The untold story of the (500) Days of Summer dance sequence
Marc Webb’s irresistible indie (500) Days of Summer turns 10 this year, and as part of EW’s February celebration of all things rom-com, we’ve caught up with the cast and the filmmakers about the making of the much-loved not-a-love story.
Of all 500 days, number 35 had to be one of the summeriest: After finally sleeping with Summer (Zooey Deschanel), our sentimental hero Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) steps out of his apartment and into a full-blown dance number, set to Hall & Oates’ “You Make My Dreams.” Here’s how it came together.
Marc Webb had previously directed mostly music videos before making his feature debut with (500) Days, which co-screenwriters Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber were inspired to write after one of Neustadter’s own relationships.
SCOTT NEUSTADTER (co-writer): This character was definitely filtering [his relationship] through the lens of pop culture. Which allowed it to become a very cinematic movie that would have a narrator, and it would have a dance number, and it would be a comedy and it would be a drama, it would be an animated — we were able to do all those things, and it didn’t feel gimmicky, because we were locked into the logic of, this character is processing it in his brain and we’re going on that ride.
MARC WEBB (director): I think [the scene] was originally scripted as a different kind of thing, where Tom sees increasingly crazy creatures like Grimace and Big Bird. We wanted to make it into a musical sequence, because it’s so expressive, and it also fit the genre that we were playing in a little bit. It just made sense.
NEUSTADTER: We knew that, when you finally feel like you have gotten the girl, what is the emotional, kind of cinematic way to get that across? And it was a no-brainer that it was going to be some kind of insane dance number.
WEBB: I always said, while I was doing music videos, you knew you were going to have a good video if you had a special effects guy that would blow s— up, or a choreographer. If you had one of those two things, people were going to like the video.
The concept was set; now to get the music lined up and the star on board.
WEBB: I actually talked to Duran Duran at one point because we were considering that, but it just ended up working with Hall & Oates, because the song sounded best and they were totally game.
NEUSTADTER: At one point we had Daryl Hall and John Oates in the dance number, they were written into it. And I think Oates was all about it but Daryl Hall thought we were making fun and that killed the whole thing. But subsequently, when they finally saw it, I know that they had said they regret not participating more because they did really enjoy what we were doing.
WEBB: I was nervous about asking Joe to dance. I didn’t know if he was going to really embrace it, or…
JOSEPH GORDON-LEVITT (Tom Hansen): Oh, I was so excited.
WEBB: I was like, thank God. He was so into it, it was awesome.
GORDON-LEVITT: I see why [Webb] would [worry about] that, though, because especially at that time, I was really probably kind of serious. I was always trying to make sure that the thing felt grounded and emotionally honest and those kinds of things and obviously dancing has nothing to do with reality. But this isn’t reality, this is a fantasy, it’s how he feels — it’s a heightened portrayal of how he feels. So I was like, great!
Webb called on choreographer Michael Rooney, whom he had previously worked with on some music videos, to create the dance.
WEBB: I’d worked with [Rooney] a bunch, and so it was a really easy jump to make.
MICHAEL ROONEY (Choreographer): There are not a lot of directors in Los Angeles who are a champion of dance and movement, but he was totally into movement. When he told me about this, he said it was an original piece, and it was about a character who was completely enamored with this girl… I was totally in. Number one, he’s a champion of dance, and two, it was original.
WEBB: It was a pretty simple directive. There’s a lead-in to that sequence where he’s walking down the street, he sees Han Solo smiling at him…
ROONEY: That was brilliant on Marc’s part. Like, what? When I saw the beginning of the dance, that was just brilliant. And then of course, you know, walking by the fountain…! That had some type of subliminal message too!
WEBB: Then the directive was just, he’s leading a troupe of people and everybody loves him and he’s having the greatest day of his life. He slowly starts to dance. It’s about the transition — and by the way, musicals are all about transitions. I mean, how you get into the music for the first time, how you flow from two people talking to two people singing is tricky. And we kind of exercised all the beats in between him waking up in the morning and letting the audience know that they were going to slowly be led into a fantasy.
ROONEY: Every time Tom moved, it had to be out of storytelling. So now, if you notice, when he first starts the dance, I chose some iconic characters that subliminally the audience could relate to. So the very first pose, when he points his finger out to the sky, it’s kind of John Travolta-esque in Saturday Night Fever. And then he swings the bat and knocks it out of the park like Joe DiMaggio. I know people say, ‘Oh, did you get to first base, second base, third base’ — so he hits a home run, you know, the night before with Summer. And then I have the dancers, which I used as fans coming out of the bleachers, to cheer him on. Then I had him be the King, which was Elvis Presley — I had him do two little Elvis Presley twist legs, then after that, he goes into just some rapper stuff, like he’s a cool dude at a club doing some rapper steps.
NEUSTADTER: That’s [Rooney’s] genius!
ROONEY: Then, Marc was brilliant, we ended with the bluebird of happiness on his finger.
GORDON-LEVITT: Marc’s whole color palette for his whole movie was based on Zooey’s eyes. Every scene with her has blue in it because it makes her eyes pop, and then the scenes without her don’t have blue. But this scene, because it’s all about him loving her, he’s just surrounded by people wearing blue.
ROONEY: [Finally] I had Joseph do this and-away-we-go move with his knee, and then he just shoots out of the shot. And the marching band was great because at one point, I had the marching band come in and I had Joseph orchestrating the band, but he’s also orchestrating his life and his relationship with Summer. So those are the tools I used to get through the dance editorially. Because any old dance steps would have just been a dance.
GORDON-LEVITT: Michael is exuberance personified. And he’s also really good at understanding — he speaks differently to someone who is a professional dancer, that’s what he is, versus me, who is not. This was so easy for all [the professional dancers]. They could watch this once and just do it. This took me a lot of practice, of being alone in my apartment, just practicing by myself over and over and over again, trying to get these relatively simple moves, but that’s the difference.
ROONEY: Joseph is, like, the best ball of clay. He loves movement, he loves dance. We kind of shared our thoughts on how to get into my choreography. He’s a natural dancer and a mover, and he loves the old-time, like, MGM musicals — he’s like the Donald O’Connor, Gene Kelly type of guy.
GORDON-LEVITT: Professional dancers are always my idol. I admire the hell out of it. In another life, I would have been a dancer.
The day of shooting was just as happy as it looked.
ROONEY: It was so, so fun. I could have stayed there, like, another three days.
GORDON-LEVITT: I really think there’s something to expressing yourself physically — it does something to your blood, or your heart — there’s something about engaging your body that way that brings joy. So everyone was happy that day. That day actually did feel, for me anyway, the way that it came out in the movie.
WEBB: It was great. It was super fun. The whole movie was pretty great, I have to say — I was a little spoiled. I haven’t had that much fun on my movies since then, and that was a charmed experience.