How Mandy Moore (No, Not That One) Combined ASL and Dance in 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist'

Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist_Mandy Moore_Inset - Publicity - H 2020
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC; Marcus Ingram/Getty Images

Choreographer Mandy Moore — no, not that one — has created some of the most memorable dance scenes in film and TV over the past decade or so. She's responsible La La Land's massive freeway number, along with Jimmy Fallon's Golden Globes spoof of it. Her latest endeavor is as executive producer and choreographer of the NBC musical dramedy Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist, where she's worked with creator Austin Winsberg from the beginning to shape the visual language of the series, which airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

This Sunday's episode features the show's most ambitious dance yet, a massive, lyric-less dance to Rachel Platten's "Fight Song" starring a deaf actress and a crew of deaf dancers from across the country. While the planning and casting took months and involved a nationwide search for deaf talent in conjunction with the Los Angeles-based Deaf West Theatre Company, Moore had less than three days to work with her cast before they filmed the touching scene.

Moore spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about "Fight Song," the added responsibility of choreographing and executive producing on a series and what she's been doing to keep busy while locked down at home.

You've been involved in the series since before the pilot. How did you come on board so early?

That's key, right? Austin and I ran into each other at a meeting for another project. I hadn't seen Austin in a long time, because I didn't realize that he was actually in the wedding party dance that I choreographed for one of his really good friends like 15 years ago. It was in my first couple years of So You Think You Can Dance. So he was in that number, and I hadn't seen him since then. And we were at the lunch and he [reminded me] and we connected. A week later, he reached out to me and said, “Hey, I have this pilot that's going to get picked up and I'd love for you to read it. If you're interested, I'd love to chat more about it and see if you want to be involved.” Of course, I read the pilot script and it was so magical, so great. I was like, "Yeah, I'm in, of course." It had, like, five musical numbers in it.

I met up with Austin and our director, Richard Shepard, and from the beginning we, as a trio, crafted the visual language of Zoey's, and how dance was going to live in this world was really unique. It wasn't really how it's usually done, I would say, in episodic. I was very fortunate to be on the ground floor with that. I'm on the producing team, and as a choreographer you don't get to do that a lot. A lot of the time you're handed something after it's already been in that creative bubble, and you're kind of just asked to facilitate. I really love working with Austin and being invited into that very early planning stages of things. It makes my job not only easier, but just a lot more multi-dimensional and a lot more fun, honestly.

The way each musical number is chosen for the show seems like a collaboration between the Austin, the writers, and the actors. What kind of input did you have?

I usually get the outline and the outline has, I would say, probably 80 percent of the songs in it, and then every once in a while he'll call me and be like, “Oh, my gosh, I really need something for Leif (Michael Thomas Grant) in this moment and I cannot think of a song.” So I'll suggest something. Our tastes in music is very similar; we're the same age, so we grew up on the same kind of music and really enjoy the same kind of music. So every once in a while he'll ask me for my opinion about that, but more it's that once those songs are chosen, he and I have this creative concept meeting where we talk about the conceit for the numbers. That's where you get that really great collaboration, where he says, “Well, I see something kind of like this,” and then I'll riff off of that and go like, “Oh, what if they did something like this” and these big ideas start to take shape. A big part of Zoey's is that each one of these people are so different and these songs are their heart songs and what they're feeling in the moment. So they have to feel different for every moment. We can't have the exact same thing happen every time because people are obviously very different. They feel different things in different ways. That process is so fun with him, though, because that's the real creative juices flowing moment, which is so fun.

What's different about being able to work as an executive producer on the bigger picture versus just being brought in to facilitate, as you said before?

Honestly, I think if I had a producer credit or not it would still be this way on Zoey's just because of the way that Austin and I work together. But as a producer, you're a part of that team that is in charge of building the world. A lot of times as a choreographer, especially in episodic, if you're not in on the ground floor with it or not the season’s choreographer, you can maybe just be brought in to choreograph a scene, and you might be brought in a day before you shoot it. That creative process is so truncated because you're just given a script and a little bit of time and some music to make something happen. But what's so awesome about Zoey's and being on that producing team and being a choreographer for the season is that you're in the trenches, you're making the decisions way out from shooting. You're not just facilitating something, you're a part of that actual creative brain that is making it all happen.

This episode has a beautiful American Sign Language dance to "Fight Song." When did you know that the character was going to be deaf and how did the show cast her?

One of Austin's favorite things — and he'll say this, too, if you ask him — is he really loves to challenge me. He likes to hear what I'm going to say when he says something crazy to me. A couple of months before we actually shot it, he called me one day and said, "I know what we're going to do for [episode] nine — Howie’s daughter is deaf. And we are going to do this beautiful ASL number with dance and ASL. And I want no lyrics." I was just like, "Oh, that sounds amazing." And then I had a minor, like, sweating panic attack inside. I don't know ASL. My first thing I asked is, do you want all the performers to be deaf? Or can they learn ASL? Can they be dancers that learned ASL? In my heart, I knew what he was going to say. This can't be people that can hear doing ASL. This needs to be deaf performers. So I was, like, "Geez, how am I going to cast this?" That was the biggest thing.

