tick, tick… Boom! opens with the sound of applause, Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson takes the stage and explains to his audience that he is being haunted by the sound of a ticking clock. Larson’s 30th birthday is a week away, his passion project Superbia is stalled, and the musical theatre writer has yet to make his mark on Broadway.
Editors Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum, who were just nominated for an ACE Eddie for their work, take viewers from the mile-a-minute opening number, “30/90” to the snappy “Boho Days” and on into Larson’s inner-world with editing that is deceptively clever and immersive.
tick, tick… Boom! is about the exhausting, infuriating, exhilarating, maddening rush of creation—the people, the inspirations, the pain, and the joy behind Jonathan Larson’s once-in-a-lifetime genius. A gorgeous, emotional tribute.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut proved to be an embarrassment of riches for Kerstein and Weisblum, with the editors navigating changes in genre, pacing, and mood— grabbing the audience from the opening minutes to the tragic end, and never letting go.
Shadan Larki: tick, tick… Boom! is my favorite movie of the year. It’s such a unique musical, and certainly unique within musical adaptations. I wanted to ask you about your approach to the editing particularly how the musical numbers blend in and out of “real life.”
Myron Kerstein: I think that having Jonathan on stage doing the monologue as well as him joining his band, you know, it’s one-half Eric Bogosian and one-half Billy Joel. I think in having that element to ground us, then we can go wherever we want with it through his point of view, whether it’s through “No More” or “Johnny Can’t Decide” or something fantastical, like “Sunday.” You know to be able to go between the stage and then go through his point of view gives us opportunities to do things. With other musicals, I worked on In the Heights, it was a much different scope. We’re trying to keep things grounded, but we’re literally on the street.
[With tick, tick… Boom!], we were able to keep it grounded on the stage, yet still take liberties outside of that. I think there was something that was contained, but also allowed us to be nonlinear about it, and cut between the present day and his past, There was a lot to play with as an editor, and hopefully, the audience is intrigued with the journey we take them on.
Andrew Weisblum: The big challenge with musical films is answering the question about the conceit of breaking into song, right? When, and how, you do that and the specific language for each film. And, when you can forget about that. The blessing of tick, tick… Boom! is that it’s a concert film with a story in it. The question is answered before—as soon as he sits down at the piano— and you never have to think about it. The context for all the music you hear is that it’s being performed in front of an audience. We’re that audience, until we see the actual audience at the end, which is the cast in that film. So, the film’s dynamic is that each number is a little bit different in terms of how it’s contextualized—whether it’s all in the past on a location, or intercut between singing in the past and the stage; whether it’s a dialogue scene intercut with a performance piece, they all take on a different form. That’s what keeps it flowing. In the same way that you shape an evening of theater in that each song has a different energy; There’s a more humorous one; a ballad; and one that’s up-tempo— tick, tick… Boom! is the cinematic version, each number is different. And it doesn’t have to obey a specific pre-stated rule established from beginning to end.
SL: How did you approach editing tick, tick… Boom!?
AW: People ask about editing style and style in sound design and music. I think in the perfect world you forget all that, you just get lost in it. It’s only after the fact, if you think about what the piece is doing, and if you watch it again, discuss it with friends, or get interested in the granular filmmaking of it. But, if it’s working, you’re not thinking about those things. That’s my hope. We want it to be invisible because otherwise, it’s just showy and not immersive.
MK: I mean, something like “Therapy,” Andrew took many passes intercutting that fight with the performance on the stage, it’s very Chicago. Then I had to take another pass at it to cut it down again, and cut the fight a different way. Then, we’re both micro-editing hundreds of edits to be able to make it grounded because they’re lip-syncing. Because of COVID they can’t sing out loud.
Of course, we want everyone to notice every one of those little details, at the end of the day, if you get sucked in between this fight and his performance, and at the end, there’s a gasp in the audience when he’s trying to write the song on the back of her shoulder. I think that’s all the reward right there. You know, there’s a lot of work in every little one of the sequences, but hopefully, it all disappears at one point, and then [the viewer] enjoys the film. They were like, ‘Wait, you made it look so easy.”
SL: Myron, you mentioned lip-syncing as a result of COVID. Can you tell me more about that and how it affected your work?
MK: Yeah, I think with musicals, it’s just part of the job description—sometimes you have live performances, sometimes you have re-recordings, but often we’re working with music editors. I was working with the music editors for months just trying to figure out how to ground everything for every single number, but some are easier than others. “Therapy” was difficult because there are lots of cuts to pick up the energy and encapsulate that vaudeville spirit. But even something like, “Come to Your Senses,” Andrew had done a bunch of work where he sped up things to match, and I was trying to figure out how he made it work, I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, he sped this up, and now I have to recut it, and I have to unwind it.’ So, I would say that every number is part of that process.
AW: Well, you know, “Why” was one of the last things we shot before we shut down for COVID originally. So, it was just the luck of the draw that, that and “Real Life” were two of the numbers that we shot with live performances. Then after that, there were only a handful of moments where they would take certain precautions and do live singing like “Boho Days.”
It was in the original plan for everything to be a live performance, and then ultimately, that wasn’t possible because of the COVID restrictions. We found ways for certain kinds of safe, tight coverage to do live performances when we could.
SL: Is there a particular sequence that you’d like to highlight?
