‘Shall We Dance?’ director is dancing for joy

Peter Chelsom should be a happy director.

“Shall We Dance?” reportedly has earned the highest exit poll response of any Miramax film since “Good Will Hunting.” Possibly even more important, the Richard Gere-Jennifer Lopez-Susan Sarandon starrer is his second movie since directing “Town & Country.”

“Town & Country” is the infamous comedy that starred Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn, Andie MacDowell, Garry Shandling and Charlton Heston. It ballooned way over budget and over schedule before finally landing with a thud in 2001.

“It was a big public flop, and it could have ended my career right then,” the director said in Dallas recently. “I needed ‘Town & Country’ to be two films behind me for me to feel good.”

“Serendipity,” a successful comedy with John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, followed “Town & Country.” And now “Shall We Dance?” has the earmarks of a similar success. Not that the new film was free of problems, having been made at the height of Bennifer, the very public J. Lo-Ben Affleck off-screen romance.

“They were engaged when we started filming,” said Chelsom. “Then came the sex-club scandal. Then Ben came to our location. And the media swarmed all over the set.”

Despite such extracurricular activities, he has kind words for all his cast.

“While all this turmoil was going on, Jennifer was very focused. The woman who came to the set each morning was focused only on doing the film.

“Jennifer already knew Susan and Tim,” he said, referring to Sarandon’s companion, Oscar-winner Tim Robbins. “Susan said that their kids love Jennifer. And Susan and Richard have known each other for years and are great friends. They play husband and wife in the movie, and they had the instant chemistry of a couple who’ve known and loved each other for years.”

In the movie, the Gere-Sarandon union is threatened when he takes ballroom dancing lessons from Lopez. The film’s advertising campaign highlights the male star, with Sarandon getting equal and maybe even more emphasis than J. Lo.

“It was never intended as a so-called J. Lo movie, and Jennifer understood that and wanted to do it partly for that very reason. Another reason was that she loves dance. But there was never any intention to play her down. Yes, ‘Gigli’ flopped, but this was another movie entirely. Everyone understood that this is a movie about a marriage, not an affair. The relationship between Richard and Susan is the mainstay, and the sexual tension between Richard and Jennifer is subliminal.”

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