Jackson filming with choreographer Kenny Ortega
This was not the end of the journey for the pizza, however. After the contents were consumed the box was placed with all the other rubbish collected from this building and the whole lot scanned to make sure that no USB memory chips had been smuggled out.
This is how security works at ‘Project Love’, the codename given to Hollywood’s most closely guarded project of the year – Michael Jackson’s This Is It film. With $1 billion at stake, the paranoia may be understandable. Nothing is allowed in or out of this building without all these checks. So tight is security that the 35 people who work here are not allowed out until the end of their shift. Food is brought in from the Sony campus and supplemented with regular pizza deliveries.
On the second floor are six editing bays, where some of Sony’s top technicians and editors are busily finessing the 108-minute documentary.
Jackson had always filmed his rehearsals so that he could pore over the footage, often through the night, deciding what was working and what needed correcting or modifying. More than 130 hours of high-definition film had been recorded and upon Jackson’s death these hours of footage suddenly took on a profound new significance.
As Randy Phillips, the CEO of the star’s concert promoter AEG Live, puts it bluntly in an exclusive interview with Live, ‘It didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that we were sitting on a goldmine. Not only in financial terms but also in terms of what this footage shows.
‘Here, on film for all posterity, we have the greatest pop artist of all time showing his every move and thought process as he goes from describing his vision of the show to rehearsing the band and the dancers, to running through on stage what he told me was going to be his finest performance ever.’
Watch the trailer to This Is It below…
Ortega scrutinises Jackson's every move during rehearsals for This Is It
‘When you see Michael in the film you will see why none of us knew anything was wrong. He dances like a man 15 years younger,’ said Jackson’s manager Frank DiLeo
There has never been a film launch like the one we are to see in ten days’ time. This Is It will debut at 30,000 screens around the world. Simultaneous premieres will be held in 15 cities, including London, Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, Seoul and Rio de Janeiro. A two-disc CD featuring original album masters of the late singer’s biggest hits and the new single This Is It will be released before the film goes out. It is all being as carefully choreographed as any of Jackson’s dance routines.
Moreover, the DVD of the movie will be released after the cinema release. But the unique aspect of the venture’s projected $1 billion revenue is how much will be profit.
The studio heads were fighting over it. They went nuts
Compared to the $200 million or so it cost to film box-office runaways like Titanic and The Lord Of The Rings, This Is It cost very little to make. In death, Jackson is going to earn hundreds of millions of dollars – more than he ever would have dreamed of making from the O2 concerts.
On Tuesday June 30, just five days after Jackson died, Randy Phillips locked himself into an editing suite in AEG’s headquarters on the third floor of the massive entertainment campus LA Live. This complex is just opposite the Staples Centre in LA where Jackson was rehearsing in the final days of his life.
Together with three editors from AEG, he scanned through the hours and hours of footage.
‘I didn’t really know what we’d captured, but when I saw a rough cut of some of the footage I had the editors put together 15 really compelling scenes from a bunch of different songs,’ says Phillips.
The material was dynamite.
'The Michael who turned up for rehearsals wasn't a frail addict,' said DiLeo
Jackson wanted to perform for a new generation of fans and his three children
Jackson leaving his doctor's office in Beverly Hills
‘I knew that some people would beg, borrow or steal to get their hands on this footage and put it on the internet. It has been under Fort Knox-style security ever since he died.’
A few days later, with a slick 15-minute cut in the can, Phillips invited the chairmen from Hollywood’s four key studios – Fox, Universal, Sony and Paramount – to his office.
‘These are guys who are used to things coming to them. But that footage was not leaving my office. They all came. By the time the screening was over, the studio heads were fighting each other to get it. They all went nuts. They all had to have it.’
The studio heads put in their offers.
‘We went with a $60 million deal with Sony in the end, not because it was the highest offer but because it made good synergy – Michael’s music catalogue is with Sony. It just made sense.’
