[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers through the Season 1 finale of Julie and the Phantoms, “Stand Tall.”]
From showrunners Dan Cross & David Hoge and director/executive producer Kenny Ortega, the nine-episode, half-hour series Julie and the Phantoms follows high schooler Julie (ultra-talented 16-year-old newcomer Madison Reyes) who’s still reeling from the loss of her mom when the ghosts of three musicians from 1995 — Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Reggie (Jeremy Shada) and Alex (Owen Joyner) — suddenly appear. Their passion for music reignites her own and as they start to write songs together, they quickly realize that while they’re performing, they’re a little less ghostly and can be seen and heard.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Collider, the writer/executive producer duo Cross & Hoge talked about how they came to this project, the importance of teaming up with Kenny Ortega, figuring out what this version of the show would be, what made Madison Reyes their Julie, what it takes to pull off a show with so many challenges, the Julie-Luke dynamic, creating the special effects, and the cliffhanger ending.
Collider: How did you guys come to this project and end up being showrunners on it?
DAVID HOGE: We were lucky enough that our agent, Andy Patman at A3 Artists Agency, also has another client named George Salinas that acquires projects around the world and this was something that he acquired. Andy knows our material and knows us very well. We’ve been with him for a long time and [he] knows what we like, and he thought it would be a good match. And so, he actually teamed us up with George and Kenny Ortega, as well. Andy brought us all together.
DAN CROSS: That was the key. He had us, and we’ve been working in the kids and family and YA space for a few years, and then he had Kenny, who’s a musical and director genius savant, and he’d always wanted a project he could pair us together on. And then, George brought him Julie and the Phantoms, and the light went off. He showed us the series and we liked it and then got a chance to sit down with Kenny and the ball took off rolling.
When you guys sat down to figure out how to take this show from the original Brazilian series to something that you wanted to do, what was that process? How did you figure out what the show would be, what you wanted to carry over, and what you didn’t?
CROSS: When we heard the premise, we were wondering, “Okay, so where are we going to focus?” It’s a high concept premise. We’ve already done some pretty high concept shows. If you look at the ones that we’ve created, Pair of Kings, and the other series that we were showrunners on, The Thundermans, but you’ve gotta figure out, character-wise, where the growth is gonna come from and where the heart is, to make someone care. That’s our big thing. Why should people care? There’s just so much product out there that you have to make them care. When we watched the third episode of their series, there was a big friendship arc, and I was like, “Well, that’s touching. How do you share a secret with a best friend? Okay, I could get into this.” And then, Dave and I started talking about the character of Julie and how she’s a girl who’s lost her mom. She’s an extremely talented musician who doesn’t want to remember how she felt when her mom was alive because it’s too painful. She’s just decided to put up emotional walls so she doesn’t have to deal with the reality of it. As writers, once we got into that and Netflix said that we’d be able to be a little more true to somebody going through something as emotional as that – that’s a little harder on some of the other networks or platforms – and to dive and delve into a girl who’s gone through that much loss, and such an important loss, that’s where we fell in love with it. A key component of the series is Julie and her growth. As long as we had that to hang our hat on, we knew it would be interesting for us to write.
HOGE: When we saw that this show had such great friendship built into it, and once you have friendship and plenty of heart and relationships and family, you’re off and running. That’s just a really strong place to be.
So much of this show relies on the audience falling in love with Julie. How scary was it to cast a high school student that had never been on television or in a recording studio before in such an important role? What did you see in Madison Reyes?
HOGE: We had no concerns. When you have someone like Kenny Ortega, he has an instinct. There’s no fear. There’s absolutely no fear. When Kenny says, “She’s it, she’s got it,” you know he’s right.
CROSS: We sat in a conference room and said, “Let’s go out and find a musician who’s a great actress or actor,” and that’s not easy. But then, Kenny Ortega sits there and says, “They’re out there.” End of discussion. Every actor wants to be a musician, and every musician wants to be an actor. But when you’ve got Kenny Ortega, you’re just like, “All right, let’s go get them.”
HOGE: Sure, she had never been on a television show or a film but she comes from theater. She has a theater background at age 14. She has that strong base and she’s a natural, and that’s all it takes. When you pair that with Kenny Ortega, it’s gonna be magic.
