Art of the Cut: Editing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “tick, tick, BOOM!”
Today we’re speaking with Andrew Weisblum, ACE and Myron Kerstein, ACE about editing Lin Manuel Miranda’s debut directorial project, tick, tick…BOOM!
I’ve spoken with Andrew and Myron several times before. Andrew for Alice Through the Looking Glass and, most recently, for The French Dispatch. Then Myron for Crazy Rich Asians (for which he was nominated for an ACE Eddie) and In the Heights.
Myron’s other work includes the films Going in Style, Wish I was Here, Glee: The 3D Concert Movie, Fame, and Garden State among others.
Andrew’s filmography includes The Darjeeling Limited, The Wrestler, the ACE Eddie-nominated Fantastic Mister Fox, the BAFTA, ACE Eddie- and Oscar-nominated Black Swan, the ACE Eddie-nominated Isle of Dogs and Moonrise Kingdom. He also was nominated for an ACE Eddie for editing an episode of the TV series SMASH.
Check out the Art of the Cut podcast to listen to this interview, and stay up to date on all the latest episodes.
HULLFISH: Guys, I really loved the movie. I watched it with my wife last night and she wants to watch it again. That’s how much she loved it. So, thanks for a great film.
How did you both land this gig?
KERSTEIN: Well, like everyone in editorial for film, Andy [Weisblum’s] schedule got a little tripped up with COVID and he had another obligation, so he had to leave around director’s cut. I had a little bit of a relationship with Lin from In the Heights, but I was still shocked to get the call that I would cut something that Andy had been working on because he had inspired me from so many films over so many years, and also to work with Lin who I didn’t even know if he liked me [laughs], was really great.
Because it was his first film, I think he really wanted to work with somebody in the room together versus remotely, so I made the trek back to New York.
WEISBLUM: I first met with Lin in late 2019 for an extra-long time just reminiscing about New York in its semi grittier days of the late eighties, early nineties. We talked about our recollections of youth in this place and time that the story is set in with [Jonathan] Larson, the theater community, and what that whole generation represented to Lin. I think we both connected on a lot of the same understandings of those things that had happened in both of our worlds. So, he asked me to join him.
We were shooting sometime in February, and eight days later we were shut down because of the pandemic. As Myron [Kerstein] explained, I came back on and we went through the director’s cut. Then, I needed to move on to another project that I was slated to do because more than a full year had pretty much passed.
I had to transition out and then Myron and I stayed in touch and checked in from time to time, but I knew Lin was in good hands with him. Myron seemed like a very logical choice for us because of the great work he did on In the Heights and his familiarity with Alice [Brooks], our DP. There were certain players in the mix that made that transition probably more natural than it would’ve been otherwise.
HULLFISH: I was struck by what a challenge this must have been to cut because there’s not often a typical scene that all occurs in one place. This was all over the place as far as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and stage performances. Can you address some of the complexity of trying to pull that off?
“We were faithful to those intentions, but then you start to open it up, play around with it, and start to collapse things a little bit.”
WEISBLUM: Well, I think originally as conceived, it’s very well planned out moment to moment with where we are on stage, how that reflects or transitions to the autobiographical story that opens up around it, and how they play off of each other. So, a lot of that was intentional as written and in some ways very precisely shot for those moments, while all the stage stuff that then became narration at some point was all shot on stage so that we could use it. It was still planned when we would be on stage and when we wouldn’t.
At least as a starting point, we were faithful to those intentions, but then you start to open it up, play around with it, and start to collapse things a little bit and realize that, expositionally, you have to get more efficient with certain things. It was the normal things that happen in a movie when you have a runtime that’s a little over two hours and you want to get it under that magic number so that the first third or first half progresses at a different pace than the rest of the film so that you get past the setups.
I think a lot of it was collapsing stuff, playing around, and grabbing different footage that maybe wasn’t where it was originally conceived. That started late in the director’s cut and continued with Myron later on in terms of collapsing introductions to characters, using a juxtaposition of flashbacks from 1990 to earlier, and narration from the stage to convey things a little bit more simply.
KERSTEIN: I would just say that when I had watched the director’s cut, I was already pretty excited because it reminded me of Fosse and these core performance artists like Eric Bogosian. So, I was very excited to be playing with these different elements and it’s sort of an editor’s dream to play with things in a non-linear way.
