Tick, Tick . . . Boom!
By Michael Fuchs, SOC
In the wake of the generation-defining success of Rent, Jonathan Larson’s small, semi-autobiographical “rock monologue,” Tick, Tick . . . Boom! was restructured and expanded into a full stage musical, premiering Off-Broadway in the summer of 2001.
Two decades later, the film adaptation—directed by the world’s most famous theatre kid and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda—is now nominated for two Academy Awards, including Best Actor for Andrew Garfield’s performance as Larson.
Writing for Camera Operator, Michael Fuchs recounts his experience working on the film, from his history as a fan of Larson’s work to his excitement at working with Miranda on his feature film directorial debut.
Whether it was filming a scene with actors who were not able to physically share the same space or shooting musical numbers in and around an actual pool, there were plenty of challenges that came along with making this movie, and thus plenty of opportunities for clever solutions to overcome them.
Also featured is Stanley Fernandez, offering his perspective on the production working as B camera operator.
Before discussing my experience on Tick, Tick… BOOM!, I do need to address the elephant in the room: I believe that Andrew Garfield and I look similar to each other. In the past friends would joke about other on-screen talent that looked like me and, let’s just say, getting the Andrew Garfield comparison is an honor and relief to my self-esteem. What audiences should know—and they will if they read this article—is that it’s basically Andrew playing me playing Jonathan Larson.
All kidding aside (I’m not kidding), the opportunity to work on Tick, Tick… BOOM! is a pinch-me scenario. I wouldn’t say I’m a Broadway buff or know all the plays and players that have made Broadway such a showcase of talent over so many decades, but I love music and really appreciate musicals. Living in or close to New York City since 2001 has been a gift since Broadway is in my backyard.
In 2001 at age 16, I saw Rent on Broadway just after moving to New York with my family. I had heard little bits about it and saw someone perform “Over The Moon” at a sleepaway camp two years prior. Watching the real thing was impactful. I had not seen much Broadway in my life up to that point, and I was in love with the music, the concept, and the actors and actresses who performed that night. “Light My Candle” was so dope, I thought. I’m a sensitive teddy bear, okay? I think I was into every song, honestly. The energy of that show and seeing it on Broadway all those years ago is still quite alive in my mind.
Cut to February 2020 and I see a text from producer Deb Dyer saying there is a vacancy in the A camera/Steadicam position for Tick, Tick… BOOM! and asking would I be interested. Yes, yes, and yes! When do we start intense negotiations regarding my riches? Ha ha! I hope you think some of these jokes are funny. Okay, so I get a chance to interview with director of photography Alice Brooks, ASC, over the phone and we talk about our love of music and what an opportunity it is to get to do what we do storytelling-wise in conjunction with musical theater. I luck out big time and she is willing to hire me. I can’t believe I get to be a part of telling Jonathan Larson’s story, not to mention it’s Lin-Manuel Miranda directing his first feature. Pinch me, please.
Once photography got underway in early March 2020, I didn’t want it to stop. What’s funny is it certainly did stop after two weeks due to COVID. Seven months later in October, we were able to resume, but covered in PPE with all the lovely precautions, it was a much different vibe. However, with Lin’s undying love, energy, and random singing, combined with a cast I fell in love with, each day was still one of the best days I have spent on a set.
Alice and Lin trusted the operators from the start, and I felt the freedom to create and make decisions alongside B operator Stanley Fernandez. We would dually attack the numbers on stage while Jon is performing Tick, Tick… BOOM! at the New York Theater Workshop. The theater approach was a mix of crane work, handheld, Steadicam, and studio mode. Lin and Alice decided to keep things moving, letting the operators have full takes at songs handheld or on the crane, trying different moves, different timings, different speeds. How is that not fun? If I can’t be a professional musician myself, it is a dream to decide how and when to move—or not move—the camera when visually defining how a song feels in a film.
The Superbia workshop where Jon tests out his unfortunately doomed show to his family, friends, Broadway financiers, and critics was another fun space to create on the fly. I enjoyed creating a simple Steadicam shot that showed the company singing the song “Sextet.” Everyone was lined up side-by-side as I pushed towards them, tracked right, hinged around actor Jonathan Henry at the end of the line, and pushed back down the line where I came from. As the song ends, the camera pulls away from the group revealing Jon and Ira Weitzman watching the performance like goalposts on the left and right of frame.
Shooting the swimming number at the actual pool in Manhattan where Jonathan Larson used to swim was fun because we got a lot more out of the Hydrascope crane than I thought was possible, specifically tracking shots underwater cruising right alongside Andrew who just happens to be an above-average swimmer. I’ll admit this is where Andrew and I differ a little as his father was a swimming coach and my dad worked in retail, so my strokes are not as dialed in. Key grip Kevin Lowry devised a plan that involved building a platform the length of the pool that was a few feet from the edge and was over the pool so that we would have enough clearance with the back of the crane arm. The crane needed to be small enough to fit into this very tight space so it did not have buoyancy compensation like the larger arms do. So in “let’s try this” fashion, one of the arm techs stood on the end of the arm to keep the head submerged while dolly grip Bill Jones lead the team moving the base on track up and down the pool. It was riveting to watch the execution and the results were great. Underwater operator Sean Gilbert added some amazing photography of Andrew swimming and floating to round out the coverage.