You not only had to find someone to play Julie but you had to do that multiple times over with so many characters, and you managed not to have any weak links.
HOGE: It’s so great that you say that because we feel the same way. We are so grateful and so lucky to have found four incredibly talented kids who can do everything. That just doesn’t happen. Even the supporting cast, they’ve all got music in their blood and they’re all great actors. They all came together. We’re so lucky.
CROSS: Even though we had worked with some of the talent and Kenny had worked with some of the talent, any actor that our casting directors brought in, you could see it working. You just kept wanting to get to the next one. We paired 16 actors in multiple variations with the energy and what we knew we wanted from the character. It was a pretty awesome process. They brought us so many options, it was incredible.
What was it like to watch Madison Reyes throughout the season as she was not only leading the show but leading the band?
HOGE: There’s a song that she sings at the school in episode 2 when the band first appears with her, called “Bright,” and she’s bouncing around the stage, she’s got the mic, and she’s alive. She just totally nails exactly what that song was supposed to do. That’s what she did in the audition. Auditions are brutal and the kids are young and we always give grace. We’re not saying that it’s exactly what they’re gonna end up being. We just wanna see a spark. But she was bouncing and she looked at the guys and she gave the microphone to Charlie. That was unsolicited. That’s just Madison knowing who Madison is. That girl brought that to the audition. She’s a born entertainer.
CROSS: And then, as far as her presence on stage, she’s a born leader. Clearly, she knows what she’s doing. There’s a confidence there that I don’t think we’ve really seen before but yet those cameras go off and she’s a teenage girl. Kenny brings out the best in everyone. It really is amazing. She has a strong base and she’s a natural, so it was an easy transition for her.
It seems like there endless challenges with a show like this. You have high school scenes, performance scenes, you have special effects, and you have songs that need to be recorded. What would surprise people about what it takes to pull off a show like this?
HOGE: Preparation. We had boot camp, which Kenny does, where he gets everyone song ready and dance ready before we hit those cameras. When those cameras come, between the big numbers and minors’ hours, we have very limited time in front of those cameras and that’s a problem. But when you have prep, these kids come to that stage, knowing the songs and knowing their moves. We didn’t have to stop a song because someone messed up the lyrics or didn’t know their cue for a dance number. They were so prepared when they got there that it was fluid. I credit everything to boot camp to make sure that once you get in production, that happens seamlessly, and it did. We were under time crunches constantly but it wasn’t because of the cast. They came one hundred percent prepared.
CROSS: And because they were so prepared, they were confident, and that was an extremely important component for us getting into the acting performances. The comedy comes from confidence. You can’t be shy. You’ve gotta just throw a joke out there and feel like it’s gonna land. And if they were worried about the music, which is another completely complicated component to the series, they wouldn’t have been able to be confident in front of the camera. We also tip our cap to the experience that Kenny brought to the table because anybody who doesn’t think that a band needs to rehearse has never been in a band. They were ready to go.
The season ends on a couple of big cliffhangers, with Julie and the guys actually being able to feel each other, and Caleb inhabiting Nick. What led you to that ending? Were you ever worried about leaving the show on not just one but two cliffhangers?
HOGE: It’s funny, the kids all hugging, and everything coming together like that really came from the love for the band and the love for each other. That energy allowed for that moment to happen. It allowed her to save them. We really didn’t think of that as much of a cliffhanger, as probably everyone is seeing, in the sense that, “Oh, they can touch now. What does this mean for next season?” We do want them to continue to be Phantoms and play that out, at least a little more, if we’re lucky enough to keep going with the show. For us, the bigger cliffhanger is Nick and Caleb. If we’re lucky enough to have a second season, that will play out very heavily in season 2. The fact that they can touch and come together is a great moment. Whether they can do that again, we’ll discover in season 2.
