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Tick, tick, tick …
That’s the sound we hear when we’re waiting for something to happen. While we’re taking notes and working toward a goal and living in the “before.” While we’re looking at the clock and wondering — is it time yet?
Anyone can be — or can accomplish — anything. This is one of the most beautiful parts of our industry, but also the most mystifying. It means no one ever tells you what date and time you’re suddenly going to become the thing you’re hoping to be.
For an aspiring writer, director or producer, there’s no graduation ceremony, exam to pass or How to Succeed-type manual to memorize. When I was offered my first job as an agency assistant, I excitedly told my parents, “This is it! My first step toward making it!” They asked, “How long until you’re a producer?” I realized I didn’t have an answer. And I could see the time slipping through my fingers while I tried to figure it out.
During the summer of 2014, I was lucky enough to see a performance of Jonathan Larson’s musical Tick, Tick … Boom! as part of the Encores! series at New York City Center. I was a 26-year-old junior studio executive, armed only with big aspirations and my first set of business cards.
I wasn’t that familiar with the show as I took my seat that night — meaning: I was wholly unprepared for the emotional tidal wave that would wash over me by the end of the performance. The production featured a pre-Hamilton Lin-Manuel Miranda performing in the lead role of “Jon.” As Lin sang Larson’s words, “They’re singing ‘Happy Birthday’ / You just wanna lay down and cry,” it felt like he was speaking directly to me.
Larson initially wrote Tick, Tick … Boom! in 1990 as a one-man rock monologue called Boho Days. Disheartened that no one was producing his work, he turned the lens on himself and wrote about the week leading to his 30th birthday. As the crucial day approaches, he can’t help but compare himself to his creative heroes (Stephen Sondheim was only 27 when West Side Story opened on Broadway) and ask: “What am I doing with my life? When will I become the thing I’m trying to be?”
At the time, he was working at the Moondance Diner, writing in his spare time and desperately trying to figure out what life had in store for him. When I saw the show 25 years later, my 30th birthday was just on the horizon, and it all felt too real to me, as though the ink on Larson’s lyrics hadn’t yet dried.
In the days after, I played the 2001 off-Broadway cast album on repeat and wondered: Why don’t more people know about this? Could it be a movie? To my surprise, the film rights were available and looked after by Larson’s estate, which is led by Jonathan’s sister, Julie Larson. Since Jonathan’s sudden death at age 35 — the night before his musical Rent began performances — Julie has worked tirelessly to champion his legacy, and I knew I could only approach her with a serious proposal for how I would ensure that her brother’s most autobiographical musical would be adapted the right way. But I was still a junior studio executive and didn’t have the answer. Yet.
It wasn’t until two years later that I finally gave myself the permission to dig in and try to find a path forward. I discovered an essay that Lin had written at the time of the Encores! performance. In it, Lin writes about seeing Tick, Tick … Boom! in 2001 as a college senior and feeling like it was a message in a bottle to keep creating, no matter what. Because at its core, Tick, Tick … Boom! isn’t a musical about making it — it’s about “the moment before,” when you’re throwing everything you have at something and hoping you’re on the right path.
I realized that in 2014, I had witnessed Lin performing Tick, Tick … Boom! while Hamilton was still a dream gathering steam in his brain. As a composer with something to say to the world, he was in “the moment before,” just as Jonathan Larson had been. I knew then that there was simply no one else who could direct the film, unearth the cinematic potential in Larson’s story and capture that feeling of being on the precipice and yearning for more.
Although I still didn’t have a producing credit to my name, Julie Larson gave me her blessing, and I reached out to Lin about whether he would be interested in directing the film. I’ve never received a quicker answer: “That would be an absolute yes.”
That moment launched the next chapter of a journey that had begun a decade before, when I had set out to become a producer. And as we assembled our creative team and began a painstakingly meticulous development process, there was so much to consider. We asked ourselves, “What would Jonathan do?” On top of respectfully adapting his original work, we wanted to honor Jonathan’s commitment to being an LGBTQ ally by elevating the struggle of his HIV-positive friends. He made sure their stories were told. I had my eye on the clock, but we had a responsibility to get it right.
Finally, three years later, on March 3, 2020, we started principal photography in New York City. Then, eight days after that, we were shut down because of the pandemic. Like everyone around the world, we felt like the floor fell out below us. With absolutely no warning, we found ourselves at home, watching the news, worrying about friends and family and asking ourselves when we might be able to be on set again.
As our initial two-week hiatus turned into something much longer, it became uncertain whether we would ever be able to finish the movie. Pivotal numbers like “Sunday,” with its joyous gravitas, and “Boho Days,” with its spirited intimacy, were now in jeopardy because of the very real risk of transmission. How were we supposed to go on when the simple act of gathering now posed an untenable risk? And suddenly, another lyric from Tick, Tick … Boom! rose to the top: “Hey, what a way to spend a day.” This was already an oft-quoted lyric for us, but while we worked together to figure out a safe path forward to production, it became clear how privileged we had been to spend our time coming together and doing what we love.
When we finally started production again in October 2020 (this time, covered in layers of PPE), we came together as a cast and crew who fully understood what a miracle it was just to be making a movie. “Hey, what a way to spend a day” now meant something more.
And finally, after 43 days of pandemic production without a single shutdown, we reached the last day of production. It was six and a half years after I saw Tick, Tick … Boom! for the first time, two and a half years after my 30th birthday, one year after we began prep and nine months after our first day of shooting.
On this day, Jonathan Larson gave us the perfect coda to our shoot. Lin’s final call sheet note to our cast and crew reads: “THANK YOU … What a way to spend a day.”
So much of our lives are focused on the destinations and milestones. It’s as though reaching these markers finally gives us permission to telegraph to the outside world that we did it, we are legitimate members of our profession, and we are real. And while it’s important to celebrate the Starting Guns and the Curtain Calls, most of our time is actually spent in pursuit of the dream. Those moments are magic, and bringing this film to life has been a journey filled with them, from being there the moment Andrew Garfield first met Larson, before he had even discovered his own voice, to hearing Lin’s vibrant vision for the film, before he had ever called “Action!” on a set.
What I’ve learned now is that the ticking never stops. And that’s a beautiful thing. The real reason to get up in the morning is the quiet work that comes in “the moments before,” when you’re in the company of collaborators you love, creation is in process, and anything is possible.
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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