Kenny Ortega tells of his personal relationship with Michael Jackson in heartfelt stories as he expresses the sadness of the pop star's loss. The Associate Producer of This Is It feels blessed to have had the opportunity to work with such a legend, and he sat down with Buzzine to share memories.
IH: Have you had any kind of response?
TP: Absolutely. I spoke to Jermaine [Jackson] and I spoke to Taj, one of the nephews. I spoke to two of the female cousins — Rebe’s daughters — last night, and they loved it. The children see it today. Everybody is excited. Everybody is happy. They’re thrilled.
IH: You’re right next to Michael [Jackson] for a lot of the scenes in this. Was that usually the way you worked with him?
TP: Yeah, we were always that close-knit. You just sort of gravitate to Michael. You just want to be near him, and he was so welcoming and open and loving and nurturing that it was very easy. He made himself available. I think these walls had to go around him because people did not allow him to have a normal existence, but once he was in his own space, he was just a guy in love with his art.
IH: In terms of the dancing, he obviously knew the moves he had been doing for so many years, but with each tour, you want to do something a little different What did you guys talk about, in terms of the movements? There wasn’t much moon-walking in this.
TP: Those are the things that he has mastered. That is part of his vocabulary, quite like an opera singer who doesn’t always need to hit the high notes — you warm up to those moments. But with his iconic signature steps like the moonwalk and all of his spins and side-glides, that was just in his body. That was innate. That’s the stuff you do without thinking about it. He was having a large task. Hopefully people realize, in the film, he was listening to his music and doing a sound check, and teaching people around him what he expected and needed from them in order for him to give the best performance possible. It was not a full performance. It was the process. So you see him hint at the moonwalk because he was telling us, “Okay, this is where I’ll do it,” for the lighting cues, so things can happen, or, “This is how long it’s going to take me to do this so you know how long I have to change before that…” It was a rehearsal. He was rehearsing.
IH: What’s practice to him is awesome to us.
TP: That’s a blessing. There was an entirely new cast and crew. Being one of his dancers from 1993 and then becoming a choreography partner of his in 1994, I’ve been able to see him train new people, but this was an entirely new cast. Oftentimes, it’d be one or two people or a new guitarist, or he’s working with a different drummer, but this was everybody was different. The only person who’d been there was Jonathan Moffett because he was the drummer for 30 years and, of course, Kenny and myself. But everybody on stage with Michael was different. Dorian (Holley) and Darryl Phinnessee, two of his singers, returned. Other than that, the stage crew — the people hanging the lights, everything, all different. And in his mind, they all had choreography. They would all have certain movements that they’d have to do in a certain amount of time – whether it’s climbing the scaffolding to adjust something or making a prop available to come out onto the stage – he considered it all choreography, because you have to do a certain series of moves within a certain period of time. So that’s what we were doing — having those types of rehearsals so that people could get the beats, and then, once everybody knows what they’re doing and safety is not an issue, you start to have this full-out performance that had the pyro and the bombs and the fire and all of that. I think for people to be able to have a glimpse into his last great creative process is a blessing. I think it will answer a lot of questions that people may have on their own and put a lot of end to the speculation that has surroundeded this project and give people their hero back for a little while. I’m glad the initial response is great.
IH: How would you like people to remember Michael as an artist and as a man?
