Kenny Ortega: Michael Jackson was ready to triumph in London
Kenny Ortega, director of "Michael Jackson‘s This Is It,"
@ the Chicago Ritz-Carlton hotel .
(Tribune photo by Terrence Antonio James)
Kenny Ortega was hesitant to take on the ‘This Is It’ film, but felt it was his responsibility
"Michael Jackson’s This Is It"was not supposed to be it.
"I am sorry there had to be a movie," says Kenny Ortega of his latest
feature-length film. "This is not the way I wanted to tell this story."
But death brings incontrovertible finality, even for a global icon like
Jackson. Whatever it says on the contracts, whatever the desires of the
nervous executives controlling the budgets, whatever the desires of the
loyal fans, all further live appearances get canceled. Only recorded
And from the moment on June 25 when Jackson was pronounced dead in Los Angeles
— rendering moot the final preparations for the London series of
Jackson comeback concerts Ortega was directing — this was a film that
Ortega, who owes Jackson a good hunk of his career (he directed
Jackson’s concert tours in the ’90s) and who loved him from the bottom
of his heart, had no choice but to make.
For one thing, there were at least three sources of footage from the rehearsals for these concerts, slated to begin in July.
The first was from a two-camera crew that originally was creating an
archival record of the process for Jackson’s personal use. "Michael
documented everything," Ortega says. "The way we started constructing
this show was by looking at his old documentary footage." The second was the interactive, 3-D films that had already
been made by Jackson and Ortega, and that were intended to be shown on
the massive high-definition screen planned for the O2 arena. The third
was material shot by a separate crew that was filming documentary-style
footage — interviews and the like — that would have been an addendum
to the likely movie version of the live Jackson London concerts, had
they gone well.
Had they gone at all.
So there was footage. There was, demonstrably, massive public demand —
there are well-considered predictions that "This Is It," which opens in
theaters the evening of Oct. 27 and is slated for a two-week limited
run, will likely have the most lucrative opening of any movie in
history. There were business interests from those (most notably the
concert promoter, (AEG Live)
looking to recoup some of their massive costs for the aborted concerts.
And there was a desire by the Jackson estate to get such a film made,
thus benefiting Jackson’s children, among others. The result was a
reported $60 million deal between the Jackson estate, AEG Live and Sony
Pictures, the company making the movie and the recipient of all of that
footage. The footage is being closely guarded to stoke interest in the
film. Only the briefest of clips have been released.
Sony wanted Ortega at the creative helm.
"I didn’t raise my hand to make this film," says Ortega in a Chicago
hotel room on Friday. "I wouldn’t have come up with this idea even. The
idea of creating a film out of these remnants came from the estate. I
said no. No thank you. I can’t. I’m too emotional. It’s too soon."
But it quickly dawned on Ortega that the movie was going to be made
with or without him. After all, he didn’t own the footage or control
where it went or how it was shaped.
"This is sacred documentation of Michael Jackson’s last theatrical endeavor," Ortega says. "I am in it. And to have put
that in the hands of someone else, however fine and sensitive a
filmmaker, would have been irresponsible."
And so Ortega made the decision to do the film and use it as a tool to
pay tribute to Jackson and to show the world what those concerts would
have looked like had they been completed. "We have taken these
remnants, some of which are better than others, and created a mosaic
that will show what Michael was trying to accomplish."
And what was that? Ortega says Jackson’s rationale for the concerts was
a mix of a desire to give something back to his fans, to bring
attention to the various environmental and peacekeeping causes that
Jackson cherished, to get back in the live game after a decade-long
absence, and, most of all, a wish to show his beloved children what
their dad really did for a living.
Thus, the narrative arc of the movie is a replication of what would
have been the narrative arc of the concert. Songs appear in the same
order. Ortega says Jackson had rehearsed almost everything in the show.
The brief clips made available suggest he was still very much
performance-capable and wholly recognizable as the iconic performer
ticket-buyers were hoping to see.
"We were just a couple of numbers away," Ortega says. "We were ready
for Michael to step into ‘Dirty Diana.’ He’d already been part of the
conceptualization of the number. On the afternoon of the day he died,
he was going to step into the number. And then we still had to do the
‘We are the World’ and the ‘Heal the World’ sequence. We had the
skeleton, but we were going to put those together in London because
there were children’s choirs involved." Other than that, Ortega says,
Jackson had rehearsed everything and can now be seen doing so.
The film is unlikely to reveal much about Jackson’s health or his state
of mind, and it contains no sops to his detractors. For one thing,
Sony’s deal with the estate prohibits footage that portrays Jackson in
a negative light. But deal or no deal, Ortega has no interest in such
footage. "Michael was one of the best people I have ever met," Ortega
says. "He was innocent, but not naive. And he had been put through
hell. … When Michael Jackson invites you in, you invest yourself in
taking care of him. We were the builders. He was the architect. We’re
tried to make a film that we think Michael would enjoy."
Then again, Ortega is not naive. He says there were days when he
worried about Jackson’s health. "We did not live together," Ortega
says. "We did our work and we went home. I wasn’t with him 24 hour a
days. I would ask him if he (was) eating. There were days when I felt
he wasn’t getting stronger."
Asked point-blank if he was certain that Jackson would have triumphed
at O2, Ortega paused for a moment, and then said that he was a nervous
director and had only become truly confident at the end of the
"He wasn’t nervous at any point. Remember, he’d been doing this, these
epics, since he was a baby. He knew life has obstacles, life has
stakes. … But that last couple of nights, he’d kicked into a new
gear. He’d made us all believers.