CROSS: The honest answer is that everybody wants more. Everybody fell in love with the characters. There’s a document that you put together called “the bible” before you get into the actual writing of the scripts. It’s interesting working for Netflix. You’re gonna arc an entire season because of this binge-watching world, and we had so many good cliffhangers going throughout the whole nine episodes, that when it got to the end of episode 9, people just wanted more. We were like, “Okay, we’ll give you more. We’ve got something up our sleeve.” We had a great team of writers and we had the opportunity to sit around and talk about what would be the best cliffhanger. When we landed on that, we were like, “That’ll freak people out.” The most important thing when you’re doing a show about a band is to keep the band together. That’s a little sneak peek into Season 2.
HOGE: Bands sticking together is a problem. Can a band survive an outsider? It’s fun.
It’s hard to be a teenager in the best of circumstances but Julie has had to deal with more than most. While there is a definite spark between Julie and Luke, how does being a ghost complicate things? Is that something that you also want to get deeper into if the series continues?
HOGE: Oh, yeah, definitely. We definitely wanna continue to explore their relationship and you’ve got Nick out there. There’s a nice triangle happening. But yeah, ghosts obviously come with complications. Julie can’t run away from her feelings, so she’s fighting a very strange battle, which is falling for a ghost.
We got to learn about Luke’s family a bit and some of his past history but we haven’t learned a lot about Alex and we’ve learned even less about Reggie. Do you have full backstories for each of those characters that you’ve discussed with the actors, even though we haven’t gotten to see much of that yet?
HOGE: Yes, and if we’re lucky enough to have a season 2, we’ll get into that. We have half an hour to tell stories and we’ve got a lot of interesting, great characters. We had to pick and choose. We had stuff for both of them originally outlined but stuff had to go away. It’ll come back if we’re lucky enough.
CROSS: We had a really good Reggie scene and we had a very touching Alex scene but story momentum is tricky. Hopefully, when we get our season 2, we’ll learn a lot more about those boys and where the people they knew 25 years ago are at. It’s like time travel. It’s gonna be weird for them.
I love that Alex is the character that gets a full romantic arc in the season. Why was it important for you to tell that love story?
CROSS: We thought it was interesting. It was just natural that the guy with the most questions would be out in the world, and then he meets Willie. And then, because he meets Willie, we decided to run with that relationship. It wasn’t really contrived. It was more like, “Okay, what happens if he gets close to this guy, and then you find out that this guy works for the bad guy?” We felt like we could get Alex into that conflict. That’s what you’re looking for to make things interesting. That was the inspiration for it. It was a guy out there in the world trying to find answers, and he finds them with somebody that falls for him, which was interesting to us.
HOGE: And that relationship, because they’re both ghosts, was easier to tackle than Julie and Luke, which is the impossible love. Maybe it’s not but at least right now it’s the impossible love. Two ghosts come from the same realm.
I absolutely love the relationship between Julie and Flynn. I think it’s so great to see two friends who are so supportive of each other and who are unafraid to express how much they care about each other. What did you guys love about seeing that relationship play out?
CROSS: From the original Brazilian series, it was the thing we fell in love with from the jump. We knew that Flynn was gonna be Julie’s rock. We start thinking about anybody who’s gone through that loss, somebody who’s been at your side is a friendship that’s been forged in a different kind of fire. It was just such a strong bond. And then when Jadah Marie came in, it was such a joy to get somebody at the same age or maybe even a little bit younger than Madison. They just had so much support. Even during the audition, they were really supportive of each other and that’s what we were looking for. That’s when Jadah Marie locked it down. It was a joy to watch, and they’re friends now. The whole experience of watching all of these young thespians become friends was great.
HOGE: They’re as tight off-screen as they are on-screen, and it’s great to see that. It’s helpful, too. Someone like Jadah Marie, who has more experience in film and TV than Madison did, was able to help her. They got along great, from day one. We’re so lucky.
This series has an insane level of production quality to it. What was the most challenging performance to shoot?
CROSS: Aside from the prep, which made everything easy, they were all tough. We came right out of the gate with the ghost club and shot that big number with Caleb, and that was the craziest thing I’d ever shot.
