The sublime “Sunday” diner scene with the Broadway legends in Netflix’s “Tick Tick Boom” has become even more tear-inducing and meta with the recent passing of Stephen Sondheim, whose “Sunday in the Park with George” musical about French pointillist painter Georges Seurat started it all. First, through Jonathan Larson’s (Andrew Garfield) tribute song, “Sunday,” set in The Moondance Diner in SoHo, where he toils as a waiter and dreams of becoming the next Sondheim. Second, through “Tick Tick Boom” director Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ambitious, even miraculous, staging of the scene in a replica of the ’90s diner on a New York soundstage.
Miranda’s idea was to not only pay tribute to Larson’s heroes of Broadway but also to his own legacy, since he tragically died before the opening of “Rent” and was unable to witness its impact on the theater world. Thus, through strict protocols and safe distancing, Miranda managed to assemble a who’s who list of cameos by Bernadette Peters (“Sunday”), Chita Rivera (“Chicago”), Joel Grey (“Cabaret”), Phylicia Rashad (“Into the Woods”), Brian Stokes Mitchell (“Ragtime”), André De Shields (“Hadestown”), Howard McGillin (“The Phantom of the Opera”), Chuck Cooper (“The Life”), Bebe Neuwirth (“Chicago”), and Beth Malone (“Fun Home”). They were joined by “Rent” original cast members Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia, and “Hamilton’s” Miranda (as a cook) and Schuyler sisters: Renée Elise Goldsberry and Phillipa Soo.
For production designer Alex DiGerlando, cinematographer Alice Brooks, and editors Andy Weisblum and Myron Kerstein, crafing the scene was very much linked to Seurat painting his masterpiece, “A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte,” in the Sondheim musical. A frustrated Larson endures the frantic Sunday brunch ritual before freezing time and singing his own creative aspiration in tribute to “Sunday,” making the wall come down, and stepping out of the diner to conduct the Broadway legends in place like the painting. In the end, we pull back for a pointillist freeze frame on a bright, sunny day.
“First, we had to recreate the Moondance as it was because, from the very beginning, we realized that musicals tend to romanticize and heighten almost from the get-go,” said production designer DiGerlando. “But because of the meta mechanics of this story, it was important to present New York as it actually was at that time. Jonathan described it as a dusty diner, but when we saw what went on inside, it actually became a greasy spoon later on. At that time, the menu was a little more sophisticated than a regular diner.”
In keeping with the interior design and the lyrics of Larson’s song, the green, silver, blue, and purple stools come to life along with the metallic sheen of the diner walls. However, what to do after the big reveal of the Broadway legends took some thought. Then, while watching the Sondheim musical on PBS over and over again, editor Weisblum wondered if they should go outside of the diner. “We don’t want to see scraggly 1990s New York,” he said. “It has to be some fantasy ideal of New York as well, the way ‘Sunday in the Park’ is suddenly people inside a painting.
“I remember at one point I had mocked up where basically everything outside the diner was pointillism except for the diner and the people themselves. We played with it and ultimately it just ended up coming in as the last grace note.”
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But DiGerlando first came up with the idea of turning the Moondance sign into a theater marquee when playing with the tiny model of the diner and removing the front wall. “Then Lin had the idea of having it come down, and what was so great about that was the diner itself became a stage and a proscenium,” he said. “It was a very elegant solution, and then to make it work was complicated. It was done practically and the only visual effect was [digitally] tiling in all of the Broadway legends in there because of Covid.”
“Lin had said he paid homage to ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’,” which I had worked on,” added editor Kerstein. “‘For the song ‘Wig in the Box,’ the side of the trailer comes down as a similar device. So much of this film takes place on a stage, anyway, so it’s really fun stepping out of this grind of a day and having it turn into a theatrical, surreal piece.”
The removal of the front wall involved rigging the set with a pulley system by special effects coordinator Jeff Brink, which could be erased by VFX. “Much thought was put into how to outfit interior wall elements that were important set dressing features so that they would not be hazardous for the cast as they stepped out across the de facto proscenium,” said DiGerlando. “For instance, the track lights that were installed above the windows had to be designed to dismantle quickly, and windows needed to be retrofitted with one-inch sheets of plexi so that actors would not put their feet through glass.”
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For cinematographer Brooks, the diner scene was part of a long, evolutionary process using storyboards, which she turned into animatics with the audio voice tracks. The chaotic reality of brunch was shot hand-held, but the 360-degree lighting was bright like the perfect sunny day coming in through the windows. She used the Panavision’s DXL2 large-format camera with anamorphic T series lenses that were aged and enhanced with a black pro mist filter.
Yet the fantasy part finally came together visually for Brooks after the aha moment of turning the Moodance into a theater stage to break down the fourth wall and create the “Sunday in the Park” painting finale. “Simplicity is where the magic is,” said Brooks. “But it was very challenging. We needed enough space on the stage to the do the pull back. So we ended up opening the stage doors and the art department built the Moondance diner as far back as possible, so that we could pull our crane back all the way through to the next stage.
“And not all those actors could be in the same shot at the same time, so tiling it in was a human numbers game, like chess or something. We placed the legends in different positions, trying to figure out the least amount of timing shots possible because they’d be more than six feet apart. Then Lin and I had to start figuring out how to keep that lyricism without being able to really move the camera.”
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Each actor had their own protocol and were shot in groups. Some could be six feet apart, others by themselves. Grey could shoot with anyone but, at 89, he was the oldest legend, and needed to be protected as much as possible. And some of the legends could sequester long enough to be in shots with Garfield, while others couldn’t. Peters being led by Garfield’s Larson and placed in her “Sunday” position was the highlight, along with Neuwirth walking out doing her iconic “Chicago” pose.
“I just love how rhythmically the diner scene gets faster and faster, and slows down to a snail’s pace once it’s frozen, and we start building again,” said editor Kerstein. “It has a different rhythm from the rest of the movie. There used to be a lot more of Jonathan singing and conducting, but we didn’t have as much real estate once we wanted to plug more and more cameos in there, so it became more about them than Jonathan at a certain point.”
For the finale outside the diner, Brooks got very stylized, pulling the look down in the primary color grading known as the CDL (Color Decision List). “I wanted it to have a painterly quality to it so that when we go into the Seurat pointillism there’s a heightened feeling,” she said. “The pointillism is something they discovered in editing, but we were still trying to achieve the idea of the painting [with VFX]. It’s a modern New York version of the painting: brighter, direct sunlight, over exposure. Trees bloom, birds fly, the sky is perfectly blue. This is a dream in progress for Jonathan, who fantasizes that it comes true. It’s a future he never gets to see, but we ended up in our version of a Seurat painting.”