The opportunity to collaborate with Oscar-nominated director Baz Luhrmann would be enough in itself for many artists to sign on to a project without so much as reading a script, but for The Get Down choreographers, and brothers, Rich and Tone Talauega, there was also a profound opportunity embedded in the Netflix original series—an opportunity to honor music, a place and a culture that had a critical influence on them in their young lives.
Sharing a versatile career as music video directors, creative directors, producers and performers, the Emmy-nominated choreographers were the perfect pair to orchestrate elaborate dance sequences which are the beating heart of Luhrmann’s ambitious series. Jumping on the phone with Deadline, Rich and Tone discuss their way of giving back to a culture that touched their lives and prompted their careers, and the unique “factory of creativity” that Baz Luhrmann created for this series, which birthed all the varied dance sequences seen in the show.
What was it that excited you about The Get Down?
Rich Talauega: We wanted to work with Baz on this project, but when he explained to us what the project was about—‘70s New York, disco, hip-hop—those taglines, alone, were beyond everything. My brother and I are children of the hip-hop era. To be able to work on something that puts some integrity to the culture, a culture that helped us, as far as what we do…That, more than anything, was something that was really sexy to us.
Tone Talauega: It was very unique be able to tell the story of the South Bronx, because it’s never been told before. It’s never been properly documented. We’ve done a lot of research on this project—half of the research that we had to do, we had to go straight to the source, instead of going through documentaries or literature.
Actually talking to people like Grandmaster Flash and Nelson George—people from the dance community that are still around, from the voguing community that was bubbling around that time in Harlem—and all the different generations of b-boys that came out of there, and the Hustle community that came out of the late ‘70s, too. That, in itself, along with what my brother was saying, attracted us to this project. Rich and I wanted to pay respect.
How much of the detail of these dance sequences was outlined in the scripts, and how did you work with Baz to realize these moments?
Rich Talauega: Baz definitely understands movement, he understands dance, he understands how to intertwine telling the story through music and dance.
The detail is in the script. There were some moments where it was really detailed, and there were some moments where my brother and I, collaborating with the composer, Elliott Wheeler, would get together, would pitch in some ideas, due to the information we already knew before even getting on the project about this sort of source material.
It was really fruitful to be collaborating with Elliott Wheeler. Of course, Elliott, Tone and I put in our influence and storytelling through movement.
Tone Talauega: I’d like to talk about the process of going from Baz, to script, to the dojo, which was basically the breeding ground of all these musical sequences that we created for The Get Down. Baz Luhrmann created this factory of creativity, between the music department, the dance department and the writing team.
The dojo consisted of this huge, open warehouse. In one corner, there was a DJ setup, where Grandmaster Flash was teaching Shaolin Fantastic the DJ essence, the soul of it, the technique behind the DJ element, and this whole swagger. And then in the opposite corner, my brother would be teaching a bunch of dancers the Hustle culture—teaching them the technique on how to do the Hustle the authentic way, from the ’70s.
I would be in the opposite corner, teaching the b-boys, along with a b-boy coach, the authenticity of the ’70s style of breakdancing, which is way different from the ’80s and the ’90s. It’s a whole different movement vocabulary. Then, on the other side of the room, you would have Kurtis Blow teaching some of the actors how to hold a microphone, how to walk on stage in the ’70s, how you would perform—basically, the vocabulary back in the ’70s as an MC. All this was going on in the dojo, and then Rich and I would put all of it together.
For the first episode, Baz Luhrmann’s episode, which had a little bit of everything—it had the Get Down party, and it also had the Les Inferno—me and my brother would hire extra dancers to come in and fill the space, and we would do a mock-up of the entire Les Inferno scene—where the cameras would go, how they would move, how they follow our characters, how it leads all the way up to the musical sequences.
We figure out the dance space, and how it opens up with music, with Elliott Wheeler, who will figure out how the music builds, and how the movement staging that proceeds into the dance routine will build, along with the music, along with the drama and script that was attached to it.
We were always working in harmony with the music team, the writing team, Baz, and the art department, as well. Everything was created from scratch, all at once. It never was one layer added on—it was always almost like how hip-hop was created, right? You take different ingredients, throw them in one bowl, you mix it up and then you serve it to people.
When you’re shooting these scenes—which sometimes involve dialogue—is there typically music playback on set?
Rich Talauega: Oh yeah, most definitely. It’s funny you say that, because the songs were sort of driving the actual story. The lyrical content of the music was actually somewhat of a script to it, if that makes sense.
