Exclusive: The Makers of Michael Jackson’s This Is It

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On Wednesday, October 28, the world will finally have a chance to see some of the last performances by the “King of Pop,” Michael Jackson, thanks to the extensive rehearsal footage that accumulated over the months in which he prepared for his string of sold out shows at London’s O2 Arena, plans that were cut short by Jackson’s sudden death on June 25th.

The results are Michael Jackson’s This is It, not necessarily a concert film as much as a behind-the-scenes documentation of all the work and preparation that went into what many thought would be Jackson’s comeback.

To learn more about the movie, ComingSoon.net sat down with the film’s director Kenny Ortega (far right) and Jackson choreographer Travis Payne (center), both of whom have been working with the singer on his live shows going back to the “Dangerous” and “HIStory” tours, as well as the show’s musical director Michael Bearden (left). It was surprising to see them doing so many interviews for the movie, considering how difficult it must have been to talk about their dear friend, and it was quite an emotional experience for the men to talk with reverence about Jackson and his involvement with the movie from the beyond.

Before our interview, we were given a brief glimpse at roughly 13 minutes of footage from the movie, which showed Jackson preparing a few of the numbers from the show with this team. The footage goes through songs like “Human Nature” and “The Way You Make Me Feel” in their various incarnations as we watch their evolution from the early rehearsals to the last few weeks just before the show was going to debut. Needless to say, the first time we see Jackson in full regalia doing some of his trademark moves, a shiver goes down your spine, because it’s obvious even from that little bit of footage, Jackson was still very much in his prime when he passed.

ComingSoon.net: How long does it usually take to stage a production on this scale? I know the shows were announced in March, so were you guys already well into planning and preparation at that point?
Kenny Ortega: No, actually, not at all. Michael called me just before the announcement in March, and then we began early April, and in the beginning it was just putting the team together and conceptual discussions, then the dancers started at the end of April, the band started the first week of May, didn’t it?
Michael Bearden: The band started the first week of May, but I started earlier. I was on before the dancers.
Ortega: We put our creative team together, then we put our dancers, singers and band together. Michael was actually working with Travis privately on building up his dance routines and then also worked with Michael privately on the music. We all kind of came together on the big stage at the Forum in May.

CS: So that was the Forum that we saw in the movie.
Ortega: The Forum and the Staples Center. There are five venues in the picture: the O2 where Michael made the press announcement, the Nokia Live which is where we did the big dance auditions, and then we did Center Stages where we did band, dancer, singer and conceptual meetings and early rehearsal, and then we moved into the arenas as we started to put the show on its feet.

CS: So we’re going to be seeing some of the auditions and other things leading up to rehearsals?
Ortega: Yeah, yeah.
Travis Payne: The film is the story of what was to be “This Is It.” It’s the entire process, the creation of the show.

CS: I know you two (Kenny and Travis) worked with Michael for a long time but was this the first time you worked with him, Michael?
Bearden: No, I worked with Michael in 2001 on the 30th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, right before 9/11 happened. This is the first time I worked with him this closely and in this capacity. I was just a sideman in that band, and I worked with his brothers and every artist that was on the show, but this was not my first time working with him.

CS: Since you all had experience working with him, did you get the impression that he was trying to reinvent himself in some ways or was it just a matter of giving the fans what they were expecting?
Ortega: (chuckles) He didn’t need to reinvent himself. It wasn’t about reinvention, but in putting the show together, at times it was about reimagining, freshening, creating new stimulus, surprises.
Bearden: Expanding ideas.
Ortega: Expanding ideas, but there were the classics that didn’t need to be touched. It was a real rangey dynamic of ideas that were as simple and as basic and as intimate as Michael standing on a stage in a light with the band and the audience, to these enormous elaborate 3-dimensional motion picture production experiences. We had a cast of 70 that was planned to open the show in London. It was truly without question the most realized arena production I think ever.
Bearden: Amen.
Payne: Yes.

CS: From what I’ve seen, this could have been like a long-running Broadway show that you set up and it would just run for months and months if they wanted. I was curious about the filming of everything. Was it always very common to do that?
Payne: It was always part of the process to document everything, often times just for reference sake, so that we could compare what happens from one day to the next. All in the efforts of honing the ideas to be the best they could, so fortunately, like every other process, the cameras were rolling, which is thankfully how we were able to construct this movie.