TP: I would love for people to remember Michael for his caring – the fact that he cared so deeply about so many different people in the world, many of whom he didn’t even know. He just knew that someone somewhere was suffering, so that was enough for him to be concerned about. People know of his charitable contributions, but I don’t know how many people know that he still, to this day, holds the record for the most charitable contributions by any celebrity or any one person. I think he should be remembered as a really gentle giant. He was huge and immensely talented but never took credit for his talent. He always just said, “I’m a vessel, and I know there’s something bigger than me. I just give people the messages.” He was very much that way all the time. I think people often mistook his kindness for weakness and assumed he was not in control of his own life, but he was and was responsible for the lives of three others — his children — and was a loving father, and they were fiercely loyal and they traveled everywhere together. Just to hear him and his philosophies on life and art and spirituality and family was so moving to me. I would tell him, “When you do your next biography or whatnot, it needs to be audio so people can hear the inflections in your voice and hear how passionate you are about things.” I was like, “A book is passé.” He was like “Yeah?” “Technology. You need to deliver it on iPods that people can listen to so they can really get into what you’re talking about, because people have heard the messages but I don’t think they listened to the messages a lot.” I hope that, after seeing the film, the audience will feel a sense of responsibility and accept the challenge of trying to affect some positive change on the planet, because ultimately, that was his main reason for returning to the stage.
IH: You said that he often called you at 3:00 in the morning with ideas. Was that quite common for him to call you all through the night?
TP: Yeah. It didn’t happen every night, but oftentimes…
IH: It wasn’t unusual that he wasn’t asleep at 3:00 a.m.?
TP: No. At any time, he would call just because, when connected to his higher power, he would get ideas out of the blue. He’d call and say, “I know how we’ll do this. We don’t need to do this song because we’ve just done that song, and that song really counts for those two songs, and we can take that out and then we’ll just…” So he was always crafting, always creating. He was also in the midst of an album and raising his children. So three o’clock in the morning seemed logical to me. Everybody’s asleep. The phone aren’t ringing. We can both really concentrate and chat for awhile and laugh for awhile, and recap the day. It’s very hard to hit that “off” switch and go to bed after you’ve had such thrilling days as we did. We’d talk about, “Wow, that was a good day, huh?” “Yeah.” “Tomorrow you’ve got to remember because we need to…where’s that thing coming from?” “It’s coming from Germany.” “When is it going to be here?” “Okay. I need to see that thing.” He was always working, and it was great because it inspired us all to work harder and better.
IH: Was there a musical number that you were personally most excited to choreograph?
TP: I loved them all. The first thing I ever choreographed with Michael was “Dangerous” in 1993, but the latest was “The Drill.” It’s an entirely new piece that he’s never done before – all new original choreography that we did together, new music that hadn’t been performed before, and that was the piece that’s just between “Jam” and “They Don’t Care About Us.” I was very excited about that because it’s one of the newer ones that now the fans hopefully get to enjoy.
IH: Did he always try to top himself?
TP: Michael was always trying to add to his legacy. He wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. He would always say, “If it’s working, we don’t have to change it.” If it’s broke, don’t fix it. If you can add to it and make it better, great. But if you can’t, don’t touch it. There were some things that were very sacred, like “Billie Jean” and “Thriller.” You don’t want to change those. You just want to add to them. You want to embellish them. You want to present new layers or include new layers with them, because his music and his art continue to grow. People will see that in this film and how he regarded all of it. They weren’t just songs to him. I’d often asked him, “What’s your favorite song?” He was like, “I can’t choose. They’re like children. They all are my favorites. Some are older than others, but they’re all my favorites, so you don’t love any one any less.” That was just the way he was.
IH: Did he want to include his siblings on the tour at all for the Jackson 5 numbers?
TP: We had not gone down that road, but it was not out of the question. We had a short list of artists that we would love to join him on stage. It’s just a no-brainer to have his family there. I would love nothing more than to see the brothers come out during the J5 medley. I was very excited about the possibility of seeing Janet on stage with him to do “Scream” live. They’d never done that before. When we did that short film — I believe it was 1995, 1996 — it was so wonderful, because I got my start with Janet in 1990 as a dancer on Rhythm Nation. So to start with her, then work with Michael so extensively, then work with Janet again in tribute to Michael was so full-circle for me. Before he passed, I was definitely looking forward to inviting her to participate, because I think the fans would have loved that.
IH: Can you talk about a memorable moment with Michael that’s still fresh in your mind?
