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tick, tick...BOOM!

‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ Director Lin-Manuel Miranda on Telling Jonathan Larson’s Story, Filming During the Pandemic, and More

Over thirty years since Jonathan Larson debuted his “rock monologue” tick, tick…BOOM!, his autobiographical piece is set to go from stage to screen as it premieres on Netflix this November 19. The musical comes from In the Heights and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, who made his directorial debut in the film, with a screenplay by Dear Evan Hansen‘s Steven Levenson. Andrew Garfield stars in the film as Jonathan Larson, and he is joined by Alexandra Shipp, Robin de Jesus, Joshua Henry, Mj Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq Trotter, Judith Light, and Vanessa Hudgens.

Watch the trailer for the musical film here:

Set in the 90s, in a time when the artistic community is ravaged by the AIDS epidemic, tick, tick…BOOM! follows Jon, a 29-year old composer who waits tables at a New York City diner, all while writing Superbia, a musical which he hopes will be the next great American musical. With his 30th birthday and his musical workshop coming, he is struck with self-doubt, feeling as if he’s running out of time. He then faces the existential question of what he’s meant to do with the time he has.

The stage production of tick, tick…BOOM! premiered in 1991 in Off-Off-Broadway. Jonathan Larson then went on to write Rent, which went on to become one of the most critically-acclaimed productions on Broadway. Sadly, he passed away at 35 years old on the day of the Rent’s first Off-Broadway production, unable to witness just how much his work has become his legacy that influenced so many artists.

Just before the musical film premiered on Netflix this November 19, we were lucky to join director Lin-Manuel Miranda in a virtual roundtable interview. Here, he talked more about Jonathan Larson’s impact on him, casting Andrew Garfield, and filming amidst the pandemic. Check out the highlights below:

Andrew Garfield and Lin-Manuel Miranda in 'tick, tick...BOOM!'
Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda | Photo: Netflix

Playing Jon in 2016 and directing the film in 2021

Before he went on to direct the film, Lin-Manuel Miranda actually starred in the 2016 Encoures! Off-Centers Revival of tick, tick…BOOM! as Jon Larson. Here, he appeared alongside Karen Olivo, who he previously worked with for In the Heights, and Leslie Odom, Jr., who he later worked with for Hamilton. Asked about how this experience affected his vision for the film, Lin said that while it didn’t affect the way he handled the film, starring in the stage production felt like he was “repaying a debt to the guy who made him want to start writing musicals in the first place.”

It was also thanks to that experience, he said, that he got to meet all the real people in Jonathan’s life — from his parents to the real people who inspired Michael and Susan’s characters in the musical. “Because tick, tick…BOOM! is a semi-autobiographical self-portrait, anytime tick, tick…BOOM! was performed, Jonathan’s alive again in a different way than Rent,” he explained. “Rent is his masterpiece, but tick, tick…BOOM! is a self-portrait. I knew that if I was going to be entrusted with the awesome responsibility of bringing that to the screen, it needed to have that spirit.”

Adding on to this, he said that meeting all the people in Jonathan’s life helped him get to know the playwright and composer on a deeper level. “I leaned on that community I met in that party, that night, as a resource. I said, ‘Tell me all the Jonathan stories.’ I want to know the good stories; the bad stories; when he was at his best; when he pissed you off. And all of that informed the Jonathan that Andrew so brilliantly portrayed on-screen.”

Choosing Andrew Garfield as the perfect Jonathan Larson

Starring as Jonathan Larson in tick, tick…BOOM! is Oscar nominee and Tony Award-winning actor Andrew Garfield, who did a great job at singing Jonathan’s songs and portraying his struggles as an artist who feels like he’s running out of time.

Explaining his decision of casting Andrew Garfield as Jonathan, Lin-Manuel Miranda said that “there was never anyone else” who can play the character aside from him, and that he saw the 38-year-old’s performance in Angels in America. “Andrew Garfield was absolutely brilliant and heart-shattering in it, and open and vulnerable. I just left feeling like that guy can do anything,” he stated. “My plan was to ask him to be in it, and if he didn’t say yes, I didn’t have a plan B, so he had to say yes.”

One problem, though, was that Andrew didn’t really know he can belt before being cast. That is why a year before production started, Garfield did not only learn how to play the piano but also how to sing, and it was then that he discovered that he actually has a powerful singing voice. “I asked him, ‘Can you sing?’ And he said, ‘When are you making the movie?’ And I said, ‘Not for at least a year.’ And he goes, ‘A year. Okay. Then I can sing,’” Lin recalled in the press notes.

Robin De Jesus as Michael, MJ Rodriguez as Carolyn, Ben Levi Ross as Freddy | Photo: Netflix

How the In the Heights movie inspired the direction tick, tick…BOOM!