CS: Who originally came up with the idea to do this? You obviously had spent a lot of time getting this show together, but who said, “We should at least try to show the people what they would have seen…”?
Ortega: Well, the fans were demanding it. Immediately after Michael had died, while we were all just really arrested with the tragedy of it, in the midst of creating the memorial and really just in slow motion moving to the surreality of what had happened, the fans who were also going through their own tremendous agonies over the loss of Michael but also, at the same time saying, “We had tickets. We must know what was it? What were you doing? Please please…” They were begging in the thousands from all over the world in every language, “Please, please, please let us know what Michael was doing. Share with us, anything. Don’t you have anything?” So the estate that represents the better interests of Michael, his family picked up on that and they came to us and said, “We need to do this.” At first, we were all like, “Huh?” But thankfully, we all agreed together that this was… we’ve said that this was an honor project, not a glory project, and that this was about a calling. It was like our responsibility to recognize that the journey was not over, and that we had to step it up and pull it together and find a way to become objective enough to be able to do it. It was very difficult, but we kept each other in the room, we kept each other up…
Bearden: A lot of tissue moments, a lot of tissue moments.
Ortega: We had to take some walks.
Bearden: Yeah.
Payne: And this was Michael’s greatest work, and he was so very passionate about it. He knew that this was a time to return to the stage and remind people of a lot of the messages that had been woven through his music and his art for years. Peace and hope and love and protecting the planet and doing everything we could as a humanity to insure that there is an environment safe enough for future generations to inhabit. We knew from that moment on that this was so important to him. It was a journey we had all begun together that it was very important that we finished it… for and with Michael.

CS: At what point did you start going through the footage and what was involved with that because it must have been so difficult.
Bearden: Well, it was after the memorial and there was talk of a tribute concert and that was right before the bidding happened for the footage and then once Sony acquired the rights, all of the talks about tributes stopped and they brought Kenny and Travis and I in to look at this endless long string of…
Ortega: (laughs) 80 hours of footage.
Bearden: And it was quite emotional because we hadn’t deal with it at that point.

CS: Not all 80 hours at once of course.
Ortega: No, no, no, but basically, we saw enough to know that there was enough there to do something, and that was in like mid-July, and then we talked about it musically, we talked about it conceptually, and we left the editors for two weeks and gave them a conceptual plan and direction, and then they did a massive assembly and that was like six hours and we all came in and looked at that together, then we got together and talked about it, and just basically went in after that and said, “Okay, here’s the movie we want to make. We see a movie in here.”
Bearden: At one point, one of us was with MJ every day, either Travis or Kenny or I or all of us collectively, so it was a big lump of clay, if you will, that we could start to see where to chisel and we had to do it as a team, because there was so much to do, and the other thing that we did was we always considered Michael in every aspect of it, so it wasn’t only us guiding the hammer and chisel, it was MJ. I would go, “Does he like this shot here? No.” Each of us would have a moment where we actually felt Michael’s presence, so that’s what happened. We had a wonderful blueprint from Michael; he was always the architect of everything that he did, and since we were there every day, we knew what he wanted so we tried to realize his vision and try to translate that into the film.
Ortega: I have to tell you. One time, we were sitting in a room and we were looking at three different performances of rehearsal of Michael doing one song, and I was like, “I love that. How are we not going to lose that?” and Travis and I were looking at it, and I was like, “What do you think we should do?” and Travis said, “He said ‘All of them'” and I said, “What?” “He said ‘All of them.’ He told me, ‘Use them all.'” Then we realized that he was in the room, and he was talking to us and he was saying, “You don’t have to just show one of them, show them all!” At different intervals of the film, you may see Michael in one afternoon’s rehearsal of something and then in the very next song, you might see weeks of rehearsal in a compilation. We really did feel guided, we really did, we felt guided. The other thing that was in our minds and in our hearts every single day was the fans. What do they need? What is going to help them come to arrest this heartache that is inside of them. Before we would throw something out, we would say, “I dunno about that. They’re going to want that.” So we argued for them, we were like there for them.

