Stephen Kogon is an actor and a writer who made his directorial debut on the short film “American Beauty Pie” which centers on a middle-aged man who has fantasies about – yep, you guessed it – an apple pie. Eighteen years later, Stephen has moved onto something a little deeper, movie-wise, to share with the world – a charming dance movie about a former tap dancer who decides to re-enter the game.

For “Dance Baby Dance,” which opens January 19, 2018, in select theaters and on Amazon, Stephen Kogon--who plays the lead role-- learned how to tap dance for the film. Amazingly, it took him just two years to become a pro! Stephen recently discussed his experiences making Movies and becoming a more or less professional tap dancer, via an exclusive interview.

The process of becoming a filmmaker

Meagan Meehan (MM): What inspired you to become a filmmaker, Stephen, and where did you get your start?

Stephen Kogon (SK): What inspired me was how much I loved writing and using my imagination. I wrote my first story, a space adventure when I was seven years old – and from the joy that brought me, I just knew I wanted to be a storyteller. And my imagination matched most with filmmaking (as opposed to writing books). I remember I used to sit in my room as a child for hours and just create worlds with toy animals and toy cars and revel in it. Then at seventeen, I wrote my first screenplay, and at that point in time, it was the greatest experience of my life. I moved out to Los Angeles from Maryland at the age of twenty-two and tried becoming a screenwriter.

I got an agent and had a few scripts optioned, and one that came very close to being filmed – but for the most part, I wasn’t making a career at it. So, it was with this film that I finally changed course and pushed all my chips in and went for it. I’d never directed or acted in a feature film before (only shorts and skits), so this film was my start for both of those.

MM: Do you remember the very first time you got paid to shoot a movie, commercial, etc.?

SK: I never got paid to shoot something. The shorts and skits I filmed were on my dime…I made a little money here and there as a writer, but again this was my first film – and due to budget mishaps, I ended up having to put most of my life’s savings into the project. So, the only checks I could frame were outgoing ones!

MM: What equipment do you usually shoot on and, aside from moviemaking, have any other careers even interested you?

SK: I used the cameras my DP owned which were a Panasonic GH4 and Sony PMW-F3. As for other careers, that’s hard to answer for me because I spent so many years not making movies (yet wanted to) but still chose to go for it by not taking any other “real” job.

Whether it was living well within my means, or being a struggling artist, I still preferred that because it allowed me to pursue being a filmmaker. If that answer gets a D minus for not answering then since I’m a big sports fan, maybe I’d pursue something in that world.

MM: How did the plot of “Dance, Baby, Dance” come to you?

SK: I’ve always been a fan of, and identified with, underdog films like “Rocky” and “Rudy.” But the idea to make the story about a tap dancer came out of left field. I would often walk at the beach, listening to music, to clear my head. And at the time I came up with the story, I happened to be listening to a lot of old-school soul (Sam & Dave, Gladys Knight & the Pips, the Jackson 5, mid-70s Michael Jackson). And for some reason, I just started seeing myself tap dancing to those songs (even though I’d never tap danced before in my life). And it made me smile. And I couldn’t stop smiling – and that’s when the idea for the character and story came about! The underdog aspect and the ‘going after a dream despite tough obstacles’ are what appealed to me…and my enjoyment of tap dancing, of course! So, I raised all the money, and I was producing and directing, so all casting decisions were mine, which I think is vital for a filmmaker.

Learning to dance, advice, and apple pie

MM: And when did you learn how to dance, specifically tap dance?

SK: I started learning how to tap in early 2014. I took some lessons, but I mostly taught myself via online tutorials. And I practiced nearly every day (either in my apartment or once a week in a studio) until we filmed in March of 2016… My neighbors never forcibly removed me from the premises, so I took that to mean they loved the sound of tap dancing!

MM: What prompted you to take on the role of the main character and how is he similar and different from you?

