Sunday, May 29, 2022

Interview: Oscar Nominated Editors Myron Kerstein & Andrew Weisblum of ‘tick, tick…BOOM!’ [EXCLUSIVE]

tick, tick…BOOM! has been receiving well-deserved attention this awards season, including an Academy Award nomination under the Best Editing category for the incredible work by Andrew Weisblum and Myron Kerstein.

tick, tick…BOOM! marks the directorial debut for Grammy Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda. Written for the stage by Jonathan Larson originally as a rock monologue and penned for the screen by Steven Levenson, tick, tick…BOOM! tells the story of Jon (Andrew Garfield), a young theater composer in New York City. Jon, much like many others in the big city, dreams of writing the next great American musical. Days before he’s due to showcase his work in a performance that could launch his career or destroy it, Jon is feeling the pressure from everywhere, especially those close to him. With the clock ticking, Jon is at a crossroads and must figure out what he, like all of us, must do with the time given to him.

We had a chance to speak with Myron Kerstein and Andrew Weisblum about their Oscar-nominated work on Netflix’s adaptation of tick, tick…BOOM!.

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Nerds & Beyond: First of all, I wanted to congratulate you both on the Oscar nomination for your combined effort on tick, tick…boom!, and then start off with asking what drew you both into working on this project?

Andrew Weisblum: Thank you. Well, I was contacted by Lin and his production in late 2019 looking for collaborators in New York, and we had a few conversations and hit it off talking about our shared experiences and recollections of New York in the 90s … 80s and 90s and the theater world, and what’s different about that, and the different people circulating what it was like trying to be a successful artists then in the city versus now. So he invited me on board, and we started shooting, and then there was a pandemic. So, it was, I don’t know, six months later, before we resumed again, and we had a great time working together, but unfortunately, I had another project that kind of caught up with us over the course of time. So that’s when Myron joined the parade.

Myron Kerstein: Yeah, and then I had worked briefly with Lin over the course of working on In The Heights, but we might have only seen him maybe a dozen times over the course of making that film and he basically let Jon [Chu] and I do what we we needed to do to make that film. So it was a shock to get that call from Lin that he needed some help, and it was an honor to take over for Andy because I was a big fan of his work over the years: he’s made some really amazing films that have affected me deeply emotionally in all the good ways. And Lin, when I first talked to him, he basically pitched me working on the movie and gave me the story of how Jonathan’s work influenced him, and in a lot of ways he was saying that there wasn’t going to be a Lin Manuel-Miranda without a Jonathan Larson in his life, and I was all in. I related to the themes of the film and packed up from LA and moved to New York to live with him [Lin] and and got to work to finish this film. It was a very amazing experience that while he was writing music for Encanto, we were cutting tick, tick…BOOM! upstairs in his bedroom.

Nerds & Beyond: That’s awesome! What a great house to be in at that time, that creative space just must have been amazing to be around.

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Andrew Weisblum: It’s a bit of a tornado there in the house. There’s a lot of activity having to do with other productions and other rooms.

Nerds & Beyond: I believe that! It’s funny that you mentioned In The Heights Myron, because that leads into my next question. I knew you had worked on that, and then Andrew, I know you don’t have a ton of musical theater film in your repertoire, but I do know that you edited the pilot for Smash because I am a former musical theater person myself and I was obsessed with that show. So I wanted to ask you what are (if any) the unique challenges that you face editing for musical theater film versus non-musical films?

Andrew Weisblum: Well, musicals have certain grammatical traits to them, that you kind of have to be aware of, but ultimately in terms of figuring out the shape and the arc of a film it’s not that different. You still want it to have pace and play dramatically and track the emotions of the characters and all those things that you search for in a film, so the music element is kind of another dynamic, and it does influence the pace and the pattern in terms of the order of songs, and the amount of time between a song, and how long that song will take, and how much time you have before the story has to progress … all those kind of considerations. Those kind of lock you into certain measurements and grids and things that you’d have to kind of fit before you hit the next song, once you’re in a song, you have to figure there’s only so much you can collapse or expand within that, so those decisions are kind of made for you. Although we do find ways to upend that in our process.

