Marking Lin-Manuel Miranda’s screen directing debut, tick, tick…BOOM! follows composer Jonathan Larson as he struggles to stage a musical show despite the overwhelming pressures of day-to-day life. Andrew Garfield plays Larson, who would gain posthumous acclaim for Rent. Reuniting with Miranda after In the Heights, cinematographer Alice Brooks––who is currently working on the film adaptation of Wicked––spoke with The Film Stage at the EnergaCamerimage International Film Festival in Toruń, Poland.
Please note this interview contains significant spoilers about the number “Sunday.” Netflix released this statement: “Lin and the creative team want musical superfans to watch without being ‘spoiled’ on all of the surprises in that scene.” Therefore, one can read at your own risk.
The Film Stage: How did you and Lin-Manuel Miranda get together on this project?
Alice Brooks: The Friday we wrapped In the Heights, I got a call from my agent saying Lin wants you to read the script he’s directing.
I started reading the script, and page after page after page, I felt like these could be scenes out of my childhood. My dad was a playwright and my mom was a dancer, very similar to Jon and Susan in this story. We lived in a tenement on 29th Street and Second Avenue, an apartment with a bathtub in the kitchen. Our house was filled with my father’s artist friends, an amazingly wonderful group of people. As a kid, you don’t realize how great it is to have creative people in your house all the time.
My family left New York for LA right before this movie begins. I was 10 years old, Lin and I are the same age. The first page of my look book was just family photos. Lin’s looking at them and thinks that they’re examples of what I think the movie is going to be like. And then five minutes into our talk, he’s like, “Wait a second, these are your pictures. Well, it can’t get more personal than that.”
Miranda has a background in theater, he’s never directed for the screen before. How did you two develop a visual approach to the script?
Because I left New York when I was 10, that moment in time is forever my New York. It’s etched into my mind, a ten-year-old’s memory where light and color and emotion are all heightened. That’s very similar to who Jonathan was, his mind was very childlike. In the opening number, “30/90,” he sings about not wanting to grow up about Peter Pan and “which way to Never Never Land.”
That’s how we started creating the musical numbers, from Jonathan’s frame of mind, where the line between dreams and reality are somewhat blurred. I showed Lin a bunch of street photographers from the eighties. Nan Goldin ended up being a really big reference for us.
One problem with musicals is getting in and out of songs without jarring viewers out of the story.
We worked much harder on our transitions than I did on other movies. We really wanted to make sure we knew exactly how we were getting into every single song, and for those transitions not to be an afterthought or something found later in editorial.
For songs like “Sextet,” which starts in the rehearsal space for the Superbia workshop and then takes us into Jonathan’s apartment, we did lots of transitions, mostly hidden cuts to get us into different spaces.
“Swimming” and “Sunday are my two favorites. “Swimming” starts with Jonathan delivering a monologue on stage. We do a handheld push-in on Jonathan. That’s probably my favorite shot in the New York Theatre Workshop. You can feel the shot, it feels rocky. The camera crew suggested that we throw the camera on a dolly, but I said no, this is exactly what we want, I’m a hundred percent sure. When you hear it with the pulsating music, it really works.
When we were scouting for a pool we fell in love with the Tony Dapolito Pool on Clarkson St. and Seventh Avenue South. Lin loved it because the inlaid tile on the bottom looked like music staff paper. I dunked my iPhone under water to explore the pool and we noticed a “30” foot marker at the bottom center of the pool. Lin said, “What if he touches the 30 — the number he is so scared of turning — and it becomes a treble clef?” That is the inspiration for the music notes appearing, it wasn’t originally written in the script. We kept on noticing that the lyrics of the song mentioned characteristics of the pool. Amazingly, only later did we find out that was the pool Jonathan Larson actually swam in every day and that the song literally describes. It’s amazing but we had no idea. This is just one example we experienced where it felt like Jonathan was invisibly guiding the making of the movie.
How did you approach shooting the musical numbers, whether to be close or wide, what performer to be on?
Our prep was a discovery process, very collaborative, with lots of people involved. Lin approached directing a movie very much the way he would a workshop for a play. We started by just storyboarding the musical numbers. When we storyboarded, the production designer Alex Digerlando was always there, along with the writer Steven Levenson, the AD Mariela Comitini, and the storyboard artist, Grant Shaffer. I’ve never been in a storyboard meeting with that many people there the whole time. We would draw stuff and then the next day we’d redo it. Like a play workshop, you try things, you don’t have to have all the answers. It was an amazing process of discovery.
So you and Lin decide this is going to happen at this moment in the song, based on the lyrics?
Yes. We had pre-records. We also had six months of not working during lockdown. As a result, I did not stop listening to the music through all of COVID. I would go running every day, and I would have Andrew singing in my ear and start to imagine how the visuals would relate to the music.
