One of Hollywood’s most celebrated breakout artists of the last decade, Lin-Manuel Miranda has acted, produced, written and composed. And that doesn’t even include his significant body of work on Broadway. The last year alone saw the release of In The Heights, the big-screen adaptation of a Broadway show he created. There was also the Netflix animated film Vivo, in which he voiced the main character and composed the music for, as well as the latest Disney animated movie Encanto, which he wrote. Not to mention the live-action Little Mermaid movie that he is currently producing and writing music for.
If all of that, and creating the cultural sensation that is Hamilton wasn’t enough, his latest adventure on screen sees him making his directorial debut with Netflix’s Tick, Tick . . . Boom!, a biopic based on the life of Jonathan Larson, who revolutionized musical theatre as the creator of Rent. The film follows Jon (Andrew Garfield), a young theater composer who’s waiting tables at a New York City diner in 1990 while writing what he hopes will be the next great American musical.
Miranda spoke about the world finally getting to experience Hamilton on streaming, what surprised him most about directing and how he juggles so many projects.
You’ve written movies, you’ve created music for them, you’ve produced projects and, of course, acted. But tick, tick…BOOM! is your first time directing a big movie. What surprised you the most about directing? Was there anything that you just didn’t expect going in?
I think the happiest surprise I found was the part of the process I knew the least about, which also ended up being one of my favourite parts, which was the editing process.
I’ve been lucky enough to act in movie and TV projects, and I know what I want on a film set and the atmosphere I want to create. I know the kind of relationship I want with my actors and how to find a private language with each of the actors to let them do their best work. I’ve had good role models in the directors I’ve worked with. What I didn’t expect was how much fun editing is, and how much it feels like writing a score. I know what building an evening at the theatre through music is like and editing a movie is the same process but with different tools. You’re thinking about tension and release. You’re thinking about tempo at all times. You’re thinking of when to sit in a moment and when to blow up a moment. When to surprise the audience and when to speed through the next thing. And those are all the tools you are thinking about when you’re building a score or when you’re building an evening of theatre for someone. So, it was very enjoyable process with my two editors Andrew Weisblum and Myron Kerstein. I just had the best time.
You’re also a freakishly productive artist. This year alone you had In the Heights which was based on a show you created, animated film Vivo on Netflix, which you lent your voice for. There’s also the Disney animated film, Encanto, which you wrote and I’m sure another bunch of cool stuff you’re working on that we don’t even know about yet. Walk me through that writing schedule. How do you juggle so many things?
Well there is a slight of hand at work in this because it seems like it’s all happening at once. But remember, In the Heights was supposed to come out sometime last year. And Vivo was supposed to come out sometime last year. The pandemic is what shoved everything in one year. The goal was always to work on things that feed each other. And I often find that when I’m getting overwhelmed, I’m terrible at multitasking. That’s my dirty secret. I like to focus on the thing that is in front of me. And anyone in my life can tell you, I ignore emails and texts until I’ve solved the problem at hand. And for me, when I get overwhelmed, I try to think about it like this: I’m back in college. I’m doing this writing-intensive with Alan Menken on the live-action Little Mermaid. I’m taking this directing class for tick, tick…BOOM!, and I’m also finishing my senior thesis in animation on Encanto. And if I think about it in that way, it doesn’t become “Oh God! I’ve got so much work to do!” It actually allows me to step back and think about how what I’m learning here could inform this other thing and vice versa.
You’d be amazed that how much crossover there is in working with Alan Menken for new lyrics for the new Little Mermaid songs and realising that we’re working in the shadow of the loss of Howard Ashman, who died around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing about his friends and the generation of artists we were losing during the AIDS crisis. Howard Ashman was a casualty of that crisis. Working with Alan, it can’t help but make you think about how you approach the keyboard when you’re writing your own animated songs in Encanto. And then, above it all, working on this film about Jonathon Larson, who did not want anything more than his work to connect with the world. So, you cannot help but go to your keyboard with gratitude to someone who really learnt how to find peace with just loving what he was doing, and not worrying about whether the world would see it or not.
We also have to the cultural juggernaut of Hamilton. It’s interesting because there’s been so much hype around the show, even in countries where where we couldn’t watch the live show. So, when it released on Disney+ last year around the world, what were those reactions like? You must have been inundated.
I was. It was impossible to even process them, because it was a meal that we were serving to 1400 people at a time. When the pandemic happened, we had 5 productions all around the world. We were just finishing casting Australia and cut to 3rd July 2020, everyone could watch it, whenever they wanted. It was intense, it was too much for one person to handle. I went back into therapy on 5th July just to get my head around everyone seeing this thing. I’m incredibly proud of the streaming version. I think it was so incredible how much of that live experience we were able to create in the movie version. But you can answer it better than me about what the reaction was in India. I was getting it from all angles all the time and that was a time when I really had to unplug my computer and go play with my kids. So, what’s been interesting is reemerging as the world opens back up again, and seeing how many people have seen this show and how many lives it has affected. Not a day goes by without some reminder of how omnipresent Hamilton is, swinging around and smacking me in the face when I least expect it.
In India, music is an intrinsic part of our cinema, it’s in-built in the DNA of our movies. Have you ever had the chance to experience an Indian movie?
Yeah I have, even when I don’t understand what’s going on. That’s usually my go-to, when I’m on a flight. It’s thrilling and liberating to watch a genre where musicality is just a part of the experience and I think that the US has a lot to learn from that. I happen to be living in a time when we’re making a lot more movie musicals, and I’m really grateful for that because it was dead when I was a kid. I can name all of the movie musicals which came out in the 80s because there were so few of them. But I ended up falling in love with the ones my parents loved. They liked The Sound of the Music, My Fair Lady and The Unsinkable Molly Brown. I fell in love with all the Vincente Minnelli musicals Singing in the Rain and The Band Wagon. So, I feel grateful to be at a time when my country is making some musicals and I’m really grateful I got to make one.