A few months ago, I had the fun opportunity to interview the creators of Disney Channel’s Descendants 2, including producer & director, Kenny Ortega. The highly-anticipated sequel to Descendants, this movie is premiering on the Disney Channel on July 21. Check out what Kenny Ortega had to say about making Descendants 2:
While in Los Angeles in April for the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 premiere, we spent half a day learning about the upcoming Disney Channel’s Descendants 2. After seeing a few sneak peaks, we spent time with the creator, Kenny Ortega. The legendary director, produced, choreographed, and directed Descendants 2. It was such an honor to be in the room with him to hear more about the movie and his creative process. As a child of the 80s and 90s, I was a big fan of his earlier work – Dirty Dancing anyone? – and I was so impressed with how easy he made it all sound:
Kenny Ortega: It’s feature work, and the kids and myself, all of us, everyone, the production designers, choreographers, music people, we get so much out of what they place there. It gives us permission to travel in the capacity that we travel in, to adventure, to journey, to play, to take chances, to sing and to dance and to develop these characters.
I think that we’re going to have the ability to reach a far greater audience, a more dynamic range of audience. We really have a movie that is family entertainment, focused on our core audience, your children, but we’ve been now living with this. It evolves, it develops, and now looking at it, I am so entertained by it.
Not just because I directed it but because it entertains me. I laugh and I’m moved and I’m touched, and I think the big surprise here is that the Disney Channel has a movie for everyone.
The Mal and Uma fight scene at the end on the pirate ship is very Hamilton-esque and obviously you pulled material from other genres and musical inspirations. What other shows or musicals did you pull from for inspiration?
Ortega: That’s a really good question and I love that you said it’s Hamilton-esque. Well, Lin-Manuel Miranda and I are really good friends and I was slated to direct his film for a minute. He is an inspiration to me in life. He’s a poet and an amazing writer.
They’re all gonna have their inspirations. For me it starts all the way back to “West Side Story” when I was 13 years old. If you think about it the Jets and the Sharks are like the Isle of the Lost and Auradon, the pirates and the villain kids. I find myself having a hard time not going there for inspiration. It’s so relevant all the time, no matter what I’m doing I can go to that movie. Jerome Robbins’s work and the performances in it are incredible. Rita Moreno won an Academy Award. So that one, but I listen to all genres of music. I love movies. Bob Fosse, Michael Jackson — there’s Michael Jackson in everything that I do.
If you’re like I am, when you watch this movie you’re going to feel a little bit of Michael. You’re gonna feel a little of the classic movie musical. You’re gonna feel a little bit of Peter Pan and the adventure of old Disney. I think that it’s an inspired piece, certainly as a director.
Also the Miranda of it, the “Hamilton” elements. I think it’s really cool that you thought of “Hamilton” because that wasn’t something that I was conscious of. What I had said to the composers about “What’s My Name” was that I wanted a hip-hop opera, and that I felt that because we were dealing with an urban crew, I wanted this to be about language and spoken word. They came back with this and it just felt so honest and organic, and it worked for both sides.
I feel like you choreographed my childhood, and now you’re doing that for the young people in my family, too. So I’m wondering how that fits into the legacy that you’re hoping to leave.
Ortega: It’s so interesting. I just had the most amazing experience. I got to talk with Doctor Jane Goodall, the scientist of primate behavior, who is now going way beyond saving the primate species for the planet and for our future generations. She’s now an activist, out there doing everything she can to leave a legacy. She talked about how important it was for her that she gave up something that she really loved for something that she felt was more important. She was not serving herself but serving a greater idea, which was that in order to save a species you have to enlighten the people that live with the species. She put the legacy of it all, which was what I left with that day. It made me audit myself and think about what it is that I do.
What I try to do always in my life and have for a long, long time is to make good choices. Entertaining people with fireworks and color and dance moves has never been something that I’ve been interested in. I’ve always been interested in those stories that are layered beneath the dance, beneath the words or beneath the music. And my choreography is always storytelling, and so there’s a story that is living inside of all that movement. I hope that my legacy one day would be that I told good stories and that they were important stories, and that there were some good stories through my choreography.
Did any of you ever see “Dirty Dancing?” That was a big part of my youth. I grew up in the ‘60s. I was born in 1950 and I was dancing in my middle-school gymnasiums. When I got the job to choreograph that movie, the director Emile Ardolino said, “What does Dirty Dancing mean to you?” and I said I just remembered when we would go to our Saturday night dances in middle school, that the teacher would come up on the stage and, and say into the microphone, “If there’s any dirty dancing out there the lights are on, the music is over and the party is off.” Sometimes we weren’t even dancing for 20 minutes and the lights came on. But for me, dance was conversation. Before I was a choreographer I danced and there were things that I couldn’t say, that I didn’t know how to say, that I was afraid to say. But I could dance them and so I could communicate through movement. And I think that was always a big thing for me – was that dance was an opportunity to communicate and to have conversation. And that’s what I love about doing it, you know?
Where the words stop on the page, the dance can continue to evolve characters, can continue to evolve relationships, can continue to tell story, so that by the time you get to the end of the dance you’re further along than you were when you started it.
Watch The Descendants 2 on Friday, July 21, 2017
The Disney Channel movie will premiere on Friday, July 21, on five networks: Disney Channel, ABC, Disney XD, Freeform, and Lifetime.
Disclaimer: Disney sent me to Los Angeles on an all-expenses paid press trip, in exchange for my coverage of Descendants 2. All opinions are my own.