tick, tick…BOOM! editors on making a perfect musical number
Myron Kerstein has been editing musicals on the big screen since 2003’s Camp and continued working in the genre by cutting 2009’s Fame remake, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, and last year’s rousing adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights. Andrew Weisblum is no stranger to musicals either, having worked on 2002’s Oscar-winning Chicago, but he’s also worked on editing several films by Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Noah, mother!) and Wes Anderson (The Darjeeling Limited, Moonrise Kingdom, The French Dispatch).
Both men have teamed up for the first time on Miranda’s adaptation of Rent composer Jonathan Larson’s musical, tick, tick…BOOM! Nominated for a 2022 Academy Award for Best Film Editing, the two men talked to Digital Trends about working with the Hamilton creator on bringing Larson’s NYC bohemian vision to life, what goes into editing a good musical number, and meeting the high bar established by Broadway legends of the past like Larson, Bob Fosse, and Stephen Sondheim.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: How did you two become involved with tick, tick…BOOM!?
Andrew Weisblum: I spoke with Lin Manuel-Miranda in 2019 when he was crewing up for the film, and we talked about all things New York (as we both been born and bred there in the ’80s and ’90s) and the different people we knew from the theater world. He [eventually] invited me on board. We started filming and then the pandemic happened, and we had to shut down for a while. I joined back up with them when they started to shoot again, but had to soon leave for other professional obligations, which is when Myron came into the picture.
Myron Kerstein: I got a call from Jon M. Chu (the director of In the Heights) saying, “I think Lin’s going to call you to work on this film.” Lin called and said, “Would you be interested in coming out to New York to work on this film?” He was a fan of the work that John and I did together on In the Heights. It was very flattering to get that call and go live with Lin for eight months working on his first feature as a director.
Were you guys familiar with Jonathan Larson’s musical before taking on this project?
Myron Kerstein: I was not. I knew Rent, of course, but I didn’t really know Jonathan Larson at all. And when I first spoke with Lin, he told me Larson’s story and how his music influenced his own. I related to the story of an artist finding his way and the tragedy of Jonathan never seeing Rent on Broadway. I knew it was going to be a story that not only related to me, but also to a larger audience.
Andrew Weisblum: I knew a bit about Jonathan, Rent and tick, tick, BOOM!, and I knew some of the people that he was friends with at the time. I had some familiarity with it and I knew the basics of it and of the people who were part of his life.
What was the most challenging musical number to put together in tick, tick…BOOM!?
Andrew Weisblum: They all had some different challenges. “Therapy” had some of the most obvious technical challenges because you’re intercutting a dramatic scene with a musical number that’s constantly changing tempo and you have to get them to crescendo together. “Swimming” had its own challenges too, which was trying to make keep it as dynamic as possible because you’re really just watching someone swimming laps. I had to figure out to accelerate the scene and feel interesting without over-cutting.
Myron Kerstein: Musicals are very difficult to edit as you want to keep people grounded in it and not wanting to fast forward the movie in their homes or just turn it off completely. With “30/90,” my biggest challenge was to hook the audience in that first musical number and not lose them. We had to give them enough information about Jonathan so that even if the audience didn’t know him, they knew enough about him to stick around. Also, we intercut between many scenes, many locations, many time periods in that number. It’s just a lot of balls we had in the air for “30/90.” We ended up having a fun musical number that feels grounded and a little bit fantastical at the same time.
Andrew Weisblum: In successful musical numbers, each one has its own little story that it’s telling and they’re all kind of cut with that in mind. We make sure we are conveying whatever the number needs to be: An expositional, emotional, or character conversation. Whatever it is, it moves the film, story, and character forward and you’ve gained something from it. Once it’s done, that takes you to the next beat, just like any dramatic film. It’s never just a musical performance. That’s a key difference between good and not-so-good musicals.
Does your approach change depending on the genre of the project you’re working on?
Andrew Weisblum: Yes, I think it does. There are definitely commonalities between any movie about getting them to work and not work, whether it has to do with pace, tone, or performance. There are certain sets of rules that are consistent across all genres. I think it depends on the filmmakers, the editor, and what their proclivities are.
