‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ Q&A with Andrew Garfield and Lin-Manuel Miranda

Tick Tick Boom
Behind the scenes of ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ with Andrew Garfield and director Lin-Manuel Miranda (Photo Credit: MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021)

Tony Award-winner Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton!, In the Heights) stepped behind the camera to make his directorial debut with tick, tick…BOOM!, an adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical musical. Tony Award-winner Andrew Garfield (Angels in America) channels Larson in the entertaining tribute to the creative force behind Rent who passed away far too young.

tick, tick…BOOM! focuses on the period of years prior to Rent when Larson was still waiting tables and struggling to write his futuristic dystopian musical, Superbia. Larson wrote the rock monologue tick, tick…BOOM! (also known as Boho Days) in response to the rejection he felt after dedicating years of his life to writing Superbia and the realization it wouldn’t be produced.

Lin-Manuel Miranda joined Andrew Garfield for a special press conference hosted by Netflix exclusively for members of the Critics Choice Association, a Q&A in which the talented filmmaker and tick, tick…BOOM!’s incredibly insightful star discussed collaborating on the musical and the joy of bringing Jonathan Larson’s story alive on screen.

On making his tick, tick…BOOM! his directorial debut:

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “Film was always my first love. I went to college intending to study theatre and film, and then realized studying film is a lot more expensive than studying theatre. (laughing) And so every decision I’ve made post-Hamilton has been the film school I always wanted but couldn’t afford.

To get to work with Rob Marshall on Mary Poppins Returns was my auditing – watching Rob Marshall direct a musical. To get to dissect Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon’s relationship as a producer with Fosse/Verdon and watch my good friend Thomas Kail make eight mini-movies about that genius director. And then my senior thesis was watching Jon M. Chu directing In the Heights. I learned so much…all the decisions he made and the way he ran a set.

I had really good role models. And so what made it feel like a natural fit was Jonathan Larson is the reason I started writing musicals in the first place. He’s the one who wrote Rent which just rocked my world when I was 17 years old; it just felt so personal and so homemade. It did feel like, you know, if this is going to be my first experience, it needs to be something I really understand at like a bone-deep level. I have been a struggling songwriter of musicals in my 20s. It was just something I felt like I really understood. And then I had just amazing collaborators and partners to fill in what I didn’t know and get us across the finish line.”

On collaborating with Lin-Manuel Miranda:

Andrew Garfield: “I get to keep discovering and remembering things that made this so special. The first thing is that Lin is who he is as a creator, as an artist, as a man. And the strange thing…and I say ‘strange’ because you would never know this was Lin’s first time directing a film because it felt…it was the most joyful set that I’ve ever been on. And that’s a hard feat to achieve as we all know, especially in the times of Covid.

We had our first two weeks pre-Covid and then the remaining shoot – the majority of the shoot – was in this very brand new Covid (environment). We were one of the first productions back and Lin somehow created an atmosphere where we were all showing up in tons of layers of PPP but it was the most intimate, joyful, creative, expansive, connected set that I’ve ever been on. And it was the kind of set you didn’t want to leave at the end of the day, which is very, very hard to achieve.

And at the end of shooting, I said to him, ‘When are we doing season two?’ because it was just that beautiful feeling of not wanting to leave his side, not wanting to leave Jonathan Larson’s side, and the rest of this company. It was one of those very magical, rare, special occasions where we all were being pulled by this North Star which was Jonathan Larson. He’s unrelenting. The spirit of Jonathan – even now as we talk about him and his music – I feel him working through us. He wants his songs in the world more than anyone. We want to be that channel, that vehicle to allow more people to feel the ripples of his work which obviously was a huge influence on the greatest musical theatre creator alive right now (laughing and grabbing Lin-Manuel Miranda in a hug) and countless over musical theatre creators and creators in general.

The fact is that right now in high schools across America, I understand from friends and kids of friends, is that there are two musicals that young people want to do right now in high school and that’s Hamilton and Rent. And they’re both about the revolution, they’re both about waking up. They’re both about changing the culture. They’re both about fighting against a system that is dehumanizing and fighting for the dignity and the soul of a country and of the individual. It’s a pretty ripe time for Jonathan Larson to be given another wave of love and recognition.

(Indicating Lin-Manuel Miranda) This is the perfect…and he knew it and we all knew it…that he was the absolute perfect person to do it. We all followed him following Jonathan, and it was a beautiful experience all around.”

