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Kenny Ortega takes us inside ‘This Is It’ and the world of Michael Jackson

October 27, 4:48 PMCelebrity Q&A ExaminerCarla Hay

Kenny Ortega at the New York City press junket for  “Michael Jackson’s This Is It”

Imagine being the person with the responsibility of directing the the last filmed documentary of Michael Jackson before his untimely death. Kenny Ortega, the director of the movie “Michael Jackson’s This Is It,” had that enormous challenge, and he says it was the hardest thing he’s ever had to do in his life. “This Is It” shows Jackson on stage and behind the scenes during rehearsals for his “This Is It” concerts, which were scheduled to begin in July 2009 at the O2 Arena in London. Jackson died on June 25, 2009 — less than three weeks before the 50-concert series began. An autopsy ruled the death a homicide from acute Propofol intoxication.

The world will never get to see Jackson perform those concerts, but the “This Is It” movie is the closest thing to having an idea what the concerts would have been like. The day of the “This Is It” press junket in New York City, 12 minutes of footage were shown to select members of the media. The footage was of Jackson in various outfits performing “The Way You Make Me Feel” (with dancers in a high-rise construction-site backdrop) and “Human Nature.” I can definitely say that any false rumors of Jackson’s voice and energy level being sub par should be put to rest after people see this footage. It was captivating and very poignant to see what Jackson was like during his final days.

I asked Michael Bearden, the musical director of “This Is It,” if Jackson had planned to have surprise guests during any of the concerts, Bearden revealed that Janet Jackson, Mariah Carey, Diana Ross, Mick Jagger and Lady Gaga had all expressed interest in doing surprise appearances, and that Michael was making accommodations in the show’s production in case any of the guest performances happened.

When I sat down with Ortega at the “This Is It” press junket (which took place less a week before Ortega parted ways with the “Footloose” movie remake), he understandably got emotional when talking about Michael Jackson. (“I cried three or four times this morning,” Ortega said. “It’s a common occurrence for me.”) In this candid interview, choreographer/director Ortega shared his favorite memories Michael Jackson, what it was like to take on the difficult challenge of making the “This Is It” film in such a short period of time, and the real reasons why Michael Jackson wanted to do the “This Is It” concerts.

Michael Jackson and Kenny Ortega during the rehearsals for “This Is It”

What was the greatest thing you learned from Michael Jackson as an entertainer?

I grew in the theater — loving the theater — so I grew up with that discipline, that appreciation for the hard work that goes into doing great theater. And that was one of the big connections that Michael and I had: the respect for the work and a respect for the audience.

And I would say it was my favorite part of working with Michael, because you were always reminded of that all-important idea. So many people don’t even know it, let alone practice it. You know, it’s not just something that’s given to you if you’re in music. It comes from a kind of a training, an upbringing, an investment in something that comes from study and practice and thought. And Michael was about that.

Michael had principles. Michael had a real responsibility as a performer. People stood in line, they slept in sleeping bags, they paid money that they sometimes didn’t have to see you. You better give it all. And don’t just show up on the day and give it all. Do the work before you get there, so they’re really, really getting your all. And I love being around that kind of energy, that kind of individual.

Kenny Ortega at the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

You seemed so protective of Michael in the footage that was shown …

He was protective of me! Even though you might not see as much of it in the context of the director/entertainer relationship that you see in the film, behind the scenes [Michael said to me], “Are you OK, Kenny? You promise? Did you eat?” “Michael, I ate. You eat! Eat this salad. Drink this protein shake. Are they taking care of you? Do you have everything you need? Are they talking nice to you?” Michael was always so concerned.

One time, not on this last project, but on an earlier project we did years ago, a lighting designer raised his voice at me. And Michael came over and whispered in my ear, “You can fire him if you want to. Don’t let him talk to you like that.” Michael was very protective of everybody he cared about and loved and invited to be a part of his family. He was very respectful of us all. He gave us a voice. He listened. And he really enjoyed taking our ideas.

He was a real collaborator. It didn’t matter whose idea it was. We would forget. I would say, “That was the best idea.” “That wasn’t that idea; that was your idea.” “No, it wasn’t. That was your idea.” “Nuh-uh! You threw that up on the wall last night, and I wasn’t even sure of it, and now I like it. And don’t try to credit me. That was your idea.” He was just a really great guy in that respect.