“Sunday,” the diner scene with cameos from so many distinguished stage actors was something to behold, and I was fully able to enjoy it since half of it relied on the Technodolly. In the times of COVID, it was a nightmare challenge to shoot small groups of Broadway legends since the entire group could not be maskless together at one time for the final shot. My dear friends who made this film so special and fun each day, first AD Mariela Comitini and continuity captain Tom Johnston, helped coordinate an incredible plan to create this final pullback away from the diner on the stage with the Technodolly and all the camera positions we had programmed. Repeating the move over and over with different combinations of the legends allowed VFX supervisor John Baird and his team the ability to put everyone side by side as if the pain of getting the shot never happened.
It was my first time working on a musical feature film, and I wondered how the process would go when it came to some of the more dance-heavy moments. To my surprise, it was almost effortless working with a choreographer like Ryan Heffington and associate choreographer Ryan Spencer. I realized that, of course, a seasoned choreographer would design dance for the camera in a way that’s good for the camera! I would look at rehearsal/camera move recordings Ryan Heffington had made with his phone and, when we started getting to rehearse with the actors together, it was an easy, fun blend of refining and polishing the camera moves and the dance in ways that kept the action flowing how we wanted. In a classic Hollywood surprise ending, the most involved dancing and Steadicam choreography did not make the final film as the number “Green Green Dress” was left on the cutting-room floor. Steadicam was the main voice as we danced with Jon and his girlfriend, Susan, on the roof of their apartment building. We see them enter his apartment as they dance through the length of the space, eventually landing in Jon’s bedroom where the final version of the film picks up. So fun to practice, workshop, and shoot with The Ryans, but it’s for the betterment of the film’s pacing and run time that the number lives in the bonus features folder.
When I wasn’t trying to stand in for Andrew Garfield—who is beyond camera-savvy, smart, there for his scene partners, and aware of everything going on around him—I was cherishing every moment getting to create this film. I’ll never forget being with Andrew and Lin on the Great Lawn of Central Park since only three people were allowed on the grass at one time. Lin was operating the boom mic and directing while looking at the onboard monitor of the handheld camera I had. Is this really happening? Hah, I’m lovin’ it! The sound in dailies wasn’t bad either. Maybe Lin’s backup plan is in the sound department if the whole creative genius thing doesn’t work out.
As always, I am extremely grateful for the support around me and the camera each day. First AC Bradley Grant and Second AC Suren Karapetyan were always there making everything happen with the added burden of our modern-day plague. Kevin Lowry and his team, along with Bill Jones on the dolly with me, were a problem-solving team of aces.
I’m repeating myself saying how much it means to contribute to a story about Jonathan Larson that is filled with so much love from everyone involved. Jon’s sister Julie was there with us the entire time, making sure we stayed true to the man who inspired so many. I’m not sure how long it will be before I stop pinching myself. I just know that I keep replaying many of the days in my head, wishing I could do it again from scratch.
B Operator’s Perspective
By Stanley Fernandez
As the B operator, I had the privilege and honor of working on Tick, Tick… Boom! It was the experience of a lifetime with the greatest collection of artists and their talents across the board—in front of and behind the camera. DP Alice Brooks’ lovely soul and her quality of being the ultimate collaborator brought me onto the project. We had worked together previously on In The Heights. The trust she gave the operators really helped expand the flow of creativity and brought with it a responsibility to tell this story at its utmost level. I had worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda on Hamilton and jumped at the opportunity to work on his directorial debut—though you would never have guessed it was his first time directing. Every day he brought enormous energy and leadership to the project.
Mike Fuchs has been a friend of mine from other projects, and he would set up shots with Lin and Alice, allowing space for me to find a useful angle—perhaps tighter or in the opposite direction altogether, like at the New York Theater workshop. There was archival footage on videotape of Jon Larson that I got to recreate on Betamax video while A camera was on the Technocrane. Andrew Garfield, playing Larson, would come on stage, and I was using the Betamax video going against all instincts of a traditional framing: fast zooming, checking focus, reframing consumer-style. On other occasions I’d be setting up long dolly tracks, traveling left to right and back and forth under the Technocrane. Sometimes on daytime exterior shoots, I’d be hopscotching A camera to B camera shots in order to maximize setups in one day.
COVID restrictions came with their challenges—wearing eye protection, goggles, mask, and face shields hindered communication on set—but ultimately we created a family pod and an environment of stronger bonding. Wishing all my brothers and sisters a continuous safe practice at home and work during these crazy times. I want to take this time to thank the aforementioned crew support, my brother Fuchs, in addition to first AC Gavin Fernandez, second ACs Connie Huang and Caroline Ibarra, dolly grips Sally Foster and Tristan Allen, and my Yoda operators Bruce MacCallum, Andy Casey, David Dunlap, and Pat Capone.
Camera Operator Spring 2022
Above Photo: Adam Pascal, Daphne Rubin-Vega, and Wilson Jermaine Heredia in TICK, TICK…BOOM! Photo by Macall Polay
TECH ON SET
Chapman Hydrascope 15’ Crane
Hydroflex RED Monstro Underwater Housing
Libra and Mo-Sys Heads
BEHIND THE SCENES
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Michael Fuchs, SOC
Michael Fuchs is a camera/Steadicam operator living in New York City. Future stand-in for the likes of Andrew Garfield and other superheroes with dark hair, Michael continues to be grateful for the incredible opportunities camera operating has provided. When not on set, Michael loves spending time with family and friends and creating perfect piña coladas. He loves tropical locations and hopes the Florida Panthers do something superspecial in this year’s NHL playoffs.