Kenny Ortega Interview, Michael Jacksons This Is It

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline sat down to talk to with producer/director Kenny Ortega about his new film, the highly anticipated Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT. The film offers Jackson fans and music lovers worldwide a rare, behind-the-scenes look at the performer as he developed, created and rehearsed for his sold-out concerts that would have taken place beginning this past summer in London’s O2 Arena.

Audiences will be given a privileged and private look at Jackson as he has never been seen before. In raw and candid detail, Michael Jackson’s THIS IS IT is the last documentation of Michael Jackson in action, capturing the singer, dancer, filmmaker, architect, creative genius, and great artist at work as he and his collaborators move toward their goals of London, the O2 and history.

Dubbed the Billion Dollar Maestro by Daily Variety, Kenny Ortega has conquered feature films, television, stage, concerts and massive live events such as the Olympics with equal excellent. As Michael Jackson’s director and creative partner on “This Is It” as well as the previous Jackson concert tours Dangerous and History, Ortega has been a friend, trusted colleague and collaborator of Michael Jackson’s for over 20 years.

The multiple Emmy Award winner famously directed and visualized Disney’s billion-dollar High School Musical franchise of films both for television and as a feature film. Ortega directed the Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus “Best of Both Worlds Tour” featuring The Jonas Bros. He also directed to tremendous praise the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Kenny Ortega is a fabulous person and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new film and his historic collaboration with Michael Jackson:

Q: Have you had any sleep?

KO: You know, I haven’t had any sleep for the last few months. I haven’t. During the rehearsals, I worked pretty late hours and then we did the memorial and then we started up on the film and the film was 14 hours a day, seven days a week, every week since we started and then we handed the movie over and it was like mixing. We just came back from 10 days out on the road starting in Chicago with Oprah and back here for the premiere. It’s just been an absolute whirlwind. Like the wind last night, I was like ‘nothing new to me.’

Q: Was syncing in post a nightmare?

KO: Not a nightmare. Fortunately, we had everything being recorded. We had our monitor guys. You know when Michael’s talking, when he’s going, ‘I’m not trying to be difficult. I realize you guys are trying to do your job but I’m having a problem. It’s like somebody sticking their fist in my head.’ He’s talking to the monitor guys who are over there recording everything. Not everything was recorded where we had separate stems. Some things were just in two track so we didn’t have the ability to bring Michael’s voice out as much as we would have liked to. We did our best and other times we had it as good as in a recording studio where you could pull it out and mix it so we were able to get a greater sort of mix. But everything you heard was happening right there in the room. That’s Michael’s band playing all that music. Those aren’t records. He wanted it like the records as he made very clear, but those were his singers singing live. That was his band playing live. That was Michael up there obviously. If anybody needed to put that concept to rest, I mean you saw him. He would just start to improvise and start to sing out of nothingness and suddenly the band kicked in and we were into a rehearsal. That’s how organic that process was for us.

Q: Had he ever done Jackson 5 songs as an adult before?

KO: Oh yeah. Since I’d started working with him which was back during Dangerous and HIStory and many one offs that we did, in Korea and Germany, many places, JFK Stadium in D.C., Michael loved to pay tribute to those years, to the songs and to his brothers more importantly.

Q: The rawness accentuates the fact that it was never meant to be seen.

KO: It wasn’t, it wasn’t. But also, we had three big chunks of footage that we worked with. You saw the big films that we incorporated into the storytelling. Those were 10 short films that Michael and I developed and produced together that were incorporated into the concert. So those were always intended to be a part of the concert. Those were made for the live show and ultimately down the line when we filmed the live show in London which was a plan, those would have been a part of that. Then we had the behind the scenes, interviews, the making of, because Michael had intended to film the concerts in London so he wanted to have a nice behind the scenes to be able to attach to that. So that’s where you got the dancers and band members talking and seeing the scenic shots. Then you had what I call the miracle footage which was the footage that we use. It was a tool for us to videotape the rehearsal so that we could at any time we wanted to go back and look at something and say, ‘Why don’t we open this up musically or you know what we should do here with the lights? Or why not bring the dancers out at this moment?’ That it offered us an opportunity to kind of after the fact step back, look at something and be able to make creative adjustments. We’d done that ever since we started working together. We didn’t always turn those cameras on and there were only two of them and sometimes one. You can imagine the complication of trying to tell a story and cut this movie together. There were times where I was on the floor banging and kicking and screaming because we didn’t design this to be shot as a film. We never planned it. There was no script. I didn’t say, ‘And now go in for the close-up and can we do one more take of that?’ That was never part of it.