Michael Jackson at the rehearsals for “This Is It”

This is a project that started out as one thing and became another. Can you talk about that?

Whew! The turnaround of this title. The first time I heard “This Is It” was when I heard it from Michael when he picked up the phone and called me. After two years of us having discussions and meetings and hanging out and calling each other from different parts of the world, when Michael was saying, “I’m entertaining this idea, I’m considering this idea. So far, nothing is making me feel that there’s enough purpose behind it that I want to invest myself in it.”

When I got this phone call, Michael said, “Kenny, this is it.” And that title went on to mean many things. And he would say that, too. We’d be in a session, we’d be hanging out. And he goes, “This is it. Now it’s become about something else. This is it. This is my call to arms. This show has to be my platform to remind people of the important messages in my songs. The world is losing love. We have to love each other more. We have to work harder to take care of this planet.”

And he would find more and more and more reason to invest his heart, his time, his energy into this project. And so what I did when this project transitioned was at first I pulled back. I thought, “Nuh-uh. I’m too emotional. There’s no way I’d have the creative objectivity and look at this material. I’m hurting too deeply. I’m confused. I’m lost. I’m afraid.”

And then I looked at the material and I thought, “That’s our work! That’s our last work. This is sacred. This is the last documentation of Michael Jackson in his final theatrical work. Get it together, man! The journey’s not over. This is your job. This is your responsibility.”

And it was heavy. It is a weight I have felt through all of this that has been enormous. I brought Michael into the room with me. Michael was in the editing room with me every single step of the way. I would just ask, “Is that what you want? Is that right? Is that good enough? Is that what the fans need?” And I just kept him alive with me all through the second part of this experience.

I was just telling somebody the other day, “The day I had to give this movie away …” [He exhales loudly and chokes up with tears in his eyes.] … The day they told me I had to hand this movie in was like I was giving him up, and it was one of the hardest days for me. It really was. This is all very real for me.

Kenny Ortega at the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

What’s the biggest part of “This Is It” that shows the message that Michael Jackson wanted to give?

Without giving it away, I just think it’s one of the most precious moments of the film. I always get so disappointed when I go to the movies and I see a trailer and they give you the most precious moments of the film. They just spill it all out there. And after a while when you’ve seen enough of them, you just go, “You’re robbing me of my first-time experience [seeing the movie].”

Michael had a thing for everybody. He would tell everyone, grab us all, and put everybody in a room and say, “Don’t talk about this to anybody. We must keep everything here a secret, because when the audience comes to see this, they have to come and experience it for the first time. We don’t want them building things up in their mind … We want them to come, and when we open up this show, we want them to say to themselves, ‘How are they possibly going to go beyond that?’”

In the case of this film, Michael in his own words carries this message through, the message that he wanted most importantly to share with his audiences is through this show. I won’t say anything more than that except that it’s Michael himself that does it. That’s why I can sleep at night and why I feel good in my heart that what we’re providing here is giving the fans what Michael intended to give them. It’s the reason behind doing this concert in the first place.

Michael Jackson at the rehearsals for “This Is It”

Can you talk about how Michael’s performances were translated into storytelling in this film?

He was a great storyteller. Everything began from that. When we would sit around a room and talk about ideas, it began not with a song but with the choreography. “What are we trying to say here? What is the reason behind this moment in the show?”

At the end of the show, Michael said, “When the audience leaves the arena, Kenny, I don’t want them to be able to go to sleep that night. I want to fill them with so much they have to think about: how they were entertained, moved, motivated that the sun should be rising with them text messaging, e-mailing and having conversations about what they walked away from.” That was about the story aspects of the show.

So he was a man of theater, a man of story. He valued it. We did 10 little short films together that were to appear in the concert in different intervals and different capacities. Some stood on their own, some were interactive, some became scenes, living backdrops to what was happening in the production on the stage — and all of them were moving the story forward. So the story was there for me.

And the positive side of moving into this [film] so quickly is that everything was so fresh. I knew what the story was. We didn’t have a script to make this movie, God knows. But the story of what Michael wanted to do was right there. So all I had to do was go in there and just tell that story.

This is like a mosaic, more than a documentary, more than a concert film. It’s a mosaic: pieces, remnants, anything we could get our hands on to piece together a colorful means of telling the story of what Michael’s intentions were for “This Is It.”

