On June 25, Michael Jackson's longtime collaborator Kenny Ortega had little time to comprehend his friend's death, let alone grieve over it. Hollywood's hottest choreographer-director went from preparing Jackson's 50-date London concert series to setting the paces of the pop icon's star-studded memorial to directing the behind-the-scenes film of Jackson's rehearsals for the ill-fated tour. This Is It opens on Oct. 28 for a limited two-week run with a simultaneous premiere in 15 cities around the world. Ortega spoke to TIME about the film, which he calls "the last sacred footage of a real master at his craft."
When you first heard the news of Jackson's death, you thought it was an Internet hoax.
We were there waiting for Michael at the rehearsal. The night before he had said, "I'll see you tomorrow, and I love you all." He was very happy. We were rehearsing a big moment of the show that Michael was really excited about: an illusion we had designed together with one of David Copperfield's illusion builders. It was a big day for us. We had two incredible rehearsals the night before where Michael had stepped it up. There was a whole new energy in the room. For me, the news was just an internal collapse. Some people there had been with Michael since he was a kid. You can imagine the sorrow and the shock that all of us felt. It was a difficult, sad and dark day.
Jackson never wanted to be just a version of himself onstage. Is he at the top of his game in the film?
Oh yeah. You see it. It's effortless. These dancers were half Michael's age and younger, yet he was still blowing them away. It was wonderful to watch. He was the dance. I've never seen anyone better than Michael at telling their body to just accept the music and allow their soul to take over. There are moments in the film when he's jamming, and it's just gorgeous.
You've worked with everyone from Gene Kelly to Patrick Swayze. How does Jackson compare?
Patrick Swayze reminded me a lot of Gene Kelly. Patrick had that Everyman quality. Gene made dancing sort of an accessible idea for the regular guy out there. I felt Michael Jackson was inspired a little bit more from the elegance of a Fred Astaire. Michael loved Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown and Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. But he wasn't any of those people. To be inspired is one thing, but he made it all his own.
The turnaround was pretty amazing on this film, wasn't it?
When I was first asked to direct this, [Sony] said they wanted it for Michael's birthday [Aug. 29], and I said, "No, thank you. That's not going to happen." If you were talking Halloween, which was Michael's favorite holiday, I might be able to connect with that. We started at the end of July, and I turned the movie over to them in early October. We worked seven days a week every single week. We were able to accomplish a lot in a labor-of-love project.
That's a lot of Red Bull.
I'm a Diet Pepsi man myself. And I like a good strong cup of coffee on hour 14½.
You trimmed 120 hours of footage to 111 minutes. Is the 111 some Michael numerology thing or purely a Mayan sign of the apocalypse?
That's fun. I do like that number. Michael was the one and No. 1. I'm going to put that on my Twitter. Everywhere I look, there's meaning being read into it. People can't help themselves when it comes to Michael Jackson.
Security around this film was so tight that armed guards brought a clip to Oprah. What kind of heat were they packing?
I didn't see anyone packing heat on Oprah. She did say that, though, didn't she? Yeah, like it was a guy with an Uzi and a couple of hand grenades. No, but we had security all the time whenever we were transferring anything even from one building to another building at Sony. Whenever you went into any place where there was Michael Jackson footage at Sony, it was like going through Homeland Security.
What's the one moment you witnessed during the concert preparation that you wished you had filmed?
I don't know if you want it on film, but it's something I'll run through my head for the rest of my life. I was in his dressing room one night going over some artwork, and Michael was behind me saying my name, at first very softly: "Kenny, Kenny." I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I'm saying your name. Am I saying it right?" Michael was from Indiana, and the way he said my name wasn't quite like anyone else. I guess the reason he questioned it was because I always smiled when he said it. I said, "Of course you're saying my name right. I love the way you say it. When you say my name, it makes me smile." And he said, "Good when I say Kenny, it means 'friend.' " He was a special man.