SXSW: 'Broadway Idiot' Filmmakers 'Never' Saw Signs of Billie Joe Armstrong's Addiction (Q&A)
The Green Day frontman was a mentor, father figure and even a softball teammate while performing with the cast of Broadway's "American Idiot."
AUSTIN -- Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong showed no signs of alcoholism and prescription drug addiction while making his Broadway debut performing in American Idiot in 2011, according to one of the musical's producers.
In fact, the punk rocker, who returned to the stage Friday night in Austin at SXSW after a public meltdown in Las Vegas and a stint in rehab, was a mentor, father figure and even a softball teammate while performing to rave reviews in the critically acclaimed musical.
In the documentary Broadway Idiot, which made its world premiere at SXSW on Friday night, director Doug Hamilton gives viewers an all-access pass to witness American Idiot's musical evolution, from early rehearsals and its pre-Broadway run in Berkeley, Calif., (which included The Newsroom's John Gallagher, Jr., who originated the lead role of Johnny) to Armstrong's turn as St. Jimmy during the show's closing weeks on Broadway.
Hamilton and co-producer Ira Pittelman spoke to The Hollywood Reporter at SXSW about the genesis of the film, which started as your standard peek behind-the-curtain and evolved into the intimate story of Armstrong's journey from distant overseer to musical co-star.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did this project develop?
Ira Pittelman: Tom Hulce and I produced American Idiot from its inception, from texts between director Michael Mayer and Billie Joe to the very beginning. And we brought it to Berkeley and then to Broadway. So this is stuff that we would ordinarily do on a Broadway show. We’d do interviews with the cast and we’d put something on our website. You know, a "making of." But in this case, we weren’t sure what we had. Doug is a really good friend and also the only person I know who’s won three Emmys and worked on 60 Minutes for 10 years. So we called Doug and started talking about how crazy this was. Here’s Billie Joe Armstrong, who was on the streets at fifteen, playing in warehouses, and from a really crazy world [of punk rock] now entering another crazy world [of Broadway]. It couldn’t be more of a metaphor for something crazy.
Doug Hamilton: I’ve been around a fair amount of theatre. I am a still photographer in theatre and so I’ve been "in the room" a lot and appreciate what happens in that room. But there was a certain moment where Billie Joe engaged. Where you suddenly saw that he was going to have this journey. And that felt like it was going to be a film. That was the tail of the tiger you could grab a hold of. At that point, we didn't know which way it would go. Was it going to be this creative tension wrought between this Broadway world and the punk world? But as we followed it, the story that emerged was Billie Joe's own experience with it and going from incredibly generous but very much removed, to falling in love with everything and ending up starring in the show.
THR: At what moment did this change from a "making of" documentary to the story of Armstrong's personal journey?
Pittelman: We knew there was going to be a clash of worlds, and that’s why we produced it. But Billie Joe's story was something that evolved in a really cool way. Now that we look back in retrospect, it seems obvious, but we were able to see how that’s connected and art really was taking place. And we got excited about it.
Hamilton: There was a moment of engaging into what the story was that changed. [The producers] were collecting footage for their own purposes, but then at a certain point it was clear that this was something different. This isn’t a processed thing, there’s a story here. I wanted to tell the story from the inside. It’s very rare to get that inside view. It hasn't been done before. Television and film work best when it takes you some place you never get to go. We never go "outside the room." We never go to the Broadway critic or go for analysis. Documentaries always have that. We had two big stories here: One is the actual process of making the musical and the other is Billie Joe’s story. They’re two different stories. The first part, Billie Joe is an observer of the process, and then, as the story developed, he becomes part of the process. And the film does that, too. It observes the process and becomes it. I showed this to Joe Mantello, who directed Wicked, and he said he loved that it captured the enthusiasm of what it’s like to be in a show. You really feel that there’s something incredibly special and unique about the world of theatre, and hopefully the film captures that.
THR: Were there any reservations on Armstrong's part of participating directly with the documentary?
Pittelman: No, because it didn't really happen [like that]. It evolved. Billie Joe's such a good guy, and there was such a close relationship between everyone from the show.
Hamilton: The thing with Billie Joe is he’s very comfortable in front of 100,000 people, but one-on-one with a camera is a different story. So he was, like with the Broadway show itself, a little bit removed at first. With the documentary, he went along with it at first but at a bit of a distance, then as time went on he became increasingly engaged. He had such an amazing experience with the show and felt so proud of it and so in love with all the company that he wanted to get that story out. But also, he started to engage more in the film itself.
THR: There's some fascinating rare footage of Armstrong singing in his early teens. How did you find that footage?