He had a contact somehow to the guy who runs Deaf West, DJ [Kurs], and we reached out to him very early in the process to get them involved. [We] wanted someone that was really going to help us be respectful of the language. You really need someone who's an ASL master to be [in charge of] that because there's a lot of different ways that you can communicate in ASL and number one, we want to be respectful and do it justice, and put a storyline out there that that is real and that means something to people. So we reached out to him and early on he cast his net out to his contacts all over the country. I asked if he could have the performers self-tape themselves signing to "Fight Song" and gave them a little bit of direction about how I wanted them to move their bodies a little bit. Between the two of us, we chose 10 of those performers to be the deaf performers in the college along with Abigail [the deaf character played by Sandra Mae Frank whose heart song the audience hears].

Now Sandra was actually hired by our L.A. casting office by Robert Ulrich, and she's incredible. She really is an incredible actress, but also just so passionate about the deaf community and performing as and how ASL is portrayed on television. It's a really big deal for her and the community. I worked alongside with her once they once they were all cast. They're from all over. They were from Texas, D.C., L.A., New York, and they all flew to Vancouver. I had two days of rehearsal with them to basically put the number up on its feet and rehearse it in the space and then we shot that third day. It was a really fast turnaround, honestly.

The amount of preproduction I did on that thing too, prior to it — I actually did fly to L.A. and worked with DJ and three of the performers to kind of have an ASL workshop to decide how we were going to meld together ASL and dance. I found out very early that dance can really stomp on ASL, funny enough — if you do too much of it, or you do a gesture that maybe feels good to me as a dancer, but that says something different with ASL. That was tough. It was really hard to find that kind of marriage where you can be, like, okay, they are performing in this moment, and they're adding a little bit of dance, but no one's doing, like, kicks and turns and leaps while doing ASL. That's not our world.

It sounds like you have a very truncated window for a lot of things. It's a lot to do in a short period of time.

Yes. That's television, man — our turnaround is no joke.

You're also working with performers with varying dance abilities in the main cast, as well. Has that made things harder, or is it maybe easier because you can mold people? Who has taken to it the best who may not have considered themselves a dancer before?

The beauty of Zoey's and what I was drawn to initially anyways was that dance and song could live in a lot of different ways and worlds. It doesn't have to be perfect dance and it doesn't have to be perfectly sung. It just has to feel like the emotion that's trying to be portrayed. A long time ago as a choreographer I realized that it's better if I could walk in the room and accept people for who they are and try to find what is best about the way they move naturally than try to impose what I want it to be on their bodies. As a choreographer, there's a lot of different ways you can go at dance; you can say "I need it exactly like this" and you can drill somebody until it looks exactly like that. Or you can see how the melding of how you want it and how they naturally do it comes together.

I've found with actors, especially if I can be really clear about the intention of what I want and how I want to physicalize it, it just comes out of their bodies. There's obviously certain things that I have to drill or have to go like, "Okay, you have a hard time stepping on your left," so I coach them through that. But a lot of it, we really work together and we create the vocabulary of movement together. I don't have enough time to fight for days because I just want it to be a certain way. I also have to give a little bit as a creator. For the last episode, Jane [Levy] had six numbers to learn. And she's a great mover. She doesn't necessarily move exactly the way I move every time, but I'm very inspired by the way she moves. She moves like Zoey — we created how Zoey moves, so I don't have to spend so much time making her stressed out because she can't do a certain move the way I thought I wanted it to be. I want to see how Zoey wants to do it, how Jane wants to do it, and then go from there.

What are some of your favorite numbers coming up in the rest of the season?

In [episode] 10, there's this really awesome dance battle that I don't want to tell you too much about, but it is so fun and one of the most dance-y things we did all season. In the finale, the last number of the whole thing is something that I think I will forever be really, really proud of. It's interesting because it's not really dance, but it is, you know? That's how this whole thing, Zoey's, is. Sometimes even the thing that you don't think is dance was completely timed and choreographed with the camera and the performance and was worked on with the emotion. We do a really incredible number at the end that involves the whole cast that hopefully people will really feel something from, because I know all of us on set, we were just, like, "Uhh, I think we just did that? This feels very weird, I think that just happened."

How are you kind of keeping busy at home? Are you dancing it out? Are you getting a little restless?

I'm kind of all of the above, I'm not gonna lie. I definitely moonwalk through my kitchen multiple times a day. My sister's living with me, so we're together and doing a lot of — we have to take a second and figure out life and be, like, "Okay, whoa — how are we doing this?" What's been really nice is doing interviews, or I teach at Pace University. So I've been doing those classes online with my kids and digitizing VHS, CDs and DVDs, which has been hysterical. Like, really trying to make all my old 1986 dance recitals into a video file, which has been hysterical. And then just trying to be grateful. This is a tough time for a lot of people. So just trying to lay low and keep a smile on my face.