The Case of John Hughes

Good morning/afternoon/evening, class! Thank you for joining us once again for Back-to-School September. Last week, we gave you a crash course in three of our favorite school-themed films. This week, we’re talking about a man that revolutionized the teen comedy genre, connecting with an entire generation of high-schoolers in a way no filmmaker had ever done before or since.

In the 1980’s, up-and-coming filmmakers weren’t jumping at the chance to make teen comedies. Along came John Hughes, a man that saw the current youth films as a means of entertaining adults much more than children. This was a man that never forgot what it was like to be a kid, to be treated as if your opinions are invalid. He remembered the complex social structure of high school, and what it meant to be an outsider. Hughes applied all of this to his films, becoming one of the most successful filmmakers in Hollywood. Of course, Hughes wouldn’t focus solely on the teen comedy, but it was this part of his career for which he would be most remembered. 

John Hughes is known as the king of the coming-of-age comedy. Even still today you will find teenagers watching his films. No matter how dated the movies become, there still exists a sense of timelessness to these films about teen life. 

Hughes was an autobiographical writer, imbuing his own life experiences into every story brought to the screen. Because of this, each one of his films was deeply human in a way that audiences everywhere could understand. So, come learn with us as we explore the life of this man that brought us so many wonderful movie memories!

FAMILY/YOUNG LIFE

  • John Hughes was born on February 18, 1950 in Lansing, Michigan. He was the second oldest child and the only son. His father was a salesman, and would sometimes struggle to support the family. The Hughes family often found themselves to be a lower-class family among wealthy suburban communities. As a result, class issues would one day be prominent plot points in his films. 
  • The Hughes family moved around often throughout John’s childhood, but stayed most prominently in Grosse Pointe, a suburb of Detroit. Hughes was a constant observer of his suburban life. He would carry around a notebook and fill it with notes on the people he met, places he saw, and jokes that popped into his mind. He was rarely found without a notebook on his person, and he would use his childhood experiences to help him craft some of his most iconic stories. When John was 13, the family moved to Northbrook, a suburb of Chicago. This and Grosse Pointe would become the basis for Shermer, Illinois, the fictional town in which many of his films were based. John Hughes’ films had their own universe, with characters that John had imagined, but never even put in his films. He knew who lived where, who were friends, and who were related. 
    • In the beginning of The Breakfast Club, one character recites the zip code as 60062. This is the actual zip code for Northbrook, IL. However, as explained in Kirk Honeycutt’s book John Hughes: A Life in Film, the town was originally known as Shermerville, and one of its most prominent roads is named Shermer Road. 
    • Producers began to notice after working with John Hughes that most of the homes in his films had the same layout. Michelle Manning, who produced 16 Candles and The Breakfast Club, has said that they were very similar to the home Hughes lived in as a teen. 
  • Hughes was an unpopular teenager, who was considered a problem student and reportedly had a rocky relationship with his parents. He found escape in film, and solace in music. When he got into making movies, he was determined to get the music right. Music was a big part of his writing process, as he often blasted British rock music while crafting his stories. Tarquin Gotch, a frequent music supervisor for Hughes’ films, referred to him as a “modern Frank Capra.” Hughes’ films examined American life, and he wanted the actors to feel involved in the process.
  • After high school, John Hughes attended the University of Arizona but dropped out before graduating. He moved back home and married the love of his life, a woman named Nancy that he had met while in high school. He was only 20-years-old at the time, and the couple ended up living in his parents’ basement until Hughes began a career in advertising. Eventually, he would become the creative director at the Leo Burnett Company, but he never lost his ambition to become a writer. John started ghostwriting for a comic strip called, The Berrys. He started submitting jokes to comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Joan Rivers. John also became a freelance writer for Playboy Magazine. On business trips to New York, Hughes would visit the offices of The National Lampoon for assignments. 
    • The National Lampoon seemed to be the perfect place for a young comedic writer. They allowed their contributors to have their own unique voices, and although the magazine was raunchy and hip, it relied on nostalgia to connect with its audience. John became a contributing editor until he was offered a full-time job. John accepted, but kept his other job in advertising. This meant he had to work nonstop, even sometimes catching flights to New York during the workweek. 
  • John kept up both careers until the famed blizzard of 1978 grounded him in his Chicago-area home with his wife and son. John spent those days writing and reflecting on his career. He had seen his fellow writers in advertising become frustrated with their work, losing track of what they wanted to be. When John later spoke of this time, he said, “What if I’m sixty-five and retired with all my stock, my profit-sharing, my money, and I’m sitting on the porch thinking I should have been a writer–I wonder if I could have done it?” So, Hughes quit his advertising job and took a big pay cut to work at The National Lampoon. He continued to write parodies, including issues about family holidays and vacations; stories that would eventually make it to the big screen. 

