Thomas Kail Interview: Hamilton

Rarely does a director get a chance to evolve a project for as long as Thomas Kail has worked on Hamilton, nor gotten the opportunity to take it from one medium to another. With the upcoming film version of the Broadway production, though, Kail has been able to give millions of viewers the best seats in the house.

The director spoke with Screen Rant about the techniques used to capture the original Broadway performances on film, and the legacy he hopes Hamilton leaves behind when new audiences are exposed to it.

What kind of technology did you employ to record the performances? Were there multiple cameras involved or specialized camera rigs?

Thomas Kail: Yes, multiple cameras. We shot two live performances, on the Sunday matinee and the Tuesday night. And on those performances, which had audiences – and we did not stop, we just went straight through – we had nine cameras rolling. Three were fixed and not using a human operator, and then there were six that had human operators and were all in the audience, shooting towards the stage.

And then we had a little bit of time on Sunday night, a full day on Monday and a little time on Tuesday morning, where we did not have the audience. We got on stage and brought in a steadycam on a dolly track, and we changed a lot of the camera positions. We would run a number 2, 3, or 4 times and then move on, because we only had that one day. I think we got through about 12 or 13 numbers in that way. There are 46 numbers in the show, so 33 of them are just from those two performances. Because when we got back in on Tuesday night, we still had the nine cameras. Three were fixed in that same location, and then the other six, we completely changed.

So, if you were house left 15 rows back, the next day you were house right 10 rows back. That camera that was in the mezzanine, we took it off the mezzanine and went to the center of the orchestra. So, we switched up all of those camera angles. And then we were in the truck and were also in people’s ear, so if there was a shot that we really liked, we could have them go get it. It was kind of like when you’re in a sports truck. There was a very detailed plan, but I was also watching with our DP and our camera coordinator, and we could say, “That over right there, get in, get in, get in!” You could maybe take a little dive and be a little more aggressive on the Tuesday, because we already had the Sunday.

How did having the cameras there affect the audience’s viewing experience? How was that addressed?

Thomas Kail: I’m sure it did affect their viewing experience. And if you’ve ever seen theater on the nights when they’re taping anything, it’s always completely different. Just like if you’re making a documentary and you bring a camera into a room, it changes everything. There’s a whole principle about that. So yes, it absolutely affects the audience. Often what it does for the audience is it makes them a little more reserved and muted, but that was not the case for us.

I think that audience was so excited to be there, and the fact that they were sitting next to a camera was great. It did not get in the way of their enjoyment. But they didn’t know about it until they arrived. We wanted to make sure to honor the 1340 people that had worked hard to get there and paid money to see the show, so we didn’t want to disrupt that. And I don’t think that anybody that saw the show on those two nights would would say that their experience was impacted in a negative way.

I’m very curious to see, once the movie comes out, how many people will say, “I was there when they filmed that!” Because you know the total can only be about 2600. It’s like when people say like, “Oh, I was at that concert when that happened.” But I hope their experience was a good one.

Did you direct the actors more towards the cameras during their performance, or did you just capture the spontaneity of the performances?

Thomas Kail: We shot this in June of 2016. So, that means that the actors that were in the show had done the show 200 or 300 or 400 times. At that point, the performance was so in their bones; I had so much faith in them. We had very, very little of any conversation about performance, because we’d already built the performance and they’d already deeped the performance beyond what we were working on every day. No, I didn’t say anything like that to them.

Often on an opening night, I’ll say something to the equivalent of, “No more, no less,” because we already know what the thing is, and we just have to go and do our show. And they went and did our show. Our job was to capture that; I didn’t want them to feel encumbered in any way. And clearly, if there’s a camera six inches from your face, you’re gonna feel that. But for the live shows, they didn’t feel the cameras at all. For the other numbers that we did on stage, they’re all such pros that they knew exactly what they were doing. I’ll probably never make another movie where I spend less time talking about performance, because I’d spent two years leading up to it talking about performance. This cast knew exactly what to do.

Which aspects were hardest to film and translate for a home audience and which were easiest?

Thomas Kail: When you’re watching the show in the theater, the job of the director and the choreographer and the lighting designer and the set designer is to focus the action. And by where we put lights, and where movement happens, that’s where your eye will go. But you’re always in a wide shot as it were; you’re always seeing the whole picture.

When you’re making a film, the director of photography and the lighting team, the grips; they’re the ones that help focus the action. If we put the camera in one position, you can only see what we’re showing. You have much more control in the cinema than you do in the theater. So, what we had the opportunity to do, though, was make sure that we were serving the audience as well as we could and that we were acknowledging that everybody has not just the best seat in the house, but the same seat.

Because when you go see a live show, you could be in the orchestra, on the left, on the right, in the mezzanine, in the second balcony – and your experience would be completely different. When you’re watching a film, you all have the same seat. And so that felt like an opportunity to really give everyone a universal experience. Whatever they thought about the film, that’s up to them. But at least they all have the same seat.

