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The inspiration behind the look of Tick, Tick… Boom!

TVBEurope talks to cinematographer Alice Brooks about her work on new Netflix film, Tick, Tick... Boom!

Released worldwide on Netflix on November 19th, Tick, Tick… Boom! is a musical based on the life of young theatre composer Jonathan Larson as he navigates the pressure of turning 30 and dreams of making it big.

The film, which stars Andrew Garfield, marks the directorial debut of another musical theatre genius, in the shape of Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. Among his collaborators on the project is cinematographer Alice Brooks, who first met Miranda while working on the big screen version of In The Heights.

On the last day of filming that movie she received a call from her agent telling her Miranda wanted to meet the following week to discuss Tick, Tick… Boom! “I wrapped In The Heights and then I spent all weekend working on a lookbook, which I do every time I prep for a first meeting on a movie with a director, with some of my initial ideas,” Brooks tells TVBEurope.

Although she knew who Larson was, Brooks had never heard of Tick, Tick… Boom! before getting involved with the project (Larson is best known for his Tony Award-winner, Rent). “I’ve been a musical fan since I can remember, I grew up watching musicals,” she explains. “My dad was a playwright and my mom was an actress and a singer and sang show tunes all the time to us. We lived in New York City in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. And so, when I was reading this script for the first time I thought to myself, ‘this could be scenes out of my life’.”

Brooks’ lookbook included photographs from her own childhood in New York in the 1980s. The family moved to Los Angeles just a few months before the film’s story starts, but she says the New York of her childhood is permanently etched in her mind, an image she shares with both the film’s subject and director: “I remember it as a 10 year old where colour and light and emotions are all really heightened. That’s just like Jonathan Larson too, it’s this childlike mind of Jonathan’s where there’s a blur between dreams and reality. Lin and I are the same age and he also has that memory of New York City at the same exact time, and that’s what he wanted the movie to look like, the vision of 1990 New York City, but from a 10 year old’s perspective.”

Brooks also took inspiration from street photographers such as Nan Goldin, who photographed much of the AIDS epidemic in the city, as well as videos of the real Jonathan Larson. “Nowadays we have cameras on us all the time. That wasn’t true in 1989/1990, but it was for Jonathan. He had a friend whose father was a documentarian and she had a Betacam, and she wandered around New York and photographed him all the time,” she explains.

“We  watched all this video of Jonathan and just started to fall in love with his spirit. He was just this genuine, wonderful, joyous human being that we all fell in love with and were inspired by. There’s lots of video elements throughout the movie, so we have our own sort of found footage. The opening shot and last shots of the movie are Betacam shots of Jonathan and there’s lots of that peppered throughout the movie, and it was all inspired by the archival footage.”

As mentioned previously, the film is the directorial debut of Lin-Manuel Miranda, and Brooks describes the experience of working with him as “phenomenal”, particularly due to the spirit of collaboration, exploration and discovery he brought to the project. “I think it goes back to Lin being in the theatre for the last 20 years and that you workshop a play over and over and over again before there’s even a single performance,” she continues. “That’s how Lin knows how to create, and he brought that process to our movie. It really was a discovery. 

(L-R) Andrew Garfield, director Lin-Manuel Miranda and director of photography Alice Brooks

One of the most exciting discoveries for Brooks was while the team planning how they would shoot the song, Swimming. “Jonathan Larson wrote this song about a swimming pool, and I love the number because it’s a visual demonstration of a singular moment of genius,” she says. “You’ve probably seen it in the trailer where you see these music notes around him. We were looking at swimming pools in New York City and we found this pool that had these tiles at the bottom where the lanes are and it looked exactly like staff paper. So, I took my iPhone and started filming underwater just from the sides and we saw the number 30 at the bottom of the centre of the pool. Lin said, ‘what if Jonathan touches the number 30 and it becomes a treble clef?’ That’s how we discovered Swimming.”

Before principal production began, Brooks carried out a number of camera and lens tests, talking her director through the process throughout. “I’d shoot tests and then we’d go to the lab and look at them. We ended up shooting on a Panavision DLX2 and we used G Series Anamorphic Lenses, which I also shot In The Heights with, but we did a process called detuning them in a different way than we did on In The Heights. I really wanted it to feel aged as it is a period piece. I wanted them to be really imperfect. We really messed with the elements on the lenses so they have these very interesting aberrations.”

Lighting was also a key element of telling Larson’s story – including a nod to his future work and that of his heroes. “There were a couple of times we use the colour red to sort of foreshadow Rent,” explains Brooks. “There’s also a song called Therapy where we use a pink colour that sort of feels warm and that inter cuts with Jonathan having a fight with his girlfriend. That number is in reference to Cabaret. There are several different numbers that we reference other musicals with colour. You wouldn’t notice it unless you have a deep knowledge of musical theatre, but we tip our hats to them. Stephen Sondheim was a huge person in Jonathan’s life and there’s a number of references to him.”

As the film entered post, Brooks was involved in the colour grading, an area of her job that she says she absolutely loves. “I did not miss a frame of colour grading! I did the DI at Company 3 in New York. It’s interesting because it’s a Netflix movie, although we have also had a theatrical release in some cities. We graded the streaming version first and then the print version. This is my first Netflix movie, so I’ve never done it in that way before. It was a great process because after we’d done the theatrical release version I said to the colourist I want to go back to the HDR version because there were certain things in our projected print that didn’t match perfectly to the streaming version.”

Finally, is there a scene in the film that Brooks is particularly proud of? “The film takes place in two different time periods. There was 1990, which is Jonathan’s life, and then 1992 which is all the stage show. I think the song Johnny Can’t Decide is my favourite part of the stage show, and Swimming is my favourite part of the whole movie. 

“My favourite shot in the movie is a push-in on Jonathan at the beginning of Swimming. The camera operator said to me during rehearsals, ‘are you sure this is what you want, I can put it on the dolly?’ And I said ‘no, this is perfect’. It’s this handheld push-in where you feel the camera and you feel the bumpiness of the shot, and then we go into Swimming. At this point Jonathan has hit rock bottom. He doesn’t have anything left and he swims and and I love the energy there and I love how we designed the shots and all the underwater work is fabulous. I think I do think that’s my favourite number.”