Myron Kerstein: For me, it’s a little different. I like to think that I’m choosing what shots I’m going to use and how I’m going to build the movie based on my visceral reaction to the footage. If something makes me want to cry or laugh or cause goosebumps on the back of my neck, then I think that there is something to that and that I should take note and use it. Also, I treat lyrics like this because if you’re listening, then there’s a story in those lyrics and it’s not just a song that you get lost in. I’d like to think that my approach is very similar depending on whatever I’m working on.
What was it like working with Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Andrew Weisblum: Well, for me, he didn’t really want to see that much cut material, even though we talked a lot because I think he just found it to be a distraction. Every director is kind of different in that regard. We worked together on the overall arc of the film in terms of pacing, theme, and ideas. It was less concentrating on specific scenes and getting too deep into the kind of granular details of how it was put together. We started with the larger issues and then eventually focused more and more on the details.
Myron Kerstein: Most of my work with Lin was just solving problems and issues with the film, whether it was confusion about relationships or finding more nuance and a narrative arc to Garfield’s performance. Lin is not the type of director who sits there dictating frames being cut off. He wants to see ideas presented to him, talk about ideas together, discuss solutions to potential problems, and get inspired. He inspires the best out of you instead of dictating. You know what work he has done before with In the Heights and Hamilton so you want to meet that high bar, you know?.
Let’s dig into some of the individual numbers. I want to talk about “Sunday” because it’s just sort of stops the whole movie in a good way. It’s quite literally the showstopper out of all the musical numbers in the movie. How did you tackle this number, which involved over a dozen Broadway legends, a location that doesn’t exist anymore, and complicated staging and VFX?
Andrew Weisblum: The biggest challenge with “Sunday” was getting all these people together in a space because of all the obvious pandemic challenges. It became a logistical challenge to film and edit it. The number kept getting delayed until the end of the shoot so it didn’t leave time for much coverage of close-ups of people. We wanted to make sure we got people in the same scene together in order to not make them feel too compartmentalized.
One of the challenges that hasn’t been talked about as much is shooting the “reality” part of the scene before we actually get into the musical section and trying to make it feel verité, spontaneous and fun. We needed to capture the right energy of how much Jonathan hates working Sunday brunch at the diner and what his dream version looks and feels like and the homage to Stephen Sondheim that’s involved in that.
Myron Kerstein: The sequence was really working [when I came in to edit it], but Lin wanted more close-ups and more Broadway legends like Chita Rivera. Trying to squeeze everybody in that type of sequence is really difficult because you can get too “cutty” with that type of thing. We needed to figure out a way to build it up so that everyone, from Rivera to Bebe Neuwirth to the original Rent cast, gets their curtain call at the end. We also needed to develop a surreal vibe so that the Georges Seurat and Sunday in the Park with George homage at the end of the number didn’t feel too hokey.
How did you approach editing the “Therapy” musical number?
Andrew Weisblum: Well, the first thing we needed to get right is the dramatic scene that is intercut with the musical number. We needed to get it working on its own because then it makes it simpler to figure out when, where, and how the song intercut will go.
The trick there with the musical number itself was to continuously increase the cutting pattern, pace, and energy of it so that it builds alongside the escalating fight between Jonathan and Susan (Alexandra Shipp). Once that was done, you have a sequence that works both dramatically and musically.
Myron Kerstein: Andy and I spent a year and a half working on that sequence. You don’t realize how much work goes into it these musical numbers. We don’t want to break the illusion that they’re lip-synching and that they are actually performing it live on the stage. If that breaks, half of it falls apart or it starts to resemble a music video.
We had to ask ourselves, “What is the breaking point for how much the audience will take of this fight and this crazy music number?” Because there is definitely a limit, you know? There’s definitely a limit to that style of music and a very real, intense fight between two lovers. It’s so reflective of what it is to be an artist to have this passion in your head while trying to manage your personal relationships.
“Therapy” was inspired by Bob Fosse and films like Chicago. Andrew Garfield, Alexandra Shipp, and Vanessa Hudgens blew the doors off with their performances. We wanted to meet the bar that they and others had set for us and then do something really original that Lin and [writer] Steven Levenson came up with.
tick, tick…BOOM! is available to stream on Netflix.