Michael Jackson (pictured second from right) at the rehearsals for “This Is It”

When you said that Michael wanted to people to have trouble sleeping after seeing the “This Is It” concert, was that part of him in the editing room with you for this movie?

That’s so funny. No. [He laughs.] I might’ve forgotten that one. We weren’t a finished concert. We had eight more days [of concert rehearsals] left in Los Angeles and two weeks of technical rehearsals in London [before Michael Jackson died] … so we were still a work in progress. It was more about … following Michael’s death, the outpouring of interest from the fans was enormous. “Please … tell us anything! What was ‘This Is It’? I had my tickets. I stood in the rain. I cannot believe I’m not going to get to see this. Show us the concert!”

I can’t show you the concert. We didn’t finish the concert. Michael’s not here. So in looking at the material, where I sort of invited Michael into the space with me, it was like, “Help me, help the fans come to understand what it is that you wanted to do. Help me get your messages across in the best way that I can with what you’ve left me here to work with.”

Kenny Ortega (pictured at far left) and Michael Jackson (center) at the rehearsals for “This Is it”

What are your favorite memories of Michael Jackson? Is there anything about Michael that was misrepresented in the media?

The purity of his heart, the gentleness of his spirit, the kindness that he was about. I mentioned that he was so appreciative of the talent and the passion and dedication around him — and so he treated everyone with such respect and admiration. “I didn’t get a chance to hug everyone tonight. Make sure everyone knows how thankful I am. Make sure everyone knows how appreciative I am.” And it was sincere. He really knew he was in the presence of greatness. He really valued talent that he had around him: his band, his dancers, his singers, the technical people not only responsible for not only lighting but keeping everybody safe on that stage and putting on all that hardware.

One day I walked into the dressing room with him, and he used to say it was one of his favorite moments, our one-on-ones. He’d put some fruit or candy, and he’d push it in front of me. Nurturing! I was like, “You eat! I’ve had plenty!” And I said to Michael — it was after a great day — and I looked at him and said, “I am so excited. I’m counting the days. I cannot wait until the curtain pulls open in London and you are back in the light, because you are going to triumph and you are going to get your crown back. And I have waited for this day, I have prayed for this day. You deserve this day.”

And he laughed at me. He just shook his head, like he was looking at a boy. He said, “You’re so silly! God bless you, Kenny.” And it’s because he never thought about that stuff. It wasn’t what motivated him. He wasn’t looking to be validated. He was looking to share this with his children, now that they could appreciate what he was in his life. He was looking to give back something to the fans that never quit him. And he was looking to get his messages across.

He was purely motivated. He never talked about the money. He never talked about the cash … There was the business side of Michael, but when we were in the room and creating with me and when we were in the process of developing that show, he was all about the pure reasons for being there.

Kenny Ortega at the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

You’ve told stories about Michael’s sense of humor, like how he joked that if he didn’t channel his ideas from God then “God might give his ideas to Prince.” Can you share some other insight into Michael’s sense of humor?

He [Michael Jackson] was messing with me. He did mention that he liked Prince, his music; he really did.

About his sense of humor, he was a practical joker. He loved going places but he couldn’t without going incognito. And so I remember one time, I’m waiting for him outside a movie theater to go see “Beowulf” at the Universal Studios in Hollywood. He said, “I’ll meet you in front of the theater.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I was looking for Michael Jackson to show up and meet me outside the theater. And I had been with him many times before. He was [disguised as] the Mata Hari’s daughter once when we went to see theater in New York. You wouldn’t believe some of the outfits we saw him in!

And I’m standing there looking around and looking around. I’m like, “Where is he?” And my assistants are there. There are young tourists running up to me to get my autograph, because they recognize the director from “High School Musical.” So I’m signing autographs and I’m looking, and there’s this old, old man in a wheelchair getting closer and closer and closer to me. And I’m looking over at him and he’s just getting closer and closer. And I just went, “You son of a gun!” And it was Michael, just laughing under his plastic face. [He chuckles.]

And I went over and wheeled this “old man” into the movie theater and up into the elevator to watch “Beowulf” with him. But it was the only way he could get in — and, more importantly, to get out. Because we could sneak him into a door, but the minute people knew he was there, it would be almost impossible to get him out.

Usher and Kenny Ortega at the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

A lot of people who knew Michael well say that he was inaccurately portrayed by the media. Why do you think some members of the media portrayed Michael inaccurately?