The other day I was thinking of films that inspired me like Julian Schnabel films, and I just think that almost anything was fair game to play around with for this film. That could be overwhelming, but just to be able to keep challenging yourself and using different archival footage, whether it was archival that we made or if it was actual archival that we brought in from a different service, I just loved to keep playing around with it over the edit and try not to get into much trouble.
All of this was to give clarity most of the time and not to be too tricky or too fancy. It was actually trying to ground things in some sort of way. Would you agree with that, Andy?
WEISBLUM: Yeah, I would. I think it was trying to clarify and simplify information a lot of times. I think that one of the things that Lin seemed to have a real knack and instinct for—which we talked about prior to the shoot—is that he managed to keep a bubble contained where he kept a spontaneous feeling and tone in a lot of the footage and created that vibe on set despite the challenge of COVID.
There’s a funny thing about that where it makes you feel that the footage you’re seeing is captured and grabbed, versus constructed, which is a lot less true than the footage implies, particularly in little party moments, cleaning up the apartment, a lot of things that fell into montages, or even in the diner that was all really specific and contained. There wasn’t an overabundance of material, but he found a way to keep it vibrant and energetic instead of just informational.
HULLFISH: That’s very interesting how specific it was because it definitely feels very verité in places. For those who haven’t seen the movie yet, I want to play a clip for you guys, the Birthday 30/90 scene because it has a lot of this stuff that we’re talking about, jumping here and there. [Video below.]
Great scene. There’s stuff in there obviously where you’ve got him riding a bike on top of the rooftop, in his apartment, in the diner. Can you talk to me about some of those moments?
WEISBLUM: There was an open plan on a lot of the key locations to shoot a pass of the opening number either singing or not, depending on how it might relate or fit in. I think Lin knew he wanted to set the centerpieces on the stage for certain numbers or key locations in this introductory number. I know we did about two or three passes on it, just experimenting what the different options would be and we settled on something pretty close to that.
I think that there was some pickup footage that went in there to try and help ground Freddy’s character and Carolyn, but she wasn’t a pickup, she was in there already. I know we did get a pick up of some stuff from the diner just to establish them more but I think it stayed more or less where we arrived at pretty early because it was just a question of finding the right dynamic balance between the different shots along with the stage that helped anchor these different locations when you hit them later in the film.
KERSTEIN: For the flashback section, in particular, I was focusing more on just developing the effects a little bit more and trying to make that feel organic to the rest of the sequence because it is grounded. Then, when you cut to the stage, I was just trying to keep it as live as possible. I simplified things just a tad here and there because I love that sort of Billy Joel vibe. The more I could feel like the camera just happened to be sitting there, versus us cutting too much, the better. The music was doing the rest of the energy.
WEISBLUM: More of a live performance than a construction, in a way.
HULLFISH: That song might be three or four minutes long and we only watched a minute of it, and my recollection of the edit was that it definitely crescendoed. It started slower, then built and built as you increased the editing pace.
WEISBLUM: I mean I think it’s kind of pumping the whole time, but the other trick to that number is that you’re folding in all these introductions. It’s not just a music number. You have to efficiently get through these bits of dialogue that don’t feel too chaotic that set up the challenges that the characters are going to face and what Jonathan’s main dilemma is.
I think that’s where one of the scenes changed early on. There was another scene with Ira getting into the fact that he’s missing a song way early in that number, and I’m sure that there were a couple of things that were discussed about how to try and change that stuff, but Myron can follow up on what the conclusion was.
I know that there was a certain amount of Woody Allen energy with this character that’s a little bit theatrically neurotic. A little bit of that goes a long way, is the best way to put it. You don’t need to lean too hard on that to understand what it is and not get too repetitive about it, which I think was part of the original piece.
“You don’t need to lean too hard on that to understand what it is and not get too repetitive about it.”
I think that it needed to be pared back in the film. We knew that then, but there was an original scene with him and Michael where we introduced them packing up the apartment, which was replaced with the scene at the diner, which I think captures the spirit of his friendships a little bit more than what he was after. It has this different energy. Also, the whole idea of the pressure of the song was not something that I think needed to come so early.
HULLFISH: I think I’ve got that scene you’re talking about, the setup in the diner, so I wanted to play that for you. One of the things that I noticed in this scene is that a lot of times you are looking at reactions instead of looking at the actual person speaking. [Video below.]