We didn’t originally storyboard those New York Theatre Workshop scenes, but when we came back after COVID, Netflix wanted everything with more than two actors storyboarded as a safety measure. That gave us the opportunity to carefully map out choreography, camera angles, and their connection to the music. Because we had so much more time for prep, every last detail could be very intentional.
For In the Heights, Jon Chu took the storyboards and cut them to music. On this prep, I cut the anamatics myself. I’m not an editor, but the process made me think about having very specific intentions. When I cut the storyboards together, I could see what was missing and show that to Lin. He might say, “I feel like we’re going to need a big crane shot here,” or, “I feel like that’s not the time to be far away from Jonathan. It’s actually the time to be right close with him.” It was a wonderful tool for us.
What was the approach to shooting the stage material?
The New York Theatre Workshop material evolved during COVID. Originally we were building a smaller set instead of using an actual theater. We wouldn’t have had very much space and the lighting would have been different. When we started up again, we hadn’t started building the set. So we offered the New York Theatre Workshop a location fee, which was a great way to provide financial relief to the theater during COVID. It also provided more authenticity since that is where Jonathan actually initially staged the musical tick, tick…BOOM! It’s also where he developed Rent.
On that stage we always had this feeling that Jonathan was with us, that he was whispering in our ears. This was where he performed this piece. This is where everything happened for him.
At first I thought maybe we would do something more elaborate with the lighting, But then we realized simpler was better. Standing in that space it became very clear that it needed to be simple and it needed to be elegant. It needed to be true to the time period, we needed to be authentic.
The stage material is almost all handheld. Originally we had designed these huge, sweeping shots for the stage. Then we realized that was the wrong choice. The stage needed to feel close and intimate. We chose not to reveal the audience until the very end. We wanted the viewer to be on stage and not feel like they were sitting in the audience. Rather we wanted them to feel what it was like to be Jonathan performing on the stage.
Let’s talk about the sequence in the Moondance Diner, where Larson worked as a waiter.
I love the number “Sunday.” It crosscuts from chaos, chaos, chaos, lots of handheld shots with Jonathan working in the diner, to static shots of Jonathan at the piano at New York Theater Workshop. We get closer and closer and closer, and then he closes his eyes. When he opens them, he is back at the diner but all the customers are frozen in motion. We have a lighting transition, we start to pull back, and that is how we begin “Sunday.”
Filming the diner was the hardest thing to accomplish in the middle of a huge pandemic. When we shot it, we had a cast who were not sequestered, some in a risky demographic, and there was no vaccine yet. So we’re protecting the cast, protecting Andrew, protecting our crew.
Sunday is highly inspired by Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. We watched that number at the end of act one, over and over and over again for inspiration.
At the end of the number the wall drops and becomes a stage and the Broadway legends playing the customers step onto the stage to belt out the song’s finale. Everyone steps out into a brighter light. It’s the brightest scene in the whole movie, and we overexposed it a little bit to give it more of a feel of being a painting, inspired by Seurat’s “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte.” This sort of childlike, magical, heightened scene goes pointillist at the very end like a Seurat painting.
Our intention was always that this would be Jonathan Larson’s wildest dream, the things he never gets to live to see. In fact he only stopped working at the Moondance a few months before he passed away. We planned this as how his reality becomes a space where his dreams become true.
It’s amazing how much of your film is gone already. Moondance is gone, the city closed down that pool. So you shot some of the diner before COVID and some after?
We had to tile most of the shots because we weren’t allowed to get all the Broadways legends in the same shot due to COVID safety restrictions. That meant we couldn’t move the camera, so almost everything for the number “Sunday” were static shots.
During the first cut it was exciting because we were so close to making the number magical. When everyone got vaccinated, we got two additional days to shoot in June. That’s when we had Chita Rivera and a few others come in, also whoever was available to come back so we could get a couple of moving shots. These moving shots really tied the piece together.
When we were shooting in November, 2020, Chita couldn’t do it. We’re blocking the scene, and Lin points to a spot, saying, “Chita’s going to be there.” We’re like, “But we’re shooting this right now.” He said, “It doesn’t matter. I know she’s going to be in this corner.” And she is.
How has your cinematography evolved from your last feature?
From In the Heights to tick, tick…BOOM! I think there is a growth in the specific choices I made. We had the exact same time for both movies: 49 days. This one’s much more contained, and I had much more time for lighting, to rehearse camera moves. A lot more prep.
For In the Heights, I knew my job was to fall in love with Washington Heights. For tick, tick…BOOM! I realized my job was to fall in love with Jonathan Larson—his joy and spirit, his anxieties and fears.
tick, tick…BOOM! is now on Netflix.