SK: I actually always intended to play the character from the outset. I very much related to the underdog aspect and knew exactly how I wanted him portrayed. I'd say the main character, and I are most alike in our passion for what we love to do, but his life is entirely different from mine. He's married, I'm not. He's worked an office job for six years; I've never done that. And even though he'd much rather be doing his dream job than the official one, he's not miserable there. I would probably be miserable in an office job. I did have an office-type job once, and I wasn't happy. And I remember one time when everyone got their paychecks and I watched some of their reactions (these were people who I knew also weren't doing what they really wanted to be doing), and it just felt like they were resigned to the fact that this was their life. And I kind of said to myself "Man, the security of a paycheck is the downfall of the dreamer." And I didn't want to experience that downfall. So, I left that job shortly after that, deciding that I'd go for it, even if it meant not knowing when the next paycheck would come

MM: What was the hardest thing about learning to tap dance?

SK: It was actually much harder than I realized. I thought it'd be something where I could improvise a lot. That 'turn on the music and just let my feet go' aspect appealed to me. But I soon learned you couldn't really do that until you know the correct moves because they're all very precise. There's a move called "Wings" that I find very difficult. Your ankles have to be very strong to pull it off at a high level. And people who have been tapping their whole life have built up the muscles to pull it off... I still haven't built up the muscles to pull it off the way I'd like.

MM: Your first film was about a grown man who is obsessed with an apple pie. How on earth did you come up with that concept and how did you base an entire script around such a hilariously and awesomely odd premise?

SK: Ah yes, "American Beauty Pie." It was a comedy/parody/short that combined the movies "American Beauty" and "American Pie." So instead of a man becoming infatuated with his daughter's best friend, he becomes infatuated with his daughter's Home Ec project -- a warm apple pie. I enjoyed making that!

MM: What has been the absolute best part of working in the film industry and where do you hope to go from here?

SK: I experience the same joy of using my imagination as I did when I was seven. And in the process of making a film (from beginning to end), you get to meet some wonderful people who I’ll hopefully get to work with again. I’ll be a writer until someone takes away the proverbial pen (I write on a computer now, but if someone took my computer away it would probably be due to a burglary). I’ll also want to continue to produce my films and occasionally act in and direct them. Specifically, in ten years I want to be on a film set, doing all of the above (without experiencing the burglary).

MM: Do you have any upcoming projects that you would like to mention and/or any advice that you can give to people aspiring to enter the industry?

SK: The next project I want to direct and act in is a quirky comedy script I wrote called “Burton’s Invention,” about an inventor and his eccentric family and the quest for that one great invention... I also want to produce another script of mine featuring tap dancing called “A Taptastic Dream” about a twelve-year-old girl whose wish is to reunite a disillusioned famous singer and her tap dancing backup dancers so she can dance with them at a concert.

I’ve also written a book about the making of this current film, and I’ve talked to someone about setting up speaking engagements for me to talk about it around the country. In doing that, I would also be able to set up screenings for “Dance Baby Dance” in select cities. And after each show, I would try to arrange for live dancing – which I would also use as an opportunity to essentially scout/audition dancers for “A Taptastic Dream.” There are so many talented, undiscovered people out there -- and being able to possibly find a diamond in the rough would be exciting for me.

My biggest advice would be to focus on the love of doing. Unless you’re one of the very few lucky ones, you’ll face rejection and setbacks and difficult times – but if you truly love the idea of being a filmmaker, stay focused on that. Let that passion drive you through the tough times. And combine your passion with a plan. Without a plan for what you want to do, and action steps to achieve it, it’s easy to get derailed no matter how passionate you are. And figure out how you measure your passion. For me, I know I love a project enough if it keeps me up at night because I constantly have to turn the light on to jot down scene ideas or dialogue.

The next biggest advice would be to constantly work on your craft. If you’re a writer, write often. If you’re a Director, film things (even if it’s just with your phone). And get on sets, ask questions, read books about filmmaking. Anything that can help you learn. And when you do start filming things like shorts or webisodes, be open to feedback. You’ll want to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable giving you feedback because then they’ll be honest and you’ll end up actually learning the most.