Q: Were any musical numbers left out because the footage wasn’t there?

KO: Yeah, mm hmm, yeah. The day that Michael died, we were waiting for him to come in to block him into Dirty Diana, which was at the end of Dirty Diana, he stepped into an illusion and before your eyes went up in smoke and then suddenly appeared completely on the other side of the stage rising up on the cherry picker and out over to the audience for Beat It. He was really looking forward to it. The night before, he had said to me he was very happy. He saw the dream coming to life on the stage. The only thing he wanted me to say to anybody creatively, dancers, creative team was, ‘I love them. Everybody’s doing a great job. I love you, Kenny. I’ll see you tomorrow. Thank you.’ He left and we were invigorated. We came back that next day and we were all up on the stage really excited working with our illusion makers, working with our technicians. We had our aerialist, Danielle, on the stage and Tony Testa, one of our associate choreographers was standing in for Michael. It was just like we were getting everything ready for him to walk in and step into what was going to be one of his favorite days because he loved illusion. When we discovered that, in fact everything stopped.

Q: Did your Hocus Pocus background help reinvent Thriller?

KO: It didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt but it also came from my background of loving Michael Jackson’s Thriller and being a huge fan of all of his short film work. But it was one of the first ideas that Michael and I talked about was let’s create a 3-D experience in an arena for the fans. Of course, people were like, ‘What?’ The technology, they were really racing to get it finished. We had the first HD 3-D screen up and we were creating these films. There were people that were not even sure it was going to work. When we first tested the 3-D on the screen in the arena, it was mind blowing. Then what we were planning on doing was Michael had all these other ideas. We had Michael Curry who designed The Lion King was one of our scenic designers and puppeteer designers. We had giant illuminated characters dropping out of the ceiling over the heads of the audience and these beautiful puppets that were coming down the aisles and moving out of the vomitoriums. Michael was so excited about it. He liked to call it a 4-D experience. So, you were going to have a 3-D movie, the cast on stage and then the smoke billowing off the edge of the stage into the audience and all of these elements dropping in over your head and your 3-D glasses on.

Q: Did you ever want to add something reflecting on the emotional background?

KO: You know, the only reason why I didn’t do it was because I didn’t want anyone to ever say that we fabricated anything. We didn’t. There is absolutely nothing in this film that wasn’t created from the time Michael Jackson announced that he was doing the concerts until the day that Michael died. We didn’t want to touch it. It was like I called it sacred final documentation and if we went back in to shoot the band or anything, then we left ourselves open to people going, ‘That really wasn’t how it happened. They tried to color it differently.’ However, in the DVD series, there is a tremendous, I would say, three to four hours of information that’s not in the film that comes again from that source, but also now post source. So that we did go back and now talked in hindsight about the experience of working with Michael and we completed some ideas that Michael had blessed and signed off on that we didn’t have quite finished by the time Michael had died. So you’re going to see an even sort of completer picture and come to understand more detail about all the elements of what we had planned for the show.

Q: How would you like Michael to be remembered as an artist and as a person?

KO: I think people were saying it last night. They were echoing everything that I felt in my heart. People coming up to me and saying, ‘We didn’t get it. We didn’t get the closure from CNN. We didn’t get to say goodbye properly from CNN.’ Not meaning that they were being irresponsible. It was just that the information wasn’t there and that people were saying that not only did we get to have these final moments with Michael as the artist, but we got to come to know him better than ever before as a man. You really came to appreciate his kindness and his sweetness and his generosity and the wonderful collaborative spirit that he was about and the way that he worked with people, never wanting to offend anyone. My God, if he thought that he embarrassed somebody, it would just knock him to his knees. That’s why you always saw him, even in the deepest frustrating moments for him, he would say, ‘With the love. That’s what the rehearsal’s for’ because he really appreciated us so much. He said to me, ‘Kenny, go out and find the best artists in the world. Invite them to come and join our journey and then let’s inspire them to go to places that they’ve never been before.’ So Michael knew who was in front of him and he had the greatest admiration and respect for everybody. Even if he had a little debate or a disagreement with someone, he never wanted it to get to the place where that person might have thought that he didn’t care for them or that he didn’t respect them.