Hamilton: I showed Billie Joe some cuts at different stages and he loved it and was very supportive. I had originally found some footage of him as a 14-year-old singing holiday tunes at a hospital. I showed this to him, and he was a little hesitant, as we all would be if somebody showed pictures of us at fourteen, right? Then at the very end of the process, after we had mixed the film, he says, “I get it. It’s wonderful. But I think I can do better. I think I can get you some footage that would be better.” A couple weeks go by and he calls and says, “I’ve got something for you.” He had gone to his cousin’s and gotten this footage of him at 11-years-old singing, "Send in the Clowns." We had already mixed the film because we had the SXSW deadline, but we went back in and re-cut that part and remixed it and put that footage in the film. That's the perfect example of his arc, going from distant to engaged.
THR: Both of you are aware that Armstrong came out in Rolling Stone recently about his alcoholism and prescription drug dependency. Were you witness to any of his problems while filming?
THR: You never saw any issues during a performance?
Pittelman: Never. That's the kind of professional he is. Also, it’s focus. It's three hours [a night]. [I never saw] anything like that.
THR: Off camera or backstage, did he exhibit any type of crazy rock star behavior?
Pittelman: He never once acted anything like a rock star. You know, the way you really know what kind of person somebody is on Broadway is you talk to the stagehands. You ask the stagehands about Billie Joe and they love the guy. Because he has no filter, he’s all heart.
THR: What was the cast's reaction when Armstrong joined the company?
Pittelman: From a producer’s point of view, it was mindboggling how he took over and became leader and very paternal. His wife Adrienne was there, too. Remember, this is a cast of young kids. Billie Joe even joined the cast softball team. They brought cookies if it was somebody’s birthday and every single night Billie was on, he’d get there an hour before the warm-up and he’d have some fun costume on for when everyone came in. So he’d be in his pajamas one night and the next he'd be The Naked Cowboy and run out onto the street! He broke down all the barriers and inspired those kids three hundred percent from what they were. It was something to see. This was their music that they grew up with. That doesn’t happen on Broadway. And then, as I said, when Billy came in, it just became about as tight as I've ever seen.
THR: Armstrong's performance as St. Jimmy garnered great reviews for a show that was already a critical favorite. The film documents his first rehearsals with the cast and his insecurities as a first-time Broadway actor, but when he made his debut the producers kept it a secret. Why was that?
Hamilton: Right, Billie Joe came in and took over for [original cast member] Tony Vincent for a week and came back at the end [of the Broadway run].
Pittelman: We didn’t tell anybody and Billie Joe didn’t want us to tell anyone. The only thing Billie did was tweet about it one or two days before the first performance. Nobody knew how it would work out. The plan was if it didn’t work out, we’d just quietly not do it anymore. And then he just blew the roof off! And that first time, there’s about seven minutes before the St. Jimmy entrance, and the audience starts clapping. And then the count, "One-two-three-four!" And the theater levitates.
Hamilton: We knew what was happening, though. He didn’t want the press to come, but at this point he was engaged enough in the documentary that he was OK with us filming that rehearsal even though he was still really nervous about whether he could perform and whether he’d be any good.
THR: One of the most revealing moments in the film happens early on when the cast performs one of Green Day's reworked songs in front of Armstrong and bandmates Tre Cool and Mike Dirnt for the first time. Mayer and music arranger Tom Kitt are both incredibly nervous. How much of a make-or-break moment was that for the musical?
Pittelman: One of the ways to answer that question is we didn’t know exactly what [the music] would be. So when we were working on it in rehearsal at Berkeley, we were watching, too. When we went into real performance mode at Berkeley, we really didn’t know if this belonged on Broadway. As it turns out, the two people who were most enthusiastic and adventuresome about going to Broadway were Michael Mayer and Billie Joe. It’s one of those crazy things in the artistic process that doesn’t really make sense on paper. That day, when the band came to the rehearsal, that was magic because he really hadn’t sat there like that. And the way he looks at his wife and she kisses him, he was overwhelmed. It really hit him like a ton of bricks how big his music really was and could be and what else was in there. That was a really emotional day. We all cried.
Hamilton: On another level, I think the thing that the film does is tell the story of an artist willing to go into another world. And one of the things that comes through, and it relates to the discussion of how they did this production, is Billie Joe respects the creative process and he knows that if it's going to be good, he couldn’t micro-manage it. So he gave them room to do stuff. He didn’t turn it over from day one, though. Not until that scene where he can visualize what it's going to be. He knows he’s in good hands because it’s beautiful and he’s thrilled. One of the things Mike Dirnt says is, “The only problem with being in Green Day is that we’ve never gotten to see Green Day.” Their experience with the musical is that it let them see themselves. I think one of the reasons Billie Joe connected so much to this process is that it allowed him to see his music differently. To work with Tom Kitt, to take songs that just came from his heart orchestrated for a couple of guitars and drums and bass and have it sustain this change to this other world thrilled him as an artist.
Pittelman: Billie Joe says in the film, which was really a great moment, “I’ve been waiting for this all my life and didn’t know it.”
View the trailer for Broadway Idiot below.
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