In the UK, cheerleading is seen as a symbol of America. Girls in uniforms, trying out to make the team, making the team and cheering the school football team. It’s something we only see on TV or in movies. Director Zara Hayes talks about her own relationship with cheerleading and how research led to her discovering it was much more than just a high school thing. All across America, she learned that groups of older women were taking cheerleading a new direction, performing in teams and competitions. The result is Poms, a comedy starring Diane Keaton and Jacki Weaver about a group of women who defy stereotypes to achieve their dreams.
What I found fascinating was that cheerleading is not a thing in the UK at all.
Oh, I’ve been saying that to people. I always think that people quite appreciate that it’s really an American thing. It’s the quintessential American thing.
What did you know about cheerleading having grown up in the UK?
I danced and I was interested in that. I attended dance school and ballet at the weekends, so I had a natural interest in that.
Cheerleading was the thing that you only saw on TV and movies and I thought it was amazing, beautiful, sexy and exotic. I really looked to it as this glamorous thing and as I got older and developed a feminist conscience, I thought that there was something a bit weird about this whole thing. It tells us so much about the images of women that are held up by society. Cheerleading has become this iconic archetype and it’s the female stereotype. It’s still really pervasive and it’s such a throwback and I thought, ‘maybe it shouldn’t exist anymore.’ But, I still massively appreciated the sportsmanship and athleticism of it. I still appreciated the beauty of it and I just had this strange relationship with it. There was this duality with it. On one hand, thinking that the fact that the pinnacle of female high school experiences was to be on a team that supports men, is a bit sad and an indictment of society. On the other hand, I thought how incredible it was with all that they can do and achieve and actually it’s really impressive and seeing what cheerleading has become. I’ve always had this flipping back and forth with it as an adult.
I came across this group of women who were in their later life in America who had taken to cheerleading and were in teams, I found that incredibly exciting and enticing. I found it very reverent in its own way. I thought it was interesting that this group of women was reclaiming it and doing it on their own terms, they don’t need permission and were subverting the whole thing.
Your background is in documentary filmmaking, so what made you choose the feature film narrative over a documentary for this?
I did start thinking about this because after doing Battle of The Sexes which had been really successful, I had the ability to get financed for a sports documentary. I was going to make a cheerleading documentary that goes into all of this, but then I came across these women and thought that was the story that I wanted to tell. As I started to research it, I realized it was not just one group, but rather a phenomenon, there’s a whole group of cheerleading older women across America doing this. I was tapping into something more powerful. Every single American woman who I speak to, tells me their story about cheerleading. I just had to other calls this morning, and people spontaneously offer up this information whether they love or hate it. It still dominates now. Especially women who were at high school during the 60s or 70s, that was the thing that was available to you. If you wanted to take part in something, cheerleading was the best chance of doing something that gave you a sense of team spirit and status. I realized there was something about the idea that lends itself to cinema and then, I thought that if I could get together a cast of women over the age of 65 and create a movie and put that in cinemas and get people to pay money to see older women dancing and project that in the most mainstream way, I thought that was incredibly powerful. Not to overstate it, we’re playing with a really safe and a familiar sports movie narrative of competition too. What I’m trying to do is show something different, I’ve never seen older women dancing in a movie.
It was seeing those women dance – Diane Keaton, Rhea, and your all-American cast. Talk about your casting choices.
It was such an iconic thing that I knew it had to be an American movie. I was in London at the time when I was developing it, and I knew I had to be over here. It would be understood here in America. Diane Keaton tried to be a cheerleader in high school, but she failed and didn’t make it on to the team. She’s talked about that in the past and how that affected her. Meryl Streep was a cheerleader in school. All these women have a story. It’s interesting that I’ve had questions about asking why I cast who I did, but it didn’t feel right to me to cast a British character who would be asking, “Why are you all so obsessed with cheerleading?” That would have been valid, but it didn’t feel right.
I wanted to get people who have iconic status and put them in the context where it wasn’t this legion of the great and the good of cinema history bumping up against each other. I wanted to create an authentic group who could be real. I didn’t want it to feel airbrushed. Diane was the starting point of that because she just felt so authentic and right. She’s so idiosyncratic and so not Hollywood in that sense. She is her own woman and is unapologetic for being who she is. Jacki Weaver is too. She is not afraid to speak her mind. Both are not being controlled by a machine of people trying to confect their image. They just are who they are. I really appreciate that and it really speaks to the movie that I wanted to make. By the time we had it financed, we had Jacki and Diane and we could go to anyone, but I wanted to make sure that whoever I did cast was on board with that authenticity. The cast were women who were on top of their game but still felt like women who you might know in real life and they’re not so removed from reality as say some other women are.
What was the choreography preparation like for this movie?
Marguerite Derricks is one of the leading choreographers in the industry has done everything. She did the dance scene in Little Miss Sunshine and that’s so achingly real. She just read the script and we just clicked. She said, “I don’t care if you don’t pay me. I’ll cartwheel across the table to be the choreographer of this movie.” I remember her saying, “I’ve not had this feeling about a script since Little Miss Sunshine. I feel I know how to do this.” She inspires confidence. She’s worked with everyone and she knows how to disarm people and to make them feel like dancers. We started to research together how the approach would be. I wanted it to feel that the achievement was theirs. I didn’t want it to feel like Bring It On. I had people say to me that if I had stunt doubles then we could have Diane Keaton do flips and people wouldn’t know it wasn’t her, and I said, “but we would because we know Diane isn’t a dancer and she’s not going to be doing backflips.” [laughs] The point is they’re having fun doing it. We tried to be true to who they were.
Marguerite worked with Diane one to one to get a sense of what felt right. She was researching the cheerleading moves in the 60s as it’s changed a lot since then in the intervening years. That’s why I used the vintage footage to get people’s heads in the mindset of how it has changed. We hit upon this style. Jacki worked with her too and after that, we had a bootcamp for all the women.
We had a dance school for a week. It was a sweaty dance studio in Sherman Oaks with no windows and no cameras and it was so much fun.
How did you shoot the final competition scene?
We had a day to shoot that. The women had to do it again and again. It wasn’t a huge budget film by any means and they just had to keep doing it.
They had to do it repeatedly and keep making it look like it was the first time they were doing it, and it was such a testament to them and their stamina. I don’t know how they did it.
The thing that got them through it was we filled the room with extras. We convinced the producers to pay for 700 extras. When they were doing it and taking in the applause at the end, that’s really genuine. I do think that adds a lot. There’s something being buzzed up by the crowd – definitely from Jacki’s and Diane’s perspective, they were hyper.
It felt theatrical that it was not CGI. I just loved that you were watching these women live their dream.
We’re not watching their bodies. They don’t take a bow in front of us, and in any competition film they do well or they don’t.
The crowd went crazy for them. The old man, the boy and all that you see, that’s genuine.