How Lin-Manuel Miranda and Andrew Garfield made Tick, Tick... Boom! their collective labor of love
"I saw Rent on my 17th birthday and that was the show that unlocked for me that it was possible to actually write musicals," he tells EW. "That was the year I went from just liking musicals to having the audacity to think I could maybe write one."
Miranda and Larson share striking parallels, having both revolutionized musical theater using contemporary influences to create Pulitzer-Prize winning hits. Although Larson, who died in 1996 at age 35 of an aortic dissection, tragically never got to see his success. Now, their lives intersect once more as Miranda brings Tick, Tick… Boom! (in theaters Nov. 12, then Netflix on Nov. 19), Larson's extremely personal, autobiographical tale of his struggle to make art, to the screen.
"It's all been leading to this for me," says Miranda. "As a fan of Jonathan Larson's work and someone whose life was changed by him, and as someone who has been a struggling musical theater songwriter."
Miranda first saw an Off Broadway posthumous production of Tick, Tick… Boom! the month after 9/11 in 2001, and he was struck by its depiction of the challenges and the rewards of writing musicals. "It felt like it was a message in a bottle just for me," he recounts. "It was, 'Hey that thing you're trying to is really, really, really, really hard. The odds are against you, but it's worth it if you're doing what you love.'"
The film marks Miranda's feature directorial debut and while that may seem like a departure for the guy who is basically the poster-child for Broadway, it aligns with his own personal goals. Miranda initially planned to major in film and theater in college, but the cost of producing a senior thesis film pushed him fully into the theatrical world.
He's spent plenty of time in the cinematic realm, with Hamilton going to Disney +, In the Heights being adapted for the big screen, his own turn starring in Mary Poppins Returns, and producing Fosse/Verdon for FX. "Every project I've taken on has been the film school I couldn't afford," he says of getting to observe the likes of Rob Marshall, Tommy Kail, and Jon M. Chu direct. "It feels like the film school education I wanted but couldn't pursue when I was in school."
All of that meant he was ready when the offer to direct Tick, Tick... Boom! came his way. "I thought, 'Man, if they only ever let me direct one movie, this is the one I could do well,'" he muses. "Jonathan was so zealous about making popular music and musical theater friends again, and I really took that to heart. I very consciously learned from Larson that everything you listen to is fair game for musical theater storytelling. That was a lesson I learned from Rent. I don't know where I'd be without that show as a north star."
Once Miranda was tasked with bringing his inspiration to life, he also needed to find the right man to embody a fictionalized version of Larson. He found him in Andrew Garfield, who Miranda began envisioning in the role while watching him onstage in his Tony-winning performance in Angels in America. "I left thinking, 'He can do anything," Miranda says. "I was just like, 'He is a consummate theater performer,' and you need to be to play Jonathan Larson."
Garfield, who learned to sing for the role, notes there were clear parallels between Larson and his Angels character, Prior Walter. "I love that there is a line between them in this awareness of the sanctity of life, awareness of their own longing to be here so fully," he muses.
He was baptized by fire, the first table read of Tick, Tick...Boom! coming the day after he closed Angels in America. "Prior was still very much in my blood," Garfields notes, "and Lin was like, 'I'm excited to see when you start working on the characterization for Jon, because right now I'm getting Jon Larson through Prior Walter, which is the combination I never knew I needed."
The actor wasn't familiar with Larson's life or work before being approached by Miranda — but he calls the entire experience a love affair. "It was an amazing voyage of discovery for me," Garfield notes. "Suddenly, I was in the position of being partly responsible for making sure that the ripples of his life and his work continued to flow into the world. I went from not knowing him at all to him becoming quite a large chamber of my heart now."
Garfield, who on screen often portrays more brooding or internalized figures, reveled in the chance to turn up the volume. "He was always at an 11," he reflects. "There was no other setting. It was an opportunity to forget any idea of underplaying. There was no such thing for Jon. He was always exploding and bursting forth because he couldn't help it. I think in some way, he knew that he had a lot to say and that he needed to get as much of it out as possible while he was alive. He is just this uncontrollably, expressive, heart-bursting, creativity-bursting, living in the land of pure imagination, wanting everyone to get up and dance. That's who he is and who he was, and I just had to make sure I honored it."
The film follows Larson in the midst of a crisis as he questions his life choices while preparing for a workshop of his musical Superbia and dreading the approach of his 30th birthday. "
On an unconscious level, he knew it was more profound than not having written a great American musical by the time he was 30 years old. There was an unconscious knowing of 'I don't have a lot of time here,' which meant he was this prolific, generous, generative, devoted, fierce, revolutionary artist" Garfield adds. "He doesn't only want his dreams realized, he wants everyone's dreams realized. He made everything an event. He wanted to frame everything with a special magic, and he did it for everyone around him. He's a warrior for art and love and the soul, and he wants everyone to sing their song. He wants everyone to be their own particular note in this grand harmony of a truly meaningful life."
Miranda was particularly interested in using the cinematic form to explore Larson's creative process, jumping between Larson's original spare monologue staging of Tick, Tick... Boom! and the story unfolding in real time. "There is the story Jonathan is telling us, but then as a songwriter and as the director, I'm also giving you a glimpse inside his songwriting process," says Miranda. "Because that is also part of the story. I love movies where we get inside the writer's head. A lot of the genesis of some of Jon's most memorable songs are Jonathan Larson asking himself the question and then writing the song as the answer to the question he asked himself"
"What film allows you do that theater can't is go into Jonathan's mind," Miranda adds, explaining how he cobbled together Larson's original version of the show, the slightly more robust off-Broadway revival, and the expansive possibilities of cinema. "Because it was so autobiographical and personal, it allows us to do what film does so well, which is be really specific."
This process also involved much trial and error with screenwriter Steven Levenson, which Miranda says operated very similar to workshopping a musical. "It was like we were putting together an original musical with Jonathan Larson's songs," Miranda quips. "What is the best way to unlock this song and this part of the storytelling?"
They would pick and choose songs from the show (and Larson's oeuvre), re-arranging them and trying them out in workshops to determine the content and flow of the score. "Every song had to earn its place from a story standpoint," Miranda notes. "It's making sure we honored what [the film] is, which is this incredible celebration of Larson's life, but also making sure it served our movie."
Still, even with some cutting, insertion, and rearranging of the score, Larson's music touches every aspect of the filmmaking. Though Rent was Larson's first show to hit Broadway, he was a truly prolific writer. So, Miranda turned to archives at the Library of Congress to craft the film's score entirely from Larson's music and capture his ethos in every note.
For Miranda, every cinematic decision was about honoring and showcasing the work of a great artist taken from us too soon. "Jonathan Larson would be 61 years old today, and I am always mourning the musicals in some other timeline that he was able to write," he says. "Every decision was guided by 'What would Jonathan Larson do? What would Jonathan Larson's version of this movie be?"
In other words, how do you measure a year in love?
To read more from our Fall Movie Preview, order the November issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Friday. Don't forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.
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