FIRST PROJECTS

  • Over the course of his career, John Hughes wrote 37 films, produced 23, and directed eight. The first film project he worked on was a Jaws parody called, Jaws 3, People 0. The project was eventually pulled by a Universal Studios executive. Hughes then worked on a screenplay for National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex, but its star, John Belushi, passed away suddenly just days before filming was set to begin. Hughes’ script was thrown out and the film was made by another studio. After that, there was Delta House, a TV spinoff of Animal House, but it only lasted one season. 
  • After attending a high school reunion, John Hughes penned a script that would become his first screen credit. It was a horror/sex comedy called, National Lampoon’s Class Reunion. The film holds a lot of the notes and character archetypes that would become familiar in his later films, but ultimately it was a box office failure. 
  • John continued to write, and struck up a friendship with a young producer named Lauren Shuler (who would one day be Lauren Shuler Donner, as she married Richard Donner!) Lauren had called John to pitch a story, and their friendship led to him presenting her with the pages of an unfinished screenplay based on his days as a househusband when his wife went out of town. Lauren loved the pages and wanted to make the film. Learning from his early experiences in film, John decided to complete the script before bringing it to a studio. He realized that if someone paid him before the script was done, he had less creative freedom. This was how he preferred to work for the rest of his career.
  • This film would become Mr. Mom, a fairly successful comedy starring Michael Keaton. However, John Hughes was fired as a screenwriter during the production process, and two uncredited writers polished the screenplay. The film was not what John Hughes and Lauren Shuler Donner wanted to make, and the experience might have planted the seeds for John Hughes’ famous distaste for Hollywood in the years to come. 
  • While writing for The National Lampoon, John Hughes published a story called Vacation ‘58, based on his childhood family vacations. It followed The Griswold Family and their ill-fated trip from Grosse Pointe, Michigan to Walt Disneyland in California. Marty Simmons, the owner of the Lampoon eventually shared the story with an executive from Warner Brothers, and soon the project was underway with John Hughes as the screenwriter. Because the studio wanted to draw in Saturday Night Live fans, they cast Caddyshack star Chevy Chase as the lead. Harold Ramis signed on to direct, and John adapted his screenplay to match Chase’s comedic delivery. The story stayed generally the same, but Hughes built on his younger characters, giving them more personality. The original ending didn’t do well with audiences, and Hughes was forced to do a rewrite where the family actually did arrive at their destination: Wally World. Because of the rewrite, comedian John Candy was added to the cast, playing a hilarious guard at the vacant park. Candy would become synonymous with John Hughes in later years, and the two were very close friends. The new ending did well, and Vacation was a hit. It essentially created a new genre of film, the family road trip. 
  • Now that Hughes had two major successes under his belt, it wasn’t hard for him to find screenwriting jobs. He quit his job at the Lampoon and was on his way to directing his first feature film. 

A FEW OF HIS MOST INFLUENTIAL MOVIES

  • John Hughes was a rare man in his field. He was a midwestern conservative, working amongst Hollywood liberals. He held a disdain for authority (something he picked up from his youth) and a distrust of Hollywood bigwigs. Instead of filming in Los Angeles like many other filmmakers, John liked to film in Chicago, away from the big studios. He hated studio notes and wanted freedom. A few of his films were filmed in the New Trier Township High School, an abandoned school! Ferris Bueler’s Day Off, Uncle Buck, and Home Alone were all shot here. Filming in the midwest also meant taking young actors away from their friends and the partying scene in California. But most of all, John Hughes was an autobiographical filmmaker. His stories took place in the midwest because that’s where he was from, and so that’s where they would be filmed. 

