Director And Choreographer Get “Zapped” – An Interview With Peter DeLuise And Aakomon “AJ” Jones
BY: Marjorie Galas, Editor
Vancouver may not jump to mind when one thinks of the Disney Channel. Canadian native and “Zapped” director Peter DeLuise knew, however, the area provided great opportunities for the upcoming Disney Channel original movie.
“We shot in Vancouver Islands, which is far left and to the bottom of Vancouver,” said DeLuise. “The weather, the scenery, the neighborhoods were perfect for the movie. Vancouver proper is a more developed city. Most buildings on the island are no more than five stories. It’s just lovely there.”
While other recent hits, including “Godzilla” and “22 Jump Street” where shot in Vancouver, DeLuise’s knowledge of the area allowed him to recognize the benefit of the lesser-used location. The director whose television helming credits include “Sanctuary”, “Stargate Atlantis”, “Stargate SG-1” and “The Outer Limits” used his knowledge of acting and young adults to guide his choice in directing “Zapped.” An accomplished actor who started as a teen, DeLuise currently teaches youth acting classes. He’s the father of a ten year old son. He loves comedy and had such a great time directing Disney Channel’s “16 Wishes” a few years ago, he was eager to work with Disney again.
Utilizing the strong incentive program, DeLuise hired local crew, and cast the majority of the key roles surrounding lead actress Zendaya with Canadian actors, including Chanelle Peloso and Adam DiMarco. While the classic theme of the story, how absolute power can corrupt a person, was attractive to DeLuise, “Zapped” incorporated a number of dance numbers into its storyline. This was new territory for the director.
“In science fiction, you’re creating stuff that isn’t there; you don’t have to be literal. Working with dance is not unlike an aggressive CGI or a stunt sequence – you are using these techniques to help tell a story,” said DeLuise. ““While I had not done a legit dance sequence, every genre you work with can affect everything else.”
DeLuise knew that finding the right choreographer would be crucial to creating fun, entertaining dance numbers that supported the elements of the story. As he began auditioning talent, he was told Aakomon Jones was the person he needed. “AJ” had created choreography for Madonna’s touring shows as well as films (Pitch Perfect) and television (“Dancing with the Stars” where he had previously instructed “Zapped” lead Zendaya.)
“I knew he was it right away. Every moment I spent with AJ I was grateful for,” said DeLuise. “He has this glow about him, he’s great with kids, and he has incredible energy. Dancers were chomping at the bit to be near him, even if it was just to audition. They walked away saying ‘I learned steps from AJ’ – the audition was like a master class for them.”
AJ began his process by carefully reading through and understanding the script. He ensures he clearly understands each character, and creates a truthful number based on what the characters are going through before and after each dance sequence. He also looks at the tones and palette of the script, determining the style and period the music should represent. This informs the type of dance he’ll incorporate into the choreography. “Zapped” focuses around a high school dance competition, and hip hop was the chosen style.
“This was a state championship dance competition,” said AJ. “So you have to think of the style of dance the people would be engaged in; this is a school as opposed to a night club or kids in the street.”
AJ also takes into consideration the abilities of the actors and dancers he’s working with. If there is a weaker dancer, the other dancers will be adjusted to support that person, where as a strong dancer may be toned down to match the overall skill level. DeLuise spent twelve weeks carefully casting all parts, hiring primarily dancers who had some acting ability. While AJ was able to develop more complex dance moves, he remained cognizant of each dancer’s ability to perform on camera, hit marks, and carry their acting through their performance. “Zapped” required the dancers to fluidly move from being highly skilled to awkward, uncoordinated dancers due to the control Zoey (Zendaya) has over guys with her magic app. AJ worked with the dancers to ensure their facial expressions stayed even and in control regardless of the moments they were required to portray.
On a television show, it is not unusual to have between four to eight hours to prepare for a dance number. Working on “Zapped” there were multiple dance numbers, locations, and moving parts within a scene, as well as scheduling obligations of the cast members, so rehearsal time varied from one to three weeks. Prior to establishing any dance moves in rehearsal, AJ focused on getting the cast comfortable dancing together by working on group timing through a series of strength building exercises.
“It’s a minor boot camp; everyone gets in shape, finds their wind, lots of running, stretching and exercises, all done in rhythm,” said AJ. “We’ll do jumping jacks in synch and in formation. It gets everyone on the same vibe.”
AJ appreciated the attention DeLuise and “Zapped” cinematographer James Alfred Menard paid to the choreography during the rehearsal process. The three discussed their visions for the scene and collaborated to obtain the best possible visuals during the dance numbers. While AJ had a great experience working on “Zapped”, he particularly enjoyed the collaborative efforts he shared with DeLuise.
“It wasn’t the largest budget but (DeLuise) was able to create shots that were amazing,” said AJ. “I took a few notes from him about being creative and how to use your brain when working with a small budget to work it out.”
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