KERSTEIN: Well, Andy originally cut the other scene that this scene replaced, and the thing about the other scene is that it was a very fast scene and we were pretty much in and out. So, I pitched a scene to Lin and Steve Levenson at the diner when we were trying to figure out what we were going to reshoot. Of course, in my mind, I pictured a completely different scene that you’d be in and out, and then they wrote what felt like a four-page scene. So then I thought, “Oh boy, now I’ve created something that now I have to make organic to the rest of our movie.”
There are some beautifully constructed scenes that Andy did like the party with Boho Days or the diner scene right before Sunday, and so I wanted to try to capture at least a similar energy that way it didn’t feel like an albatross in the middle of this number. So, a lot of the cutting is a function of just trying to cut it down.
The Moondance Diner was located at 80, 6th Ave. NYC before it was closed down.
I don’t mind having a lot of dialogue play off-camera. I actually prefer it and I prefer looking at people’s faces reacting to things rather than exposition. A lot of that is a function of just keeping the pace up. At the end of the day, the scene is really just trying to introduce these characters so that you remember their faces. Otherwise, it doesn’t matter exactly what they’re saying other than planting the workshop and he’s feeling the pressure of it, and then moving on. I often feel like at least my cutting has to do with the function of what I’m trying to do at the scene and not so much trying to put a style on it.
WEISBLUM: I think that particularly with those three scenes, that scene, Susan and Jonathan in the bookstore, and the third dialogue scene in 30/90, you can’t go away from the number for too long or else it gets lopsided and you lose the momentum.
I’m sure there were plenty of ideas to cram in there and you’ve got to get it to scale of the same thing or else it doesn’t hold that energy for that long. So, I’m sure it was a challenge to condense it into that, but the tempo of a dialogue scene inside a song that’s a high tempo song means you’ve got to keep it moving as efficiently as you can or else you drag the whole thing down with you and you’re dead. I think that you can’t hold moments.
It’s not the same kind of cutting as a dialogue scene in itself. There are no pause reactions. The only way to collapse reactions and get to feel or see what’s going on or how people are digesting what’s happening and introducing people is to collapse things on top of dialogue to get efficient. I would agree with Myron that reactions are often more interesting than the action to highlight. That’s usually the payoff, but in that moment I can imagine that you’re trying to sell these faces.
HULLFISH: It’s a four-hander. I mean, you’ve got four people that you’re trying to deal with.
WEISBLUM: It used to be two people. It was just him and Michael, and then it suddenly becomes four with the same amount of information as the headline, but with extra ideas thrown on top.
KERSTEIN: By the way, I was on set when they were reshooting that and I thought, “Oh my God, be careful what you ask for.” Garfield had crossed the set and he was feeding a homeless guy through the doors. There was so much in that scene. People were looking at me like, “How are you going to cut it down?” I said, “Make sure I have singles.” Steven and Lin are pretty open to cutting down their dialogue, thank God.
“I was on set when they were reshooting that and I thought, ‘Oh my God, be careful what you ask for.’”
WEISBLUM: This was not a precious cutting room. If something wasn’t working a hundred percent in the material, we’d work till we got it where it needed to be, which is very liberating, obviously.
KERSTEIN: I remember when I was cutting, Lin would leave for about an hour to go write some new, amazing song, and then he’d come back and say, “Okay, so what have you got?” I thought, “Pressure’s on. So, you’re writing the next masterpiece downstairs, and I have to bring it.”
HULLFISH: I would think that this would have been a hard movie to hand off to another editor. I’m working on a project right now that was handed off from someone else to me and it’s pretty self-contained. So if you go to scene 22, you think “Okay, here’s all the footage for scene 22,” but this seems like it would have been very hard to find all of the possibilities.
WEISBLUM: Well, I’m sure Myron’s got his own thoughts on this, but I would say that if there was a time to do it, the moment that we did it was that point in the process where the floor starts to open up a little wider and other voices start to come in with reactions, opinions, and ideas. You also have previews and so on and so forth, but you’ve at least in theory arrived at a piece that the director stands behind even if the details are going to continue to change.
So, there’s a certain automatic delineation that happens there where it’s not just the director making the choices anymore and there are other conversations. Obviously, you don’t lose charge of the film, but the scope expands a little bit.