Q: Shouldn’t he have done movie musicals?

KO: Yeah, we were going to do a couple of films. Before we even knew that we were going to do This Is It, Michael and I were already in the early development stages in talking about doing a Legs Diamond musical and a full length 3-D Thriller motion picture. Michael was not intending to resign from the business. He wasn’t retiring. However, this was what he was calling his final curtain call for live touring. What he thought was he’ll do the 50 shows in London and then he really said, ‘If it works and I still feel good and I still have the energy, I would love to go to Africa. I would love to go to India. I would love to go to Japan.’ Travis (Payne) and I saw it. Michael was intending to go out there with his children and see the whole rest of the world, share that experience with them, meet the fans, take one more grand bow and then he wanted to pull the plug on his live performing because he said, ‘I don’t want to be out there doing it when I can’t do it with the integrity that I’m known for. However, let’s make movies and great albums and develop projects together.’ So he was excited about so much. He had so much more in him still.

Q: What did you discover about Michael and yourself and your friendship doing this?

KO: Well, you know, Michael just gave me such trust. From the very moment that we began, it’s like he threw the clay in the middle of the table and he said, ‘Put your hands in it with me right now.’ He loved creative jousting with me. He loved it. He loved wrestling down ideas. Whatever stuck to the wall the next day, we didn’t even remember who came up with it. We so didn’t care. It was such a partnership. It was so easy, out of our ego, and it was so about what belonged in the storytelling. Michael had for a couple of years been entertained by so many people with ideas and he would call me every once in a while, we would have dinner, we’d talk on the telephone. He’d come to visit me on set and he’d say, ‘There’s nothing out there that has enough purpose behind it for me to want to do it,’ meaning in the live arena. He’d say, ‘Keep thinking.’ I was doing my films and suddenly I got this phone call, after two years of us talking about the possibility of maybe doing something live, and he said, ‘Kenny, this is it.’ I swear, that’s what he said. ‘This is it.’ Then during the conversation while we were talking, he said it like five times and I laughed and I said, ‘You should call the tour This is It because you keep saying it.’ What happened when we got together right after that was, before any conceptual ideas, he started talking to me about the reasons why, the reasons behind wanting to go out and do it. Here’s why we need to do this and now let’s create the show that gives worth to these reasons. That is what I’ll take with me. His sense of responsibility, that it wasn’t enough to just go out there because he could. It had to be important. It had to have worth. It had to have reason, raison d’etre as Gene Kelly used to say to me all the time. What’s the reason for being there that’s going to inspire me to get up every day and want to put on my costume and get on that stage and be Michael Jackson.

Q: How do you respond to theThis Is Not It website? Would you take legal action?

KO: I don’t. I mean, everybody, the way I look at it is they’re all fans. Everything is coming from a sense of loss. There are some fans out there that are just looking to sort of point at something, to point to the reason why we don’t have Michael anymore, put blame. All I would say is Michael didn’t live that way. That’s not the spirit of Michael Jackson. Michael didn’t assume. There were an awful lot of people though that did assume about Michael Jackson. They created scenarios and they speculated and even persecuted him and demoralized him. I would just say to anyone, if you don’t know what you’re talking about, if you weren’t there, if you don’t have the information, don’t put that information - - don’t. Don’t do it. See the movie. Look at the movie. The movie speaks for itself. It’s Michael. It’s Michael talking, Michael doing, Michael sharing. It’s pretty clear. It’s pretty honest. It’s pretty raw. It’s pretty unguarded. That Michael wanted to be there. He was doing this. This nourished him. It invigorated him. It excited him. He wanted to do this more than anything other than spend time with his children. This is what he wanted to do.

Q: What do you look for in artists to participate?

KO: Collaborators and people that are not afraid to go on a journey and get outside of their head and that are less concerned about an idea being theirs and more concerned about being a part of a team that arrives at something that’s special.

Q: What’s going on in High School Musical land?

KO: I’m not going to do High School Musical 4 but I hear that they might be doing an all new cast, all new.

Q: What happened to all the sets?

KO: All of it’s in storage. All of it’s in storage. Some of it is spectacular. Somehow maybe in the future we might be able to pull it all into some kind of idea. I don't know. I hope it’s not just going to sit behind closed doors.

“This is It” opens in theaters on October 28th.


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