CS: In the footage, there’s a split screen of Michael doing three different versions of how he ends one song. This show seems so planned and well-rehearsed so is there still room for improvisation when it comes to what Michael does in each song?
Ortega: These guys had to learn every song of every record. They had the whole catalogue.
Bearden: We had about 30 songs done in two weeks. I have the same sort of work ethic that MJ. He’s all work. Very kind, very gentle, a perfectionist but not in a dictatorial sense where you must do whatever he says. It’s very collaborative, but at the same time, you had to get done what he wanted to get done. We had to be at the ready for anything that he wanted to do, because he was so spontaneous and creative that way, even though he had a sense of direction. A wonderful thing that I loved about MJ is that he allowed for what we all called “creative jousting” so if there was something that I didn’t like–or not even that I didn’t like but had a different suggestion–then he would go, “Well, then make me feel that. Okay, let’s do that.”
Payne: Having performed in the “Dangerous” and “HIStory” tours with him on stage, he was a master improvisational dancer, the best I’d ever seen, and there was a lot of room for him to have a different experience every night. There were moments where he called the chunks, where he was expected to tuck in and be in unison with the dancers, and that’s what we would focus on in rehearsal, but then clearly there was room for him to have his own experience, so that it was fresh and new for him every night.
Ortega: And he always wanted you to be watchful. When you worked with Michael Jackson, you had to plug in. You weren’t the band or the singers or the dancers; you were an extension of Michael Jackson. It was an organism, and you see in the film. At one point, he goes, “No, stop. That happened too fast. Watch me!” and someone might start to say something and he would say, “Just watch me. I’ll take you there.” What it was was Michael was the conductor, and that at any given moment, he was liable to go into an improvisational moment. He was going to play the crowds, and he says it, “I might just want to shake my shoulders. I might want to just unbutton my jacket.” So basically what was happening was everybody was getting fine-tuned, plugged in, and you even see him at one point, he does a stop and he does a little hesitation to see if anybody’s going to jump the gun, a little passive/aggressive test… and no one does, and he’s got a little smirk on his face, and he knows he’s in charge and that everybody’s watching him and paying attention, and then he drops that hand and everything goes. Michael had that ability on any given night, at any given time, to switch it up. He had to be ready and the choreographer had to be ready…

CS: That sounds a lot like James Brown. I’ve seen concert footage of him where you’re really amazed that his band can keep up with him, because there’s no way they could know what he was going to do next.
Bearden: That’s funny that you say that because we actually talked about that a lot, and that’s where he got a lot of that from. It is pretty much like James Brown and Jackie Wilson and all those things he absorbed when he was a kid. He would be on the side of the stage when the brothers were playing at the Regal in Chicago, all these wonderful places that they played, and he would just listen to them and he’s looking and studying and even at age 8, he’s doing this.

CS: This movie isn’t really a concert film as it’s more behind-the-scenes…
Ortega: When we started out making the film, we did think it was going to kind of be a documentary, in that it was going to, as best we could, tell the story of the greatest show that no one ever got to see. I always put my foot down when anybody ever tried to reference it as a concert film and I’d say, “Don’t say that.” Because we were always a work-in-progress. We never were able to become the concert, the show that we had set our path on, however, the movie at some point kind of just grabbed a hold of itself and formed itself, and what we ended up with was 111 minutes that’s pretty much wall-to-wall music. The sound in this film is extraordinary. Michael worked with Paul Masi, Academy award winner that did the mixing for “Shine a Light,” the Scorsese Rolling Stones film. Really, it’s like a mosaic that lives somewhere in the middle of being a documentary and a concert film.

CS: Do you think a movie like this might have ever happened if Michael Jackson was still alive? Would he have allowed this much behind-the-scenes footage to be seen?
Ortega: We have never found a movie out there that is like this. We tried. We really wanted to find one, we wanted someone to show us something, to help us. It would have been really nice to have a reference, and I want to say, “No, I don’t think so.”
Bearden: Yeah, someone asked me that earlier and there is no reference, because even “Shine a Light” and those kinds of music films, the artist could actually go to the premiere and see it. This was never intended to be a film.
Ortega: How about that there was nobody in the arena while we were shooting it.

CS: I heard some applause during certain moments so obviously someone must have snuck in.
Ortega: 11 dancers and a few crew members that were privileged to witness it.
Bearden: Have you ever seen Michael in any video moment in an arena that big with nobody inside?

CS: I want to talk about Michael’s legacy. Obviously, he made and sold a lot of records, and now everyone is realizing we’ve lost someone great. Can you talk about that legacy and where you feel it goes from here? Do you think that his unfortunate passing will insure more people discover his music?
Payne: I think so. I think that clearly Michael’s fanbase that had been with him all these years was poised to descend on O2 and just soak it up and be with their hero, but I think of course, because of his untimely death, there’s a lot more curiosity surrounding the project. I believe that it could quite possibly reach many more people than it would have. It’s unfortunate that we had to lose him physically in the process, but I believe that he’d be happy that a greater audience are going to get to hear and see the messages that were so near and dear to his heart for all of these years that were the foundation for him wanting to return to the stage.
Ortega: And we had such reason behind everything that we were doing. Everyone that worked on this project, once we lost Michael, kind of immediately knew that he left us with this responsibility. His music’s always going to be there. His short films are always going to be there. You can look at “Dangerous,” you can rent “HIStory” or “Thriller,” but the reasons behind Michael wanting to go out and do this series and beyond–take it to India, take it to Japan, take it around the world–were plentiful, and they were deep and they were sincere, and he was really emotional behind some of it. We were there every day, coming to really appreciate and value why Michael was doing this at this stage of his life. Now he’s gone and I know I speak for all of us here and everyone involved, we know that part of the legacy we have to keep by doing everything we can to remind people of those messages that were so important to Michael. That’s how you keep someone alive. That’s how the legacy continues, and even grows, that all of us: His fans, the creative people that were privileged enough to work with him, have to remember that we have our part to do. We have a responsibility to do.
Payne: Hopefully, if people attend this film, and are able to connect with Michael again and are able to hear the messages that are so passionate to him and he was so adamant about. If each one of them goes out and does one thing each day, then that would have made him happy. I believe that starting there can affect a great deal of change, and that would be a triumph.

