Choreographer and director Jeffrey Hornaday recently complete work on Disney Channel’s new summer-event special, Teen Beach Movie, which debuts on the network on Friday, July 19. The movie is a stylized mash-up of classic surfer movies and West Side Story, featuring nearly a dozen musical numbers, all shot on location in Puerto Rico.
Hornaday has worked with filmmakers Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Mel Brooks, and Warren Beatty in a career that spans film, television and concerts. His credits include Flashdance, Captain Eo, Dick Tracy and
A Chorus Line, among others.
Disney’s new Teen Beach Movie stars Maia Mitchell as surfer girl McKenzie, and Ross Lynch as her boyfriend Brady. She's headed for boarding school, but not before they ride one last wave, which somehow sends them back, into their favorite early '60s surfer movie, “Wet Side Story.” There, bikers and surfers battle for control of a local hangout.
Post caught up with Hornaday just as post production was wrapping up. Here, he details the challenges of working on-location in Puerto Rico, capturing the numerous surfing scenes, and creating a look that moves between two distinct time periods.
POST: How did you can matched up with Disney?
HORNADAY: “I actually did a little romantic comedy for them. That was the first time working together and it went really well. I was nominated for a Directors Guild Award. When this came up, it was developed internally. I wasn’t involved in that part. Gary Marsh, who is the president of company, and I sat down and looked at how to approach this? We were all on the same page.”
POST: Were there specific challenges to this project?
HORNADAY: “We shot on location in Puerto Rico because the setting for the film is this paradise at the beach, and there is a lot of surfing involved. Puerto Rico, at that time of the year, turned out to be a really good place with really good waves, and all of the other production elements came together.”
POST: How long of a shoot was it?
HORNADAY: “Thirty-two days. The picture is locked and [they’re] just doing the commercial stuff.”
POST: You are known for your choreography and musical work. How many numbers appear in this production?
HORNADAY: “I think it ended up with 10 or 11. I don’t know what their previous pieces were, but this was kind of unique for them. It’s fun as a musical but the difficult thing is getting the audience to take the leap of faith and convince [them] that suddenly people start breaking out in song and dance. The curse was taken off early on. It’s about these two modern kids who are contemporary surfers, and are really intrigued by this old ‘60s movie, which was one of those beach party movies. A ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ style. His girlfriend was ripping him early on about it, saying, ‘These things are so silly. People start singing and dancing for no reason.’ So it winked at the notion that we would be going with that convention. And these kids become trapped in this old ‘60s movie. It becomes sort of a ‘Wizard of Oz’ story, with them trying to find their way back.”
POST: Did you reference those classic beach-party films?
HORNADAY: “We didn’t want to recreate what those movies were. If you go back and look at them, they were shot very flat. The musical sequences were not very developed. But when you think about them nostalgically, you get a different kind of feeling about them. You get a sense of whimsy, and they’re almost like a fantasy. So that’s the kind of feel we took: how does it feel to think about those things nostalgically? To me it’s absolutely as over the top as we could be.”
POST: Are you working with final tracks for the musical numbers?
HORNADAY: “We had pretty decent tracks. They weren’t just demos. Happily, the leads are really good singers. So we staged the numbers first and — more in like in a Broadway show in that sense — once we blocked them, and the kids knew what the physicality of the song would be, then they did their final vocals before we started shooting. We had sweetened tracks. Even though they weren’t fully orchestrated, we had good tracks and final vocals.”
POST: How did you shoot the different sequences?
HORNADAY: “There are a couple of different approaches depending on what the number was. There’s a number called ‘Cruising For A Bruising,’ which is the motorcycle gang’s number. The prototype we used was a number in West Side Story called ‘Cool.’ When we went in to shoot it, it was very specifically designed and shot-for-shot, storyboarded very clearly. So that particular number was more of a one-camera approach with a second camera picking up some wild shots. It was very specifically constructed, whereas the final number, where there are 80 kids on the beach, that was done using multiple cameras, because the choreography was pretty much a unison formation. We wanted to get a lot faces. We went with almost with a documentary approach. I think in that final number there were four cameras and a big crane for big moving shots. And we were able to garner multiple angles.”
DIrector Jeffrey Hornaday
POST: You have probably shot on both film and digitally? How did you decide to shoot this special?
