Adler's `Step Up' puts city back in the picture


To a kid from rural North Carolina, it's understandable that Baltimore would seem exciting and exotic. But to a kid from D.C.?

Yet that, substantially, is what Duane Adler was in the mid-'80s. Yes, he was born in Asheville, N.C., and had spent a few years growing up in its rural environs. But his family moved around, and young Duane spent a good portion of his teen years in and around Washington. He says that didn't prepare him for Charm City, which he became familiar with after his family moved to Odenton.

"The biggest thing was the whole vibe of the city," says Adler, 37, a screenwriter whose second theatrical film, Step Up, a search for adolescent identity set at the fictional Maryland School for the Arts, opens nationally Aug. 11. "I was discovering the whole world of the arts, and the thing I liked so much about Baltimore, that I didn't feel was the same in Washington, was it was such an artistic, thriving community. You could see it, in some of the architecture of the old buildings, some of the little artist shops, especially in Fells Point."

That time in Baltimore and the inspiration it provided him have served Adler well. It gave him a feel for what it's like, growing up in a modern urban environment - a texture that suffuses both Step Up and his first film, 2001's Save the Last Dance, about an interracial romance between teens from opposite sides of the tracks.

"Baltimore," Adler says, "that's where I discovered the city."

And he hasn't forgotten. In his first draft of Save the Last Dance, the main female character had just moved to Baltimore, and he set much of the action there. But when the film was being shot, its producers got a good deal that persuaded them to shoot in the Chicago area. Thus, the young couple played by Julia Stiles and Sean Patrick Thomas became Chicagoans.

Step Up proved a different story. By the time filming was ready to begin last summer, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and the state legislature had approved $4 million in incentives to lure filmmakers to Maryland. Three projects benefited: HBO's series The Wire, a still-unreleased coming-of-age comedy titled Rocket Science, and Step Up (at the time known as Music High), which received $2 million.

"I love locations, and I love authentic locations," Adler says from his home in California, where he lives with his wife, Nian, and their 5-year-old son, Satori. "Wherever your location is becomes a character in the film. Once I knew it was shooting in Baltimore, I was thrilled."

That willingness to be identified with his former hometown puts Adler in good company. When it comes to Baltimore, audiences immediately think John Waters and Barry Levinson, just as Alexander Payne is identified with Nebraska, Richard Linklater with Austin, Texas; Woody Allen with Manhattan and Spike Lee with Brooklyn.

Step Up, Adler says, had its origins in a conversation with producer Eric Feig, who enjoyed Save the Last Dance and asked, `How do we make a contemporary version of Fame?'"

The first thing Adler did was change the art school's location from the earlier film. "I didn't want to set it in New York," he says. "I felt: That makes it easy for the kids - they're halfway there. They're already in New York. They graduate, and they just go out and start auditioning.

"Then I remembered the [Baltimore] School for the Arts in Maryland, and I thought of Baltimore, and I flashed on how intrigued I was by the city when I was first discovering it."

The resulting film, which Adler co-wrote with veteran television writer Melissa Rosenberg, stars Channing Tatum as Tyler Gage, a hardscrabble teen who's savvy and street-smart but without any direction. On a lark, he and his friends break into a neighborhood building, but he's caught and ordered to perform community service. Tyler, a good free-form dancer himself, ends up as a janitor at the Maryland School for the Arts, and seeing all those would-be artists working so hard triggers something inside. (The set was built at the old Fells Point recreation pier, which for years had served as home base for Homicide: Life on the Street.)

Of course, it doesn't hurt that Tyler also captures the eye of Nora (Jenna Dewan), a senior dance student who's quite a looker.

Adler insists that Step Up isn't autobiographical. But he acknowledges that some of the feelings he experienced, moving constantly and always being the new kid in school, found their way into Tyler.

"Because I moved so many times, a story about someone going into a new world and discovering something about themselves has always intrigued me," he says. "I think that's a universal theme; it's timeless."

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