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Disney descends on Victoria

Big-budget production takes advantage of local landmarks for Descendants

If anyone knows how to throw a party, Disney-style, it’s Kenny Ortega.
The Emmy Award-winning director-choreographer of High School Musical fame proved this during last year’s secrecy-cloaked shoot one summer night at Royal Roads University. Its historic landmark Hatley Castle became the fairy-tale centrepiece for the spectacular finale in Descendants, Ortega’s Disney extravaganza premièring Friday at 8 p.m. on Family Channel.

“You are at the party of parties, yah? Look at each other, look at the castle, look at the world … let’s do it!” exclaimed Ortega, using a wireless microphone to inspire dozens of colourfully clad dancers. When someone yelled “Playback!” a DJ wearing a porkpie hat spun Set It Off, a catchy electronic dance number that triggered another frenzy of inventive, high-energy dance moves on cue.

“There’s nothing more exciting for our audience than seeing you guys laughing and having a good time,” said Ortega, whose co-choreographer is Victoria native Paul Becker. “Let’s have a safe and joyful evening.”

It was the last night of the week-long Greater Victoria shoot for the Disney Channel movie that has generated hot buzz for its clever premise and cast of young Disney stars and screen veterans. Headlined by Dove Cameron (Liv and Maddie), it co-stars Booboo Stewart (Twilight), Cameron Boyce (Jesse) and Sofia Carson, with Kristin Chenoweth (Wicked) vamping it up as Maleficent and Kathy Najimy (Sister Act) as the Evil Queen.

Putting a witty, modern spin on Disney’s classic good vs. evil tales, the comic fantasy introduces a new generation of villains — Mal, Evie, Carlos and Jay, the teenage offspring of Maleficent, Evil Queen, Cruella De Vil and Jafar, respectively. They’re given a shot at redemption by Prince Ben (Mitchell Hope), the benevolent son of Beauty and the Beast, who now reign as Queen and King of Auradon.

Sequences set on Isle of the Lost, the slummy, desolate hell where the quartet has been exiled with their wicked parents, were filmed in Vancouver. Capital region locations, including Government House and the legislature, stood in for the pristine kingdom where the evil teens are challenged to make good choices while studying with the offspring of fairy-tale characters such as Sleeping Beauty at Auradon Prep boarding school.

The night’s fireworks-punctuated spectacle was magical, with the cotton-candy colours of the fairy-tale costumes, the castle’s rainbow-coloured lighting and giant flickering image of Beast, and two silver light towers illuminating stone-walled stages. A statue of the king that would digitally morph into the Beast was another reminder we’re not in Colwood anymore.

It was a nocturnal blizzard of colour, a setting akin to a giant outdoor nightclub each time the royal celebration erupted musically, whether Ortega and cinematographer Thomas Burstyn were going for close-ups or overhead or tracking shots of dancers clutching glowsticks.

“There’s just so much to do,” explained featured dancer Jeff Mortensen, one of four assistant choreographers.

“Kenny and Paul are the ones with the vision, and we’re the ones with the bodies they get to play with.”

While Ortega urged performers to “drink some of that laughter juice” to energize the scene, he also told them to “conserve your energy” and hydrate, reminding them “it’s going to be a long night.”

Cameron, whose purple hair matched her dragon-themed wardrobe of dark purple, magenta and poisonous green for her role as Mal, said it was impossible not to become spellbound by the movie magic.

“It’s just sort of filled with magic all the time,” she said. “This is probably the most fun project I’ve ever done.”

Sarah Jeffery (Wayward Pines), the Vancouver native who plays Audrey, the daughter of Aurora (Sleeping Beauty), agrees.

“It’s super fun,” she said. “We’ve got such a great cast, and Kenny is just the best. We’ve lucked out. It’s insanely magical.”

Most magical of all, said Ortega, was that they were able to pull off the spectacular finale without being drenched.

“It was fun but scary, too, because we were expecting a humongous storm,” he recalled. “Our line producer Tracey Jeffrey said: ‘You’re not going to believe this, but it went around us.’ ”

There was another, more poignant reason the local dancers and background performers lucky enough to become part of the action wouldn’t soon forget this night.