So let’s talk about some of John Hughes’ most influential films. We won’t have a chance to talk about all of them. So let us know if we missed your favorite or if you’d like us to cover any of these in a future episode!

  • SIXTEEN CANDLES (1984)
    • In the early 1980’s, one of Hollywood’s biggest agents was circulating a script for a teen comedy. Many studios were interested, but the major hang-up was that the screenwriter, John Hughes, wanted to direct the film as well. Producer Michelle Manning mentioned the screenplay while in a job interview with filmmaker Ted Tanen. Tanen liked giving first-time directors a chance, and was interested in the idea. Manning contacted Hughes, and they were able to strike a deal for Sixteen Candles. 
    • When the agency ICM first agreed to represent John Hughes, they gave him a batch of headshots for potential actors in his films. Hughes fixated on one photo in particular, and placed the photo over his workspace as he wrote Sixteen Candles. The photo was of Molly Ringwald, and in John’s mind, she had already been cast in the leading role. Hughes also decided that Anthony Michael Hall, who had appeared in Vacation should play the film’s famous geek character. 
    • Sixteen Candles relies heavily on high school tropes like the jock, the geek, the prom queen, and the wallflower. But, it unexpectedly turned the unspoken rule of the teen comedy on its head. Audiences were shocked and delighted when the quiet girl got the surprisingly sensitive jock at the end, instead of learning some kind of hard lesson. One of the film’s biggest surprises was Samantha’s (Molly Ringwald) touching conversation with her father, and the empathy that he shows his teenage daughter. 
    • This was Hughes’ breakout as a director and started his meteoric rise as the king of teen comedy. Of course, there are components in the film that do not pass the test of time. Featured prominently is a foreign exchange student that plays into hurtful stereotypes. It’s also hard for modern audiences to brush aside the casual attitude toward date rape, which seems to be prominent throughout the film.
  • THE BREAKFAST CLUB (1985)
    • True to his style, he filmed this as well in small-town high schools, this time in Illinois. This forced the cast to become closer as there were not many entertainment options in town. The most common things they would do were to go to the Hughes home for dinner or go to see a blues band together.
    • Judd Nelson would stay in character as Bender, even after scenes were shot. This almost cost him the role as Hughes noticed that he would continue to treat Molly Ringwold terribly. Hughes felt responsible for her and therefore wanted Michelle Manning to fire him. It was worked out however when Manning discussed the issue with his manager/live-in girlfriend, Laurie Rodkin. After that it was never an issue again.
    • In order for Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez to understand the divisions between jocks and the outcasts, Hughes sent them back to high school. Nobody seemed to recognize Judd, but unfortunately for the experiment, Emilio was recognized almost immediately. 
    • As the set was being built, the cast began getting ready for rehearsals. John had a few different drafts of the script. After Emilio asked to see them, John brought all of them in for the cast to look through. Each actor read through them and picked out the pieces from each script that they felt connected with their characters. Hughes spent that night cutting and pasting those pieces together and presented a new script the very next morning. 
    • The film was actually shot in continuity, and the Principal was based on a real gym teacher of Hughes’s that did not like his attitude!
    • This film is what brought about the term “Brat Pack.” The term refers to teens that often appeared in multiple movies together in the 80’s. For example, Hughes knew after Sixteen Candles that he wanted Anthony Michael Hall and Molly Ringwald to be in this movie as well. The ensemble group of talented kids did not take kindly to the term and even stopped hanging out all the time because of it.
  • WEIRD SCIENCE (1985)
    • Directed and wrote
  • FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF (1986)
    • Directed by and wrote
    • The screenplay was written in just seven days, though Hughes claimed he did it in four. Hughes was famous for writing his stories in short, manic bursts. 
    • The name Ferris Bueller came from Hughes’s long term friend Bert Bueller and the character of Sloane was based on his wife.
    • To help immerse the actors Hughes drove them around the Chicago town, showing them the sights and talking about his life as a high schooler. As he did this he put cassettes into the player with the songs that he intended to run throughout the movie.
    • When Broderick first met with Hughes Pretty in Pink was going to be released soon. As the pair walked and talked Hughes plastered Pretty in Pink stickers on every lamp post. He was brilliant at advertising. Hughes would pen a newsletter, and it would be mailed out to many fans of which he had a database from all the fan mail Hughes Entertainment received.
  • PRETTY IN PINK (1986)
    • Written by
    • John Hughes continued his reign as the teen comedy king with Pretty in Pink, another classic starring Molly Ringwald. It was named after a 1981 Psychedelic Furs song that Hughes liked, and even included in the film. In fact, Hughes selected about 90% of the film’s soundtrack. 