HOGE: Probably just because of sheer size, that was the most difficult. Thanks to Kenny and his right hand, Paul Becker, that number was incredibly prepared. There was nothing to discover or find on stage. It was ready to go. It was just big. That’s what made it difficult. It wasn’t because of lack of preparation, at all. It was just big and there was so much to cover, so many angles, and cameras and lighting. When you’re on location, there’s just so much more happening that it takes time. So, that was probably the most difficult because it was the biggest, but they were all hard and they all took time. Everything was so moving. Every number got applause from the crew. We’d get goosebumps, or “ghost-bumps,” and it was just great, as hard as it was.
CROSS: There are two big emotional numbers, which is a different kind of difficult. When Madison sang “Wake Up,” I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. That girl was really bringing the emotion to that performance. Jon Joffin, our DP, really wanted to bring her to life with light, so that moment was extremely powerful. And then, when you get to “Unsaid Emily,” that was a hard number to not dig into any mom stuff. When Dave and I, as two dudes writing these ghost boys, were thinking about our moms and any fight that we ever had and thinking about anything that went unsaid that you always wanted to say, we’d get a little emotional, so that song is a rough one.
HOGE: It was tough to shoot but incredibly powerful.
What was it like to then add in the special effects, whether it was the guys walking through walls and doors or them poofing in and out of places?
CROSS: Kenny was very specific about making sure that the effects house had their language. We wanted to make sure that they were paying attention to the story so that if somebody was poofing out in anger, if somebody was poofing out just to go somewhere, or it was the first time they poofed, there should be a different effect to it. So, we just challenged our effects team to really read the story and figure out where the characters were at. Once they had the language for it, the poofing notes were not difficult. We had an interesting journey trying to find what we call the flicker, when Caleb’s spell was coming over the boys, would look like. It ended up being a punch to the solar plexus, which we liked quite a bit. Post-production is a whole other animal. You get on the phone, and particularly in COVID times, we get on Zoom, and we would just start talking about specifics of the moment. Just like with the songs, the effects should all be organic to what’s happening. There was a lot of discussions and a lot of communication.
HOGE: We were lucky enough to have one of their people on stage with us the whole time, so they were as in-tune to the story as we were and they were following along, in order to create that language. There’s a little bit of color in each effect that goes with the character. You’ll notice that Caleb has a little more purple in his explosions. When it came to the effect of the ghosts, it was an intentional decision to not have them be ghostly-looking, when we’re with them all the time, to make them more relatable to your audience, so they feel like real people and not ghosts. We want our audience to get to know them and love them, as they would their own friends and family, and not be this unattainable ghostly figure, so to speak. That was intentional, as opposed to doing it where they always have this translucence to them.
CROSS: There are a couple of Charlie Gillespie moments in this, in the first couple of episodes, where we just tried to orchestrate moments to remind the audience that they’re ghosts. When she’s at dinner at the dinner table in episode 1 and the three ghosts walk in through the front door, we originally wrote that without the ghosts there, but we wrote that scene over again with the ghosts coming in and the back and forth dialogue, some of which is meant for the ghosts. That’s always good, fun ghost stuff. But the moment where Luke crosses in the door and is busted, and he just has that look on his face that he’s busted is one of my favorites. That makes me laugh.
There’s obviously something inherently tragic and bittersweet about this story because no matter how good this band is and no matter how much they love each other, these guys are still dead. Is that something that you try not to think about as you’re telling the story, or is that something that you always think about while you’re telling the story?
HOGE: It’s always on our minds. You’re absolutely right, we’re always thinking about how sad it is that they’re dead, but because it’s a television show, we’ve created this opportunity of a second chance for them, so we’ve embraced that. That’s the positiveness of the show. It’s a second chance for them, and it’s a second chance for her. It’s a metaphor. She brought them back to life, and they brought her back to life. We’ve embraced that and we try to focus on that. It’s less about the fact that they’re dead, and more about the fact that they’re all getting second chances.
CROSS: The band is getting a second chance. Luke just wants to feel a connection to the audience. He wants that rock and roll. He doesn’t wanna be a rock god or a rock star. He just wants to just move people. So then, when he gets that opportunity with Julie, that’s what he’s always wanted in his life anyway. It was easier for us to think about them making their dreams come true. But it’s always on our mind.
Julie and the Phantoms is now available to stream at Netflix.
Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.