In three words, Michael Jackson said it all – This Is It. It was a phrase that was meant to usher in a new beginning for him – but ended up being his final farewell.
Director Kenny Ortega, Jackson’s longtime creative partner and the director of the show, This Is It, that was to open this summer in London’s O2 Arena, has brilliantly taken the hundreds of hours of footage from the March to June rehearsals, and masterfully constructed them into a documentary that captures the show that the fans never got to see on stage.
I spoke with Kenny Ortega a few hours ago, it was Wednesday October 28 in Los Angeles, the morning the day the movie opened around the world…
When did you have that aha moment that maybe you could put all of this footage into a film?
There wasn’t an aha moment. In fact, I was a wreck. My first reaction was, ‘I don’t want to do this.’ And I really am serious about that. All I did was I promised to come and look at the footage to offer an opinion as to whether or not I thought there was enough information there where it could be made into a film.
As I started to look at the footage, I became haunted and I thought, ‘How could I let anybody else touch this? This is like the last documentation of Michael Jackson and it’s sacred, and I’m there and we’re doing it together.’ It was a moment where I became overwhelmed and I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ And I felt this tremendous weight of responsibility, and it was scary, and I started thinking consequences and what if I don’t do it right? I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t think.
Thankfully the creative team that I worked with Michael with slid over into the movie project with me, we had this enormous support from Sony, and then it just became about bringing Michael into the situation with me, like, ‘Don’t leave me now.’ And keeping focused on the fans.
The fans were the reason why I could make this film, they had questions, they needed to know what Michael had planned for them; they were traveling from all over the globe to get to London to see him. It was hard, that’s why I call it a mosaic, because it was like a jigsaw puzzle sometimes, trying to find the pieces to put together to be able to tell the story, because we never had planned to make this a movie.
Which song do you think he had the most fun doing?
He was excited about so much of the show. He was really excited about the 3-dimensional aspect that we were bringing into to the concert with the four 3D films that were going to be woven into the show. He was especially excited about Thriller, it was the anniversary of Thriller, and he was going to give the arena audience a 4D experience, that’s what he referred to it as.
The world’s largest HD-3D screen was going to have this incredible film footage on it, we were going to have a stage filled with effects and dance, and then coming off the stage was this dry ice [effect] moving into the arena, and then he had elements coming out of the ceiling, down the aisle and so in the midst of Thriller.
You were going to have this experience that was happening above you, around you, behind you, in front of you and even behind what was in front of you.
He said, ‘If the audience goes home at the end of this concert and they can go to sleep, we’ve failed. They should stay awake, texting, emailing and talking about this show until the sun comes up, and after that. It has to be that much fun for them.’
Was ‘This is it’ something he said to you, because that’s such an ironic title?
All kinds of people were putting ideas in front of him, and Michael kept saying to me, ‘There’s not enough reason behind any of the ideas, they’re not exciting me. We can’t go out because we can, we have to go out because we must.’
So when he called me he said, ‘This is it, Kenny, this is the one.’ And during that first conversation on the phone he said, ‘This is it,’ no less than five times, and I said, ‘You keep saying, ‘This is it,’ and he said, ‘This is it. This is my final curtain call,’ and I said, ‘That’s the name of the show.’
Why are you only putting this out for two weeks when you know the public want to see it?
No, we don’t know that. There’s never been a film like this. This is Michael Jackson singing in front of 18,000 empty chairs. We have this crappy video footage most of the time, the lighting was still in development, we didn’t design this, there was no script, there was no plan, there weren’t even concerts that were shot; we’d never gotten that far. But we didn’t add one thing to it. This is a pure, honest piece.
The two weeks [release] seemed to make sense, we know that there are fans out there that would rush to come and see the movie, but this is a documentary, I wouldn’t let them call it a concert film, and Sony was like, ‘Let’s put it out there for two weeks, because we really don’t know if we’re going to have anybody outside of the fan base really be drawn to it.’
I hope their arrangement with the cinemas out there is if the word-of-mouth does spread and there is an interest from a more general audience that this could be held over in a lot of markets.
We will have more on Michael’s film over the next few days.