    • This movie continued to explore the difficulties of living in a working class family, surrounded by upper class peers. It also featured one of Hughes’ most iconic ‘80s characters, Duckie, played by Jon Cryer. 
    • Duckie was a classic Hughes geek, a guy that has everything going for him but doesn’t know it. According to Jon Cryer, Molly Ringwald was uncertain of his taking the role, she reportedly wanted Robert Downey Junior to play the character. 
    • In the original ending, Ringwald’s character, Andie, ends up with Duckie. But, test audiences didn’t like this ending. So, the crew reshot the ending to have her character end up with Blane, the rich boy played by the dreamy Andrew McCarthy. There were many challenges to the reshoot, including the fact that Andrew McCarthy had shaved his head and had to wear a wig.  
  • PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES (1987)
    • Directed and wrote
    • This movie has become the perfect model for future buddy comedies. The two characters are forced together into situations where they must walk in the other’s shoes.
    • When Steve Martin read the screenplay and accepted the part, he noticed that it was a hefty 145 pages. The typical for a comedy would be about 90. When Martin asked what would be cut, Hughes looked at him quizzically and Martin realized that Hughes did not plan to cut a thing!
    • The movie, while only modestly successful at the time, became treasured by Hughes and many others. Roger Ebert even said in a tribute article that it is in his “Great Movie Collection.”
  • SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL (1987)
    • Written by
  • NATIONAL LAMPOON’S CHRISTMAS VACATION (1989)
    • In 1988, John Hughes wrote and directed She’s Having a Baby, a deeply personal film and probably his most autobiographical. However, the film didn’t do very well, despite the star power of Kevin Bacon and Alec Baldwin. Some theorize that because this film didn’t find the same success as his other projects, John began moving away from personal stories for films. 
    • In 1989, two of Hughes’ films premiered. They were Uncle Buck and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Both did fairly well at the box office, with Christmas Vacation eventually becoming a holiday staple in many American households. Critics felt that the film lacked the magic of the original, as it had less of a cohesive plot and more of a string of hilarious holiday mishaps jumbled together in a film. This would be the final Vacation film written by John Hughes, though two more would be made–one in 1997 and 2015. 
  • HOME ALONE (1990)
    • After working with Macaulay Culkin in Uncle Buck, John Hughes thought it would be interesting to have a movie centered around a 9 year old. He had thoroughly enjoyed working with Macaulay after never having worked with that age group before.
    • Chris Columbus, who directed the film, expressed that he was afraid that nobody would give him another shot at directing after his recent flop Heartbreak Hotel. John Hughes, however, had faith in him and liked his style. Chris was originally supposed to direct the previous Christmas movie we just talked about but had difficulties with Chevy Chase. Chevy refused to take direction from him because he saw Chris as too new to know anything about directing properly. Hughes therefore brought Chris on to direct Home Alone! Since Chris was also a writer, the script went back and forth between the two until they felt it was ready. It was then pitched to Warner Brothers, who said that they would make it for the low budget of 10 million dollars. When they inevitably surpassed that budget (though not by much to 14.7 million), Warner Brothers shut down the project. We almost didn’t have this Christmas joy.
      • Luckily Hughes was behind the project as its writer and had secretly met with his friend Tom Jacobson at 20th Century Fox. When Tom and chairman Joe Roth heard the storyline, the 14.7 million dollar budget, and that Hughes was fighting with WB they said they would make it! All they had to do was wait for WB to officially pull the plug because legally they weren’t really supposed to know about the project while another studio owned it. Once the phone call came, those that knew about the switch had to feign sadness and fear before calling up 20th Century Fox to seamlessly continue the picture.
    • Chris Columbus said that John Hughes was a director’s dream, essentially staying offset except when John Candy arrived for his scenes. He was receptive to ideas, and allowed Columbus to add his own touch to the story, giving it more heart to balance out the slapstick humor.     
    • All the sets for the insides of the house were built in New Trier Township High School, including the scene when the house is flooding. The crew knew that the set would leak due to all the water, so they built it right in the school’s empty swimming pool!
    • Hughes’ close friend and colleague John Candy made an extended cameo in the film, appearing on set for 23 hours of shooting. He appeared in the film as a favor to Hughes, and was paid even less than the pizza delivery boy that appears in the early scenes of the film.  
    • Some believe this was John Hughes last greatest film, and in later years he would move away from autobiographical works and films focused on midwestern families. 
  • HONORABLE MENTIONS
    • Baby’s Day Out (1994)
    • Beethoven
    • Flubber
    • 101 Dalmatians