HORNADAY: “The first project I shot with Disney, we shot on film. This, we shot on the Alexa camera, and it was determined up front to do digital. One was, we knew we wanted to shoot a lot of stuff, and also because they are young kids, I didn’t want to kill the energy from take to take. We’d do multiple takes without cutting and we could burn through more digitally than obviously using film.”
POST: Were you involved in the edit?
HORNADAY: “I work pretty closely. The director has an eitht-week directors cut. And the studio gives notes and we do a polish. The way Disney works is nice because they are collaborative. Assuming that the director’s cut is close, it’s really a matter of working collaboratively with them in terms of getting the final polish done. The music department always comes in with surprises that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself.”
POST: Where was it cut?
HORNADAY: “There is an editorial facility that they work with off the lot. But they have their own post supervisor and they’ll draw on independent editors based on what is appropriate for the film. The mixing, too, was done off the lot.”
POST: How long was post?
HORNADAY: “It kind of varies, but I think it was about three months, because it was so music intensive. There was a lot of post music sweetening, and you had to coordinate around the actors’ schedules. It took about three months.”
POST: Tell us about shooting on location in Puerto Rico?
HORNADAY: “What was interesting was, the DP and production designer had both shot movies down there, and they were very clear about having everyone get their head around that you get serious rain, if not every day, it was certainly every other day. Most of the picture was shot exterior, right on the beach. So we wondered how we were going to deal with that much down time? It was miraculous, we only had one day where we really got hit, and only lost about four hours. It was shocking!”
POST: How did you handle both directing and choreography?
HORNADAY: “We had a brilliant choreographer named Christopher Scott. When I met him, it was one of those collaborations where things just clicked. He was really a thinking choreographer and got inside the script and we were able to collaborate conceptually. With my background, I had a hand in it, but it was really Christopher’s department. He had two really good assistants. They really understood the value of pre-production. By the time we got to shooting, we were pretty much locked and loaded with the choreography for the numbers, and at that point it was making adjustments for the physical space rather than having to make adjustments on the spot. That lengthy pre-production period was extremely valuable.”
POST: Did the budget allow for everything you hoped to get on-screen?
HORNADAY: “I don’t know what the final [numbers] were but I know it was the most expensive project done thus far. They really know what it takes to do that. They were very high on the project going in, so they were very supportive. We actually finished a bit under budget and a half a day ahead of schedule, which is a bit shocking for something in that genre.”
POST: How were you viewing dailies?
HORNADAY: “The great thing about shooting digitally was, instead of having to turn around film, we were able to look at dailies immediately after a shoot, depending on what the requirements were on the day. That was really helpful for the elaborate surfing sequences. We were using GoPro cameras mounted to the nose of the surfboards, and mounted on 15-foot-long poles. We had jets skis flying around the surfers, so there was a lot of stuff to go through. As we were working our way through those sequences, I would do rough edits to make sure we had all the story needs for the surfing sequences. So shooting digitally really helped with that.”
POST: Are you doing any preliminary cutting?
HORNADAY: “I have been cutting on Final Cut forever. They would output a fairly low-res copy for me and put it on a drive, and I’d work in my trailer on the set.”
POST: Was your edit used in the final cut or was it just for reference?
HORNADAY: “It’s a bit of both. The main driver was to make sure we had in the can what we needed to connect up the story within the surfing sequences. The final sequences of the surfing we had at the end were based on those rough cuts. It was more a matter of cutting them down for time, rather than reinventing them from scratch.”
POST: Tell us about the look you were going for?
HORNADAY: “This was fun because the story operates in two worlds. One was contemporary, and the other was this alternative world/1960s beach party. So the contemporary stuff was done more realistically. The colors are more muted and the setting was a true on-location set. It had a modern feel to it. Once we went to the 1960s, we really went for a deliberate old-school, Technicolor look. The surf sequences that happen in modern time were done in the water, with GoPros on the boards, rather than shooting from the beach on long lenses. Where as for the ‘60s part, we literally did the old rear-projection gag, where the ocean was rear projected and the surfers were standing on surfboards on platforms, and their hair is dry. Periodically, we’d throw a little water in front of the lens, so we really made it look as fake as we could.”
POST: Can you detail the workflow?
HORNADAY: “The Avid was the system for true editorial. On the set we had a DIT and colorist, and that was real helpful because as we were shooting, the DP was able to really approximate pretty closely what we wanted to ultimately have, which gave us all a sense of how to really get the art direction dialed in and make adjustments to the wardrobe so that we could have a look we were going to end up with. So it really helped to have a colorist on-set.”