On discovering something new about Jonathan Larson as an artist within the process of making tick, tick…BOOM!:

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “What was wonderful was that I was lucky enough to play Jon in an off-Broadway production of this just before Hamilton happened, with my past and my future…with Karen Olivo by my side who was my co-star in In the Heights and Leslie Odom Jr who would become my co-star in Hamilton. I remember going to the reception afterwards and meeting all of the people who were very much a part of Jonathan’s life – his best friend, his girlfriend at the time he was writing tick, tick…BOOM!, his family, so many of his friends. And we really called on them as a resource, and also collaborators he worked with.

The documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler directed one of the earliest drafts of Boho Days. I took him to lunch and just talked about what it was like collaborating with Jonathan Larson, which was easy in some ways and tough in others. I talked to Roger Bart who we honored with Josh Henry sort of playing a version of him because Roger was a fellow waiter and artist and sang backup for all of Jonathan’s concerts. Roger gave us so many insights on Jonathan as a person versus Jonathan in a rehearsal room, and what that specific energy was like.

Ira Weitzman became a character in this just because our conversations with Ira who was one of his first patrons in the ‘80s. The thing I discovered was sort of a more complete version of who Jonathan was. He was totally impatient with the world but this is not someone who is doubting his gifts. He was doubting the world’s ability to recognize it which is, I think, far more interesting.

I know firsthand the stress of having a whole ass musical in your head and how many obstacles there are to the world hearing that. Getting actors and getting collaborators who believe in you and producers who are willing to put their money where their words are. There are so many steps, such a gulf between what you’ve got inside you and getting it out into the world, and the impatience and stress of that. We got all angles on that from the people who loved him the most.”

Tick Tick Boom Andrew Garfield
Andrew Garfield as Jonathan Larson in ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ (Photo Credit: MACALL POLAY/NETFLIX © 2021)

On the dichotomy of playing Jonathan on stage performing and also playing him as a character in a film:

Andrew Garfield: “It was so cohesive. We were talking about this the other day. It felt like the brilliance of the adaptation that Lin and Steven Levenson worked on that I got to just step into and inhabit and immerse myself in, it felt in the same vein of All That Jazz in the sense that you’re exploring the psyche of a human being. You’re in a place that goes beyond place and time. You’re exploring the unconscious. There’s something mystical and magical about it.

I think it’s wonderful because it’s about a very, very specific moment in Jon’s life at a very specific threshold – an initiation that he’s about to enter which is this looming benchmark of turning 30 and all of the things that he associates with that. And, of course, we all know if we live long enough there are those occasional benchmarks in our lives when suddenly memories start to come and futurizing starts to arrive and suddenly you don’t know where you are because everything is happening all at once. Suddenly there are fears and hopes and dreams and losses. You can feel when there’s a very vital moment coming in your life because you tend to want to run away from it. There’s an intensity of emotion. There’s an intensity of energy that floods the system. That’s the moment that Jon’s in.

I think the structure of the piece enabled me to kind of step between times and zones and places in a way that felt totally seamless because I was moving through the insights of Jon in the most elegant and set up way where I could just explore. That’s what Lin set up.

But, you know, I’m a performer. I’m a theatre actor at heart. That’s my first love. And Jon is a non-stop performer but there’s no performing in it. He just naturally is always turned up at 11, always trying to sing for the back row even when he’s not singing – even when he’s alone in his apartment with his beat-up Casio keyboard. There’s no relenting apart from maybe when he gets stoned once in a while to soothe his mind, soothe his anxiety. The kind of guy who sleeps two hours a night because he’s getting haunted by the muses of musical theatre saying, ‘No, no, no! You don’t have time to sleep! You have so many songs that people need and you only have a certain amount of time to do it in – and you have all these people around you who are dying’ – either literally from the AIDS epidemic or culture and a system that does not want them to live out their dreams, that does not want them to give their gifts. Because if they give their gifts, it might wake other people up and then they might stop buying stuff that they don’t need. He was a revolutionary in that way.