AWARDS

  • John Hughes was the epitome of a cult classic. He wasn’t universally loved in Hollywood, and held grudges that, as Molly Ringwald would later put it, “were almost supernatural things.” But, the man certainly had a following, and still does to this day. Despite connecting with and influencing generations, he didn’t win very many awards. 
  • In 2020, Hughes was posthumously inducted into the OFTA Hall of Fame. In 1991, he won the Showest award for Producer of the Year
  • On a more negative note, Hughes won two “Stinkers Bad Movie Awards.” One was “Worst Resurrection of a TV show” for Dennis the Menace. The other was “Worst screenplay for a film grossing more than 100 million” for Flubber

DEATH AND LEGACY

In August of 2009, John Hughes died suddenly of a heart attack while visiting family in New York. He was 59. The news of his sudden death shocked and saddened his collaborators, including the young actors that started their careers with Hughes. Hughes had continued to write until his death, with his last credit being Drillbit Taylor. At the 82nd Oscars, Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Matthew Broderick, John Cryer, and Macaulay Culkin all paid tribute to John Hughes. This included a montage of his most well-known films, ending with a classic moment from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off: “Life moves pretty fast; If you don’t stop to look around once in a while, you might miss it.”

John Hughes was one of a kind. He didn’t do things the normal way, the popular way. In reality, Hughes was the outsider that he put on screen. He was a man that never forgot how it felt to be a teenager, with all the anxieties of life, but none of the respect of adulthood. He talked to his actors, young and old, as if they were his collaborators and not his employees. And because of this, he created art that resonated with millions of people.  

Not only did John Hughes give voice to the younger generations in his movies, he helped to launch the careers of so many others around him. John Hughes was funny and strange, intelligent and to some, frustrating. But, he made meaningful connections to audiences and his fellow filmmakers that would last a lifetime. In a foreword for Kurt Honeycutt’s book John Hughes a Life in Film, Chris Columbus wrote, “John’s films have inspired a few generations and they will continue to do so for many, many more decades. His work has profoundly changed millions of lives. I know that he profoundly changed mine. Without John, I may not still be directing today. I owe everything that’s happened in my cinematic life over the past twenty-five years to John Hughes.”

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The Case of Kenny Ortega

So far this month we rocked out with The Blues Brothers, learned about John Williams, and ranked some Disney villain songs. This week we’re closing out June Tunes with an episode not so much about music, but more about dancing. 