I had done a full assembly and we had probably done about four or five full passes on the film by the time we hit that director’s cut. I was very concerned about making sure that cut, particularly from a musical perspective which requires a different kind of polish than other kinds of films, was at a good presentational shape; that the music felt natural and temp visual effects or sound were not distracting. There were certain things I put a little more polish on in terms of presenting it. Sometimes, in a dramatic film or certain other films we assume and know the aesthetic aspects will come later, but I just wanted this to feel like a movie.
In our transition period, Myron came to New York and had to quarantine so that he could work together with Lin, which suddenly became this learning curve window where he could look at where all my bodies were buried, at what I assembled, and how I progressed to this certain point of the cut. I knew from talking to him that by the time he hit the ground and was actually in the room with Lin, he already had a baseline of ideas that had already received some feedback from people who had seen the film and were very happy with it, but there were certain questions or thoughts about certain things that were already there. So, it wasn’t disorganized in the way that it was transitioned.
KERSTEIN: It was very helpful to have that four days of quarantining in New York, but remember this is before we had a vaccine. Actually, the vaccine happened while we were in the edit later on. I was quarantined in New York and they set up an Avid in my hotel room. I was working remotely, talking to Andy, and basically I watched the first assembly, the director’s cut, and all these alternate scenes Andy had cut. I was just getting to know the dailies as quickly as possible and getting under the hood.
It is a pretty complicated film to just walk into and not just make a mess out of it. So, I really took my time trying to understand it as much as possible, but still, even when I was re-cutting things later on like Come to Your Senses, I thought, “Oh wait, he combined verses, and now I’m restructuring that. So do I have to pull that apart?”
WEISBLUM: You had to reverse engineer it, right? Also, Swimming and several other numbers went through that, but one of the things that I’ve always understood as a rule for myself—and I think it took on new importance in this process—is that when I’m assembling something at first, I make an effort to get every setup represented in some form or another in the assembly. If I know I’m not going to need it, or there’s something that I don’t think is going to work, I’ll do an alternate that I put off to the side. On average, I do three to four versions of a scene every time I’m assembling so that I know that I’ve mined the different avenues that we need to go in.
“On average, I do three to four versions of a scene every time I’m assembling.”
The reason for that to me is that I don’t treat the assembly like my vision or the sacrosanct idea of how the scene should play out. I treat it as, “Okay, so here are the cards all laid out on the table of what we’ve got to work with and what you went for.”
If he did a setup, it’s because he thought he needed it and there was an agenda for it. So, I find its purpose and I use it. So, if you go back and look at the assembly, it becomes a part of a memory of remembering, “Well, I know I have that angle. There’s a single there for this. So, maybe let me see what else that shot does.” To me, I think that it was immediate for me that Myron gets to see that because then he can understand where things started, how we got from A to H, or wherever we were at that point in the process.
KERSTEIN: I love educating myself as an editor just in general by watching somebody else’s process. Then, I could say, “Well maybe I need to go back into that scene and see if there’s some other gem that might not have been brought into that version of the cut.” It was really helpful to have a roadmap of the early stage of what I was walking into.
I think the harder part was being in a pandemic because people had seen the movie that was inside the production, but nobody really had seen the film outside of the inner circle. So, I kept saying, “We have to screen this thing. I need feedback to understand what was working and what wasn’t,” and then I could really actually start doing the real heavy lifting on my side. Before that, I just think that the film was working, and I didn’t want to just start cutting things out of a movie based on just a hunch. So, getting feedback and starting to be able to then address clarity issues, relationship issues, and some character issues, and then finishing whatever numbers were out there was helpful for me.
WEISBLUM: I think the biggest issue—which is the thing that we talked about a lot—is that it was very obvious from the get-go that the film was made by and for people who knew and loved Larson and his work. So, the biggest question for us was going to be, “What does that mean for the people who don’t know him or were too young to know the context of that time? What does it mean to an audience that’s unfamiliar?” Without it becoming an exposition process, an essay, or too pedantic, how do you make it resonate emotionally and still be truthful to what the intents are?
Lin and I discussed it and then Myron and I discussed it. We all knew that there would be some questions about that once we put it in front of kids or people in general. What does it mean to them and what is the relevance? I think they found it.
HULLFISH: I was more of a theater nerd back in the eighties, but I missed the whole nineties Larson section, so I definitely connected with the movie emotionally, but there were holes in there for me where I thought, “Wait, what musical has this guy done?”