CS: I wish there was a movie like this when Elvis Presley passed away or when John Lennon was shot, because this puts the focus back on the music. I haven’t seen this in IMAX so how has the footage translated to the larger format, because it’s obviously very rough.
Ortega: Yeah… at first, our post-production producer came in, dancing a jig, Chantal Feghali, an amazing post-production supervisor/co-producer, she came in, “We’ve got the IMAX!” and we kind of looked at her and went, “What?!?” Because it is gritty, it is raw, it is not always so pretty.
Bearden: It was never meant to be a film.
Ortega: But in fact, all the folks that went to Seattle to work on it came back to us going, “You’re going to flip out.” You know on Halloween night, we get to see it at IMAX, they’re giving us a special screening. I hadn’t even told you yet.
Bearden: Is that right? Wow.
Ortega: I don’t know if you know but we have 15 world premieres happening simultaneously, which I’ve been told is completely unique and from Los Angeles, we’re going to be like the homebase, plugged into all 15 of those world premieres, screens everywhere, Leicester Square in London, they’re expecting thousands of people to come in at 1 o’clock in the morning. On the streets, they’re going to have big screens out there. Everywhere on the planet at the same time. We’re talking some major cities including Sydney and Tokyo and London and…
Bearden: Even Bermuda!
Ortega: Bermuda, Munich, it’s pretty exciting.

CS: As far as your own plans, Kenny, are you going to go back to working on “Footloose” now that you’re done with this?
Ortega: Woo! You know, I gotta take a minute. I really have to take a minute. I haven’t had a chance to really fully just have some personal time with the idea that Michael is no longer here. That that phone is not going to ring with some new idea, that I’m not going to be sitting across from him, talking about the movies that we were planning. These things, I’ve had to put on the backburner and just stay focused on the creative issues at hand, and I think before I do anything next, that I just want some really good alone time, and some time with my family. Because a lot has happened, and it’s going to impact my life. Michael and I weren’t just doing “This Is It” – which is enough to be doing with Michael. I mean, you come out the other side of that, having been on a journey like never before. Michael and I also had film projects in mind, so this changes the course of my life, and I just need to kind of step back and look at that. “Footloose” is out there. There are other projects in development that are out there. What’s absolute is that I’m going to put a hold on that right now.
Bearden: I echo what Kenny says. I haven’t really had time to process everything. We went straight from Michael passing to the memorial to the proposed tributes to the crafting of the film, to the funeral. Like he says, I’m still going to miss the alone time with Michael just talking about simple things like grits or anything stupid that we would talk about, but what I am going to do is that I’m the new musical director for George Lopez’s new talk show that’s going to come out on TBS four nights a week starting November 9. What I was able to do was get a couple of the guys that were in MJ’s band and who weren’t working–when Michael passed, the work stopped for them–so I was able to get them into a new fold and we’ll still be able to create and do things, which I was happy I was able to do. In this tragedy, came some light for them. I never stopped working on this, but this is something I can do. I’ll still need some alone time to be with my family and I’m going to take that time, but I’m going to embrace this new project, and George was gracious enough that I think he said he wants us on to talk about this when the film is out.
Payne: Fortunately, we had the opportunity to assemble this film with Kenny leading the way, and that’s all supporting each other, and it began a healing process for us. It proved very helpful and cathartic to be able to sit there with the footage and still be with Michael. I hope that his fans will feel that way, too, that they have him back for a while, and to celebrate him now. I think that the world has mourned for so long, and I’m not at all suggesting that we forget him, but I think it’s time to celebrate him and do the work. I think he would want to connect with his fans, get these messages out there, and smile down from heaven that change is actually happening because of his work.

Michael Jackson’s This Is It opens on Wednesday, October 28.

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