This week sees the release of Michael Jackson’s This Is It, the much-anticipated behind-the-scenes 3-D concert movie constructed from 100 hours of footage of rehearsals for Jackson’s aborted tour. Last Thursday, Vulture visited the Waldorf Astoria suite of Kenny Ortega, the tour’s director who was drafted to helm the film following Jackson’s death.
How did you first meet Michael Jackson?
He called me, just out of the blue. My goddaughter, Jennifer, was at the house and she picked up the phone and she screamed, “Some guy on the phone says he’s Michael Jackson!” And I was like, “Oh my God, what if it is?” So I grabbed the phone, “Hello.” And it was his voice and he said, “No one ever believes it’s me.”
How did you find out about Michael’s passing?
We were in rehearsals awaiting his arrival when these calls came in — what we thought were rumors that were circulating. There were so many rumors surrounding Michael all the time, and you just moved through it. Then as I looked around — we were a big company; on any given day there would be 150 people in the arena — everybody was on their phone. I was like, this is really happening.
Did you personally see any warning signs?
No, no. Michael was tired sometimes because he didn’t have great sleeping habits. Whether those are connected to his ultimate demise or not, I don’t know. It wasn’t This Is It that had any negative impact on Michael Jackson. It was nourishing him. It was an inspirational time in his life.
The speculation was that 50 shows were too many for him …
The people creating these speculations? They don’t know what they’re talking about. They never [pointed out] that he’s doing 50 shows over six months. That’s one to two shows a week.
Whose idea was the film?
The estate that represents the Michael Jackson integrity …
And your first reaction?
No! Way too soon! I was emotionally devastated. No way, in my mind, as a professional, could I imagine myself having the creative objectivity to go in and make a film considering what we have all been through. [AEG Live CEO] Randy Phillips asked me if I would at least come in and look at the footage. When I looked at the footage it became apparent this wasn’t about whether or not I wanted to do something: It was my responsibility. The journey wasn’t over; the gig wasn’t finished.
Looking back at your career, it’s been a tough few months for you with the deaths of John Hughes and Patrick Swayze, as well as Michael.
Three guys that were tremendous friends and who impacted my creative life enormously. Working with Patrick Swayze [in Dirty Dancing], this was the Gene Kelly of our generation; he made dancing accessible for every guy. And John Hughes made me a director. He put me on the streets of Chicago and had me as the second-unit director for Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with the wonderful musical scene with the parade.
Then you’re the man to ask: How does Ferris Bueller get on that float without being arrested?
You know that we were really in a parade, right? John said, “We’ve been given permission to plug into a real parade.” We had a float parked on a street, and at one moment all the cameras were given the go and that float moved into the street. Matthew [Broderick] came out of the crowd, jumped up onto it, and we were filming him in a live parade environment.
If Michael hadn’t died, do you really believe that this would’ve been it?
You can’t put it out of the realm of possibility. But he did say to me, “I don’t want to be old and out there doing what I used to do great that I can’t do anymore.”