Were there any other discussions of all the non-Larson fans? What were some of the other thoughts about how do we pull someone like Steve Hullfish into this because he doesn’t know who this guy is?
KERSTEIN: The beginning and ending of the movie was probably the biggest attempt, whether it works or not, to pull in and educate the audience who didn’t know who Larson was. This is the guy who wrote Rent, he died at a young age, and this is the thing that he wrote before Rent which is basically where he found his voice. So, we probably tried 20 versions of the beginning and end to try to solve that problem.
My 15-year-old son watched it with me last night and I didn’t berate him about whether or not I solved that problem, but he walked away saying that he really related to the themes of it because he’s a young artist himself.
We were trying to grab as many people as possible with that frame, and we used voiceover, we used different archival footage, we added words on the screen, and we did everything you could think of to try to make that thing work. We talked about different kinds of reshoots and so that was the major attempt.
Then, also just making Jonathan relatable as much as possible. I think there are versions of Garfield’s character that are really intense, and so we just had to figure out what the range was and keep him in a place where it was successful.
WEISBLUM: It’s a calibration process in a way. You want to know which aspects of it just feel too extreme out of context. There are two things I want to say about this as well. The first thing is the whole idea of the framework and understanding of who Larson was. When Lin and I first went into it, we talked about the fact that we know at some point that we may hit the space where we need to simply just explain who he was, but we want the film to resonate and matter regardless of whether he was a success or not because his experience was not the success. With tick, tick… BOOM!, he was not originally aware that he became the success that he was and that he had such an impression on the world.
So, you want to make those things work, but we did mess around towards the end of the director’s cut process because we knew that you want to know as an audience member—if you don’t know—how successful he was and how much he really did make an impact on the world because that’s what he was striving for.
There’s the fight with him and Michael where he’s talking about doing something meaningful versus selling out like his friend, and they’re critical of each other. He’s just writing music in his living room, and that’s his worst fear that that’s all he’ll ever be. It’s important to know what happened after the story and what the conclusion was. I think Lin and I both realized it.
So, we started to incorporate archival in a way that could then act as flash-forwards that weren’t necessarily from Jonathan’s point of view. We explored ways of trying to introduce his impact on the world with headlines about Rent, winning the Pulitzer, and all this stuff. The first attempt at that we did ended with a piece of Anthony Rapp saying, “We dedicate this performance and all performances to our friend, Jonathan Larson.” Then, we cut back to Michael saying, “Make a wish,” he holds his breath, and then it’s the end. Just exploring the emotional idea that this is all in honor of Larson.
As Lin said to me, “We know that this is the baby version of what we’re going to continue to do because we’re striking a chord and we’re doing the right thing.” What Myron then carried through with him was making it a frame instead of an endnote. It’s clear why it was important to get that information out of the way up front so that you can just have the experience with him knowing that context.
There’s another part of this movie that’s interesting which is this whole idea, in the eighties particularly and maybe a little less so in the nineties, of the idea of having artistic integrity versus selling out which is a major theme in the film. I think to the current generation, I’m not sure that dilemma means the same thing now that it meant then. I think that people can be crassly commercial, sell out, and still be perceived as artistically successful. I think in the eighties, the nineties, or even the seventies, those things were diametrically opposed.
I think that’s something that’s hidden in the underbelly of this film and this story that was part of Larsen’s attitude. There’s this subtle disdain for Cats, which is the other side of what he could turn into. He could be Sondheim, or he could be Cats. There’s that idea behind it of artistic integrity versus the sellout from crass commercialism. I think it was an interesting thing that I was never able to articulate before, but I knew watching the film that it was an idea that felt fresh and different and reminded me of conversations that were part of my youth getting into being a creative person, which you don’t hear as much now.
HULLFISH: Yeah, I remember that in the seventies and eighties with bands for sure.
WEISBLUM: Right. If you were successful, you’re a sellout. You automatically sucked if you sold too many albums, right? I don’t think that plays anymore.
KERSTEIN: It’s funny to talk about the frame in this way, Andy, because Lin said, “I am not ending this film with a bunch of text making it a traditional biopic,” because I joked with him and said, “Well, those are all the Oscar winners. That’s how they end every movie.”
WEISBLUM: He said the same thing to me. It just makes it obvious and mockish almost if you don’t find a way to make it feel integrated.