Today we are taking a look at the career of choreographer-turned-director, Kenny Ortega! Kenny Ortega is responsible for some of the most iconic dance scenes of the 80s, from the lift in “Dirty Dancing” to Duckie’s moves in “Pretty in Pink.” He went on to direct some of Disney’s cult classics that will be remembered for generations.

Movies He Choreographed

The Rose (1979)

  • Kenny’s first chance at a movie to choreograph. Since it was his first movie he was appointed as the assistant choreographer.

Xanadu (1980)

  • Kenny had been a long time fan of Gene Kelly. Although Xanadu did not do well in theatres or by critics’ reviews you would never guess by the way Kenny speaks about it.
    • “He mentored me, and when the movie was over he continued to,” Ortega recalls. “He would invite me to his home and we would look at his films together and he would talk to me about how he designed choreography for the camera which was the greatest education I had received up until that point.”

One From the Heart (1981)

  • This movie chronicles the five-year romance of a window dresser and her boyfriend that ends with a bad break up. After mutual nights away, they begin to regret their decisions, but it could be too late. 

St. Elmo’s Fire (1985)

  • A group of recent college graduates embark on a series of misadventures in the real world. Together they grapple with adulthood.
  • Ortega was brought onto the set of the Brat Pack drama to make Rob Lowe look convincing as a saxophone-playing rocker. Ortega said “I worked with Rob and the band, helping them get into the physical side of their roles.”

Pretty in Pink (1986)

  • Andie is an outcast at her Chicago high school, hanging out either with her older boss who owns the record store where she works, or her quirky classmate Duckie who has a crush on her. When one of the rich and popular kids at school, Blane asks her out, it seems too good to be true. As Andie starts falling for Blane, she begins to realize that dating someone from a different social sphere is not easy.
  • Try a Little Tenderness
    • One of the most iconic moments in this John Hughes classic comes at the Trax record store, when John Cryer’s character Duckie commits to a spontaneous dance. However, it was partly choreographed courtesy of a young Kenny Ortega. 
    • Ortega said, “It was sort of put together after a spontaneous workshop that we did right in that record shop. I went in there in advance and played with some ideas, and Jonathan really took to them and was such a good sport and such a great collaborator and brought his incredible personality — Duckie times 10. It wasn’t traditionally choreographed. I showed him some things and he took hold of it. That was born of the moment.”

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986)

  • The Twist and Shout Scene
    • When Ferris Bueller played hooky, he went big. And his biggest, most over the top moment comes when he takes over the annual Von Steuben Day Parade in the streets, first lip-synching to “Danke Schoen” and then going for it with the Beatles. 
    • After Hughes worked with Ortega on Pretty in Pink, he called Ortega in again, this time to not only choreograph Ferris’ parade performance, but to direct it as well.
    • “The scene was all John’s (John Hughes) idea and then he gave me a lot of freedom in how I approached it and how I built it. He wanted Ferris to take over the streets of Chicago. We pre-shot some of the elements of that number, but we moved the float right into a real existing parade, so we had 10 to 12 cameras on it and we had one shot to get it right. If I remember correctly, I think it was sort of Matthew’s introduction to dance. I don’t think he’d ever done a musical performance in film before, and now look at him!”

Dirty Dancing (1987)

  • The famous lift
    • The lake scene where Patrick Swayze’s character lifts Jennifer Grey was tricky due to frigid lake temperatures that put Grey in the hospital for hypothermia.  Kenny is so dedicated to his craft that he was not afraid to wade out there in that freezing water with them. 
  • The influences for the dancing in this movie came from lots of different places: Street salsa, Colombian style salsa, Cuban rhythm step, R&B and street soul.
    • Ortega thought of dirty dancing as soul dancing, but with a partner. He based the moves on the original dancing of the early 60’s. 
  • He catered to specific people and would have them move in ways that complimented their own styles.
    • He hoped that Dirty Dancing would inspire people to go out and dance! Patrick Swayze himself thought that the dancing would “blow” audiences away.
  • What he did achieve with Dirty Dancing was an iconic film moment, recreated in films and TV shows for generations to come. The beloved film is considered to be a cult classic, and Kenny Ortega helped it gain that status.