AW: In terms of pieces and sequences, “Swimming” had its challenges because of the amount of footage that we had, and trying to keep it visually interesting. “Play Game” was the most fun, just from a nostalgia perspective, to play around with that. I loved seeing Lin-Manuel get a kick out of that because that was just a little special piece he wanted in there.
You know, the challenge of the film was to try contextualize and condense and simplify, which was harder, probably in the first half of the film than the second half of the film. We had to get to a place where people could efficiently understand Larson—what his significance was; what the theater world was at the time; what New York was like at the time; what the AIDS crisis meant; what the climate was for people trying to become adults at the time; and how that’s relevant to people who are trying to become adults now. Finding little snippets and pieces and ways to lean into that and focus that information, and realize along the way that there are certain things that people don’t think about in the same way anymore. It’s easy for me to forget that it was 30-something years ago.
We had an interesting conversation once about how one of the themes in the film is the idea of integrity in your art versus selling out. I think in our overloaded media culture now, social media culture, it’s hard to figure out what that line is—what would be sell-out art versus integrity art today? What would be the analogy for people in advertising? Writing slogans at an ad company, I don’t know what that means to a young adult right now. I don’t know, it’s different. I mean, it’s not totally alien, but I think things have changed a little bit.
SL: Myron, what about you?
MK: I think the “30/90” is maybe the one I’m most proud of because it was one I had to do the most work on to balance the monologue. We did a pickup scene in the diner where I had to insert this really quick scene to establish our characters and then try to make it feel like a concert show like Andrew was saying. A lot of that was already built before I came on, but then I had to keep working at it to make it have an arc of energy. By the time you’re into that last chorus, I think you’re ready to stand up and applaud and say, ‘Okay, I’m ready for this movie.’
So many movies live and die by the first 10 minutes. So, I knew that my task was to make sure nobody left that theater before they finished that number. You know, that’s not always easy when you’re intercutting between different timelines, a monologue that you’re reshooting and rewriting, archival footage, voiceovers, and live performance. It’s asking a lot of your audience not to get lost in that, to feel like, ‘Yeah, it’s all normal.’ When I first tried to experiment, I was like, ‘This is just too many elements, I gotta stop.’ And then you’re like, ‘No, no, keep at it. Keep refining.’ And eventually, you get there.
SL: I’ve become a bit obsessed with “30/90.” You’re absolutely right that if that opening sequence doesn’t work, your audience will be tuning out—there are fantastical elements like the ticking of the clock intertwined with Andrew’s grounded performance. How did you find the right balance?
AW: There was originally a lot more of the meta elements, but I think what I started to find, and ultimately, what Myron arrived at is that a little of that goes a long way. And, it would be interspersed throughout the film. So, it’s just trying to find the important context to emphasize the different characters in his life around the song because the core idea is fairly simple, which is that he’s under self-imposed pressure to succeed in the music world.
SL: Almost on the opposite end of the spectrum to “30/90” is Robin de Jesus’, “Real Life,” a slow-build, emotional sequence.
MK: From the point of Jonathan’s Superbia failure to the birthday party is emotionally, one arc, I think I knew right away that it would be too long. Then Lin-Manuel started to realize that as well, and we had to figure out the best way to condense this so that “Real Life” led into “Why,” which felt like an organic conclusion and growing up of Larson’s character.
We initially had the playback of “Real Life” as just piano and Robin’s vocals. But, Lin and I needed ways to keep it evolving. You can’t have these two piano vocal numbers next to each other, and we had to develop new energy and emotion for “Real Life.” So, I brought up “In the Air Tonight” and Phil Collins as a reference because it was a similar time and place. We have two primary emotions, one is rage, one is sorrow, and the piano and vocal were not reflecting that. Once we stumbled upon that, Lin worked on a new arrangement with his music team. That, for me, was when that part of the movie came together because you had a dynamic shift of emotion there that didn’t feel repetitive. I think that was a real trick to figure out.
SL: Andrew, there’s something you touched on earlier that I wanted to come back to which is that tick, tick… Boom! is celebrating the art of creation, but also the frustration and madness that comes with it.
Did working with these themes teach you anything new about your own creative processes?
MK: It reminds me, and probably any artist who watches it, just how hard it is. How you’d have to pick yourself up after working on something for months or years, and how that thing could fail and you’d have to do it all over again. I find that very relatable. And it relates to anybody searching for their voice, whether they’re an artist or not.
Jonathan Larson inspired Lin, there’s no Lin without Jonathan Larson. And Jonathan Larson had Stephen Sondheim, so we all need mentors, these people to help us get back up and try again, and I think that this film is a gift to anyone who’s trying to find their way. I really believe that.
AW: One of the things I responded to when I read the script, and it’s something I look for in all the projects that I do…so much of what comes around and so much of what is made is bathed in this certain kind of cynicism and lack of sincerity. Basically, if a film or a project is in danger of a certain emotion, you can feel the fear behind the voice or the filmmaker, they make a joke that kind of diffuses the intention or undermines it in some way, so that it can’t be ridiculed. It’s hard to put in words, but I found a complete lack of cynicism in Jonathan Larson and what he was trying to do, in trying to make an impact on the world, and in these people who were trying to make art at the time.
I think that’s true of Lin’s work, it’s not cynical at all, I think that’s why he’s so appealing. One of the reasons his work is so powerful and makes an impression on the world is that it’s not afraid of its honesty and earnestness. or however you want to describe it. So, I thought it was important to hold on to that in tick, tick… Boom!
tick, tick… Boom! is currently streaming on Netflix.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images