Cha Cha Real Smooth: How Cooper Raiff Made an Abandoned Mall in Pittsburgh Look Like 7 Different Bar Mitzvahs
Cooper Raiff and Vanessa Burghardt at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Cinema Society event

Cooper Raiff shot much of his Sundance darling Cha Cha Real Smooth in an abandoned mall in Pittsburgh. But with the help of his production designer and director of photography, he was able to make one mall — plus a hibachi grill — look like seven different Bar Mitzvah parties in suburban New Jersey.

“I was very upset about it, to be honest. We showed up, and I thought, ‘Okay, we’re shooting in Pittsburgh so that we can get so much more money on-screen.’ That was kind of what I was told. And then we got to Pittsburgh, and they’re like, ‘We gotta shoot at this abandoned mall.’ And I was like, ‘Wait, we have to be in Pittsburgh and shooting at an abandoned mall?'” Raiff, who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film, laughed at a recent Santa Barbara Film Festival Cinema Society event.

“So it was unfortunate. And I’ll never forget, the DP Cristina [Dunlap], her face when she walked into the — I forget which Bar Mitzvah it was, but it was this Bar Mitzvah that we had in our mind as being this big venue, and it was a straight-up hibachi grill. And she walked in, and she looked at me like, ‘Should we try to get more? Should we fundraise?'”

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Cha Cha Real Smooth tells the story of a Bar Mitzvah party starter (Raiff) who meets and befriends a young mother (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic daughter (Vanessa Burghardt).

Raiff and his Cha Cha Real Smooth team ended up getting creative and making the most of what they had. You’d never know the difference from watching Cha Cha Real Smooth. In the end, the locations give the film a particularly homey, middle-America feel.

“We tried to show the whole [story] arc with colors,” Raiff said. “Some of our locations didn’t want us to like — ‘We’re going to be blue now,’ and it’s like, well, this is a hibachi grill, so you’re not going to get that here. But we really tried to. The production designer, Celine [Diano] and the DP, Cristina [Dunlap], we all like we all three sat for, like, eight hours one day just trying to figure out  a puzzle — how we can make the emotional arc work the way that we want it to, but knowing that we had to shoot in a hibachi grill sometimes?”

Main Image: Cooper Raiff and Vanessa Burghardt at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival Cinema Society event courtesy of SBFF.

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