The Great Outdoors (1988)

  • It’s vacation time for Chet Ripley along with his wife, Connie and their two kids, Buck and Ben. But a serene weekend of fishing at a Wisconsin lakeside cabin gets crashed by Connie’s obnoxious brother-in-law, Roman Craig, his wife Kate, and the couple’s two daughters.
  • Ortega has a way of finding the dancer in everyone, and the ending of The Great Outdoors was no exception. If you look closely, you might even notice Dan Aykroyd reprising some steps from his days as Elwood Blues!

Salsa (1988)

  • Robby Rosa by day is an auto-mechanic, but by night is drawn to the dance. He believes the title of Salsa King at the nightclub La Luna belongs to him. He proceeds to practice with three women in order to win the contest. 
  • In this movie Kenny was not only the choreographer but the associate producer. It was a grueling job but he wanted to be able to have more control over this movie than, for example, Dirty Dancing.
  • The album contained music by Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria, Michael Sembello and Miami Sound Machine, Celia Cruz and Charlie Palmieri. It was a beautiful merging of old and new music that Kenny was happy to be the executive producer for.
  • While he admits that the writing is not the best in this movie he feels that the music and  movement really give the characters depth as people.
    •  Since this is all about Salsa Kenny wanted passion in their dancing. He said “Like me, these young men and women are using dancing to flee the things in their cultures they don’t like. But they also love their families and their culture, too. That great contradiction makes me want . . . fire from my dancers.”
  • This movie gave him a chance to produce positive images about Latinos and because of this was given an award from the Nosotros Organization because of it.

Shag (1989)

  • A coming of age story that revolves around four young women who want a final adventure together after high school before going their separate ways in life.
  • Shag which is not in reference to a haircut or carpeting is actually a reference to a 60’s “cut the rug” southern dance craze. It was called the Carolina Shag and is rightfully displayed within the movie.
    • Scott Coffey, one of the stars, said that they practiced for three weeks, six hours a day, and six days a week for the final contest scene. 

Newsies (1992)

  • Newsies is a movie musical starring Christian Bale, David Moscow, Luke Edwards, Max Casella, and Bill Pullman.
  • It’s loosely based on the Newsboy strike of 1899.
  • The songs were composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman.
    • Ortega counts working with Alan Menken as one of his fondest memories. He said that Menken came in with an open mind and heart.
  • Newsies was his directing debut, and the gateway to his next film: Hocus Pocus!
  • He put the actors through two months of intense musical boot camp. They sang, danced, did gymnastics, martial arts, and spoke in New York dialects. 
    • In order to bond the young actors pranked Kenny with anything from squirt guns to filling his trailer with newspapers. 
  • It is reported that Kenny’s old mentor Gene Kelly stopped by and complemented the progress that the young actors were making in their dancing.
    • Kenny became really good at shaping young stars that had no dancing or singing background. For Newsies he had to convince the young Christian Bale to star as Jack Kelly. After seeing Bale in Empire of the Sun Kenny felt he would be perfect for the role even with no musical theatre experience. Although it took a lot of convincing and training Bale did a stellar job. Kenny Ortega has a way of seeing the talent in people and bringing it out to the forefront. He would do this again for the Descendants movies.
    • He was impressed with how Bale threw himself into the role and made Jack Kelly come to life. 
    • He says Newsies is one of the great experiences of his career in general. 

Hocus Pocus (1993)

  • We brought this movie up in our October episode last year.  This was Kenny Ortega’s second film, since he started in the industry as a dancer and choreographer, he wanted there to be a fluidity in the movie. He choreographed the musical number, but also just the regular scenes. 
    • Bette Midler pointed out that she had never acted as part of a “trio” before, and liked that she felt as if she was part of a unit instead of a single actor. 
  • When Kenny Ortega first thought of putting a musical number in the movie David Kirschner, who is the creator and producer of the film, did not like the idea. He had the thought that it would ruin the movie. He said that quote “This is a movie that puts you on the edge of your seat and you’re going to stop it for this musical number?” “And yet,” he said, “I’m a billion percent wrong. I love seeing how wrong I was about it.”
  • Ortega said of having Bette Midler in the film, “It’s the most fun that you could possibly imagine and it’s why I said yes before I even read the script.” 
    • He also said that he tended to stay out of the way, which he believed was the best thing to do when you work with such talented people.

