Kenny Ortega on Disney Descendants
I have to admit that when I was invited to my most recent press trip the one thing I was most excited for was the Descendants portion of the trip. I’ve been watching for updates on this new Disney Channel Original Movie since I saw teasers online last year. Something about it intrigued me from the start, so this was epic for me. Aside from screening the movie and getting to watch DVD bonus scenes we also had the chance to interview Director Kenny Ortega. You probably know him from his role in High School Musical or Hocus Pocus or his work with world-famous Michael Jackson. Regardless of how you know his work you know he’s legendary and I had the honor of interviewing him. He was just so down to earth. He entered the room and the first thing he did was thank us for flying in and taking the time to screen the movie and do the interview with him.
The first question came from Barb, she stated that she had been a fan of Ortega’s work since Xanadu and way, way back. She wanted to know because a lot of his work is different what inspires him to making that dance for that song?
Ortega: “What inspires me is years and years ago I had the opportunity to work with Gene Kelly. Xanadu is what brought us together. Gene Kelly was someone who I grew up wanting to be like, singing, dancing, acting, directing, and choreographing. I loved all of it and we became friends. He became my mentor and he used to say to me that there needs to be a reason at the center of your ideas that motivates all of your work and so that and things that I shared with Michael Jackson and other amazing people who came into my life as mentors and teachers and friends.
Then I’m always looking when I read a script or when I’m pitched an idea for those things that live in the center of the big picture that move me, that motivate me, that excited me and they give me purpose and reason to get up and go to work every day and to have ideas. And so when music and dance become part of the storytelling it’s fairly simple for me when you can turn a page and there’s a reason for it to exist. You know, part of my work is already accomplished, that the writer has the characters go from here to here and this is what happens in between. Now you wanna develop a musical number that helps you achieve that and that not only goes for the lyrics but the feel of the music, the style of the music and what those and how the staging or choreography would be designed.”
Ortega has worked on a lot of musicals. In my circles he’s touted for his work on High School Musical and I’m a huge Hocus Pocus fan, although I didn’t know he was connected to that film until I attended this trip. Ortega stated that Descendants had very special memories for him.
Ortega: “I think perhaps it had a lot to do with when in the beginning Gary Marsh reached out to me and said ‘I’ve been waiting ever since High School Musical and our success together as a team to find something that had your name on it that would give me purpose to call you and to say come on back and so I’m sending you something tonight. Will you take a moment to look at it. I hope that you feel about it as I do’. When I read it I was blown away. I mean here I was a kid that grew up watching Disney and watching Disney animations, Cruella Deville, Maleficent, all of these magnificent Walt Disney characters and suddenly they were on the page and I was like I’m being invited to be able to like play with these iconic heritage characters and their offspring to develop brand new characters for Disney.
So right there it was like so thrilling for me and then everything that happened thereafter, the wonderful writing team that I had to work with, the openness of this studio and the support that I felt from them, five months of looking for the cast, looking in Great Britain, all through Canada, all across the United States and even as far as Australia to find our Prince. Then to show up and to realize that everyone was excited in bringing something to the day. That there are selections that landed us with a company of people, whether they be behind the camera or in front of the camera that really wanted to be there and so it was joyous, every minute of it. Every day I opened my eyes I couldn’t wait to get on the set.”
Being on set with a legend like Ortega must have been both amazing and a bit intimidating for some of the cast. Not all of them had dancing skills and I can honestly tell you the musical numbers are great in this movie. Ortega shares how it was being on set with a cast that had both dancers and non-dancers for this movie.
Ortega: “It’s something that I’ve done all along all the way back to Newsies which was my first film as a director. Christian Bale had come to us. He was not a dancer, not a singer. David Moscow and all of the leading kids were actors. Gabriel Damon, Max Casella, Marty Balasko. All these amazing kids were these amazing actors that had this sort of drive and ambition and they were ready for anything and they wanted to be challenged and they were brave and courageous kids and I felt that with these people. And that I’ve always found that like with High School Musical one and two and three we incorporated sport into choreography, sport as dance and so we would use real baseball players with actors and dancers.