Coincidentally, it was being staged on the fifth anniversary of the death of Michael Jackson, Ortega’s longtime friend and creative collaborator.

“I felt his presence. We all did. It was magical,” said Ortega, who paused briefly to share a heartfelt remembrance with his cast.

He said he was sure that “celebrating in front of this castle with all these young people” is where Jackson would have wanted to be that night.

“I think all of the kids are enormous fans, and Michael remains in my heart as strong as ever,” he said later. “His words and wisdom he shared with me in our years of collaboration still motivate and inspire my work.”

Ortega, whose last collaboration with Jackson was directing his concert film This Is It, said he thought about Jackson’s “heart, compassion, his wit and his genius” when he woke up that morning.

While the Fox series Gracepoint was the region’s biggest shoot here last year, Descendants, code-named Off the Island at the time, ran a close second.

“The direct spend was approximately $500,000,” said Victoria film commissioner Kathleen Gilbert, adding the opportunity it offered locals was perhaps more important.

 “Hundreds of people were employed as both crew and background, and had the opportunity to be involved in a once-in-a-lifetime adventure of being in a Disney movie.”

Nearly 400 dancers showed up for a rare open casting call at Kim Breiland’s Stages Performing Arts School Studio, hoping for a chance to work with the legendary director of Dirty Dancing fame.

“These kids were so nervous,” recalled Becker, who was once taught by Breiland at Stages. “It was insane. Ninety per cent of them had never auditioned for anything professional.”

A record-setting 1,500 locals also responded to an open call for background performers.

In the most high-profile scene shot here, locals gave Descendants the royal treatment amid much pageantry outside the legislature, which masqueraded as Auradon’s fairy-tale castle. Dozens of regally costumed locals cheered and waved flags in front of the legislature, adorned with a royal blue staircase carpet and yellow-and-blue banners, as Mal and Prince Ben pulled up in a white horse-drawn carriage for his coronation.

“I didn’t realize that many people were going to turn out,” laughed Cameron, referring to hundreds of onlookers, and some paparazzi, who gathered throughout the day.

As he demonstrated when he shot High School Musical in Utah, Ortega has a reputation for giving local performers a chance to shine.

“I like to give opportunity, and they’re an enthusiastic lot,” he laughed. “I’ve often found that by engaging locals you get incredible results. It’s often those background dancers and players that bring in a tremendous energy that really lifts a project.”

He said he welcomed the chance to work with Becker on his home turf.

“I adore him. He’s an amazing kid,” said Ortega. “He’s really an imaginative person, conceptually strong and he has a great sense of humour. He brought on some amazing Canadian talent.”

Local talent includes Victoria actor Dan Payne as King, and Spectrum grad Zachary Gibson, who wore a burgundy-coloured jacket and unleashed Pee Wee Herman-like moves as Dopey’s son Doug during the finale.

“Zach was so full of life, putting out 110 per cent,” said Breiland, who with associate Craig Hempstead facilitated the dancers’ casting call and worked on set.

“He said: ‘Isn’t it amazing to have this opportunity here in Victoria?’ It was great how they’ve used our kids, and to see the excitement on their faces. This has given our whole community a boost.”

Making it happen took 12 months, said Jeffrey, the B.C. producer who brought Ortega here a year earlier to scout locations. He fell in love with Royal Roads.

“It was the perfect setting for everything we wanted the movie to be,” said Jeffrey, adding they thought the legislature was the perfect place to stage the coronation arrival sequence.

“Everybody from the Speaker of the House down were fantastic. They were so co-operative, and it was the same with Government House. The interest from the community has been just fantastic.”

The icing on the cake was the six per cent distant-location tax credit implemented here last year.

“It made a difference, let me tell you,” she said. “It’s a huge benefit having that in place.”

Ortega went a step further, saying he’d return to this “spectacular place” in a heartbeat.

“I hope we have a Descendants 2 so we can come back.”

Watch the trailer: