Editor’s Note: Alex Horwitz had no way of knowing “Hamilton” would become a cultural phenomenon that would change Broadway and launch his friend Lin-Manuel Miranda into super-stardom. Early on, however, the genre filmmaker (“Alice Jacobs is Dead”) and documentary film editor (“Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger”) could tell Miranda was onto something special. Specifically drawn to the way Miranda was bringing history to life through hip-hop in his early tracks, Horwitz picked up a camera and started capturing the creation of the musical, while joining Miranda on his research and exploration of the Founding Fathers.
In anticipation of the “Hamilton’s America” premiere at the New York Film Festival on October 1 and its television premiere on PBS’s “Great Performances” on October 21, IndieWire reached out to Horwitz to find out more about his new film, backed by RadicalMedia. What we got was this detailed essay that took us behind the scenes of the filmmaker’s four year journey of documenting the creation and history of “Hamilton.”
To watch the now-famous web video of Lin-Manuel Miranda performing for the Obamas in the East Room of the White House in 2009 is to witness a microcosm of his creative journey with “Hamilton.” He rapped about the early years of Alexander Hamilton’s life, introducing it as a song about someone who “embodied hip-hop.” When he introduces the song and its premise, people laugh, but by the end, they’re giving him a standing ovation.
It was backstage at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in early 2009 when Lin first played me a demo of that song, “Alexander Hamilton.” He was then starring in “In the Heights,” which he conceived and wrote in late 1999 during our sophomore year at Wesleyan University, well before it would become the hippest thing on Broadway. Lin had no idea what he was going to do with that one song, but I knew I wanted to hear more.
Fast forward: By the beginning of 2012, Lin has about a dozen songs written, which he calls “The Hamilton Mixtape.” He performs the Mixtape in concert format with an ensemble – on Hamilton’s birthday, January 11. At this point, Lin still couldn’t decide if this was a nascent musical or a concept album, but it’s the evening when I decided that I wanted to make a film about it. Whatever it ended up being, I knew that he was bringing history to dramatic life in a way I’d never seen, more successfully than I’d ever seen. I wanted to capture that.
Four and a half years later, I’m nearing completion of a feature documentary called “Hamilton’s America,” which will premiere on PBS on October 21, 2016.
I flatter myself to think that I was one of a handful of people who never laughed at the hip-hop history premise. Whether it was because he saw that I “got it,” or just because he’s a good friend, Lin immediately gave me his blessing to film the progress. Soon after the Mixtape concert, the “Hamilton” brand began to congeal into the machine that would eventually bring us the show itself. So after the go-ahead from Lin, I got the blessings of Tommy Kail, the show’s director, and Jeffrey Seller, the show’s lead producer.
Tommy and I agreed on ground rules for how much I’d be able to roll cameras once actors were involved because – as he saw it, and I agreed – the camera changes the process. In 2013, I started filming. I hired a cinematographer friend, Bryant Fisher, to light and film a formal sit-down interview with Lin (he stayed with me for the whole film).
Then we went to the Morris-Jumel Mansion, a historic home in upper Manhattan and favorite haunt of Lin’s, to be a fly on the wall as he wrote “My Shot.” Then we went to Hamilton’s final home, the Hamilton Grange in Harlem, to take an on-camera tour with one of the Rangers there.
From the beginning, I knew I didn’t just want to create a making-of chronicle of a musical. For one thing, Lin & Co. already got that treatment on “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams,” an excellent episode of PBS’s Great Performances produced by RadicalMedia. I didn’t want to attempt to rebottle that lightning. Secondly, I knew that the drama of this show’s journey would likely be insufficient to hold an audience’s attention. “In Chasing Broadway Dreams,” it’s all questions: Can these scrappy, unknown kids put on a show? Will anyone come? Will they make it to Broadway? Then they won a slew of Tonys, and the journey paid off.
I frankly didn’t see those questions as relevant on “Hamilton.” The show’s creative team were all known entities now, and if the New York Times’ reaction to the Mixtape concert was any indication, the critics loved Hamilton before it was even a show. Sure, there were always people raising their eyebrows skeptically at the notion of hip-hop founding fathers (remember the White House video?), but, like I said, I was never one of those people.
In short, those questions just weren’t interesting to me as a filmmaker. And I knew the musical’s creative team well enough to know that there was unlikely to be any behind-the-scenes, Metallica-esque acrimony. No one wants to watch a process documentary about people who get along (unless there’s an underdog angle, like on “Heights”).
So what did I want to get? History, history, history. From the moment I heard the first song, I could feel the alchemy of “Hamilton” at work. It made obscure, 18th Century American history as vital and vibrant as any contemporary rap album or action movie. It wasn’t a gimmick; it was drama at its best. This was confirmed to me when I saw the audience at the Mixtape concert cheer an early version of “Cabinet Battle #1,” in which Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton spar in hip-hop verse over a proposal for America’s new Federal Government to assume the Revolutionary War debt of the States.
Are you kidding me? How is that exciting? How did he get a bunch of jaded New Yorkers to laugh, cheer, and tap their feet to this? I wanted to capture that alchemy at work, and, if I could, explore the history even further – get something on film that even audiences of the musical wouldn’t see.
I asked Lin if he was planning to visit sites of historic interest as research/inspiration. He was, so I asked him to let me tag along. These wouldn’t be more writing sessions, they would be verité field trips – history with a compelling tour guide. I wanted this to be something much more than interviews with the cast and B-roll of the show. From the beginning, that was our plan: Let’s make the world’s first hip-hop, musical, historical documentary – Al Pacino’s “Looking for Richard” crossed with a Ken Burns film, told by a formidable MC.
All that was left was to get it made. By now, I’d been a regular freelance editor at RadicalMedia (I started there after “In the Heights”). My expectation was that the executives there – all big Lin fans – would at least be interested in exploring the notion of a “Hamilton” film. Still, I wanted to make the best proposal possible, so I shot that first handful of days out-of-pocket and cut a 10-minute demo, which was a sort of long-form version of scenes that are still in the film. The response from the Radical executives was great, but I have to give most credit to the company’s founder and Chairman, Jon Kamen, who instantly said, “This is how you learn about history. Alex, keep going… whatever you need.”
That didn’t mean a blank check, but with Radical onboard, it was enough to get the ball rolling. Our plan was to keep filming, keep developing, and eventually look for producing partners to finance and distribute the film. For about a year and a half, I filmed a day here, two days there, chipping away in between editorial jobs.
Meanwhile, the musical’s cast came together gradually, as the show moved towards opening night. Christopher Jackson (who is a prince in addition to playing our first President) joined the field trip shoots and I filmed creative meetings with Lin, Tommy, and musical director Alex Lacamoire. All the while, I kept my eye on the writing process and how these artists were grappling with history, rather than on work ethic and rehearsals. But naturally, I made sure I was there for some of the fun stuff – opening night, the Ham4Ham street show mania outside the Richard Rodgers.
All the while, “Hamilton” just kept breaking the mold and exceeding everyone’s expectations, and it’s reached the point where nothing surprises me. It’s been my pleasure to bear witness to this colossus from such a close vantage point, but as far as the film was concerned, the zeitgeist was never my focus. No matter how big the show got, I’d always consider it less momentous than the fight for American independence. I had to keep treating the show as the B story – the lens that served my A story, which was the life of Alexander Hamilton.
The cast and creative team of “Hamilton” provided that lens on history. Our development machine gained steam as the show’s prestige grew. By the time it opened at The Public Theater, the entire principle cast were going on field trips. By the time the show transferred to the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway, everyone in town had heard of it, and we started booking pitch meetings.
