Back in 2006, it surprised viewers, Disney executives and TV critics when a little TV movie filmed in Utah turned into a massive hit. But Brent Geisler, who was there from the beginning of “High School Musical,” remembers it was “special from the very beginning.”
Geisler was a production assistant on the first “HSM” movie — an entry level “go-fer” position with duties that included fetching coffee and locking up at night. But he was there when the then-unknown cast arrived at East High in 2005, “and the kind of the magic between all of them, especially Zac [Efron] and Vanessa [Hudgens].”
The native Utahn moved up to jobs as second second assistant director on the second and third “High School Musical” movies. And he’s still with the franchise — he’s the assistant director on “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series,” and he directed Episode 9 of Season 2.
“I got to come full circle from a production assistant to a director. It was 15 years,” he said with a laugh, “but it was worth it.”
‘High School Musical’ becomes a series
After the release of the third “HSM” movie in 2008, there were multiple attempts to revive the franchise, but none of them worked until writer/producer Tim Federle pitched Disney the idea of a series set at East High, with present-day students mounting a stage production based on the first “HSM” movie.
Geisler called it “the best way to reboot” the franchise, and — as a Utahn — he was happy to see it set in Salt Lake City, not Albuquerque, N.M., as was the case with the movies.
“We had to fake everything in the movies. And being able to play Salt Lake City, being able to play the real East High where the original movies were filmed,” he said, “I thought was the most brilliant idea.”
And the new cast has a lot in common with the original cast, he said. His hardest task as an assistant director is “calming the cast down. They have so much fun on set. There’s always singing and dancing and they want to play the piano.”
The challenge is to “keep everybody working and in control. Controlled chaos, my dad would say. A low roar. Keeping the kids’ energy up and letting them have fun and enjoy the experience, but also letting the crew work.”
A family affair
During the production of the original “High School Musical,” Geisler’s young sons — 4-year-old Carsen and 7-year-old Brenden — spent a lot of time on the set, where they learned to “sit and be quiet” when they weren’t running around, grabbing a snack from craft services or falling asleep in one of the trailers.
“My kids kind of just grew up on that set. I have memories and photos of [director] Kenny Ortega carrying my youngest around on his hip while he directed,” Geisler said. “I remember him directing ‘Bop to the Top’ with Ashley [Tisdale] and Lucas [Graybeel], and he was carrying Carsen in his arms the whole time,” Geisler said.
Perhaps because “Utah is such a family oriented place,” nobody questioned having the Geisler kids around. “It just was what I had to do at the time to make it,” Geisler said. “And they grew up Zach and Vanessa and Corbin [Bleu] and Monique [Coleman}. They’re friends to this day.”
Hudgens used to babysit the young Geislers, playing Rock Band at their apartment. Efron took them to play laser tag and went with the family to a trampoline park. The boys call Graybeel “Uncle Lucas.”
And now, “It’s come full circle,” Geisler said. Brenden, now 23, worked as a production assistant on Season 1 of “HSM:TM:TS,” and returned as a P.A. and member of the COVID health and safety team in Season 2. Carsen, now 20, worked in the wardrobe department.
“I’m so proud of them,” Geisler said. “I don’t know how long they’re going to do this. I don’t know if they’ll follow in my footsteps. But it’s in their blood.”
When the second season of “HSM:TM:TS” starts streaming, they’ll do what they did during Season 2 — get together and watch the episodes every Friday.
“It was exciting to watch them be released with the rest of the world,” Geisler said. “And we were so proud to watch it. It’s a tear jerker sometimes. … We get teared up watching it. If you’re not getting teared up watching ‘High School Musical: The Series,’ something’s wrong.”
Working in Utah
Geisler has forged a successful career in the movie and TV business working mostly in Utah. His long list of credits includes Hollywood projects like the ABC sitcom “Happy Endings” and a lot of made-in-Utah projects, like the series “Andi Mack,” “Dwight in Shining Armor,” “Granite Flats” and “Everwood.”
“I’ve worked in New York. I’ve worked in other countries before. I worked in L.A.,” Geisler said. “But Utah is, for me, the best place to make films.”
Geisler feels “lucky and blessed” to be able to “work in this business and do it in Utah and be a father and raise my kids in this industry, which is really hard. It’s long days. And my kids have watched me work my butt off to get to where I am. But I hope it inspires them to go for their dreams.”
He feels like he’s “been living the theme of ‘High School Musical’” since production began on the first movie back in 2005.
“Look, I always dreamed of making films and working in television,” Geisler said. “I’m fortunate that I can show my sons that, no matter where you live in the world, if you work hard and you are passionate and true to this feeling that you have, you can do anything. And I think that I’m proof of that.”
— Season 2 of “High School Musical: The Musical: The Series” starts streaming Friday on Disney+.