KERSTEIN: If you want to be cynical about it, it’s a bit of a cheat, but we were able to find a tonally acceptable version of introducing this information and then finishing the film in almost a melancholy way by coming up with this frame. I just love that we were able to have our cake and eat it too without selling out the movie necessarily.
WEISBLUM: It makes it full circle, which is I think why it’s effective.
HULLFISH: At the end, it definitely felt like that was a great solution to not having to put up text on the screen that said, “He went on to find great success.”
KERSTEIN: That informed the beginning of the film because I love that beta camera footage so much. When I started re-watching the dailies, I saw that most of 30/90 was actually shot on beta cam, and I thought, “Oh shit. I want to use this somehow.” So, I started playing around with that beta cam to just be very raw and intimate. There’s a distance to it, but it was something that I leaned into right away. Having that ending that Andy and Lin had cut already established, made me think, “Maybe I can make this feel very organic and like a bookend.” It’s obvious, but I just love having that purity to it.
WEISBLUM: Using that beta footage at the beginning of him coming on stage and intercutting with the archival was very smart because it makes them feel of the same piece and makes it all feel very intentional, almost like the stuff with Andrew as Larson is shot to match that footage so it feels like one thing.
The film didn’t open that way before. The beta stuff was shot off the stage, but there was a different opening that had none of the archival material. It was originally more about Larson’s anxiety to give his performance, looking up and seeing the clock, then he comes up. You can catch a lot of that stuff in one of the earlier trailers, but there’s a certain kind of preciousness to it that was very theatrical and cinematic at the same time. You guys had another challenge where the movie needed to be kicked off in a different way that we need to understand who this guy is instead of what his anxieties are.
“I want to like him before I start feeling the anxiety.”
KERSTEIN: Several people said to us, “I want to like him before I start feeling the anxiety.” So, that footage of him popping the champagne with Susan was a pickup shot which we barely got. We just tried to make it all feel like one intimate little mini-documentary before he starts playing on stage.
WEISBLUM: It’s all based on real footage of Larson. There’s lots of footage of Larson having a party at the Moondance Diner on his last day there. There is that footage of tick, tick… BOOM! that is all over the place. This is all very closely based on reference, so it has an authenticity to it that made a lot of sense.
HULLFISH: You mentioned wanting to like him before you got the anxiety. I think there’s a scene that is similar to that in the bookstore when he’s saying, “Two weeks notice.” I wanted to talk about this also because I thought it was interesting that you mentioned trying to use as many setups as possible, Andrew. When I watch this, I think, “I bet every setup got used.” I want to just play through this early scene. [Video below.]
There’s a little foreshadowing there of something that happens at the end.
WEISBLUM: That scene was shot right before we shut down [laughs]. That’s my memory when I look at that. It was about a day and a half before.
That scene has similar challenges to the scene in the diner because it’s part of the number and is not its own scene with its own dialogue. So, the rhythm of that cut there is really dictated by how efficiently and quickly we could get through this information because you have a rhythm section going in the middle and you can only vamp for so long before you start to ask, “Where’s the song going?” It all needed to have that energy upfront.
HULLFISH: That’s an interesting idea that because it’s part of a piece of music or there’s music that you’ve got to get back to, that you would cut the scene differently than if it was just a dialogue scene on its own.
WEISBLUM: Right. It can’t linger. There’s no air in there. Interestingly enough, the three scenes that were in the number were cut first without thinking about the musical number at all. Then, it became a condensing process within a grid basically. You’re right, I think I probably used every setup there, but Alice shot that whole thing with two cameras and there’s not a lot of takes. Everybody’s pretty much on their game in that situation.
There was a bunch of stuff to shoot that night at the bookstore, The Strand, so it was a busy shoot.
HULLFISH: I definitely feel like there was not a lot of air between the deliveries.
WEISBLUM: They weren’t. That’s an editorial process of finding a way to collapse it and keep it spontaneous. My experience generally is that you don’t want actors to be overlapping on set because I can always tighten something.
HULLFISH: You don’t want to be forced into that.
WEISBLUM: Right, exactly. It gives me more flexibility to collapse things. There are actually a lot of splits in there and different things going on so that the action and dialogue are on top of each other in a way that is not necessarily obvious when it’s being shot.
KERSTEIN: When I cut the diner scene I thought, “I’ve just added time to this musical number that is already too long. So, I went a little micro into that Strand scene, but it was already pretty tight. I was just trying to do anything to help that.