What is the bigger priority for you? Is it bringing movie theater audiences into a true theater experience or to adapt a theater experience and make it more cinematic?

Thomas Kail: I always wanted to capture what it felt like to be in the theater when I was making this movie. In a sense, there are there are elements of Hamilton that people think are cinematic – in fact, you will see this in the film. The final duel is something on stage that was inspired by The Matrix. Do you remember bullet time in The Matrix? The final duel in our show takes place in the moments from when the bullet leaves Aaron Burr’s gun and hits Alexander Hamilton, but we stop time. And when you stop time there, instead of having all of the cameras around like they did in The Matrix, we do it with the physical language and the choreography and the staging. That to me was a cinematic technique that we applied to our theater.

This is, I hope, a funny reference. But Ratatouille was a big influence on the number “Satisfied.” In Ratatouille, there’s a moment where the critic takes a bite of the food. And in that moment, you go into his eye, and you go back to see his childhood: his mother or grandmother giving him the food, and then he has this visceral and emotional connection to the food that breaks down even the most hardened of critics.

“Satisfied” in the show is another moment that stops time. What we do basically is we go into the mind and the heart of Angelica Schuyler. At that point in the show, we have not really broken the chronological and forward moving linear progression of time, but in that number, we stop time. We reverse it and we go into her head, and that’s also setting up the language that we’ll use for the end of the show when the bullet is stopped, and we go into Hamilton’s head. Those are two cinematic moments that happened in a piece of theater, and what I had the chance to do here was try to find ways to bring the theatrical elements into the film.

Which number was the most complicated for you to stage, and which fell into the place most naturally?

Thomas Kail: Interesting. There was, obviously, a design for the show when we were making it. It was only supposed to be for the theatrical audience. Now, what that often meant was – in terms of where people are positioned on the stage, or the patterns – are with the audience in the front if you’re in a proscenium house. So, there were certain numbers that were sort of directed that way; that the energy of it was facing outward. But a lot of the numbers have circles in the show; Andy Blankenbuehler’s choreography employs a lot of circles. And so numbers like “Satisfied,” or “The Final Duel” or “10 Duel Commandments,” or even “Hurricane,” have a lot of circular motion to them and felt like they really lent themselves to being captured cinematically.

That doesn’t mean others were harder; it’s just those were particular ones that felt really exciting to be inside of because of how the pattern had been established in terms of the choreography and the flow of the number.

Now that millions are going to be able to see Hamilton for the first time, how do you think it might help guide public discourse on modern-day politics?

Thomas Kail: A program called EduHam, which we started four years ago now, gives access to the show to students aged 16 or 17, usually juniors in high school. And we’ve done this all over the country, in many, many cities, and also in London. And that’s for me the most important legacy of the show. It’s the young people getting a chance to see the show, but also write their own work inspired by the show, which empowers the development of their own voice and the acknowledgement that their voice matters. And it speaks to something in the show that we think is so critical, especially at this moment in time, which is who tells your story.

We have to all understand that every story is important, and every story should be told. And we have to look at our show, which is about the founding of our country – a country that was founded on the original sin of slavery, that was founded by these flawed men who said that they wanted to make the world equal but set up an institution and a constitution that did not protect everybody equally in any way. And so we’re still talking about, and are still faced with, so many of the flaws in the system right now.

My hope is that there are moments in the show, or lines in the show or stories in the show, that can be sparks for more conversation; that can be that can be used to further probe and to challenge systems that are in place that need to be reconstructed, or rebuilt, or dismantled. And I think that there is an opportunity, when you have when you have the show going out so widely, that it’s going to reach so many people. I certainly don’t know how it’s going to impact each person, but my hope is that it gives them some sort of source of inspiration to go and do whatever their work might be.

Obviously, this was envisioned as a movie theater experience when it was filmed. Now that it’s going directly to people’s homes via Disney+, how do you envision the viewing experience? Should it be a family experience or Hamilton social distancing parties?

Thomas Kail: I think people should be safe when they’re watching it however they do it. My hope is that, you know, some people are gonna watch it on their iPhone or their Android, others will watch on an iPad, someone on television, some are gonna watch it on their computer. However they watch it, our hope is that the story transmits- that whoever you are, whatever form that you’re watching it, that it speaks to you. And what I know is, in a world right now, where the way that we consume things has such a fast cadence – Tiktoks are like 14 seconds – this movie is two and a half hours. It requires a certain kind of patience in the storytelling.

But I think that that’s one of the things that I’m so excited about. I think that this is a show for people that love musical theater, and I think it’s a show for people that don’t think musical theater is for them. I think that it’s something that can speak to them, because I think it’s aware of what it is. And what it is, is informed so deeply by Lin’s musical voice. And I think that that’s a voice that has certainly, through the power of the album, reached many, many millions of people. We hope that the film that we made is a companion to the experience that people have had who have loved the album.

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