Lack of creativity … Personally, I think there’s no creativity in that kind of thinking. They attempted to rob him of his integrity, his dignity as a man. He was a 50-year-old man who raised three children beautifully. They’re educated and gorgeous and well-mannered and playful and rambunctious.

The only thing that has been [as world-famous] as Michael Jackson is probably Coca-Cola. Everyone on the planet knew who Michael Jackson was. He was probably the most famous man who ever lived. Don’t you think this guy had some kind of charge over his life?

To me, it [some of the media coverage of Michael Jackson] is just imbecilic. There’s no creativity in that kind of “blah blah.” They don’t know. They weren’t there. They weren’t invited. So it’s just all talk. And I didn’t let it affect me. I didn’t let it in. We didn’t invite it in. It wasn’t a part of our thinking. It wasn’t there when we made the movie. It wasn’t there when we made the concert. It’s always going to be there. “Blah blah blah.” That’s what I think of it.

Kenny Ortega and singer Shaheen Jafargholi at the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

Do you think Michael Jackson lost his crown as the King of Pop?

No. It fell off. It got knocked off or bumped off. I think people forgot, and hopefully this film will remind them of his incredible genius. He really was a master of his craft. And I really believe — I hope in my heart I’m not exaggerating — that everyone sees what I see here: that you see a master in charge, leading us along the path. A lot of people said to me, “I forgot.”

One really incredible guy that came to visit me in the process of making the film is Cameron Crowe. He just came in to visit for a few minutes. I wanted to pick his brain. I have great admiration for him. He didn’t come in to write about the film or anything. He just came in to say hello. And I showed him a couple of minutes [of “This Is It”], and he said, “You’re giving Michael back to the world, the Michael we had forgotten about.” And that’s a good thing. That’s what I hope we’ve done here. We’ve reminded people about Michael and his talent and greatness and importance and his contributions and what he represented as an international artist … I’m lucky. I’m very privileged to have been in the same breathing space as Michael Jackson.

Kenny Ortega at the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

Unfortunately, this year we lost another entertainer whom you knew very well: Patrick Swayze. Can you share your thoughts on what he was like?

In these last few months, I’ve said goodbye to three really important men. John Hughes, who I did “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” with and “Pretty in Pink” and “The Great Outdoors.” John Hughes (the writer of “The Breakfast Club” and so many different films), and Patrick Swayze and Michael [Jackson] were three men who intensely impacted my life as a man and my career.

I think Patrick Swayze did what Gene Kelly did: He made dancing accessible to every man — which is an enormous accomplishment in this society. And [he was] another just honest, great guy. I was at his [memorial] celebration. Whoopi [Goldberg] was the master of ceremonies for his celebration for Patrick, and Jennifer Grey and I were talking. And I said, “I don’t think I’ve known anyone who enjoyed life more than Patrick Swayze [did]. He loved being alive more than anybody I think I ever met.”

If you could ride it, he rode it. If you could jump it, he jumped it. If you could swim it, he swam it. John Kennedy Jr., he had that same rambunctious enthusiasm for life. And boy, am I going to miss that buddy. He was a real enthusiast — and so courageous. I admire the courage in which he departed. He was tremendous.

Kenny Ortega (pictured at far right) and Brooke Shields (pictured third from left) with members of Michael Jackson’s family and band at  the Michael Jackson public memorial in Los Angeles, July 2009

Have you seen Michael Jackson’s kids recently?

I’m hoping to see them soon. I’m hearing that they want to see the movie. And I don’t know if this would be timely [for them], so that’s really thrilling that they want to see it.

What do you say to people who wonder if you went back and changed any of the film after Michael’s death?

I made a decision really early on. Sony was amazing. Amy Pascal, the chairman of Sony [Pictures Entertainment] and Columbia [TriStar Motion Picture Group] said, “Whatever you need. I know that you don’t have a lot of time, I’ll make it available to you. You want to go back and shoot more band, you want to do more interviews, you want to finish things you weren’t able to finish, whatever we can do to help you.”

People are going to look at that and they’re going to say we manipulated, we changed, we altered [the original film]. And I said, “You know what? I think we’re safer, purer and more honest if we just incorporate the film that exists from the time Michael made the announcement [about his ‘This Is It’ concerts] to the day Michael left us. And let’s not touch it.” And that’s what’s going to tell the story.


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