When Kenny Ortega signed on to direct what was intended to be the triumphant theatrical accompanyment to Michael Jackson's 'This Is It' tour, little did he know he would end up not just working on the musical superstar's final project, but also being there on MJ's final day on earth. From the whirlwind of that sad storm came the rapidfire creation of a rather different version of the concert film that had been originally planned, and now, as it is about to be released into the world, Kenny sat down with Buzzine's Izumi Hasegawa to talk about the man, the music and the movie.
Izumi Hasegawa: Have you had any sleep?
Kenny Ortega: I haven’t had any sleep for the last few months. 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 ten 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 — it was nothing new to me.
IH: Was syncing in post a nightmare?
KO: Not a nightmare. Fortunately, we had everything being recorded. We had our monitor guys. When Michael [Jackson] is 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 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…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.
IH: Had he ever done Jackson Five 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.
IH: The rawness accentuates that it was never meant to be seen.
KO: 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 ten 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 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 don’t we bring the dancers out at this moment…?” It offered us an opportunity to, 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 closeup” and “Can we do one more take of that?”
IH: Were any musical numbers left out because the footage wasn’t there?
KO: Yeah. The day Michael died, we were waiting for him to come in to block him into “Dirty Diana.” 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, the 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 Testum, 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.
IH: Did your Hocus Pocus background help reinvent “Thriller”?
KO: 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 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 we had all these other ideas. We had Michael Currie, who designed The Lion King as 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 volmatoriums. 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.
IH: Did you ever want to add something reflecting on the emotional background?
KO: The only reason 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 Michael died. We didn’t want to touch it. 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 didn’t happen. They tried to color it differently.” However, in the DVD series, there is a tremendous three to four hours of information that’s not in the film that comes, again, from that source, but also now post-source. So we did go back and talk 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 died. So you’re going to see an even completer picture and come to understand more detail about all the elements of what we had planned for the show.
IH: How would you like Michael to be remembered?
KO: I think people were saying it [at the premiere]. 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. 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 he worked with people, never wanting to offend anyone. My God, if he thought 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 he didn’t care for them or he didn’t respect them.
IH: Shouldn’t he have done movie musicals?
KO: 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.” 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.
IH: What did you discover about Michael and yourself, and your friendship doing this?
KO: Michael just gave me such trust. From the very moment we began, it’s like he threw the clay in the middle of the table and said, “Put your hands in it with me right now.” He liked 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, he said, “Kenny, this is it.” I swear, that’s what he said. “This is it.” Then, 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 he, before any conceptual ideas, 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?”
IH: How do you respond to the This Is Not It website? Would you take legal action?
KO: I won’t. 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 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 — 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.
IH: What do you look for in artists to participate?
KO: Collaborators and people who are not afraid to go on a journey and get outside of their head, and who are less concerned about an idea being theirs and more concerned about being a part of a team that arrives at something special.
IH: 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.
IH: What happened to all the sets?
KO: 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.
Columbia Pictures' 'This Is It' is released on October 28, 2009.