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They rule the school

The stakes are higher as the 'High School Musical' franchise moves to the big screen. But the cast members still act like kids.

September 07, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

SALT LAKE CITY — You MIGHT expect the set of “High School Musical 3: Senior Year”:-senior-year to be a bit like summer camp, with a bunch of young actors running around in shorts and T-shirts. And to a certain extent, it is. During a recent visit to a night-shoot set in a junkyard here, the preternaturally familiar cast members are surrounded by the colorful rusted-out carcasses of cinematically groomed classic cars and are killing time between shots doing what any group of high school or college kids might do between classes.

Zac Efron, 20, who plays alpha dog and basketball star Troy in the series, nuzzled the neck of his on-stage and off-stage girlfriend, Vanessa Hudgens, 20, who plays the lovely brainiac Gabriella. She then bumped shoulders and banged fake swords with Corbin Bleu, 19, who plays Troy's best friend, Chad. At one point between takes, Efron and Bleu threw themselves into the canvas chairs recently vacated by director Kenny Ortega and cinematographer Daniel Aranyo and requested a playback, watching the scene they just shot the way any other guys might review their Grand Theft Auto IV scores.

"Did you think about asking the director if it was OK to sit in his chair?" Ortega said, looming suddenly over the two for all the world like a high school principal. Efron grinned sheepishly and leapt from his chair, but everyone, including Ortega, laughed.

After five years of working with this cast, Ortega is clearly a director who rules through love, not fear -- and it's hard not to love a man who walks around orchestrating an extremely complicated dance number with his teacup terrier Manly (yes, the same one owned by the scheming Sharpay in the movies) carelessly cradled in his arm.

But don't be fooled. The minute the cameras and lights are ready, everyone is all business, and if something -- a light, a car, a line -- is not the way he wants it, Ortega's displeasure is expressed in clarion tones.

For all the playfulness, high spirits and collective chorus of "we really are one big happy family" that infuses the set of Disney's bullet train of a film franchise, the folks involved in the third "HSM" are focused. Because there's a lot at stake. The little movie Peter Barsocchini wrote as a simple paean to his own high school experience, that Ortega took as a way to get back into films after spending years choreographing dance numbers at mega-events like the Super Bowl, that was cast with kids previously known only to Disney Channel devotees, has become an international multibillion-dollar industry.

All over the world teens and tweens jam to the soundtrack and scarf up the merchandise. It has become one of the most popular plays staged by real high school drama departments; there's a traveling show, an ice show and a new reality series called "High School Musical: Get in the Picture." But even with its built-in audience, "Senior Year" is a very big deal. This one isn't being shown free on TV; this one will be headed Oct. 24 for the multiplex, where families must shell out roughly $9 each to see the cast sing and dance. And as Efron, Hudgens, Bleu and the rest of the cast continually mention, it's the last film that this particular group will do together.

So although no one seems nervous exactly, the terms "high energy" and "110%" are used a lot. Even Efron, who expressed impatience with his Disney fetters during the filming of "HSM2," has, as one insider puts it, put his game face on.

"Let's do it again, just better," he says at one point after Ortega has pointed out a few ways in which he could improve a scene.

Gracious and friendly, Efron, who stretched his wings last year in "Hairspray," seemed clearly in his element here. Yes, there were problems with the paparazzi earlier on, but now it's all about the work. And as with many young men, home always seems sweeter after you've been away for a bit.

"You definitely appreciate it more," he says between takes. "I feel lucky to come back. With other projects it was just scene work. Here it's more like fun and music."

"Everyone came egos checked at the door," Bleu says. "We were all ready to work, even more so than on the other films. We know this is it, so we have to enjoy the moment."

"I really do love these guys," Hudgens adds.

The scene being shot on this night is a much-anticipated dance number featuring Efron, Bleu and a coterie of male dancers tricked out in junkyard chic. By the time the sun goes down and the lights go up, a crowd of nonparticipatory cast and crew are huddled together in jackets and sweaters.

As artistically ambitious as the previous two films were, the transition from television to feature film has meant many changes -- a larger budget, for example, that no one will discuss in detail, though Ortega says it is half that of most musical features.

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