Aside from bringing the music team of Hamilton and the Director of Photography of In the Heights Alice Brooks, something that inspired Lin about Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of his 2005 musical, is the “big swings” he took to bring the story to life. According to him, Jon’s adaptation of his musical encouraged him to be brave as well when he finally got to do his directorial debut.

He said: “He knew instinctively with my work when to really sit at the moment and make it very intimate. There are songs in In the Heights where it’s all one-take,” he said. “Then there are enormous extravaganzas where we have shut down the pool and there are 500 extras. I didn’t have the budget he was working with, but I enjoyed that sense of scale, of really serving the moment.”

As to what surprised him the most as a first-time director, Lin answered that it’s how a film’s post-production process is a lot like writing a musical score. “It’s probably the most like writing a musical score. It’s the same principles at work — it’s tension and release. [It’s] when to sit in a moment and stay in it and when to speed through to the next thing. It’s rising and falling, and finding the internal rhythms,” he said. “That’s exactly the same thing I’m doing when I’m sitting at a piano crafting score.”

Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson and Alexandra Shipp as Susan | Photo: Netflix

On including “Swimming” and “Sextet” in the film

During pre-production, Lin-Manuel Miranda and writer Steven Levenson had to discuss which songs from the musical will make it to the film, as well as the order in which they’ll be shown. Some songs were cut (“Sugar” and “See Her Smile”), some were remixed (“Green Green Dress” remixed as an R&B tune), and some unreleased songs were unearthed from the Larson archives and were sung in the film.

One of these unreleased songs was Jonathan Larson’s hip-hop song “Play Game,” sung by The Roots’ Tariq Trotter in the film. Another was “Swimming,” which is a song reintroduced by Lin for the film when Jonathan is finding release and inspiration. Lin explained: “[‘Swimming’] is this stream of consciousness of these tactile sensations that you experience when you’re swimming, just before having a musical epiphany, getting outside of your body and experiencing a moment of transcendence.”

The third song which has been added to the film is a song called “Sextet,” which was initially part of Jonathan Larson’s futuristic musical Superbia. Remembering the first time he heard the song, Lin said that he knew they will be using the song for the film’s “Superbia montage” when he heard the chorus go “everyone who has ever or ever will be, everyone will be there”. “That’s the sound of the pressure that Jonathan is putting on this workshop,” Lin said. “It gives us a glimpse of this musical that no one’s ever seen outside of the people who worked on it.”

Filming the iconic Sunday Diner Brunch Number

One of the most memorable scenes in tick, tick…BOOM! is the Sunday Brunch Scene, which features Jonathan Larson’s “Sunday.” The song has been said to pay homage to Stephen Sondheim’s “Sunday” from the musical Sunday in the Park with George. In Sondheim’s “Sunday,” George Seurat finally sees his masterpiece and freezes all the actors on stage to create his “final picture.”

Explaining how the scene in the movie came to be, Lin-Manuel Miranda said that although Jonathan did his own version of “Sunday,” he’s only ever done a one-man version of it, with his piano and his band. He then thought that as a director, it’s his job to create a “Sunday” scene that’s “as big and as joyous” as Sondheim’s and with Jonathan’s dream cast.

Lin talked about taking inspiration from “those cheesy posters” with famous icons like Amy Winehouse, John Belushi, and Marilyn Monroe are sitting next to each other, and assembling his own version featuring “artists who Jonathan admired” and artists who “were inspired by Jonathan’s work.”

He said: “There are artists from musicals that exist in the present, artists that really owe a debt or feel they owe a debt to Jonathan Larson. There are even artists from later works of Jonathan Larson who show up. It was like Jonathan dreaming outside of space and time and creating this moment. And it was so much to film that we were pinching ourselves every day. I think it shows on screen how much everyone was there out of a desire to create the sound of Jonathan’s dream — the sound he never got to hear when he was around and sing it so loud that he can hear it wherever he is.”

Shooting during the pandemic

Principal photography for tick, tick…BOOM! kicked off in March 2020 but was shut down in mid-March because of the pandemic. It was only in September that the team went back to pre-production, and by the first week of October, filming begun once again.

During the roundtable, Lin-Manuel Miranda recounted what it was like to film in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when no vaccines were available yet. He said that because everyone was singing at point-blank range, they had to think of ways to do their numbers safely. For that, Netflix has put in place safety protocols that everyone, from the cast to the crew adhered to, and this included quarantining singers who will be singing together for the film. “Anytime we had ensemble members, they would have to go into quarantine, so it required a greater sacrifice from our performers, because they’re the ones singing live to each other.”

Lin also mentioned that despite being in production in a pandemic, they never really had to reasses what they were doing. “Anytime we made the decision that Andrew had to sing live, our cameraman had to put on raincoats and face shields and be a certain distance from him. That changes your shots. And so it just made everything take a little longer,” he said. “We just had to find creative ways to make this feel as joyous and live as any other musical shot at any other time. 

tick, tick…BOOM! arrives on Netflix this November 19.

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