the showrunner. She and I have a simpatico relationship from the moment we started working on the pilot together, which we shot in chunks because of Covid over a year and a half. There was a lot of stress and a low hum of fear with everything going on in our world simultaneous to this. Somehow we were able to channel that in this into gratitude, and that we’re getting to tell this story of rebirth and hope and people coming back to life. It was how it was making us feel and we came together on that. I guess my favorite part of the process is having that feeling and trying to inspire that in the cast and the crew and making them feel we’re all a part of making something special together. The most immediate way for me to do that is through directing, but I’ve been working on the cuts and the music and that feeling translates even in post.
BTL: What was it like to direct Simone Recasner as Gabby who had no previous experience on screen?
Winer: We pushed to find the best authentic people for the parts. The part of Gabby, in particular, was really specific. We needed somebody who could dance and who could act the depth of this. When we saw Simone Recasner was actually in a test. We had already cast Ser’Darius Blain and we had him read with the various women and, when they read together, we knew it was her. We had to convince the network because she literally has no screen credits. She is an Off-Broadway New York actress so, on the one hand, was a bit of a sell but when they saw her they knew it too. She has been incredible. We can not get over her confidence and the way she deals with the wardrobe in the kindest most gentle way to make suggestions about what her character would wear. That’s something that people work on for years in their career to gain the confidence to do. I’m so proud of what she’s putting on screen and the way she is anchoring to a degree this ensemble.
BTL: Speaking of theater, do you think the audience is aware of all the meta aspects of the series. For example, you’ve got Scott Foley, who is a producer of the series as the producer character.
Winer: I love all the meta aspects of this and I don’t think people even appreciate the degree of meta-ness until the end. We have episode 107 coming up and it’s called “Episode 107: Revenge Plot.” Episode 107 is part of the title and it’s also the show’s seventh episode and that’s part of the story. It’s insane (laughs). It’s so fun the way the show echoes itself that way and we try and use this show-within-the-show satire to poke fun at ourselves and poke fun at our business. I hope people feel that even if they’re not getting all the details. A lot of details from Scott’s character, to be honest, Liz has taken from me. Scott’s catchphrase in the show is “what prevents us,” which becomes the title of the ninth episode. He says it in just about every episode. That’s something that Liz noticed that I say. It’s a very nonjudgmental way of calling out to the ADs and crew to hurry it up. (laughs) I heard it somewhere and frequently when I’m getting impatient or the day is waning, I yell out, “What prevents us,” as speak up if you’re still working because we have to get this shot. Liz, in her poetic mind, applied it as a resonant theme of, “What prevents us from moving forward.”
BTL: This isn’t your typical dance competition show. Firstly, you’ve got all shapes and sizes, all types of dancers, with some non-dancers. Why do you think audiences resonate so much with this show?
Winer: The show doubles down on hope. It’s about these people picking themselves up and daring to fail “participating in a potentially life-ruining reality show.” There’s something inspiring about watching people struggle to do something or learn something or extend themselves beyond themselves. The ensemble is organically diverse. We’re as diverse behind-the-scenes as we are in front of the scenes and that diverseness adds to the richness of the storytelling. At the end of the day, it’s connecting with people because of the unique combination of touching and emotional storytelling along with unexpected humor and hope.
All images courtesy Fox.