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Tick, Tick… Boom! Cinematographer Alice Brooks on Shooting Her Second Major Musical of 2021

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Tick, Tick... Boom!
Image via Netflix

After shooting Jon M. Chu’s musical In the Heights, based on the hit musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda, Cinematographer Alice Brooks found herself in the unique position to work with Miranda again on his feature directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom!.

Steven Levenson wrote the script, which was based on Rent creator Jonathan Larson’s semi-biographical musical of the same name. Andrew Garfield plays a version of Larson, leading a cast that includes Alexandra Shipp, Robin de JesúsJoshua HenryMj Rodriguez, Bradley Whitford, Tariq TrotterJudith Light, and Vanessa Hudgens.

Before Miranda could get too far into principal photography, the production was forced to shut down due to the pandemic. Brooks used the break to travel from New York to Maine while checking in with Miranda and the rest of her team over Zoom. It wasn’t until July before they would start prepping for their return to filming in September.

Brooks recently spoke to Below the Line and explained how the pandemic impacted her usual process while breaking down her approach to musical numbers such as “Sunday” and “Swimming,” the latter of which posed unique challenges in a similar way that “96,000” did during the making of In the Heights.

Alice Brooks
Alice Brooks

Below the Line: The last time we spoke, In the Heights was just starting to screen for press ahead of its early June release, though many people watched that film on HBO Max. Tick, Tick…Boom! is another movie that most people will watch via streaming (on Netflix), but it did have a big AFI Fest premiere at the historic Chinese Theatre, so what was it like to watch the film with an audience?

Alice Brooks: I was overwhelmed. [With] In the Heights, the theater was limited in terms of capacity for that premiere, whereas we had a completely packed audience at the Chinese Theatre, and it was an incredibly amazing experience getting to watch it with so many people. The reaction has just been incredible — hearing people cry and cheer after numbers was really, really… it was just an incredible experience. I haven’t been in a packed theater since pre-COVID, so it was exciting.

BTL: I’ve kind of been in the same boat, except for a few recent screenings where they required audiences to be vaccinated or show proof of a negative test.

Brooks: Yeah, that was the great, wonderful part about it, was that I think we actually had to do both. We had to show proof of vaccination and the negative test.

BTL: You’ve previously worked with Lin-Manuel Miranda on In the Heights, but how was it working with him as a director this time around?

Brooks: My agents called me the last day of In the Heights and said Lin’s directing this movie, it’s called Tick, Tick… Boom! and he would love for me to read it and to meet on Tuesday. I wrapped In the Heights and then spent the next three days immersing myself in Tick, Tick…Boom! I knew of Jonathan Larson because of Rent, but I didn’t know anything about his life. Page by page, as I turned the pages of the script, it was very much like my childhood. I grew up in New York City. My father was a playwright and my mother was a dancer. We lived in a tenement apartment in Manhattan with a bathtub and a kitchen — 300 square feet for my sister, me, my parents, two cats and a dog. Our small space was filled with my father’s and my mother’s artist friends. Only as an adult can I appreciate being with so many amazing, talented people, and just like Jonathan, we lost some of those people to AIDS.

My family left New York City at the end of 1989, just before this movie begins, and I was 10 years old. Because I left New York at that moment in time, 1990 New York City to me is permanently etched in my mind. That is my New York City. It will forever be the way I remember New York. No matter how many movies I make there now as an adult, that is New York to me. It’s this vision of a 10-year-old. It’s the mind of a 10-year-old girl where color, light, and emotions are heightened. And just like Jonathan Larson, it’s that childlike mind where the line between dreams and reality is sometimes blurred.

The opening number is called “30/90” and he sings about being Peter Pan and not wanting to grow up. That is the place where Lin and I started creating from. I showed Lin the first page of my look-book that I presented to him on that in our first meeting were all my family photos. It took him a minute to understand. He thought they were images I pulled off the internet. And then he was like, ‘wait a second, wait, these are your photos?’ He said they could be straight out of the movie. It can’t get more personal.

Tick, Tick... Boom!
Image via Netflix

BTL: Wow! I love how the film has this ’90s vibe going on. How were you able to capture the look?