For In the Heights, we actually stopped numbers, had scenes, and then picked it up again. That rarely ever happened in this film. It was always embedded. That engine was always cranking. Working with that rhythm made me think, “Oh boy, how am I going to match this?”
HULLFISH: So about splits, a lot of that scene that we just watched in the bookstore played on two shots, either a dirty over of her to him or a dirty over of him to her. Are there splits in there to be able to pull them up?
WEISBLUM: More often than not because you can do it, so why not? It’s just more precise that way.
HULLFISH: Was that handheld?
WEISBLUM: No, dolly mostly.
HULLFISH: I was just trying to figure out how difficult it was to do the splits.
KERSTEIN: There are splits everywhere in this movie, little jump cuts, fluid morphs. Andy did a lot of it and I did as well. It just becomes almost second nature to us now to be pacing things up and trying to fix continuity or just trying to make it feel organic. I don’t manipulate footage as much as other editors maybe. I still like the purity of the performance. I don’t go too crazy on that kind of stuff, but for pacing I definitely try to do that all the time.
“It’s just part of the toolbox, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t feel over manipulated or inorganic in some way.”
WEISBLUM: It’s just part of the toolbox, but you have to do it in a way that doesn’t feel over manipulated or inorganic in some way. It bumps me when it’s clearly been sped up in a way that you can detect.
HULLFISH: You never want that. That’s for sure.
I definitely felt that I had a good setup on the movie, to get back to that topic. When I saw the end, I thought, “Oh, there’s so much more to this guy that I didn’t know.” I was learning about it through the framework at the end that allowed me to get some of those other things. I didn’t need them while I was watching the movie, but it made me want to know more about this guy.
WEISBLUM: That’s good. That’s the way we want it to play out.
HULLFISH: I knew Rent and I’d seen it before on stage, but I didn’t realize that he’d written it or that tick, tick… BOOM! was in between them.
WEISBLUM: Right. He did it before Rent happened as a one-man show and then it resurfaced after Rent as an homage to him with Victoria Leacock, who put it together with some other people. Then, it was subsequently revived a couple more times. It was just interesting in retrospect to have such a document of somebody’s creative process autobiographically who isn’t with us anymore. It’s just fascinating that it existed in that way.
KERSTEIN: It gives me goosebumps that it was even possible.
HULLFISH: I want to bring up one other scene that I just loved, which I don’t want to spoil, but there’s a great scene where there’s almost a duet between the person playing his girlfriend and the actress that is singing the song that he’s basically written for her, and it’s cutting back and forth between them. How planned was that and how did you switch back and forth between those two performances of the two women?
WEISBLUM: It went through several permutations, and there were several strategies discussed on how to shoot it and how to play it. I know that Alice, the cinematographer, and I had a number of conversations together plotting, and then more conversations with Lin of three or four different ways that we might transition into and out of the fantasy aspect of it. They were all shot, and we went with one that I think was an alternate option, not an immediately planned one, which sort of stuck.
It was an interesting thing because as a sequence you have to play around with Jonathan’s point of view. He leaves the room in a way. So, you have this reality and fantasy going on at the same time. I think we knew immediately that it had to be condensed once we started working on it, but there was a whole other fantasy element to it that took place in the performance space that was not in the fantasy in his head, if that makes sense. There was a third aspect, which I called out right away as being over complicated, and so we needed to find a way to change the footage around in a way so that aspect was pulled out. It had to be simplified.
I spent a day doing a pass that allowed us to do that so that we had two planes instead of three. It was more dense than it needed to be in a certain aspect, and then that remained the shape through to the end.
There were one or two other adjustments that were made afterwards that had to do with a piece of the 1992 stage material that was in there to tee it up, which then was removed as well. I gather that’s because it’s just another layer of business that has to do with point-of-view. You don’t realize that he’s not even conscious of the space until the numbers, in a way. That was the idea which the original concept was stepping on.
HULLFISH: Myron, were there any thoughts when you were working on that to put that back in? Or was it obvious that it was the right choice to keep it out?
“The music department will say, ‘You can’t do that. We can’t cut out the bridge.’”
KERSTEIN: No, it felt like it was working. If anything it was just questions of length. Also, we had brought this up earlier, but just trying to rewrite the song again after it had already been rewritten, made me need to get out the lyrics again on the page and read them to figure out where they combined verses. In the version I was cutting, it was going to do the chorus for the first time alone with Vanessa Hudgens. So, it was just figuring out a lot with Lin what I could get away with.
