Kenny Ortega on 'High School Musical' and His Jump to Netflix: "There's No Bridge Knocked Down"

THR_ Kenny Ortega _Photographed by Gizelle Hernandez - H 2019
Gizelle Hernandez

After beginning a career as a much-sought-after choreographer, he became the tween whisperer as the man behind two of Disney Channel's most successful franchises — 'The Descendants' and 'High School Musical.'

Kenny Ortega’s first taste of feature directing came thanks to John Hughes. Ortega had been working as an in-demand choreographer, stage and music video director for bands like The Tubes and The Pointer Sisters, when the writer-director behind The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles offered him his entry into film directing.

“I was the second unit director for the Ferris Bueller's Day Off parade sequence,” says Ortega of the musical number in the 80s classic that sees Matthew Broderick commandeer a parade float musical melody of Wayne Newton’s “Danke Shoen” and Isley Brothers' “Twist & Shout.”

Having previously choreographed Jon Cryer’s dance sequence set to Otis Redding’s “A Little Tenderness” in Pretty in Pink, Hughes asked Ortega to direct the sequence and offered his mentorship, as well as entrance into the Directors Guild. “We had to pull this float into a real, existing parade that was going on,” remembers Ortega of shooting in downtown Chicago. “We only got one shot at capturing the piece. There was no going back for a second time.”

Ortega got the shot, and would later be tapped by Jeffrey Katzenberg to direct movie musical Newsies, starring a young Christian Bale, and Halloween cult classic Hocus Pocus for Disney. When neither performed at the box office, Ortega turned his attention to television and would later spearhead two of Disney Chanel's most popular films franchises — High School Musical and The Descendants.

After decades of work with Disney, Ortega signed a rich overall deal with Netflix in April that will include a feature Auntie Claus (based on the books) and TV series Julie and the Phantoms, the latter of which is in production in Vancouver.

Ortega, who splits time between his offices in Sunset Gower and in his Sherman Oaks home of 34 years, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about his career trajectory, from choreographer to Netflix-based filmmaker.

How was making the jump from choreography and stage directing into feature directing with Newsies?

There was a lot that I didn't know. But I was working as a choreographer with incredible directors — Francis Ford Coppola and John Hughes — and I really did get an opportunity to learn from cinematographers like Vittorio Storaro.

Your next film, Hocus Pocus, has reached a cult status now, but at the time of release did not perform. Why do you think that is?

I mean, Halloween, witches and humor with Bette and Kathy and Sarah. The three of them together found something that was really fabulous and it took a while for people to discover it and find it. The film was put out in summer. A Halloween movie that was put out in July. I don't think they knew what to do with the movie. We had such fun making it and we really thought that it could have had an audience, but then they put it out in the middle of summer against all of these other epic tentpole movies and it didn’t have a chance. So, yeah, I was disappointed, I was hurt, actually devastated.

Did you ever get an answer as to why they decided to release it in July?

No! [Laughs] I never asked. Back at the time, I wasn't involved in any of that. Thankfully I'm more involved in that now as a producer and director.

But you re-teamed with Disney many years later on your big feature success, High School Musical. How did that come about?

It's a fun little story. I had called my agent, Ken Greenblatt, at Paradigm, who is no longer there, and I said I want to get back behind a movie camera. I had an idea, because I was doing a lot of television directing on episodics like Ally McBeal and Chicago Hope,  I said, "Is there a small cable company where we could do a little two-hour movie for television that perhaps would show people that it's time to give me a shot to do a movie?" Newsies and Hocus Pocus really didn’t come out of the gates, so I was sort of let go from that world. So, he sends me this script and it says "A High School Musical, working title." I read it and I said, "Ya know, this reminds me of growing up, this reminds me of my high school musical theater days, I was an athlete, I was an actor. It's really adorable." And he said, "Well it's at The Disney Channel" And I was like, "What's the Disney Channel?" I thought: It's under the radar, it'll be invisible and it'll give me a chance to warm up and maybe prove myself again.

When did you realize how High School Musical would be a big success?

I realized it when we were shooting the finale. I'd already done Dirty Dancing. I had already been a part of experiences that had swept the world. I had been up in the Blue Ridge Mountains with these people making this movie and feeling the magic and feeling the connection that everyone on the production had. That's what we felt when we were making High School Musical, when we were doing "We're All In This Together." We found an audience that was thirsty for music-driven storylines and with characters that they could identify with, that they could relate to and where they could see themselves in stories and that had themes that were inspirational.

Post-High School Musical III you went back into more music-driven work and stepped out of Hollywood.

I went back to work with Michael [Jackson]. And we really wanted to give Michael an opportunity to use the stage as a platform to remind people of the vulnerability of the planet. He wanted to get back out there as a gift to the fans that had never left his side, he wanted his children to see what it was that their dad had done all his life because they had not really been a part of that. And we all wanted it for him.

As a close creative collaborator of Michael's, have you seen the docuseries Leaving Neverland?

No, no.

Is there any reason in particular?

It's not the experience that I had. In all the years that I worked with him, it was never there. It was never there. And we were in the light and in the dark together, and never saw anything like that. Mind you, I didn't spend the night at his house. Whatever that is, that is. It's not my story, not my experience.

Did you know The Descendants would be a hit like High School Musical?

We never entered into those projects ever in a conversation going, now this franchise. The fans make the decision for the studio. If they show up, then the conversation starts. And again, after two, it's the numbers and the reaction and the return.

As you are premiering the third movie, has star Cameron Boyce's passing affected the cast and the crew?

We pulled out of promos, we pulled out of screenings, we pulled out of premieres, and everything we're doing is just to put him in a light and to do everything we can to make sure that he is remembered for the incredible individual that he was.

Can The Descendants franchise continue on without Cameron?

I think Descendants could live in another capacity. Personally, I would hope that Descendants III is the culmination of this particular part of Descendants but that's not to say that it can't be picked up and imagined in a different capacity. There are a lot of heritage characters out there.

What was behind to decision to go to Netflix after such a long career with Disney?

I had just completed seven years on a franchise and I've been at the Disney Channel for over 15 years. Gary said something so wonderful to me, when I came to him I was like, “Disney will always have a piece of my heart. Ever since I was a child my ambitions were to be a part of this company. My father's ambitions were to be a part of the company. So as far back as my professional career began with this company and that so much opportunity has come from being there that it will always be a huge part of my heart.” And Gary said, "You have a big book and there are many chapters still ahead of you and we're going to be on the same page again." That's what it is. There's no bridge knocked down.