Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist choreographer reveals how she creates all those dance numbers
Meet Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist's secret weapon: Mandy Moore.
No, not the singer. This Moore (La La Land, So You Think You Can Dance) is the choreographer for NBC's new musical series, and she's the one to thank for all the stunning, emotional, and powerful dance numbers that have wowed viewers all season long. From the very first performance in the pilot to this week's groundbreaking number done entirely in American Sign Language and dance with no singing or subtitles when Zoey (Jane Levy) hears the heart song of her father’s caregiver’s deaf daughter, Abigail (Sandra Mae Frank), Moore has worked tirelessly to bring each one to life.
When it comes to creating each unique performance, Moore explains that it all starts with Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist creator Austin Winsberg. "He created this story that allows so much dance and song and heart to live in this language that is unique," she tells EW. "In the pilot, [director] Richard Shepard and Austin and I started with wanting to make the language of dance and how dance lives in the show very unique, so it was a very conscious thing. We want it to feel real and organic based on these people's inner thoughts and emotions but never feels performative or gratuitous."
Below, EW got Moore to reveal her creative process behind making each performance on the show and why this week's episode, "Zoey's Extraordinary Silence," features what she calls "one of the most challenging and incredible things" she's ever experienced as a choreographer.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Let's start at the beginning. What's your first step when tackling a new dance number on the show?
MANDY MOORE: It always starts with the outline of the script and I'm very lucky to be able to get in those early conversations, like as soon as an outline comes out Austin will send it to me. We sit and go through each song that's supposed to be in the episode, and he and I basically have what we call our dance creative meeting or dance concept meeting. We talk about each number like what the conceit is, if he has any ideas, anything. I just try to pick all of his initial thoughts about the number out of his head in that meeting. It's very much a back and forth, which I really love about Austin. He and I work really well together so it's very collaborative. We also get really excited about anything the other says — I feel like we "mat talk" to each other from Cheer, that's how Austin and I are [laughs].
What happens next?
Once I get that initial idea of where he sees the number and how he sees the number, I then go to my team, Jillian my associate and Jeff my assistant, and we usually do what we call "team dance prep" where we'll throw out really bad ideas and dance around our dance studio and turn on the music loud and have this, just... [makes vomit sound] like dance vomit together. And we film everything so that we can remember certain moves or things and we break down the song. Once I feel like I have a pretty good idea about where I want to go, I will work with what I call a skeleton crew, so I'll bring in multiple dancers or a single dancer and put up version one on its feet. And that's a really interesting process; it's kind of an ugly process [laughs]. Then I'll video that and I'll send it to Austin and the director and just get initial thoughts and notes, like, "Okay this worked. I know this was written like this in the script but when we put it together it felt a little odd." And then maybe we'll get one more chance to put it on with the skeleton crew with a V2 but then right after that I've got to start teaching the actors. Then it's go time: once you teach the actors, that's it, that's what we're doing. Then I have to spend my time not only teaching them but coaching them and getting them ready to shoot because the turnaround is so fast on television. It's an eight day turnaround with five to six numbers per episode. You can imagine, we were pretty buried most of the time.
How long do you have to create each performance from the very start to when it films?
It all depends on when I get the outline. Obviously towards the beginning of the season, the writers room was further ahead than they were at the end of the season. Towards the end of the season I was getting things like a day or two before they shoot. So my process was very truncated! In a dream world it's usually about a week out from when I get that outline and we start to structure the song. Our music producer has to produce a song, so sometimes I'm actually rehearsing with the original song [laughs], because the song isn't actually done yet, so that's exciting.
Creating, troubleshooting, and then filming an entire number with only days sounds difficult to say the least.
I mean, I don't know how we do it! Sometimes I look back and I'm like, how did we do 61 numbers? You're in the creation mode and then you're in the skeleton crew mode and then you're in the teaching mode and you're in the shooting mode all in one day. We're doing multiple things all in one day. But my team is awesome and we have a lot of fun.
So you've choreographed the dance and taught it to the actors. What’s your role on set during the actual filming?
