How the 13 Going on 30 team made 'Thriller' into an epic rom-com moment
13 Going on 30 follows the tale of Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner), a 13-year-old girl who wishes to be “thirty, flirty, and thriving” and wakes up to find her wish has come true — only she barely recognizes the conniving, manipulative adult version of herself. With a sprinkle of youthful exuberance, she goes about righting her adult wrongs and reconnecting with former best friend, Matt (Mark Ruffalo).
The film launched Garner and Ruffalo to new heights, proving their staying power as romantic leads. And 15 years later, it seems even more star-studded given memorable turns from supporting cast like Andy Serkis and Judy Greer. It features many stand-out moments — from Matt and Jenna’s love of 1980s candy Razzles to a “Love is a Battlefield” slumber party, but none have stuck in the public imagination quite like the “Thriller” dance party at its heart.
When a work party seems like it’s about to be a massive dud, Jenna, who still possesses the heart and soul of her 13-year-old self, kickstarts a “Thriller” dance party that changes everything — including how she and childhood best friend Matt feel about each other. As darkness falls across the land, the midnight hour is close at hand — and Jenna teaches a group of stuffy adults how to do the iconic zombie dance.
In honor of the film’s 15th anniversary, EW went behind-the-scenes of this epic, killer-diller Thriller sequence. Writers Josh Goldsmith and Cathy Yuspa, actor Andy Serkis, and choreographer Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks tell EW about filming the scene no mere mortal could resist.
As the “thirty, flirty, and thriving” version of herself, Jenna Rink brings along 1980s cultural touchstones from her teenage years. The rom-com includes several musical numbers including a “Love is a Battlefield” sleepover and a “Thriller” dance party.
Josh Goldsmith (co-writer): All of those memories are very specific to our lives. We drew a lot from our childhood in writing the movie… “Thriller” was sort of the soundtrack of our youth in the 1980s. We both grew up listening to Michael Jackson.
Cathy Yuspa (co-writer): I vividly remember being in my best friend’s shag carpeted den sitting ready to watch the world premiere of the “Thriller” video, and I was really terrified to watch it because I heard it was a horror movie.
Andy Serkis (Richard): We all knew it. We all grew up with it…We all tried to practice that. Everybody tried to moonwalk and nobody could.
Goldsmith: For me actually it was a soundtrack to a make-out party in this girl’s basement in 7th grade.
- At a work function, Jenna’s boss Richard (Serkis) implores her to help turn a duddy party into a raucous affair – so she approaches the DJ, requests “Thriller” and steps out on to the dance floor alone.
- Marguerite Pomerhn Derricks (choreographer): It started with Jennifer Garner, just coming on the floor and almost having like a tweak in her neck.
- Goldsmith: It’s the EW review where they said, “This is the moment where Jennifer Garner becomes a star,” when she steps out alone on to the dance floor and, with the innocence of a child, does this dance.
- Derricks: She became kind of like the Pied Piper and it was infectious, the way she kind of as a magnet pulls everybody onto the floor. I tweaked the beginning for comedy, but we stuck with the iconic [choreography} and I made sure that Michael Peters, the original choreographer of “Thriller, “received credit at the end of the film.
When her childhood friend Matt arrives at the party, Jenna brings him on to the dance floor.
Derricks: Mark put in a little extra time on it. I probably had a handful of hour sessions with the actors… there were 5 [one] hour sessions max, and Mark had those because he had a couple extra.
Goldsmith: We were looking for a way to have this character bring her childlike innocence into this “too cool for school” world… It’s so silly when you watch it now, but as kids we all take it very seriously, as does the character Jenna Rink in the scene, and Jennifer Garner does it so brilliantly. She’s not being ironic about it; she’s not goofing around; she’s doing it. It gives the other main character Matt, her childhood friend, a chance to let go of his cynicism and skepticism of her for a moment and join in the dance too.
Serkis: It’s fine in rehearsals. You think you’ve got it down. But you really do not want to be the one who’s just half a step behind everybody else, so I was quite happy that it came together.
Derricks: They were having a good time with it. They weren’t insecure and worried about “Oh, do I look good?” They were going for the comedy of the scene and the fun of it. We just had a really great time.
Eventually, the entire crowd joins in, including the stuck-up Lucy (Judy Greer) and Jenna’s boss Richard.
Derricks: That’s creatively where my fun came in since I was doing an iconic piece. The beginning build — just creating an interesting way to bring everybody on to the floor.
Yuspa: That choreography was so unique. I think it stayed with everyone in our generation.
Goldsmith: There is some sense memory of those moves…I do believe it’s in all our muscles somewhere with claws in the air and the head pops.
Derricks: One of the producers wanted to be in the scene…She was just joyful. Seeing somebody do something they had always wanted to do their whole life. Everybody was doing something that they were just having such a great time at, and it was like you could tell this was something they always wanted to do.
The “Thriller” scene garnered a lot of attention in early favorable reviews and has remained one of the most memorable parts of the movie.
Derricks: We were bringing the ‘80s back. That to me is always such a great thing to do is to introduce to the new generations how cool stuff really was.
Goldsmith: We were the generation of the “Thriller “video. I was 13 when it came out, but I’d like to think I kept the zombie dance alive for a new generation.
13 Going on 30