TP: In the dance realm, we would watch fashion shows a lot. He loved fashion shows. He loved the runway walk. That, I think, is what inspired the girl in “The Way You Make Me Feel.” He loved that. That’s why he worked with Naomi Campbell on “In The Closet” and why Iman was in “Remember the Time.” He loved fashion and aristocracy and haute couture. He loved all that. But a life moment: I really appreciated and enjoyed meeting his children for the first time because it was a different Michael. He had a different set of priorities. His life had taken on a different meaning, and the joy they brought him and seeing them around each other was so great to me, and seeing him get down on the floor and play with them and run around in the socks and there’s airplanes flying around in the room… Then they would just play their games and chew their bubblegum and have a good time. That was fun to see. The children were always at the home when we rehearsed together during the day, and they would come and sit in the studio and watch, and Michael would get up and do his thing. Paris would be tending to the house. She was very aware of where everything was. She would keep the schedule for lunch. She was the helper and very together. And they just loved him and protected him so much. I think the fact that their dad is not with them physically has got to be hard, but hopefully they can get some sense of being with their father again through this movie, spiritually and emotionally. I’m just very anxious for them to see it and find out what they feel about it.
IH: You’re a choreographer, a dancer, and you knew Michael for a long time. How would you say he was physically? He looked thin but in good shape.
TP: I think he was in great shape. I think that, clearly, he was a seasoned professional who was 50 years old, but there are also many others in his peer group who were doing it successfully. As a choreographer and dancer, it was great to be in the room with him every day. As an Associate Director, it was great to have creative conversations with him and contribute conceptually this time. And as an Associate Producer of the movie, I found it a great responsibility and honor in telling the story of what was his last historic creative process.
IH: Was he confident from the very first rehearsal? Was he a little bit tentative? Did he have to relearn stuff?
TP: I’ll tell you exactly what he said. Yeah, we refreshed the choreography as he was working up to all of the vocal demand that would be required of him, but I asked him straight out, “Do you get nervous?” and he goes, “No,” and I go, “Really?” He goes, “No. If you get nervous, then it starts to trickle throughout the camp. Then you’ve got a bunch of nervous soldiers and you’ll never win the war that way.” I was like, “Alright then, we don’t get nervous. Let’s work it out. Where do you want to start?” So he was like, “No, I don’t get nervous. There’s no time for it. It’s a waste of energy. You have to face the fear. You have to walk through it. If you’re tentative about it, you’ll never get anywhere.” It made sense to me because I had to remember, as I was younger, I think it was much easier for me to do stuff because there was less fear and there was less hesitation because you’re not planning to plan to plan. You just do it, and that was the way he was. He was so nosy and mischievous. He was going through my bag one day and found a cut – it was open so it invited his eyes. I had a copy of The Secret DVD in my bag, and he goes, “What do you know about this?” I go, “Well, I’ve learned about it for about two years so I keep it with me, and if I get stressed out, I’ll pop it in and listen to it.” And he was like, “I’ve known about this for a long time,” and I was like, “I figured you did,” and he goes, “Yeah. Thoughts become things, don’t they?” and I was like, “Yes, they do.” So that was just how he was — so giving, so in touch, so aware, so inspired himself, so it made it very easy for him to inspire others.
IH: What is Michael’s legacy to the world of dance, from your perspective?
TP: I think Michael Jackson has created a language and a style all his own. Like the greats that have come before him, like Bob Fosse and Baryshnikov who he admired so much, I think he’s contributed immense amounts to dance over the years, and I think he will continue to. You see his spirit woven through contemporary artists that we see all the time, as well as, I’m sure, a lot of people we’re going to see. I think he’d be happy about it. He enjoyed it. He took it as flattery. He enjoyed it. He enjoyed seeing people do the moves around the world and emulate him. He loved it because he knew he was connecting with them.
Columbia Pictures' 'This Is It' is released on October 28, 2009.