How Colin Farrell Mastered the Techno Dance-Off Moves for 'After Yang'
Choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall taught the 'apprehensive' actor and his co-stars everything they needed to know for the new sci-fi indie movie.
Colin Farrell has danced before, and he will dance again. He did a spirited salsa dance in Miami Vice, a listless slow dance in The Lobster, and a cowboy-hatted line dance before he was famous. His newest movie, After Yang, finds Farrell at his grooviest. In a striking three-minute sequence that plays during the opening credits, the actor and his fictional family tear through a synchronized techno routine that contains increasingly athletic invented moves called "the hitchhiker," "hurricane," and “tornado time.”
"He was a little apprehensive," After Yang choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall tells Thrillist. "Basically, I had a one-on-one rehearsal with him because I didn't want him to feel overwhelmed in any way." Rowlson-Hall expected their prep to last a few hours, but after about 45 minutes, Farrell’s nerves had subsided. "He arrived on set, and he had it. He is just one of those people where he needed to do his work in his own way on his own time."
This particular dance hustle has a global scale, and Farrell’s precision was essential. The futuristic sci-fi indie begins by cycling through five specific households as more than 30,000 families compete in a multilevel virtual dance-off that occurs monthly. Everyone's steps are identical, and if anyone misses one, that family is eliminated. The participants, it’s implied, have been working hard to perfect their flow, which is strenuous while still maintaining a Dance Dance Revolution-style accessibility.
"I made very linear, very graphic movements so that it's sort of a clear way to see if somebody's not hitting those points," Rowlson-Hall says. She wanted the kinetic motions to feel like invisible lasers were shooting toward the dancers, who would be accompanied by music akin to a pulsating video-game score.
When tea-shop owner Jake (Farrell) and his clan are ejected from the competition, the plot of After Yang kicks into gear. Jake, his wife Kyra (Jodie Turner-Smith), and adopted Chinese daughter Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja) start pointing fingers, laughing as they try to determine which of them messed up. But their fourth family member, the titular Yang (Justin H. Min), keeps dancing. They shout his name, thinking he’ll snap out of it. Oblivious, he doesn't. Yang is a sophisticated android known as a "techno-sapien"—many households have one—but this lapse means he is malfunctioning. And if he’s malfunctioning, Jake and Kyra risk losing a surrogate son, someone who acts as sibling, playmate, and caretaker to young Mika. His absence would be tantamount to a death.
The South Korean filmmaker and video essayist Kogonada wrote and directed After Yang, his second feature after 2017’s Columbus, which starred Jon Cho and Haley Lu Richardson. Kogonada uses intimate concepts to explore big ideas, sending Jake on an existential quest to understand Yang’s history in hopes of repairing him. But first, the director needed something electrifying to launch his movie, hence the introductory dance montage. That’s where Rowlson-Hall, whose previous credits include Girls, Vox Lux, and John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch, came in.
After Yang never reveals the dance contest’s exact origins, but Rowlson-Hall imagined a tomorrow in which the aftermath of social media apps like TikTok and primetime shows like Dancing with the Stars had birthed this interactive amusement. Families turn on their televisions at the designated time and follow a series of cues. "If the camera is the perspective of the screen that's reading this dance and judging these people, my idea was that, in order for some kind of scanner through these TVs to be able to know when people are out of the dance, I need to create a very two-dimensional dance, which you can see we're already doing in the era of Instagram," Rowlson-Hall says. "I thought it was fun to keep heightening the stakes, and also the imagery inside of it, so that you get a sense of the different personalities of the different families."
Rowlson-Hall wasn’t sure what song Kogonada would choose—she suggested something by electronic musician Mas Ysa or a track called "Beastmode" that she found by searching for "pump-up gym songs" on Spotify—but she knew the high-adrenaline medley would be shot on a green screen and color-blocked with vibrant backdrops, much like the kung fu opening of Kid with the Golden Arm, which Kogonada cited as a reference point. She sent the various performers, including Sarita Choudhury (And Just Like That, Mississippi Masala), who plays a museum curator interested in studying Yang’s defect, an instructional video so they could prime themselves before rehearsals. Then she had only one day to get the five groups ready for production. "Some of the actors were very excited to take on the challenge, and others were like, 'Oh my god, I'm going to die,'" Rowlson-Hall jokes.
The moves she concocted are generic enough not to be rooted in any specific trend—no flossing, for example. And while there are dancing robots à la Ex Machina, which could function as a spiritual cousin to After Yang, Rowlson-Hall wanted the gestures to seem militaristic but not overly mechanical. In this particular future, artificial intelligence has taken on gentle human characteristics, prompting questions about why one species or race would be assigned more value than any other. (As one character asks, “What’s so great about being human?”) And while it could very well be Jake’s fault that his family is eliminated from the dance-off, Rowlson-Hall says Farrell rose to the occasion. "I've learned to work with actors over the years to make them feel comfortable dancing and to take out the fear of dance," she says.
Farrell is the conduit through which Kogonada explores those ideas, shepherding the story's grief while investigating the conditions that made Yang such a vital part of their unit. But first, he has to dance.