Kenny Ortega Interview: The Magic Behind the Movie DESCENDANTS
The above photo might be a tad bit blurry, but let me tell you why. Kenny Ortega is SO animated and passionate about his work, that he doesn’t sit still for a second. (for real!) I went with this photo for my header because I love how it truly shows his excitement and love for the work that he does, and let me tell you (in case you are unaware): this guy is beyond talented. Even better, he is so humble! Best known for directing Hocus Pocus, the High School Musical trilogy and Michael Jackson’s This Is It, his resume is beyond impressive!
Yet…Kenny Ortega is just so down to earth and REAL. And honestly. He’s magic.
It’s not everyday that someone so talented sits down to “chat” and share his thoughts and ideas. I literally could have listened to him talk for hours. We had just seen the film prior to Kenny Ortega sitting down with us, so there was a lot of excitement in the room because I think that most of us were surprised at how much we loved this film. I hadn’t expected to be so moved by this film! I mean, I knew my kids would flip, but as an adult, I didn’t expect to LOVE this film. Well. I LOVE this film. It is such a feel good movie, and of course, it has all of the things that I love: Disney, villains, back stories but more than anything: incredible casting, and an amazing combination of music and dance. Clearly, that is what Kenny Ortega brings.
When asked what it is that helps him to bring dances to life, Kenny answered:
Years and 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, you know: singing, dancing, acting, directing, choreographing. You know, 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 that came into my life as mentors and teachers and friends.
I’m always looking — when I’m reading a script or when I’m pitched an idea — for those things that live in the center of the big picture. Things 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. 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. Part of my work is already accomplished. The writer has established that characters go from here to here and this is what happens in between. Now you want to 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.
“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.” ~Kenny Ortega
On why this musical hold the most special memories for him…
I mean that here I was a kid that grew up watching Disney and watching Disney animations, Cruella Deville, Maleficent, you know, all of these magnificent Walt Disney characters and suddenly they were on the page, you know, and I was like I’m being invited to be able to like play with these iconic heritage characters and their offspring, you know, to develop brand new characters, you know, for Disney.
Kenny Ortega’s favorite dance number?
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 London town under the bridge, that darker underworld. 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, what this place is.
“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, what this place is.” ~Kenny Ortega
This happens to be one of my favorites from the movie as well! Trust me, your kids are going to flip over these musical numbers!! Another awesome dance number in the film is to another old favorite: Be Our Guest. So we asked Kenny Ortega
What made you decide to make the Be Our Guest musical such a standout scene in the movie?
You saw that. I had a certain amount of days to be able to realize this entire movie and budget that I had to work with the days that I had for that particular whole sequence out doors in the garden, the family party, the family day, all the way down to the crochet field and to Queen Lea mistaking Mal for Maleficent. For all of that I had a day.
I had to storyboard everything out very, very carefully for this movie and the studio agreed with me that they thought Be Our Guest would be a wonderful sort of edition to that moment, but because of the time that I had, the practical way to approach it would be just to have it going on in the background. And I devised a way with my assistants and the cast and our crew to figure out a way to get it all in the time that we had. Our schedule actually opened up a little bit and I was able to get a day and I think a quarter and I think that quarter made a difference in being able to go in and shoot that piece or to just have it happening in the background. Choices, tough choices that you have to make.
What about creative license?
You know, I think that I step into my role as a director when the cameras are ready to roll with a good understanding. I’m on the same page with all of my partners. We all understand what our goals are and what we want to accomplish and if I ever find myself suddenly with a spontaneous idea or an actor is coming back to me and wants to try something I’ll do it a couple of ways because at the end of the day this is a partnership and that you want to deliver something that everybody is excited about and believing in.
The last thing you want is somebody to go why did you do that? I have a great trust and relationship here and I’m given a lot of freedom, a big voice and a lot of room to move.
It’s kind of a love story, but no kissing …
was that a conscience decision?
*and thank you in advance says this mama!
Absolutely! Leave something, you know. There’s too much pressure put on that aspect of relationships. Get to know somebody, you know, get to really know somebody. That was a conscience decision and also I just think that we all have hopes that perhaps this might grow. You don’t know. You can’t predict, but it allows these children to mature into young adults and to blossom in ways that they’re not there yet.