Brooks: We use several different cameras. We tested — because there’s lots of beta cam footage throughout. We have cameras on us all the time, whether we want it or not. They are part of our lives. Human beings will now always be photographed. But in 1990, that wasn’t true. But it was true for Jonathan Larson. His best friend, her father was a documentary filmmaker and she had a camera on him all the time. We ended up with eight years of footage to go through of Jonathan’s life. Every detail was there, every detail of the Moondance Diner, every detail of the apartment.

Two weeks before he passed away, he went through his apartment and filmed. He was worried that there was going to be a fire in his apartment, so he filmed every object in his apartment and explained what it was. When you see a picture hanging on the wall, those are actually paintings that he owned and they’re in the exact place that they were in when he took those videos. We were inspired by this Betacam footage, and at first, we started looking at how to just do it visual effects-wise and recreate it, and then we tested all these different things, and no matter what, it did not feel the same as real Betacam. We shot real Betacam for all the video footage. We shot on a movie camera for everything else, but then Super 8 for “Why,” for the eight-year-old Michael and Jonathan footage.

BTL: How much fun was it to revisit the NYC of your youth?

Brooks: Oh my gosh. It was amazing to… I mean, I longed for that place. I love New York. I didn’t want to leave New York when we moved to California, and so being able to step back into that place was amazing. Also, we started filming the movie pre-COVID and we shot for two weeks, and then we shut down for six months. When we came back, we realized that there was this weight to telling a movie about HIV and now, we’re suddenly in another pandemic and death [is] all around us. Being 10, I was deeply, deeply affected by losing people and not knowing what it was. We shut down and suddenly people are getting COVID and people are dying and no one knew what it was or where it came from, and it was very much like the AIDS epidemic.

BTL: During the production pause did you stay in New York or did you go back to California?

Brooks: No, I left New York. My husband’s actually from Portland, Maine, so we have a place there and a place here in LA. My husband and my daughter were in Portland and so on Friday, March 13, the production gave me a car, and I drove without stopping from New York to Portland. I threw as much stuff as I could fit in my suitcase and in the back of my car. I packed all my food, too, because it was when all the grocery stores were emptying out, and I drove. I’m glad I brought all my food because it was quite a while before we were able to get supplies.

BTL: I can imagine. When I went shopping that Thursday, I got one of the final rolls of toilet paper and it felt like it took months before I saw toilet paper returned to the shelves.

Brooks: Yeah, no, I did. I packed toilet paper and paper towels. I had ordered a box of masks, which my husband thought was crazy before. I think it was 25 masks for $200 on Amazon. He’s like, ‘why are you wasting our money? This is nuts.’ And I said, ‘We’re going to need them.’ And we did.

Alice Brooks and Lin-Manuel Miranda
Image via Netflix

BTL: What was the most challenging sequence in Tick, Tick… Boom! from a cinematography perspective?

Brooks: “Sunday” and “Swimming.” Lin brought his theater experience to making Tick, Tick… Boom! when we prepped the movie. Lin is used to workshopping a play and when workshopping a play, you break down themes and you go through them over and over and over and over again before there’s ever a performance. We used prep in very much the same way, where the production designer, the assistant director, Lin, the storyboard artist, Steven Levenson, the writer, and I would sit around a table for three or four hours a day. We would storyboard themes, and then we go home, and then we let them sort of marinate. And then the next day, we go, ‘wait, none of that’s working, and let’s start and do this,’ or ‘this is working perfectly.’

I’ve never been in storyboard sessions or prep, really, where the writer is able to be part of the whole process this way. I mean, the fact that Steven could be with us this whole time and be able to make little changes, or Lin would have an idea and be able to write the scene right there on the spot was really a complete luxury. On Tick, Tick… Boom!, our prep was really the discovery process. One of those amazing discoveries was “Swimming.”

In “Swimming,” we went and looked at the swimming pool and fell in love with it. Lin loved that the striped lines at the bottom of the pool looked like staff paper. I took my iPhone, and I started filming underwater. We saw this perfectly positioned 30 in the center of the bottom pool. Lin looked at it and he said, ‘what if Andrew sees the 30, floats to the bottom of the pool, and it’s the number that he’s so scared of turning, and he touches it and it turns into a treble clef?’

