Written by Judy Sloane & Sheila Roberts Friday, 30 October 2009 21:09
Do you really think Michael would have been happy with everyone seeing him do the unfinished show that wasn’t polished and complete?
TRAVIS PAYNE The Michael Jackson we were working with this time had evolved in a way that his priorities were different, he was a father with three young children now. It was to be not just a return to the stage, but a challenge to the audiences of the world to really think about humanity and conservation, a message which had been woven through his art for so many years, but I think that in recent years had become much more important to him because he wanted to do everything he could to ensure as healthy a planet possible for his young children and their children. Because the messages were there, they became the priority to us as they were to him. There would have been 50 shows in London, which would have been fantastic and set records in itself, but now 50 shows worth of people can go see the movie every day, so the audience has grown and the platform is much greater.
But you kept the original choreography from Thriller and Beat It?
PAYNE He would always tell you, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And don’t tease the audience. They want to see what they know.’ If people can come and see what they’re familiar with, they can identify and appreciate it and grab hold of it. He’d say, ‘You go and see James Brown, you don’t want to see James Brown not be James Brown.’ He thought like that, and that was his mentality when approaching his art. Certain things stayed sacred.
What did you guys talk about in terms of the movements?
PAYNE The thing is that those are the things that he’s mastered. That is part of his vocabulary – quite like an opera singer who doesn’t always need to hit the high notes, you warm up to those moments. But with his iconic signature steps like the moonwalk and all of his spins and side glides, that was just in his body. That was innate. That’s the stuff you do without thinking about it. . Hopefully people realize in the film he was listening to his music and doing a sound check and teaching people around him what he expected and needed from them in order for him to give the best performance possible. I mean, it was not a full performance. It was the process. So you see him hint at the moonwalk because he was telling us “Okay, this is where I’ll do it” for the lighting cues so things can happen. Or, “This is how long it’s going to take me to do this so you know how long I have to change before that.” It was a rehearsal. He was rehearsing.
So This Is It is just Michael practicing, even though his fans are going to find it incredible to watch?
PAYNE That’s a blessing. The thing was there was an entirely new cast and crew. Being one of his dancers from 1993 and then becoming a choreography partner of his in 1994, I’ve been able to see him train new people. But this was an entirely new cast. Everybody on stage with Michael was different. Dorian Holley and Darryl Phinnessee, two of his singers, returned. Other than that, the stage crew – the people hanging the lights, everything, all different. And in his mind they all had choreography. They would all have certain movements that they’d have to do in a certain amount of time – whether it’s climbing the scaffolding to adjust something or making a prop available to come out onto the stage – he considered it all choreography because you have to do a certain series of moves within a certain period of time.
So that’s what we were doing, having those type of rehearsals so that people could get the beats and then once everybody knows what they’re doing and safety is not an issue, then you start to have this sort of full out kind of performances that had the pyro and the bombs and the fire and all of that. I think for people to be able to have a glimpse into his last great creative process is a blessing. I think it will answer a lot of questions that people may have on their own and put a lot of end to the speculation that has surrounded this project and give people their hero back for a little while. I’m glad that the initial response is great.
Did he always try to go one better?
PAYNE Michael was always trying to add to his legacy. He wasn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. He would always say, 'If it’s working, we don’t have to change it.' If you can add to it and make it better, great. But if you can’t, don’t touch it. There were some things that were very sacred like Billie Jean and Thriller. You don’t want to change those. You just want to add to them. You want to embellish them. People will see that in this film and how he regarded all of it. They weren’t just songs to him. .
You’re a choreographer, a dancer, and you knew Michael for a long time. How would you say he was physically? He looked thin but in good shape.
PAYNE I think he was in great shape. I think that clearly he was a seasoned professional who was 50 years old. But there’s also many others in his peer group who were doing it successfully. As a choreographer and dancer, it was great to be in the room with him every day. As an Associate Director, it was great to have creative conversations with him and contribute conceptually this time. And as an Associate Producer of the movie, I found it a great responsibility and honour in telling the story of what was his last historic creative process.
How would you like people to remember Michael?
PAYNE I would love for people to remember Michael for his caring, the fact that he cared so deeply about so many different people in the world, many of whom he didn’t even know. He just knew that someone somewhere was suffering so that was enough for him to be concerned about it. People know of his charitable contributions but I don’t know how many people know that he still to this day holds the record for the most charitable contributions by any celebrity or any one person.
I think that he should be remembered as just a really gentle giant. He was huge and immensely talented but never took credit for his talent. He always just said “I’m a vessel and I know there’s something bigger than me. I just give people the messages.” I think people often mistook his kindness for weakness and assumed that he was not in control of his own life but he was a loving father. And, just to hear him and his philosophies on life and art and spirituality and family was just so moving to me. I hope that after seeing the film the audience will feel a sense of responsibility and accept the challenge of trying to affect some positive change on the planet because ultimately that was his main reason for returning to the stage.