There’s an old theatrical saw about never working with children or animals, because they’ll always show you up. Marques Houston, writer and star of the youth-oriented dance film “Battlefield America,” out Friday, didn’t have to deal with animals. But prepubescent boogiers were everywhere.
“At one point we had 20 kids at once [in a scene]. You get a bunch of kids together and you can’t get them to focus all at once. One kid is cool, but all of them together — it can get a little chaotic,” Houston says. “I was as influential with my attitude as I could be, but sometimes I’d just say, ‘Whoever can stay quiet the longest gets $20.’”
Despite these “kids will be kids” moments, Houston credits the dozens of dancers — who ranged from 8 to 12 years old, and from professional actors to untrained amateurs — for their professionalism and commitment. “These kids went through four weeks of training just for the choreography,” Houston says. “These kids went through boot camp. These dances were not a joke. And you feel that authenticity coming from these kids. They were really giving it their all.”
That dedication was necessary, Houston says, with Chris Stokes (2004’s “You Got Served”) in the director’s chair. “He doesn’t want to use a stunt double or a dance double,” Houston says. “His thing is authenticity. He wanted it to be as realistic as it could get.”
This realism isn’t limited to the dance scenes, Houston says. His character is your typical career-obsessed, driven guy who just happens to finds himself mentoring a ragtag community dance troupe as part of a plea deal after a DUI. Though variations on this story are common in films, Houston sees a real resonance in the film’s inner-city setting.
“There are so many kids out there who grow up without a mother, without a father. And they don’t really have anything positive to latch onto, to go out there and push for. For these kids, this community center is a home away from home,” just as similar centers are for many real-life youths.
In the film, Houston teaches the kids that they must work hard to compete successfully in life — a lesson that made its way into the onscreen dance battles.
“When we did the battles, they really wanted to be the best,” he says. “They were really competing.”