Because the dance has a very specific language that we created in a pilot, a lot of it is very head to toe, a lot of them are "oners" [filmed in one long uninterrupted take], I am really involved when we shoot. I'm not only working closely with the director and the camera ops and the DP on framing and timing and making sure that everyone's happy with how fast the camera's moving, then I'm also working with the actors on their performance. Part of my job is to try to pull out different kinds of performances or better performances from them.
There's a number in this week's episode, "Fight Song," that is unlike any other performance we've seen on the show so far because it's done entirely in sign language. Where did the idea come from to create that scene?
Austin, a big thing for him is to continually figure out how to not only challenge the team on how to do the storytelling but also just to give Zoey a lot of different ways of experiencing these people's heart songs. He had this idea really early on, he just didn't know what episode it was going to be on. From the beginning he wanted a deaf performer to do an ASL performance with other deaf performers, and he wanted no subtitles. He wanted it to be specifically dance and ASL. I was like, "This is the best idea ever. I have no idea how to do it because I don't know ASL." [Laughs] So the first thing I had to figure out is how do I marry dance and ASL and how do I respect this language that's so beautiful and it's almost like dance anyways? ASL already has the fluidity of the arm movements and the dynamics and the the way they move their hands. Once he decided on the song and we talked about how many people were going to be in it, he had a contact with D.J. Kurs over at Deaf West [Theater Company in Los Angeles], a really reputable company that does really beautiful work with the deaf community, both deaf and hearing, very high caliber work. I needed that help because I also don't really have access to casting the performers. So I reached out to D.J. and he put his feelers out to his network and we were able to find 10 performers from all over the country that flew into Vancouver, and I had them for two days of rehearsal. We shot the third day.
How did choreographing and filming this number compare to all the others you've done on the series?
It was one of the most challenging and incredible things I've probably ever experienced as a choreographer because not only do you have to work on creating what you're doing, this marriage of ASL movements, staging, storytelling, but you also have to create systems to communicate. Because we take for granted as a teacher, at least I did, you take for granted that you could just raise your voice if you wanted somebody to listen to you or you could talk very quietly if you needed someone to feel like it was an intimate moment. But when you take that away and then you add that I don't know how to communicate with my hands and do ASL, it was really a beautiful experience to try to figure out the systems, how it's going to work each time, where you have to stand in the room because they all need to be able to see you and have their eyes towards you. I'd have a translator to my left and then we'd create a system where every time they would do the number they would all then turn and look at myself and the translator and then I would give them notes. And then they'd ask questions. It was really cool to see that then translate to set.
What was it like being on set that day?
It was really cool to see different departments and different people start to understand that we have to communicate in a different way today. We've got performers on set today that you can't just yell cut. There has to be someone who's in their eye line to do the gesture for cut so they know that they are stopping and then a translator has to be somewhere to tell them what to do. It was just a really beautiful moment.
Tell me more about the performers that make up the ensemble.
Each one of these performers was deaf, and varying degrees of deaf. Some of them cannot hear a single thing. Some of them can feel beats underneath on the floor, and some of them have very, very little distinct noises they can hear. A lot of dance on television can be very unison and very clean and together and that's part of what makes dance on television look really great. When we watched it the first time one of Austin's fears was, "Are people even gonna know?" They're not perfectly together, because they're not supposed to be because they are all speaking their own truth with their hands, but at the same time, they're all deaf. They don't hear what you and I may hear in the music. So, being on set, it was really cool to be in some of their eye lines and I'd have to have a hand gesture to count them down to the downbeat so that they could all know where they were. We practiced for hours to feel each other's flow and each other's timing. Again you take for granted that you could say, "Okay guys, we're going to hit that on a five." Well, there is no five for them. They all have to just feel and use their peripheral vision to understand that they're together, all the while still emoting and performing their own truth, which was so rad to see these 11 people moving together in a way, in silence, in their worlds. Meanwhile, all of us have this beautiful orchestral music going. It turned out to be something so moving and I'm so proud of it.
Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on NBC.