What it did was the actors would raise the bar of the dancers and the athletes and all the way around it worked. So with Descendants we had kind of a factory. We had three different rooms. I had an amazing group of assistants that worked with Paul Becker, my associate choreographer and these kids were given dance class improv. They were stretched. They were given private tutoring and then also the dancers generously sort of took it upon themselves to sort of mentor the actors.
So you watched kids learn really ten times as fast as they might in an ordinary situation. Dove went from being a non dancer to being able to attack the movement as ferociously as anybody in the room. I mean and again that takes not only focus and determination but a lot of bravery. We had some brave kids working on this movie.”
One of my favorite scenes from the movie is a nod to my favorite Disney movie of all time. I won’t spoil it by telling you but I have to say I wanted to jump up and sing and dance when the scene came up in the movie. Everyone in the room gave Ortega props for adding that scene to the movie it was such a lovely spin. He admitted that the scene almost didn’t make it into the movie but they ended up with an extra day and a half and they nailed it. He said he wanted it to be a safety net for Mal (played by Dove Cameron), a point where they villain kids started to feel like they could fit in. I can’t wait for you guys to see it yourself. Ortega’s favorite scene though was the opening number “Rotten to the Core”. Disney Channel shared a sneak peek at the first six minutes of the movie, check it out below and let me know what you think of Ortega’s favorite scene to shoot in the movie.
You can see why Ortega like Rotten to the Core as much as he did. It was such a fun and edgy way to start the movie off. Someone mentioned in the interview that they felt it had moves from Thriller and while Ortega said it didn’t he did say that it does have similar energy to Thriller. Some of the cast also said it reminded them of the Michael Jackson number and Ortega said he was thrilled to be compared to any of Jackson’s work. Here’s more on what he had to say about filming the scene.
Ortega: “My favorite? I think Rotten to the Core and I’ll tell you why. I started as an actor at 13 years old and I was lucky enough to be in the original London touring production of Oliver and when I first read the script and started to imagine the world I thought of the Isle of Lost, a bit of Dickens and a little kind of old, you know, old London town under the bridge, that darker underworld and I loved the idea of being able to take Rotten to the Core, use it as character introduction and also to introduce us a bit to the island and what this place is.
And we found in a few of our screenings for young people who when we asked then after if you would prefer to visit the Isle of Lost or if you would prefer to visit Auradon where would you like to visit and the first kid raised his hand and said would we be able to leave when we wanted to? And I said of course and he said the Isle of the Lost, you know, so we made it I think a kind of fascinating and interesting world and that particular number was just lots and lots of fun to create as a choreographer and to imagine as a designer.”
Developing a musical like this one takes time and we wanted to know the time frame to plug-in the musical numbers and develop each one with a song and a dance.
Ortega: “We started out without music and dance as a part of the story. The original story was written as an action adventure comedy and I was very happy with that, very excited about that and looking forward to being a part of that. As I said to you just working with this wealth of characters was so exciting and challenging for me. And then Gary said to me I can’t believe we have you here and we’re not gonna have music and dance. And I said I’ll do it every day of my life given the chance.
So he said why don’t you do like we did with High School Musical and create an arc of how you imagine music and dance might be able to help sort of strengthen and tell story. And so Steve Vincent (VP of Music & Soundtrack at Disney Channel), our musical supervisor and I came back and presented it to Gary (President and Chief Officer for Disney Channel), Adam and Makita and that began the process and that was early on in our sort of initial development phase. Then the music goes out to a number of different composers and lyricists and I meet with them or I’m on the phone with them and I guide them in terms of what we’re looking for in terms of tone, tempo, feel and content and then we start to get material back and then Steve, the studio and myself sort through it.