Of course, when you’re doing lines, you put in a thumper track, and make sure everybody’s in rhythm with the rhythm of the song. But aside from that, the song drives the narrative. It all worked hand in hand.
It was a bit of a complex situation, though, because you’re dealing with actors that may not have training in musical theater. It was really crazy to see how these actors stepped up and adapted to the situation really fast.
These guys are young, man—a lot of the actors, it was their first time around. But it goes back to the team that Baz put together. All of us came together, really putting together the right situation for the actors so that when the actors stepped in, it was a bit easier for them. But it was a complex situation on set, man. It was really crazy.
Tone Talauega: Baz made it a point to make sure there was music playing all the time. During the ’70s, the landscape of music was changing. You had all these different groups, from the punk world, from the hip-hop community.
During that time, it wasn’t called “hip-hop”—it didn’t have a label. It was just these kids experimenting in the Bronx, and you had the disco scene. Music was the captain of the ship, back in those days. New York, that was it. There was no other place that was emanating with that type of music at that time, anywhere in the world, and he wanted to reimagine that energy and that vibe on set, in our rehearsals, in our meetings.
Music drove every single storyline, every single plot, and some of the layers of the story came from real places, sometimes from musical artists that actually lived back in those days that you never really heard of.
Throughout your process, were there certain actors that brought their own personal touch to the dances you had choreographed?
Rich Talauega: Oh most definitely, man. The actor that played Cadillac, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, he’s the dude, man. He was very talented—his first gig out of Yale Drama.
Baz was telling us that this character, Cadillac, is the “prince of disco.” Obviously, that raised some warning signs, because leading up to working with Baz, whenever a director or producer says that they have someone that you can’t wait to work with, and they say that they can dance, eight to nine times out of 10, when we see the person dance, we’re like, “Oh, sh*t. They can’t dance.” No rhythm, no nothing.
This is giving kudos back to Baz, man. Of course, we don’t believe anything until we see it—and then when we met him, worked with him, and started building his character, dance-wise, you’re talking about someone that was dedicated, someone that put in the work. He practiced his ass off, but he put his own [spin] on that character.
Another guy would be Shameik Moore, who plays Shaolin. He brought so much to that character, man. It was crazy. We saw him in Dope, and we thought he was really talented, but we still didn’t know if he was a great dancer. Actually, he’s probably the best dancer out of all the actors. He actually can really dance.
I don’t know if you recall that battle between Cadillac and Shaolin—basically, that was our battle of disco versus hip-hop.
Tone Talauega: That scene wasn’t scripted.
Rich Talauega: It gave us goosebumps when we talked about it. Tone and I knew that we could take it to the bridge because these two guys are very talented, and we could go beyond the limits on how we want to go about creating the piece, and the battle. Pretty much, Tone and I directed and choreographed that whole thing, from beginning to end. That will probably be our magnum opus of the whole series—that was something that was conjured up between us, Baz and Elliott. To see it come to life in front of our eyes was like, “Wow.”
Tone Talauega: At the end of the day, Baz wanted us to figure out, how do we push our characters without dialogue, and help push their stories forward. Cadillac versus Shaolin Fantastic, that was a perfect example of what Baz hired us for, for this series—to figure out those moments. How do we push the envelope with our characters without them speaking any dialogue, and through dance, through movement?
The reason why it wasn’t scripted, originally, the whole battle between those two, I don’t think it was a real story from back in those days, but we figured in cinema, you can play around with plot, and you can cross roads like that if you make it make sense. We tried to make it make sense through music and dance.
Beyond that battle, they always had a conflict, from the first episode. We figured that, at some point, these two will explode—not through violence, but another way. When we started playing with that idea, everybody was like, “Oh my God. That will be great for the kids nowadays, to see something like that”—to see the whole storyline of disco, on its way out, and hip-hop on the rise, but it’s not done through dialogue, it’s not done through violence. It’s done through the art of music and dance.
We helped shoot it, and put the cameras in the right places, along with the director, and then afterwards, we got a call from Baz, later on that day. He told us, “Look, I want to talk to you guys right away, after you guys are wrapped.” We saw him right after we wrapped, and he took us outside and was like, “I saw what you guys shot today. It was f**king incredible.” And he just started saying, “That’s our show.”
To view an exclusive featurette depicting the work of Rich and Tone Talauega on The Get Down, click above.