LOS ANGELES — Christina Aguilera isn’t the first struggling pop diva to try to become a big-screen star. Sony Screen Gems isn’t the first low-budget studio to gamble on a bigger-budget picture. And Steven Antin isn’t the first filmmaker to get his big break from a romantic partner.
But “Burlesque,” a PG-13 musical opening Thanksgiving weekend, is freighted with all these elements, making it one of the riskiest and most unusual projects to come out of Hollywood this year.
Antin wrote and directed the $55-million movie — which tells the story of an Iowa girl (Aguilera) who goes from barmaid to leading lady as a singer and dancer in a Sunset Strip club — at the urging of Clint Culpepper, the president of Screen Gems and Antin’s partner of 20 years.
The fishnets-and-bustiers extravaganza marks Aguilera’s acting debut as well as the return of 64-year-old Cher to a starring role after an absence of more than a decade. But following a difficult production filled with on-set conflicts and a new ending shot at the last minute, it’s unclear whether “Burlesque” will strike box office cabaret gold a la “Chicago” or will become a laughingstock like “Showgirls” or Mariah Carey’s bomb “Glitter.”
“There’s an incredible amount of pressure on me that this movie performs well,” said Antin, 52, whose only previous feature directing credit was a straight-to-DVD thriller starring Angie Harmon, also made for Screen Gems. “I know what it means for a studio to say yes and give you a lot of money.”
Indeed, Antin has had a front-row view into the workings of showbiz at many levels over the years. His mother was a television executive, and he started acting at age 9, in a variety of roles including the film “Goonies” and TV’s “NYPD Blue.” His brother, Jonathan, is a celebrity hairstylist who was featured on the Bravo reality show “Blow Out.” His sister, Robin, founded the Pussycat Dolls, a burlesque pop group. And before meeting Culpepper, Antin was romantically involved with music and film mogul David Geffen.
Antin’s post-acting career has involved movie and TV projects, but nothing on the scale of directing a high-profile feature film. He wrote and starred in a movie accepted at the 1993 Sundance Film Festival, created the short-lived 2000 WB network teen soap opera “Young Americans,” and produced reality shows starring the Pussycat Dolls. However, he acknowledges that many will see “Burlesque” as a movie that got made only because a studio executive did a favor for his boyfriend.
“I’m somewhat concerned about that, but ultimately, I know the truth,” Antin said over lunch at the Polo Lounge, an entertainment industry hotspot where he frequently ate with his family while growing up. “No one gets a movie greenlit based on a relationship.”
Screen Gems typically spends less than $30 million making its pictures and gravitates toward horror, action and teen comedies. It put more than twice that sum, before the benefit of a state tax credit, into making “Burlesque.” Nevertheless, Culpepper, who noted that he has worked with 18 first-time directors in his career at Screen Gems, said he never even considered another director for the project.
“I thought that if the fact that we have a relationship going back 20 years is our biggest problem, we’d come out OK,” Culpepper said of working with Antin. “There is no one else I would have had complete confidence in to make this movie like I did with Steven. I don’t think I would have made ‘Burlesque’ with a stranger.”
Before getting a green light to make “Burlesque,” Antin met several times with Culpepper’s boss, Sony Pictures co-chairman Amy Pascal, to convince her he was the right man for the job — and that he could land A-list talent.
Attracting big-name stars was one of the primary hurdles for “Burlesque,” a project that Antin and Culpepper had discussed since the late 1990s but didn’t gain momentum until several years ago, when the executive learned Aguilera was seeking a film role.
The singer said she was impressed by the intense preparation of Antin, who assembled hundreds of drawings, photographs and set models in an effort to recruit his leading ladies. “You could just tell this man had an appreciation of a woman’s beauty in the most amazing, flattering, unbelievable way and I knew he was going to shoot me good,” said Aguilera, adding that she decided to “throw caution to the wind” to work with Antin, despite his inexperience.
Aguilera’s film debut comes in the wake of disappointing sales for her June album, “Bionic,” and the postponement of a planned 20-city tour this past summer. Last month, the 29-year-old filed for divorce from her husband of five years.
Cher was a tougher sell than Aguilera. She got the script via her friend Geffen, who knew about the project because Antin and Culpepper had worked on it during a 10-day vacation on the mogul’s yacht.
After the Oscar winner met at her Malibu home with Culpepper, Antin and producer Donald De Line (a longtime friend of the couple), she hemmed and hawed — ultimately squeezing all of her time on set into less than 20 days of the four-month production.
“She tried to pull out of it so many times, and everyone said she wouldn’t do it,” Culpepper said. “When we started shooting, she told me, ‘I made your life such hell.’” Cher was not available for comment.
As he revised the story at his stars’ request, Antin tried to maintain a particular tone. “I really wanted it to be light and breezy, because I felt that any drama set in the world of burlesque ends up feeling like melodrama,” said Antin, whose script passed through uncredited rewrites by such experienced hands as Susannah Grant (“Erin Brockovich”) and John Patrick Shanley (“Moonstruck”).
Behind-the-scenes drama continued after production began last November in Los Angeles. Shooting took more than 70 days — unusually lengthy for anything but a blockbuster event film — because extensive takes from numerous angles were needed for more than a dozen musical numbers.
Antin admitted that he sometimes prolonged production by getting “kooky” over small details he felt passionate about — like the burlesque club’s light bulbs.
Culpepper was on set regularly, a rarity for an executive of his rank. But his presence wasn’t always a calming one. People familiar with the matter, who asked not be identified so as not to jeopardize professional ties, said he frequently clashed with Antin over budgetary and creative issues, with arguments sometimes turning into screaming matches.
“There were moments where I think everyone needed a time-out,” Aguilera recalled. “They had different opinions and were constantly hashing things out. It was an interesting ride.”
Antin said that working in a professional capacity with his partner presented “hard waters to navigate.” To ease the tension, he said, he and Culpepper tried not to discuss the film at home — and Antin actually moved into the Sunset Tower for much of production because he said he liked the ease of a “hotel environment” during a stressful time.
Several weeks ago, Antin filmed a new ending, changing it from a “Pretty Woman” homage that test audiences found derivative to a more intimate reunion between Aguilera’s character and her love interest, played by “Twilight’s” Cam Gigandet.
That wasn’t the only last-minute switch. Antin lobbied Screen Gems executives to alter the film’s advertising campaign after an overly serious trailer this summer was poorly received. The Wall Street Journal said the preview made the movie look like “A ‘Showgirls’ for the 21st century.”
The studio has since refocused advertisements — which have run on shows such as “Dancing With the Stars” and “Glee” — to emphasize the film’s light-hearted tone. Billboards, meanwhile, feature the faces of Aguilera and Cher with the slogan: “It takes a legend to make a star.”
“Cher and Christina elevate this movie into an event,” said De Line, the producer. “People will want to see what drew them to the big screen.”
“Burlesque” will face fierce competition when it opens against “Love & Other Drugs,” a romantic comedy going after a similar female audience. Its release will come just five days after the expected blockbuster “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — Part I.”
Opening weekend box office and subsequent word-of-mouth could make or break Aguilera’s big-screen aspirations, as well as Antin’s hopes of directing more films. Pre-release audience surveys indicate the film is generating solid if not spectacular interest among women, particularly younger ones.
Culpepper maintained that although “Burlesque” doesn’t quite fit a typical Hollywood mold, he sees a happy ending for his studio, his star and his partner.
“We make films for targeted audiences and this is a movie that we made for women,” he said. “Any female with a heartbeat is going to love ‘Burlesque.’”