High School Musical (2006-2008)

  • Kenny Ortega began as a musical theater guy at the young age of 13 by being in the professional touring production of Oliver as a teenager and a touring production of Hair. These beginnings led him to High School Musical (2006). The casting process was very similar to a live musical, as the actors had to have a variety of skills from basketball playing to singing and dancing. 
    • Zack Efron stood out and was cast in the star-making role of Troy Bolton at the age of 16.
  •  “I think what Disney and the networks are doing is a return to the beginnings of what made television so special.  Disney Channel — not only with High School Musical but with The Cheetah Girls & Camp Rock, and artists like Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers, Selena Gomez — and even before that with Brittany (Spears) — has found a young, family audience that really enjoys music storytelling that can suspend their disbelief.  I think adults have a little more of an issue with being able to suspend their disbelief of a story suddenly breaking into song.”
  • Get’cha Head in the Game
    • This was one of the first songs shot with the Wildcats team. It was an interesting and unique blending of sport, art, and dance.
    • This style was continued when he explored baseball and dance in the 2nd movie with the Song “I Don’t Dance.”
      • When Kenny explained why he used baseball for the second movie he talked about how Frank Sinatra had used baseball as a way to become familiar with movement. 
      • They used a combination of dancers and ball players. Both groups reported improvement in their respective fields the following year after this scene was shot.
  • Fun Fact: His dog Manly was Sharpay’s Dog in the High School Musical Series.
  • In an NPR article Efron said, “Kenny is the kind of mentor and sort of friend that never shows any limits. He never lets you know your limits.” 
    • He really impacted a lot of the kids and so there is a thank you video where a lot of the cast said their personal thank yous to him.
  • Kenny recounts that when the first High School Musical was released to TV it would bring opportunities for him to be given another chance to do a movie set for the theatre. He never thought it would be High School Musical 3 that would bring him back.

This Is It (2009) (The Michael Jackson Movie)

  • Kenny Ortega worked with Michael Jackson on a few of his tours such as Dangerous and HIStory. He also collaborated on his This Is It tour which abruptly ended when Michael Jackson passed away in 2009.
  • Ortega went on to direct this movie, which was a compilation of rehearsal footage from the This Is It tour. 

Descendants 1,2, and 3 (2015-2019)

  • Peter Pan was Kenny’s favorite movie as a kid so being able to do the musical number from the second called “Going Down” on the ship with all the pirates was like reliving childhood for him as he choreographed the sword battles.
  • “Chillin Like a Villain” was tricky because they did not have long to shoot it. The last day they were on set to film this dance number a typhoon was happening. They had to try to keep everyone calm and safe. It was shot in Vancouver and as they were dancing props and sets were flying away and the rain was coming down immensely. 
  • He made the conscious decision to have Mitchell, who plays Ben, the son of Beauty and the Beast, not be an experienced dancer in order to give him an everyman charm.
  • Sofia Carson who plays Evie from Descendants “Kenny’s Choreography is just out of this world. He really has stepped us up to our game. He has this passion that he gives us every single day.”

July 24, 2019 he was given a Hollywood Walk of Fame star by the Pantages theatre. In his speech he honored the young Descendants actor Cameron Boyce who died earlier that month. “Cameron said we can’t take it with us, so it’s about what you leave. With this, I promise Cameron that I will carry this goodness with me in all the days of my life.”

He was also honored with the Disney Legends Award in 2019 alongside Bette Middler 

“Not everyone is blessed in this world to be given choices but those of us that are given choices, those choices can determine, you know, who we become, what our destiny is and the choices that I’ve made have landed me in some pretty fantastic places, places that have been fantastic enough to keep my fire burning, to keep me excited, to keep me wanting to continue doing what I’ve been doing for all of these years.”

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