Myron Kerstein: You know, for me, I spent the last three and a half years of my life working on musicals. And first of all, I love them, I’m going to keep making them, I’m going to be making Wicked next with Jon Chu. So I’m happy to be in this place that I dreamed of as a kid to work on something like that. But Andy’s right, I don’t treat it any differently than if I was cutting any other film. When I watch the dailies, I let them bleed over me, and if they give me goosebumps I take note of that, or they make me cry, or they make me scream…or throw stuff at the screen, I take note of that, and then I make those choices based on that. I also like to look at lyrics as dialogue, because ultimately the lyrics are still telling a story and I’m picking performance based on performance. And I think that, over the course of In The Heights, I really worked a lot with Jon [Chu] and the rest of the team to try to ground the film into reality, I’m a big believer that if we can keep people in it somehow believing that that’s, you know that the movie doesn’t just stop and the music begins that it will feel more organic and grounded in a real further progression of the genre, and I think then tick, tick…BOOM!, we had the liberty of this performance taking place on a live stage. And, of course, some of that was done live but very little, it was mostly all pre-record, and so we were trying to keep that very grounded: you feel like you’re in that in that room with them performing to you, and making the the coolest rock show monologue piece that you can be part of for two hours. There shouldn’t be a difference, really: you’re telling a story, you’re trying to just fool the audience somehow to take the leap with you for two hours, and if we’ve done our job, this invisible art, everything disappears, and you’re just sort of just transported.

Andrew Weisblum: One of the things about the rock concert or monologue concert as a frame for the whole piece kind of took away the whole question that you deal with about breaking into song in a movie and what what the rules are of that because ultimately, you can always tie it back to the stage in one form or another. Once that’s established, it’s very freeing, because you can do it differently each time, and that becomes your dynamic, but you’re not you’re not faced with that question anymore of …”why are they singing?”.

Nerds & Beyond: When you mentioned flowing back and forth between the stage and the real-life scenarios that they go through … I immediately think of the “Therapy” number. When I first watched this movie, I rewound that like four times because I was just stunned. It felt like I was watching a live performance, and that’s so hard to do with a movie because every instinct is telling you I’m watching this recorded film on a screen, but it just felt so natural and live, and the back and forth just slipped so seamlessly into each other. So, I wanted to ask you both how you approached that specific number: what was your process like there? How did you organize that scene?

Andrew Weisblum: There are several steps. The first step was, I mean, the core of that number is that is the dramatic scene and their [Jonathan and Susan] breakup. So the first step was to make sure that worked on its own as a scene. There’s a lot more to that scene that didn’t end up in the movie, but that’s kind of the backside of the process. First, just making sure that emotionally it all made sense, so that when we did the intercut with the song, we could kind of come in and out anywhere and kind of collapse and expand wherever we needed to we had we had a skeleton. So then there was kind of a technical challenge, at least in the first go round of figuring out the tempo adjustments in the song each time we cut back and forth, every time we come back to the musical number, it’s up a few BPM, so you have to figure it out. I could get close to the target, but I have to go back and forth our music editor, Nancy, to get it precise. So that was a bit of an exercise. And then the other element of it is to find subliminal ways of turning the song into a score for the scene, which brings in other instrumentation that has nothing to do with what you’re seeing in the performance in a way that hopefully doesn’t announce itself. So it has to turn with the scene just like a score does. That was a little trickier, at least we were still messing around with it when I handed off the baton. But then it became much more of a process of distilling the argument to more of the highlights and and reducing the song’s length so that they still crescendo together, but maybe didn’t take long getting there.

Myron Kerstein: Steve Levenson, who is a brilliant screenwriter … basically wrote in the script “this fight will be intercut with this song”, there wasn’t a roadmap for Andy to start the assembly process. Then when I came on to further cut it down, Lin, who is quite wonderful to work with … he’s a mensch, really, but there’s nothing more intimidating than when Lin’s saying, “why can’t we just put this little fight of dialogue between these two phrases”, and you’re like, “I know, but my brain is gonna explode”. It’s just a lot to juggle with a song because when you start to get overwhelmed by a scene like “Therapy”, which is aggressive editorially, you feel like one false move, and it’s all gonna start to unravel. And I’ve said this a few times, but Andy started it back months before I started, and it was literally the last thing I was still cutting until I locked film, making little slips with the music editors to make every line of dialogue to feel grounded, and that’s just one number where you’re spending all that time…seven or eight, maybe 10 months refining things.

