'This is an Honor Project, Not a Glory Project': Director Kenny Ortega on This is It
Sony yesterday screened 12 minutes of footage from Michael Jackson's This Is It, the late pop legend's accidental valedictory and probably the most hyped documentary ever made. While I'm forbidden from revealing anything about the footage until after the film's 18,000-screen bow next Wednesday, Movieline did catch up with the more loose-lipped filmmaker (and longtime Jackson concert director) Kenny Ortega as he met the press Thursday in New York. Ortega spilled the beans about a few key moments, how he found a story in 80 hours of raw rehearsal footage, Jackson's 24-hour work week and his goals for This Is It.
ON ORGANIZING AND PARING DOWN THE FOOTAGE: "There were about 80 [hours], and those 80 broke down like this: Michael and I produced 10 films -- short little films that were going to exist withing the layout of the concert. Some of them were in 3-D: 3-D 'Thriller,' 3-D 'Earth Song,' 3-D 'Man in the Mirror.' Some of them were scenic backdrops that just sort of lived there in the backdrop during the musical production. Some of them were interactive; at one point Michael jumped out of the screen and landed on the stage, and at another part, Michael stepped into the screen, got in an airplane that turned around, came speeding down a runway and zoomed out of the screen in 3-D. So some of that 80 hours lived there.
"Another part of that 80 hours was the interviews, the behind-the-scenes, the auditions and the press conferences that we were going to use as documentation for the behind the scenes of a concert film we were going to shoot in London. Michael and I wanted to shoot the concert -- after it had opened and worked itself out -- in 3-D as a theatrical release. So we were going to have the 'making-of' footage. So now that footage was part of the 80 hours, and that also went into this movie. The last of the footage that we used were the two cameras that were there just capturing footage for our reference. [Those] are the miracle cameras. And then there was this series of lower-res cameras that were practicing, getting ready for the big-screen you see in concerts. So it was the combination of that and the two rehearsal cameras that allowed us to have all the rehearsal footage we had."
ON FINDING AN EMOTIONAL ARC IN THE FOOTAGE: "You know, there's a story there. There's a story that's alive in every frame of this film, that I didn't have to fabricate. The positive part of jumping from being in development for a concert and then being in an editing room making the film was that the story was so fresh. It was so alive in our minds and in our hearts. We had just walked out of that story: Why Michael wanted to do things, what were the reasons behind the songs, what were the reasons behind the concert itself? I got over all my fears and stepped up to the responsibility of realizing, 'Your journey's not over, Ortega, you know? This is part of it, and it's a bigger picture than you imagined.' Once I started looking over the material and started making the movie I wanted to make -- which was a film for the fans that would help them understand what Michael was trying to do with these concerts -- it was just there. It was about choices, you know? I didn't have to work hard. We didn't shoot one additional frame of material. This movie uses footage that started from Michael's press conference to the day before Michael died. We didn't add anything to it other than that, and it tells the story."
ON HIS WORK DAYS DIRECTING THE CONCERT: "My days were extremely long, because I was looking after the producing and directing of the project and wanting to make sure that all of Michael's ideas were happening. We were on a timetable: which things were being built, when were they going to show up, visiting different shops. But Michael worked four days a week on an average, and I would say no more than six hours a day. And onstage, no more than three or four hours maximum."
ON WHICH M.J. VIEWERS WILL SEE: "There wasn't a lot of extra footage of Michael that weleft out of the movie. We did our very, very best whenever we could to piece together as much of Michael as we owned into the context of the film. It's unguarded, it's raw, it's real. He's not just dancing; he's interfacing. He's communicating. He's stopping people -- 'Watch me!' He pulls the sound out of his ears at some point and says, 'I'm trying to deal with this.' You see him real and honest. It's not like we had to protect him. There's something here that's so important: To watch this guy, who's such a master, through his process is valuable. What makes me comfortable at night and when I wake up in the morning is that the very reasons Michael did the 50 shows are in this film. And they come from Michael himself."
ON THE PRESSURE TO DELIVER FOR MULTIPLE INTERESTS, INCLUDING JACKSON FAMILY, SONY, AEG, AND HIS OWN: "My only concern is that it serves the needs of the fans. I made the movie for the fans. It says, 'For the fans,' and it's dedicated to Michael's children. This is an honor project, not a glory project. This is a project that I did because I felt that it was my responsibility to protect Michael's legacy for the fans because he was no longer here to do it himself. My only concern -- the only weight of responsibility I feel -- is that I hope it's embraced in that respect. I hope it works. It's not a magic potion, it's not a pill, it's not going to bring Michael back. But hopefully it's going to serve that depth of curiosity: 'I had a ticket! I was going; what was it going to be? Please let me know; I need to know. I loved him. He was my man, I was his fan.' You know? That's it for me. That's really it for me."
Check back with Movieline on Oct. 28 for a full review of This is It.