When I read the script at first and all through the beginning of prep, that was not “Swimming.” That was this discovery that was made during our prep. I love the number “Swimming” because it’s this visual demonstration of a singular moment of genius for Jonathan. We had the challenge of actually filling in that swimming pool, which was the opposite of “96,000.” The pool was so small and indoors, and there was only this teeny tiny duck on the side. I forgot to tell you that later on, we found out that the swimming pool was the swimming pool that Jonathan swam in every day of his life. That was where, when you listen to the lyrics of “Swimming,” he sings all the numbers that he’s thinking about and the red and green stripes on the bottom of the pool are actually at that swimming pool because he was writing about that pool. We only later found that out.

BTL: I thought that the “Sunday” diner sequence was hands-down one of the most impressive sequences in the film.

Brooks: “Sunday” was also a discovery process. We had the song. We knew it was going to be at the diner. The production designer brought the model of the diner to one of the storyboard meetings and we were sitting there looking at it. He suddenly took one of the walls down and we were like, ‘whoa!’ [because] that becomes a proscenium the second you dropped that wall down. It was an incredible collaboration where we kept talking about ideas and then it was like, What if the Moondance sign isn’t there and then the “Sunday” drops in the same spot that the Moondance Diner sign was in? The last thing was what if Jonathan’s signature appears? It is very different from the rest of the movie. It’s the brightest — Tick, Tick…Boom! is very dark compared to In the Heights. It’s an extremely dark movie but “Sunday” is Jonathan Larson’s wildest dream and it becomes this bright, bright moment.

We kept watching Sunday in the Park with George, which is the number that Jonathan was inspired by in writing this — the Sondheim musical. We kept exploring ways to ignite Jonathan’s imagination and the number that took place in the diner. What we did for that number was we slightly overexposed everything so it has this painterly quality to it. It’s based off the Seurat painting and so when it goes into that pointillist quality at the end, we wanted it to get there. We started in the Moondance and it’s just a normal chaotic Sunday brunch day and when they step out, we overexposed a little bit so everything’s just a little bit smoother and glowier than it normally would be.

Tick, Tick... Boom!
Image via Netflix

BTL: We briefly touched on it last time, but how did the pandemic change up your typical process when it came to setting up shots?

Brooks: We shut down for six months. The day before the shutdown, it was one of the best days of filming in my life. We were filming outside in New York where the Moondance Diner was, in Duarte Square. It was just Lin and I running around, getting all this incredible footage and just so much joy. The whole team was just really in sync. The whole crew and the cast –Andrew was just so wonderful to work with. Robin and Alex, and we hadn’t even shot Vanessa or Joshua Henry, but we just were in this amazing flow, and then we shut down. We didn’t know if we were ever going to go back. We had not shot enough of the movie, and the world changed in an instant.

Slowly, we started having something called that we called Tick, Tick… Zoom!, which was every person in the cast and crew were invited to get on Zoom once a week. Over 500 people were invited. We’d have everyone, someone from every department there. You’d have Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and me and the key grip, camera assistants, art department, PAs. Everyone was on these calls. At first, it was just sort of check-in, and then we started doing trivia, but it bonded us in this really incredible way. Slowly we’re like, well, it looks like we’re gonna try to go back — we’re figuring this out. But every step of the way, it’s like, there’s no way we’re going back. How is this possible? We ended up being one of the first full movies to shoot back.

We started prepping the movie at the end of July again and started shooting at the end of September. We shot 42 more days. At first, you go, well, we had this really magical thing that doesn’t always happen on set with this amazing team of people. But now, we have to wear a mask, face shield, and plastic gowns if there’s any live singing or anyone talking over speaking level. We’re standing in square boxes all six feet apart from each other. How do we go make a movie this way, where all your senses are really taken away? You can’t see as well. You can’t hear as well. You can’t smell anything because you’ve got your mask on and you can’t taste anything because you’re not allowed to eat any longer on sets. Suddenly, you don’t have these senses that you had.

But suddenly, after a day or two, we realized we were all the same people, all totally invested in Lin’s vision of this movie. Suddenly, sort of the new barriers disappeared, and we were able to really rekindle our collaboration.

Tick, Tick… Boom! is now streaming on Netflix.

Tick, Tick... Boom!
Image via Netflix
Danielle Solzman
Danielle Solzman
Danielle Solzman is a Chicago-based film critic and filmmaker. The founder of Solzy at the Movies, she is a member of the Critics Choice Association, Galeca, AWFJ, OAFFC, OFCS, and OFTA. She is MPA-accredited and Tomatometer-approved.
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