Sarah Adina Smith and Jonako Donley, the director-producer team behind Amazon Studios’ newest young adult drama film Birds of Paradise, have been making movies together since they shared a dorm room during their freshman year at Columbia University.
It only makes sense that their latest project together — one of many they’ve collaborated on over the years, including Buster’s Mal Heart starring Rami Malek and The Midnight Swim starring Lindsey Burdge, Jennifer Lafleur, and Aleksa Palladino — would be about a pair of best friends who meet at ballet school.
At times trippy and tinged with fantasy and fairytale lore, Smith adapted the script of Birds of Paradise from A.K. Small’s novel Bright Burning Stars. The story follows Kate Sanders (Diana Silvers), an American dancer who earns a spot at a prestigious ballet school in Paris through a scholarship. There, she meets Marine Durand (Kristine Froseth), a beautiful dance prodigy who is mourning the loss of her twin brother. At first, the girls can’t stand each other, but after being forced to share a room, they soon realize they have more in common than they thought. However, competing against one another for the semester’s top prize of winning a contract to join the Opéra National de Paris pushes their friendship — and their physical and emotional stamina — to the limit.
Smith, who serves as the director, and Donley, who produces, were never trained ballerinas like their main characters Marine and Kate. But they did take one very intense modern dance class together while making Birds of Paradise that they’ll never forget.
MovieMaker: This film involves a lot of beautiful dance choreography. Do you have any dance experience of your own?
Donley: Only being drunk together in college and sneaking into clubs.
Smith: Did you ever take dance classes, Jonako?
Donley: I think as a toddler I might have taken a kid ballet class but not really at all. It was funny, we went to a dance class together.
Smith: I forgot about that! Oh my gosh, we did!
Donley: It was at this place in L.A. We were both like, dying. We’re like, ‘We should, like, get into dance!’
Smith: I almost vomited in the dance class because it was so hard. I can be a little bit of a method director, and so I was taking ballet classes as I was starting to write the adaptation. But then Jonako and I went to this place called The Sweat Spot, which was like, I mean what kind of — I don’t know what kind of dance it was, but it was so hard.
Donley: Like, modern dance.
Smith: I had to leave the room, and I was like, my teeth hurt. How is it possible that my teeth hurt?
MM: How long have you known each other?
Donley: We’ve known each other since college, we went to college together. So, since we were 18 and we lived in the same dorm freshman year.
Smith: The very first movie I made was with Jonako’s father’s handy cam. The thing about Jonako, she’s been with me since my most weird experimental days. This was like, I mean, it’s maybe a stretch to call it the first film — it was like one vignette, if you will.
Donley: It was like one shot right? It was like one shot on the beach.
Smith: Naked Serbian on the beach. It was an homage — an adaptation, if you will — of the Tootsie Pop commercial. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the classic tootsie pop commercial.
Donley: “How many licks does it take…”
MM: Oh, with the owl?
MM: How many projects have you made together over the years?
Donley: Have we ever counted?
Smith: I think three features, lots of shorts and music videos, and also we develop TV together as well. I feel incredibly lucky. I know a lot of other filmmakers who are still kind of like searching for their person, if you will, their key collaborator. I felt so lucky that I found Jonako early in my life, and that we’ve gotten to share this experience of growing together in our careers. Birds of Paradise was our chance to cut our teeth with our first studio movie together and to bring up our other collaborators along the way, like our cinematographer Shaheen Seth, our composer Ellen Reed, and so many more people that we’ve continued to work with over the years.
Donley: We sort of call it family-style filmmaking. We have a group of people that we sort of like to collect and bring along the way and it just makes it such a lovely, fun experience.
MM: What’s the origin of the fairytale in the movie about the bird that pierces the sky with its beak to create the stars?
Smith: I’ve been trying to search for the origins of it, but it was from my childhood. I’m from Colorado, and it was from a campfire story that I maybe was told at a summer camp by a counselor or something. That always stuck with me and I truly — I don’t even know to what extent I’ve rewritten it in my mind or if it’s that exact story, but it’s something that I heard when I was really little that just always resonated with me about this notion of going against the powers that be, going kind of against the will of the gods, and this rebellious heart who’s willing to sacrifice everything and reach the highest heights, even to her own peril. And that’s this notion of that’s where stars come from.
Donley: Just in terms of the timing that we made this movie, it sort of feels like an apt kind of metaphor that we really had to push very hard and reach for the stars to finish this film. It was a collaborative effort. There was no way we could have done this in the time of COVID without every single person that worked on this film.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Birds of Paradise is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video. Main Image: L to R: Diana Silvers, director Sarah Adina Smith and Kristine Froseth on the set of Birds of Paradise. Photo Credit: Amazon.