Dave Sirulnick had recently joined Radical as an EP, and immediately became a tireless shepherd of the film. Long story short, by the end of 2015, we had partnered with Jeffrey Seller (“Hamilton” producer) and PBS to complete the film and air it as a feature-length installment of Great Performances. This was always the perfect fit; no network has remained as committed to live theater and the performing arts as PBS. And, with Seller onboard formally and financially, we were now an official part of the “Hamilton” brand – members of the family.
By January of 2016, we were up and running and officially in production. Nicole Pusateri, the hardest working producer in the business, was onboard, taking the reins and juggling my ambitious wish list of interview subjects: Presidents, members of Congress, Broadway legends, hip-hop megastars. And there were still field trips to shoot. “Hamilton” had become a big enough entity that we lucked out with our interviews; just about everyone from Stephen Sondheim to George W. Bush made themselves available. When the full cast performed at the White House for the Obamas in March, we proposed a one-on-one filmed conversation between Lin and the President, exclusively for the film, and it actually happened. Such luck is uncommon for a documentarian, I know, and I don’t expect it to be that good ever again.
Riding the coattails of “Hamilton” has brought a lot of goodwill our way, and it certainly made an ambitious documentary production possible with limited time and resources. By the end, we had rolled on 45 days (ranging from single interviews to full-day, 3-camera field trips). We captured just shy of 100 hours of content.
The White House
Post started well before we were done filming, which is far from ideal, but we now had deadlines. We used the schedule to our advantage. Brett Mason, my first choice as editor, began to work with all the footage I had gathered over two years as we continued filming. In the edit, we found moments that could really be brought to life with new material, and discovered new transitions, which we made more seamless by shooting additional pieces out in the field. For the most part, however, the film’s structure adheres to a general outline I drew up when we started cutting. The challenge was to tell two narratives separated by centuries: Alexander Hamilton’s story and “Hamilton” the show’s story. As a third texture, footage from the musical itself would exist out of time, inserted whenever we needed to pay off a historical point or illustrate how Lin and his team solved a creative problem.
We would constantly weave these threads together to tell the story of America’s creation through the eyes of Alexander Hamilton and the creation of “Hamilton” through the eyes of Lin and his team. I’m certain that my years as an editor prepared me for this. I did a lot of in-brain editing in prep and on set. The goal of all of this was to make a film that always keeps moving, that zigs when you think it’s about to zag. I want to keep the interest of the Ken Burns crowd and the Hamilfans in equal measure.
This all comes together best, I think, in a sequence of the film that explores the Act II showstopper, “The Room Where it Happens.” It’s a song about political ambition and the closed-door opaqueness of our government, sung by Leslie Odom, Jr.’s Aaron Burr. The sequence ended up containing all of our moving pieces: It’s got interviews with two Presidents and two Secretaries of the Treasury talking about the political and historical angles, it’s got Lin commenting on the writing while Leslie talks about the character psychology, it’s got a quick field trip to the actual room where it happened, and it’s got an exclusive capture of the show’s East Room concert that dovetails into the staged show footage from the Richard Rodgers. All of this fits into a tight 4-minute package, and feels like one continuous musical thought. We recombine all these textures in different patterns throughout the film.
Always, my goal is simply to entertain a general audience while hiding a history lesson in plain sight. I’m sure that some – especially the die-hard Hamilfans who simply want more, more, more of the cast and backstage access to the musical – may come to that premise skeptically. But I know they can be won over. I’m no Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I’ve followed the lesson of “Hamilton”: Audiences have the attention span for anything as long as you make it compelling. People don’t go to the Richard Rodgers Theatre because they want to know more about our founding fathers and mothers. They go to be entertained, but they come out with a history lesson, hooked on the show, ready to learn more. I am making a film for those who can’t get enough, but it’s also for those few remaining skeptics who curiously think “what’s the big deal about this ‘Hamilton’ thing anyway.”
I hate the word “edutainment,” but I suppose it’s an accurate descriptor. The success of “Hamilton” has created a perfect moment for a film like this to be unleashed, and I am not, like the guy says, “throwing away my shot.”