We give second sets of notes, third sets of notes and that group of songs start to get smaller and smaller and smaller until we land on them. Andrew Lippa wrote Evil Like Me for Kristen Chenoweth as Maleficent in the museum and his first demo we were like that’s the song. Other times it takes a while. it could take months and then Paul and I talked about the staging and, we went into only a week of preparation for all of the music and dance in the movie where we sketched it all out with our assistants, our skeleton crew and then the actual actors all inside of three weeks learned the entire movie’s choreography. It’s unbelievable isn’t it?”
Romance is a central theme of Descendants. There’s a love story in the plot but parents can rest assured it’s kid friendly because there’s no kissing. Ortega said he purposely left that out of the movie. Feeling that there is already too much pressure placed on that aspect of relationships. It also leaves room to watch the love story grow and these kids grow into young adults. I’m hoping that means there’ll be a Descendant 2 or something that furthers the story. People are already taking about a sequel and according to Ortega it’s all up to the fans. Be sure to tweet as much as you can with the hashtag #DescendantsMovie to let Disney Channel know you want to see more of this cast and their story.
One of the reasons I love this movie is the cast and of course we wanted to know how did they come up with this cast. Ortega had already shared with us that the prince – Ben was found in Australia, so how they find the rest of the cast?
Ortega: “I worked with Kristen Chenoweth. I directed her before and I’m in love with her. I saw her four times on Broadway in Wicked. I did get to see her opening night of on the 20th Century and I’m going back for her closing night and party. I’m going to be part of the introduction of her getting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and so I’m a huge fan. But anyway, we were getting ready to cast our movie before the movie Maleficent came out and suddenly we kind of realized that Angelina was sort of taking up a lot of territory with her interpretation of Maleficent.
Gary Marsh called me and said what do you think of Kristen Chenoweth to play Maleficent? I was like what? It was not only yes I wanna work with her in any capacity but what she’d do with this. She’s so brilliant. She’s so versatile, so capable. You know, she’s such fun, a real team player and so it was a delight, you know, and I was like yes, let’s go after her and it wasn’t easy. She was a busy lady. When we finally got her to commit it was a joyous day and no one was more excited than Dove who grew up idealizing her and when Dove found out that Kristen was playing her mother in the movie I mean fireworks went off.
Kathy Nagimy is one of my favorite human beings on the planet. She is an awesome lady. We stayed friends for over 23 years since we did Hocus Pocus and she always brings something to the table doesn’t she, in everything that she does and these kids. With the kids we took our time, we put them through a lot. Some of them auditioned eight to twelve times back again, back again, back again. The fact that they kept coming back was a part of what helped me realized that they were in it to win it and that whatever it took for them to land these roles.
I mean Booboo Stewart had already done X Men and Twilight and came back eight times. You know, when they first told me what about Booboo Stewart I was like he’s not gonna come in. And Judy Taylor, our casting director, said you’re wrong, he wants to come in and not only did he come in, he came back eight times to read with other actor and actresses and what a dream he is. What a dream. Isn’t he wonderful? A real star. They all are.”
Ortega spoke so highly of this cast and how much he loved working with them all. Our next question was of course about who he wanted to work with that he hadn’t had the chance to work with before. He has a pretty nice list including Meryl Streep. Janet Jackson, Bruno Mars, George Clooney and he would love to work with Christian Bale again. I can’t believe he hasn’t worked with Janet Jackson yet and with her new project I think Ms. Jackson needs to call up Mr. Ortega.
Disney Descendants premieres on the Disney Channel on Friday, July 31st at 8 PM. Be sure to tune in and live tweet during the show using the hashtag #DescendantsMovie. Plus come back next week for my review of the movie and cast comments from Dove Cameron and Cameron Boyce.
- You Might Not Know Kenny Ortega, But You Probably Know His Choreography (wnyc.org)
- Disney Descendants Merchandise Hits Shelves! (chipandco.com)
- Photo Flash: A Devilish Kristin Chenoweth Featured in Disney’s DESCENDANTS (broadwayworld.com)