The Cast. Kenny Ortega on how they came to be.
I tell you. I worked with Kristen Chenoweth. I directed her before and I’m in love with her and 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. I blush! She sends me videos and I drop the phone. 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 and he said what do you think of Kristen Chenoweth to play Maleficent? I was like what? It was: yes I wanna work with her in any capacity! But can you imagine what she’d do with this? She’s so brilliant! She’s so versatile, so capable.! You know, she’s so 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!
“Gary Marsh called me and said and he said what do you think of Kristen Chenoweth to play Maleficent? I was like what? It was: yes I wanna work with her in any capacity!” ~Kenny Ortega
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.
“The fact that they kept coming back, was a part of what helped me to realize that they were in it to win it and that whatever it took for them to land these roles.” ~Kenny Ortega
And these kids. I can’t say more about them. You know, we took our time. We put them through heck. I mean some of them auditioned, you know, eight, 12 times back again, back again, back again! The fact that they came back and didn’t just say oh, forget it, you know. The fact that they kept coming back, was a part of what helped me to realize 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. 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.
If you could work with anybody who you haven’t worked with who would it be?
Wow, Meryl Streep. Janet Jackson, Bruno Mars, George Clooney and I would love to work with Christian Bale again. There are a lot of people, a lot of people out there. There’s so much talent in the world, Broadway talent.
Your fans want to know will there be a sequel?
It’s up to them. You ask for it, you get it! I would love there to be one. I think I can speak for everyone from Kristen, to Dove, all of us. We have the times of our lives. We hope that there’s an opportunity for us to continue this and, you know, forward but the fans will have to be the deciding factor.
“We hope that there’s an opportunity for us to continue this and, you know, forward but the fans will have to be the deciding factor.” ~Kenny Ortega
I know that I am REALLY hoping for a sequel, and I can’t wait for all of you to see this film. It is so full of life and energy and music and dance and all of the things that the world needs more of!!
For more updates and information about Kenny Ortega make sure to follow the Kenny Ortega instagram page where he frequently updates fans on current projects, Kenny Ortega family events, and even updates from time to time about his two dogs Prince Harry and Prince Willie. He also quite often posts beautiful memorial updates about the late Cameron Boyce who played such a big role (Carlos) in the Descendants franchise.
Disney’s DESCENDANTS aires on the Disney Channel on July 31st!
Make sure to check out our other Descendants posts and coverage. For Dove Cameron fans, make sure to check out my post about my time on the set of Liv & Maddie!
Can’t wait for the movie? The Isle Of The Lost by Melissa de La Cruz is a prequel to the upcoming Disney Channel movie DESCENDANTS. It is a great read to give you the facts and introduce you to these characters!
About Isle of the Lost: Evil tree. Bad Apple?
Twenty years ago, all the evil villains were banished from the kingdom of Auradon to the Isle of the Lost–a dark and dreary place protected by a force field that makes it impossible for them to leave. Stripped of their magical powers, the villains now live in total isolation, forgotten by the world.
We just finished reading this and it has us even MORE excited for this movie! You can order this book now on Amazon for $10.70 and it gets GREAT reviews.
You can also pre-order the movie DESCENDANTS on Amazon now as well, which I highly recommend. Orders will arrive on July 31st when you select free 2-day shipping at checkout!
Meet the author – Keri Lyn
The creative and frugal mind behind She Saved for over 12 years now, Keri Lyn shares her adventures in parenting along with her love for family travel, country living and brand marketing. A self-proclaimed “brand loyalist”, Keri Lyn is known for her strong and enthusiastic voice when it comes to the products and brands that she loves. She Saved has become a community for like-minded consumers who appreciate saving money, time and sanity by getting the best deals on quality products and experiences.
I LOVE your post, thank you for sharing. He is beyond talented and I have watched his work for years. So happy to know that this is family friendly and that you give it 2 thumbs up, my girls are going to flip!
I’m sorry but is that a phone stuck down in the middle (boobs) of that lady’s shirt front and center of this photo? Sometimes I wonder why these people don’t class it up more when it comes to these events. Sorry Keri Lyn – you and Koupon Karen look darling – but that’s so tacky. Poor Kenny. Back on topic – love your post and I have loved and admired Kenny since Hocus Pocus! I always look forward to your trip posts!