It certainly made sense for Sony. More advance tickets were sold in the first 24 hours of their release three weeks ago than have ever been sold for any previous film. In the UK, Vue Entertainment has sold more than 30,000 tickets.
Jackson leaving his doctor’s office in Beverly Hills
In its first weekend, This Is It is expected to take £188 million ($300 million). The film isn’t going to challenge Titanic’s $1.84 billion, the promoters have decided to give it a two-week run. But this is part of the strategy. With the hype around the film fresh in shoppers’ minds, Sony will be able to halve the money it would usually spend to support a big DVD release.
This Is It is a money-making machine. Revenues are almost guaranteed to crash through the $1 billion barrier. And that leaves a lot of profits for the three organisations involved: Sony, AEG and the Jackson estate.
Under an agreement approved by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell Becklo, once the film has passed the $135 million mark, the Jackson estate gains 90 per cent of the additional box-office earnings, while AEG takes the remaining ten.
AEG has already covered the $50 million losses it racked up after Jackson died, out of the $60 million it has received from Sony, so any other gains will be pure profit. The income from DVD sales is being shared equally between AEG, Sony and the Jackson estate. And Sony will capitalise on a huge jump in record sales that it hopes the film will generate.
So while This Is It is not going to be the biggest-grossing film in history, the whole project is certainly going to be one of the most profitable.
Frank DiLeo is a character seemingly plucked from central casting as a music manager. A cigar between his teeth, he greets me on the sun-decked patio of his room at the Beverly Hilton Hotel, his shirt open to the waist, a large gold Rolex (a gift from Jackson) prominently displayed on his tanned wrist.
It was DiLeo who masterminded Jackson’s ‘glory days’, from the Bad, Thriller and Victory tours through to negotiating his $10 million Pepsi advertising deal. It was while filming the Pepsi commercial in 1984 that Jackson’s hair caught fire, prompting his first use of the prescription painkillers and sleeping medication that would lead to his death at 50.
It was during rehearsals for his Bad tour that the idea of videoing his preparations first came up.
‘Michael liked to go through the footage at night,’ says DiLeo.
‘He’d see places he could improve his routine or notice things like how a back-up dancer blocked him from the crowd in a certain song.’
Ortega and Jackson put the dancers through their paces
For the O2 gigs, all the sessions were filmed from the start and they were still shooting the day before Jackson died.
‘We captured Michael talking about his creative vision and then the dancers come in and the band members. The dancers had already been whittled down from hundreds to 50. Michael did what he would always do. He sat quietly at the back of the studio. He never really liked the kids knowing he was there because if they did it would throw them.’
The footage shows Jackson’s perfectionism.
‘You see him going to wardrobe to discuss every item of clothing, not just for him but for the backing dancers. I remember him looking at a costume and noticing that a button had been stitched on cross-ways and he wanted it on a diagonal. He was that precise.’
By the Time the rehearsals were in full flow there were 80 people in the venue – a band
Jackson and DiLeo in the late Eighties
of eight, 12 dancers, the crew and backstage staff.
‘The thing that struck me was how sharp his memory was. It wasn’t like he had to consciously remember any of the steps. It was like they were ingrained in him. As the music started, this wasn’t a 50-year-old man; this was the old Michael, running through the familiar steps, totally in control.’
It all sounds a long way from the frail, emotionally fragile, heavily doped-up Jackson that others have portrayed. Surely DiLeo must have had some inkling that his friend was heavily drugged up, as the toxicology tests have since revealed?
‘No, no,’ the manager says. ‘I know you won’t believe me but Michael compartmentalised his life. I was his manager, his friend. The only time I ever saw him on drugs was during the second trial when he started acting weird and dancing on cars. I told him, “Michael, you need to get off this stuff” and he said he was hooked on prescription pills for the pain. He went to rehab to kick it.
‘The Michael who turned up for rehearsals wasn’t a frail addict. Michael was a professional. Whatever was or wasn’t going on in his home, when he showed up to work, he was on.’