Also, the music department will say, “You can’t do that. We can’t cut out the bridge.”
WEISBLUM: Yeah you can [laughs]. It plays.
KERSTEIN: Alex Lacamoire, who is a genius, just said, “This is not musically correct.” I said, “I know, but it’s working emotionally. Maybe some other music guys are going to ping you, but this is what’s working.”
WEISBLUM: I remember when I did that music cut, I was a little nervous about it because I’m talking to Lin-Manuel about how to reconstruct a song. I did this really strange cut where these verses get combined and I knew that the tempo ramped up at a certain point, so it meant I had to re-speed some of Susan’s stuff to get it to fit. I went ahead and did, and I said, “Will this work in this form?” He said, “Yeah, that’s good,” but I knew it was going to go through other versions.
KERSTEIN: By the way, when you hand over something like that to me and I have no clue about it, I’m talking to the music editors thinking, “This doesn’t make sense. Did he speed this up?” Then, they said, “Yeah, he sped it up.” I thought, “Motherfucker. I can’t speed up this section the same way.” So, there was a lot of unraveling, figuring out, and reverse engineering.
Then, the VFX component was a big part of this with figuring out what to do with the rooftop. There was some component of just keeping it drab and real. There were a lot of ideas about how eighties pop to make it feel. I don’t know how you feel about it, Andy, but John Bair, who is a VFX supervisor, came up with these footlight ideas. Just developing that and also doing it in a way where Alice didn’t want to choke me out because she never planned it to be this big poppy version of this number, but I think it ended up working out pretty nicely.
WEISBLUM: I remember thinking early on, “We have a scene on this roof that’s essentially just a dialogue scene that is realism.” There are a couple of other scenes up there too. When he goes there in a fantasy space, it needs to feel markedly different. That was a conversation. It wasn’t shot for that, but it was a conversation early on.
Then, the footlight thing came up—and John suggested that I think—which seemed to make a lot of sense. Then, it took on a whole other thing with the sunset idea, which is pretty great.
HULLFISH: Myron, you mentioned the decision of choosing whether one actress sings the first chorus or another. That emotional choice of when you switch between the fantasy and the live was exactly what I was thinking while I was watching.
KERSTEIN: When I first watched the film—and this just speaks to these relationship issues—I actually thought that Jonathan and Vanessa Hudgens’s characters were going to get together, and there were other scenes that sort of supported that. Vanessa has the most amazing voice ever. So, you have Vanessa crank out that first chorus and there’s almost no turning back. She’s going to steal this number. So, to have Susan do it and I think just build up slowly and make it more intimate is a choice that I think ended up making it feel like we could build in an organic way.
When we were first working on it, the producers said, “This number’s already rocked. Are you guys sure you still want to tinker with this,” and we said, “No, there’s something about it and we’re still not there.”
WEISBLUM: Well, it was also tricky because you’ve got Josh Henry’s character who is an avatar or a placeholder for Michael in 1992 in the stage performance, and Vanessa’s character, Karessa, who is a placeholder musically in a lot of ways for Susan. So, you automatically have this romantic tension. There’s already a dynamic there, at least musically, so it’s pretty easy to suggest that there’s going to be a relationship there. You have to figure out how to avoid that. I think there are a couple of moments in there that could have crossed that line, but are well dodged. It also just needed to be clear that Jonathan was not fantasizing about Karessa. He was thinking about Susan.
KERSTEIN: There were a couple of little things that I found when I was re-cutting it where Jonathan closes his eyes again when you go back to Karessa’s side, and I was thinking, “No, he’s not thinking about her when we’re on this side. That’s the room’s observation of the scene.” Anyways, they’re very subtle things that make a difference, but to the audience, they’re just experiencing this incredible duet I think.
When they harmonize, it’s just my favorite part of the film. In the mix, they redid vocals and I thought there was no way they were going to ever make this sound like it wasn’t Vanessa’s number, but they finally got there.
HULLFISH: I love that this discussion was actually so little about cutting and editing. It was about broader concepts, feelings, and emotions, which is so much in the sandbox that I think we all play in.
Gentlemen, thank you so much for chatting with me. I really appreciate your time today and it was great to talk to you.
WEISBLUM: Sure thing.
KERSTEIN: Thanks, Steve. Always really appreciate it.