Movie musicals are hard. Much like the impending workshop performance that could make or break Jonathan Larson’s (Andrew Garfield) career in musical theater, the first 10 minutes of “Tick Tick Boom” could make or break its ability to do anything.
Beyond the usual musical problem of getting an audience comfortable with singing and dancing one moment and characters behaving more naturalistically the next, the film had a couple of particular challenges it needs to overcome quickly. The first was to contextualize Larson’s legacy for viewers who weren’t already read-in to “Rent.” The second challenge was that the film doesn’t just have musical numbers and dramatic scenes: It has a performance that serves as the frame story and launch-point for both kinds of scenes. The audience needs to understand how we move between each kind of environment and feel the changes as intuitive and natural, lest we get lost.
The film’s editors Andrew Weisblum and Myron Kerstein, and director Lin-Manuel Miranda, spoke to IndieWire about tackling those challenges and trusting in the editorial process to come up with creative solutions. “When [producer Julie Oh] first approached me with the rights to this, almost instantly I had the idea, oh, the one-man show is the frame. And as soon as his hands touched the keys, we can go into the world according to Jonathan Larson,” Miranda said. “But my experience in developing musicals and writing musicals is that we have to teach the audience how the rules work. And we really used sort of a layering effect.”
The layering begins with Super 8 footage of Garfield walking onto a stage, which cleanly suggests the home movie of an actual performance. This sense of the real is hammered home by further archival footage, cannily blended with verité style clips shot for the film. We first see the fictional version of Larson, his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), and the key space of the Moondance Diner to which the film will return (and how!), but Weisblum and Kerstein fold in actual news footage covering “Rent” at the beginning of its run and the nods to Larson’s tragic death just before his Pulitzer Prize–winning musical opened. Susan says in voiceover to proclaim that everything we’re about to see is true, “except for the parts that Jonathan made up.” The film effortlessly establishes, in its first minutes, its story as grounded in not just verisimilitude but in history.
There’s a lot of pressure on those early verité moments to convey just enough about the rise of “Rent” and Larson’s personality, especially because Miranda wanted to avoid standard biopic tropes. “I’m terrified of the, like, ‘This Really Happened.’ I didn’t want the white text on black at the end of the movie,” Miranda said. “The beta cam footage was our way in, and our beta cam footage could be mixed with the footage of Anthony Rapp on stage at ‘Rent,’ really giving us this whole world. We found the additional vocabulary of, oh, we don’t actually go to film until we see him at the piano telling his own story.”
But the solution of using archive footage was a bit of retroactive cleverness. The footage was initially intended for the number “Louder Than Words,” but after some screenings left audiences confused about who Larson was, Kerstein and Miranda rethought their use of it. “Some of the archival and some of the verité footage that we ended up shooting ended up helping that,” Kerstein said. “Susan’s voiceover was created pretty late in the process, and that helped to give people the same playing field.” Moving in two quick shots from Super 8 footage to the film’s actual digital format as Larson sits down at the piano, the film grounds all subsequent changes as originating from Larson’s self-expression. The changes in musicality then flow from or back to Larson at the piano, fictionalized but embodying something and someone real. No matter what else happens, from here on out, the audience always knows where we are. We’re with Jonathan.
From there, “30/90” slowly ramp in stages, going from almost rock concert-like footage of Jonathan on stage, opening up to the band and his co-performers Roger (Joshua Henry) and Karessa (Vanessa Hudgens). In between choruses, we get interstitial dramatic scenes that also slowly become more musical, beginning with the introduction of Michael (Robin de Jesús) at the diner with only underscore from the number propelling the moment forward, culminating with Jonathan and Susan dancing their way through The Strand. It takes seven minutes for us to see a fully musical world (and the song is only four and a half minutes played straight), but as Jonathan and Michael dance through their apartment, the film’s given us exactly the right information in exactly the right order to accept and embrace it.
“It’s almost a cliché [that] your opening number establishes the language and establishes the way in which these characters sing and interact. And that is true. And that is important. And it’s the most important number in your musical,” Miranda said. But he was more excited by how establishing the rules of the musical ultimately afforded “Tick Tick Boom” a lot of freedom. The foundation they built at the film’s start allowed him to build complexity out from there, whether it takes the form of a 1990s rap music video with Black Thought, populating a diner with Broadway legends across the generations, using VFX to transform a swimming pool into a musical stanza, or leaning on the editing to intercut a comedy number on stage with an absolutely brutal breakup.
“Having the actual stage where we could go back, that could be a grounding point if we ever needed,” Kerstein said. “Even that little touch that we did, this little pickup after the end of ‘Sunday’ of Jonathan just breathing, of just taking in what a moment that was to like perform this number. And it’s such a small little thing, but it’s, again, the thing that grounds you back into this reality, and I just love having the opportunity to play with that.”
Weisblum added that the editing process for a musical is a lot like writing. “[Every idea] deserves its best shot forward in terms of how it’s going to function in the film because you really never know what it’s gonna mean to you later on in the process, when you’re looking for that thing and your mental inventory and your visual memory just keeps working the whole time so that when you’re trying to solve some other problem, you remember the thing that you did elsewhere,” Weisblum said.
Miranda also likened the process of structuring an edit to crafting a musical. “As a first-time filmmaker, I had experience on film sets, but I hadn’t really been exposed to the editing room to this extent,” Miranda said. “I found, oh, this is exactly like building a musical score. You’re using the same tools. You’re playing with tension and release. You’re saying, ‘When do I sit in a moment? When do I dilate a moment? When do I speed past a moment?’ You’re playing with tempo. It’s the same tools, the same elements, with different toolkits. In terms of the footage and layering that [in] at the beginning so that when it comes back, it feels like a reprise.”