Randy Phillips, who attended many of the rehearsal sessions, also denies Jackson displayed any health woes: ‘He would turn up to rehearsals between 2pm and 4pm. Most days he would be there until midnight. He was thin, but not anorexic. He drank a lot of juices and ate salads that his personal chef made and he’d bring with him. There were some days he didn’t show but that’s because he didn’t need to be there.
‘When you see Michael in the film you will see why none of us knew anything was wrong. He dances like a man 15 years younger. He didn’t dance and sing at full strength during many of the rehearsals but he didn’t have to. This was the process of putting a show together.
‘When he was talking, he was present and not slurring his words. He acted fit and well. He seemed engaged in the people around him. He was happy. There were no outward signs of drug use that I could see. The Michael you will see in our footage is healthy, vibrant, alive.’
‘The one thing that comforts me,’ adds DiLeo, ‘is something Michael said to me when we started working on the concert. He wanted to do it for his new generation of fans. He said: “Frank, I want my kids to see me perform, just one last time.”
‘He was doing it for his kids.’
Stage equipment for the rehearsals in Burbank, California, for the doomed This Is It
At the moment there are three different openings for the movie – one which begins with footage of Jackson’s funeral, one which starts with the ‘tap, tap, tap’ of his foot at the first rehearsal, and one which opens with a full-blown production number.
DiLeo says: ‘I am sure we’ll be editing right up to the last minute. We are trying to hit a fine balance between this being a tribute to Michael and also a showcase for his genius. The hard part in the editing process is not what to put in; it’s what to leave out.’
Jackson is going to get a bigger send-off than he could possibly have imagined. DiLeo is sitting on hundreds of hours of film from previous concert preparations, as well as several dozen songs that are locked away in his vault – all songs that Jackson recorded but decided not to release.
This Is It? Actually, this is just the start.
This Is It’ is released on October 28
THE GREATEST SHOW THAT NEVER WAS
Nobody except the people in the rehearsals have any idea of the stagecraft that was being put together by Jackson. The O2 gig was going to be a total theatrical experience and this will come across in the film.
For the first time, Live can exclusively reveal the extraordinary shows planned for Jackson’s key songs.
The set list was a compendium of full performances of 11 of his greatest hits: Thriller, Bad, Dangerous, Beat It, Billie Jean, Man In The Mirror, We Are The World, Black Or White, Heal The World, Dirty Diana, Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, along with snippets from other hits such as Smooth Criminal and a Jackson Five tribute medley.
Thriller was to be staged with dozens of gigantic spiders and 20ft puppets. The lights were going to be dimmed and a giant screen come on. Everyone at the gig would have been given 3-D glasses, which they would have been told to put on at the start of the song.
As the famous opening bars rang around the arena monsters would have come up out of the ground – in 3-D. Jackson’s manager Frank DiLeo describes the scene: ‘It’s amazing. The monsters are incredible and when you have the glasses on they come straight at you. It’s terrifying!’
After the first shot of the monsters, Jackson and his dancers start to perform. The audience would have seen the monsters on the stage performing alongside the star and his crew.
Although the film does not include any 3-D snippets, cinema-goers will get a tantalising view of the spectacle.
The opening song in the concert was to be 1982’s Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’. A glass sphere would light up on stage and then slowly drift over the heads of the crowd. As it grew brighter, it would light up in a series of primary colours before returning to the stage where a shadowy figure would emerge from a hidden platform moving up through the stage: Jackson. The globe would land in Jackson’s hand and the singer would launch into the opening line of the song.
For Dirty Diana, Jackson planned to have a flaming bed with pole-dancing aerial gymnasts playing the part of the flickering flames. In an elaborately plotted routine, Jackson would be chased around the bed by a scantily dressed ‘fire goddess’ who, each time she touched the stage, would send flames shooting towards the rafters.
After she’d caught him mid song, she would tie him to the bedposts with gold ropes as a sheet of red descended to cover his struggling figure. At the end, the sheet would be whisked away – to reveal the goddess as the struggling figure, not Jackson.
Watch the trailer to This Is It below…