Nerds & Beyond: So now that we’ve mentioned cuts, I have to dig into that a little more! Was there anything that you cut that you really wished you could have kept in the movie?

Myron Kerstein: Well, I know there’s things that other people wish we kept in the movie like “Green, Green Dress”. But no, I feel confident that the choices that were made were the right ones for the film. There’s versions of the film that have another musical number, have more scenes with Vanessa Hudgens, have more of the neuroses of Jonathan Larson worrying about turning 30 and, you know, where is his life going? But I think that all the choices we made … 10 years from now, I might say “I wish I did this and that”, but that just goes with the territory of being an editor, but I feel great.

Andrew Weisblum: You know, a lot of those things that are cut along the way and it’s not always because they’re bad or they don’t work. Usually, it’s rarely that. Usually it has to do with the overall piece, and if you know that the first half of your movie is taking too long to get to the heart of the matter, you have to make some really honest choices about what’s a tangent or what isn’t and what’s superfluous. You have to keep your focus and prioritize in that way, and sometimes that means killing some things that are really great. I think that happens on every good movie, it’s not unique here. By the way, a lot of those things still end up influencing other parts of the movie. One of the one of the sequences that was taken out was kind of a more elaborate explanation of what Superbia was, and we had used a lot of archival footage, present day archival footage, to kind of demonstrate how ahead of his time he [Jonathan Larson] was subject wise, which was a lot of fun, but the movie couldn’t carry that at that point: there was too much going on narratively. But the idea of using that archival stuff permeated into other scenes and ultimately turned into through a path ended up being a more obvious cue for the book end of the movie of his archival, which they don’t seem related at first, but it’s part of that process. The deleted scenes still permeate your process.

Myron Kerstein: And by the way, I was, when I came aboard, pulling my hair out to try to make that other sequence work … the original sequence, but then you just start to obsess about it. And then, like Andy said, you’re like, “well, maybe it could be used in this other way that I don’t know yet”. And then some day, you’re sitting there and Lin’s playing music downstairs, and something kind of clicks, or just discussions with Levinson or Andy. The magic of editing is the process of taking things out and being fearless and trying out ideas and discovering things. That’s what the process is. That’s why I love editing because you don’t know what the end result is going to be when you first start. It’s the it’s the whole journey with the film that is making this art piece that is just so fulfilling.

Nerds & Beyond: Wow, you’re both treating me to some really fantastic answers today, so thank you for that! One last thing that I wanted to ask you both … Myron, you had mentioned that part of what you’re considering when you’re working on editing a scene is what numbers and what scenes got a reaction from you. I specifically was head to toe goosebumps the first time “Sunday” came on the screen, that whole scene just blew my mind. There were so many things that went into that scene that just absolutely made me just lose it, so I wanted to ask you both just as a really light final question … where there any numbers that gave you goosebump or another big reaction?

Myron Kerstein: “Therapy” was definitely up there. “Sunday” was definitely up there. But “Come To Your Senses” has always been a favorite … I just love how these two thoroughbreds [Vanessa Hudgens and Alexandra Shipp] harmonize with each other, and how we get sucked into Jonathan’s point of view and we get on the other side and we think this song is so great, and we’ve been waiting so long for the song to be written that this is a thing that he comes up with. And we are so moved and the applause in the theater or within myself is so intense, and then within moments we realize that he still can’t get this show [Superbia] made. I just love that so much. I think that “Why” is another one that is very moving to me because it is Garfield performing live and I love musical numbers that are really stripped down and raw, and any false move in that number I think it falls apart. And anyways, I really do a love it all but those are some of the highlights for me.

Andrew Weisblum: There’s some things I like about a lot of different numbers. “Swimming” was kind of all consuming for me for a while until we got to cooking, but I know that this isn’t a goosebump thing but I think I’ll always have a sweet spot for “Play Game”, just because I had an opportunity to just kind of go haywire for a day cutting a late 80s, early 90s Yo, MTV Raps homage that Lin was very happy with.

Nerds & Beyond: With “Play Game” you can definitely tell that that was a really fun number to work with.

Andrew Weisblum: That’s a great scene. The reference is kind of ingrained in my brain, so it’s hard not to go down memory lane with that stuff. So that was fun.

tick, tick…BOOM! is available to stream now on Netflix.

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