So, it was really about channeling him, allowing his energy to come through us. And yet, of course, the beauty of feeling – like (Lin) shared with me – how he felt in a rehearsal room, how he felt when he was able to give his gifts, when that was allowed. And the liberation he feels in a New York Theatre Workshop while he’s doing a one-man show of tick, tick…BOOM! or Boho Days…whatever we want to call it. That felt like a sacred ritual and it felt like Jon just purely at home with his family. Everyone in the audience is his family. It was like he was doing a holiday play for his extended family over Christmas – that’s what it felt like…a healing ritual.

So, there was no differentiation really and yet so much differentiation.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “And just the stamina it takes for Andrew to play Jonathan turned up to 11 all the time was something I just got to marvel at every day. I first saw him in Angels in America which takes extraordinary stamina; it’s a six-hour play in two parts. And to be that open and that vulnerable for that long is an endurance test. It’s an emotional endurance test. I was just in awe of his abilities to do that every day.”

On bringing the passion and emotion of live theatre to the big screen:

Lin-Manuel Miranda: “I’m so glad we were just talking about New York Theatre Workshop because we were filming that in October/November of 2020 when theatre was dark all over the world. And for one week the only show in town was Jonathan Larson playing the New York Theatre Workshop. We really felt how sacred and special and what a privilege it was to be singing his songs at a time when all of our fellow theatre artists were at home wondering if their industry was going to come back. It felt like a real sacred responsibility, and so that time in particular felt very poignant and special.

There’s another time when we were filming a sequence in Shubert Alley and our holding areas were all the darkened Broadway theatres. I remember walking into the Phantom of the Opera’s home and just seeing that chandelier sitting there unlit with the ghost light on the stage wondering if we’d ever come back. That’s why I was so thrilled to go to the Phantom reopening about three weeks ago because I had a moment in that space being like, ‘Are we ever going to gather in the dark and tell stories again?’

Little by little it’s coming back.”

On the impact of starring in tick, tick…BOOM!:

Andrew Garfield: “So, Lin has given me so many gifts with his strange instinct to bring me into this project and I’m just forever indebted because I felt like I was being reunited with a long lost brother that I didn’t know I had by being introduced to Jonathan Larson by Lin. You know, he wrote on the musical lyrics to ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ when we first met over a sushi lunch, he wrote, ‘This won’t make sense now but I promise you it will.’ No truer words have been written to me and it was the deepest, bone, cellular understanding that immediately started to wake up in me when I started to understand who Jon was and what he did and what his ethos was, and how he saw the world and what he wanted to do for the world.

It’s just one of the great privileges of my life to have been included in attempting to serve the memory and the essence of Jon. I’m very thankful that I got to be introduced at a late stage to a long-lost brother that way.”

On the one scene or memory from the film that will stick with him years down the road:

Andrew Garfield: “Can I say just all of it because for me it’s one long scene? (laughing) It’s one long meditation. It’s one long cry. It’s one long prayer. It’s like a wailing, unfinished song that Jonathan sent into the cosmos. It’s one long in-breath and one long out-breath to me.

That being said, the scene that comes to my mind which I’m so grateful is preserved on film…and, again, I don’t want to dilute my feelings about any of it. This film is a rare film and it’s hard for me to feel that about things that I’m a part of because I’m riddled with self-doubt. It’s never enough, as we all know – as anyone knows who tries to do anything creative. But for me the moment that comes to me immediately, because it was a very personal thing that happened that night…there was something magical…was singing ‘Why’ at the piano on a kind of cold evening in the middle of Central Park with this master (indicating Lin) and all the other incredible collaborators – with Jon’s sister Julie Larson at the monitors.

It was a communing experience with everyone that I’ve lost in my life and with Jon, and with Prior Walter – the character that I play in Angels in America. All the lost souls that were taken too soon from the AIDS epidemic. It was this incredible communion, this holy moment that we all got to experience together, that I got to do on camera in a safe, good way. It was nothing intrusive. This is really a sacred thing and I’m eternally grateful that I will always be able to look back on that song and look at those images and feel close to the people that I miss – the ones that I’ve lost and the ones that we’ve all lost.

It feels very, very universal. How do we face death and then continue to choose life? That’s what Jonathan’s trying to figure out in that moment. How do I move through this loss and decide to be here even more fully in my gifts, in my calling, uncompromising? There’s no greater ritualistic initiation to go through, as painful as it is. It has to be painful to get to that true self, that true essence of what we are.”

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tick, tick…BOOM! opened in limited release in theaters on November 12, 2021 and will stream on Netflix beginning November 19th.