thomas kail hamilton interview

In 2016, Hamilton was at the top of the world. The hip-hop musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda was a bonafide cultural phenomenon, blowing the doors wide open to the usually niche world of musical theater and becoming the most hotly-talked about topic in pop culture, music, and even politics. The hip-hop musical about American Founding Father Alexander was (aptly) hailed as revolutionary, and to bear witness to its meteoric rise was amazing. But only a select few could actually get to witness the magic of Hamilton on stage.

Accessibility has always been the bane of theater. The Richard Rodgers Theatre can only house so many people in its seats, and the cast of Hamilton can only perform eight shows a week for so long. But before that moment could fade, Hamilton director Thomas Kail wanted to shatter the show’s long-held reputation of exclusivity and share “the energy of what it was like to be in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June of 2016, because I never felt anything like that.”

“What I wanted to do was preserve a feeling of what it’s like to be in the theater,” Kail told /Film in a phone interview ahead of the Disney+ debut of Hamilton. “And I thought, can you capture something that ephemeral on film? And it felt to me that what we wanted to do was, listen to the show, and trust the show.”

Kail and the original cast of Hamilton, all of whom would take their final bow just a month later, scrambled to shoot a feature film version of the show in three days, over the course of two live performances in June 2016. “We only have three days, and there were no reshoots and there was no going back,” Kail said. “So that also inspired a certain kind of creativity, and our cast was so game. Their performances were so dialed in.”

The result is a Hamilton feature film that Disney in its press release calls “a leap forward in the art of ‘live capture.'” But for Kail, it wasn’t about using any special technology or any experimental filming methods. It’s about showing the “viewer at home or in the movie theater a point of view that no one has ever had,” Kail said. “That was a real guiding principle, but it was also not just move from the camera to the camera. We had to trust the story.”

We talked to Kail about how he, Miranda, and the Hamilton crew put together the feature film that will finally bring us into the room where it happens.

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Can you tell me about the “live capture” technology that you use for the Hamilton film and what makes it so different from the regular filming of a performance?

What I wanted to do was preserve a feeling of what it’s like to be in the theater, try to capture the energy of what it was like to be in the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June of 2016 because I never felt anything like that. And I thought, can you capture something that ephemeral on film? And it felt to me that what we wanted to do was, listen to the show, and trust the show. So, we had two live performances that we filmed on Sunday the 26th and Tuesday the 28th. And then a little bit of time on Sunday, all day Monday, Tuesday, that we can get on stage, and that’s when we bring in the dolly and the Steadicam [to do close-ups] without the audience. So we did 13 or so numbers in that way. And there were 46 numbers in the show so the vast majority of our guests are from the Sunday and Tuesday, and then a couple other of the bigger numbers. Did you get a chance to see the clips?

I did, yeah.

Okay, so what happens. For some of the larger numbers, we were able to get on stage, and for me that gave us an opportunity to try to get inside of the number and not just outside of the number which is how you can often feel when you’re watching things. So, what we talked about really early with that was, what the particular vantage point was — for me that was the most important thing, more so than any technology. How do we learn from the patterns of the show, the typical pattern of the show, to give the viewer at home or in the movie theater a point of view that no one has ever had? That was a real guiding principle, but it was also not just move from the camera to the camera. We had to trust the story. And form and function has to marry, and obviously what we have here is incredible performers, pretty fine writing, and just gorgeous work by our design team. And what I wanted to do was try to capture that, and I didn’t think about whether the other live captures did something well or didn’t do something. Well, I just thought about everything I’ve ever seen. And just didn’t want to put any limitation, unless it was about time. We only have three days, and there were no reshoots and there was no going back. So that also inspired a certain kind of creativity, and our cast was so game. Their performances were so dialed in. They never spent any time ever talking about performance, because they had already worked on that for the previous two or three years.

So when you’re putting together these different shots and these different performances together from the two different nights, how did you make sure they flowed into one consistent number? Because in the clips I saw, it seemed pretty seamless and sounded like it was from one performance.

You know, the interesting thing about going back to the [see the] performances, there are benefits of working with a company that does something hundreds of times. There’s subtlety and nuance from night to night, absolutely. But there’s so much consistency. Now, that doesn’t mean there weren’t challenges like trying to see where your left hand was in this [shot] and you’re your prop was in that, which obviously is something you deal with in any kind of narrative feature. But the sound process was one that I tried to employ my greatest collaborator from that, Alex Lacamoire, our music director/music supervisor/orchestrator Nevin Steinberg, our sound designer. Both know the show and the score better than anybody. And when you have them, alongside Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jonah Moran our editor, I felt like we had a pretty good group there to make sure that our ears were tuned to making the whole event feel as seamless as possible and to make sure that just felt better.

Were the performances toned down at all for the camera or was the intention to crystalize the stage experience on camera, even if it means things feeling a little big?

I didn’t have a single conversation with anybody in the company about the size [of their performances]. We’ve been doing it for so long, and they also know how to perform for an audience, and how to perform for camera. And those things often seem like they’re two different things, but with this company, what we always did, whether it was on camera or not, was trust that the audience was going to come to us and that we were going to reach the audience. And so, we’re already properly scaled. And my job was just to get the camera there.

So what was the original intention for the footage when it was shot back in 2016? Was Disney involved early on?

We made this independently, totally independent. There are not a lot of producers on the film. We knew we wanted to have it, and then decide what to do with it. So I started cutting it pretty soon, I started editing in the autumn, maybe summer of 2016. I wasn’t doing it because it was going to come out soon, I just did it because it was very fresh in my head and Jonah Moran, my editor, and I thought we would try to get ahead of it. And we kept on going — not with any intention. There was no studio attached there was nobody out there, it was just for us. At the time, I was making the next production of Hamilton, which was going to go to Chicago. I’m captaining the Chicago production, getting ready for the first national tour. I was so immersed in the world, it just felt like I need to take advantage of how much Hamilton was in my life and then I was able to work for the next year and a half. And then I got to step away from it and come back after another project — that was really fun to come back having done a limited series for FX, and then came back to the film — and it was nice to see some of those choices held up and there were some other things that caught my eye, and I went back in and we did a little bit of work.

So there were some discussions of the film’s rating back when Disney first announced that it was debuting the film because Disney and Disney+ specifically tends to be a bit more family friendly side. Was there any concern about the profanity used in the show, whether it would be censored, or whether Disney would put a higher rating on it and not allow it to be to reach the audience as wide as you wish it would?

The show is the show. Two or three billion people have streamed the album, so everybody knows all of the words in the show, and Disney knew exactly what it was when they decided to express their interest. So no, those conversations were very aligned and easy. And there was never any discussion about major change in any way other than just acknowledging the realities of MPAA rating of PG-13.

Despite it being released on Disney+, do you hope that the film will make it to theaters eventually?

Well, I hope we all go back to theaters eventually, I mean that that’s the truth of it. Who knows how long [the pandemic] is going extend? But I know that cinema will come back and movie theaters will come back, they’ve already come back in some places. Also, this being on Disney+ feels exactly right for the moment. And if the world gets to a place in the future where we’re all gathering and sitting in the dark again to watch stories flickering on a screen, I would love for this to be seen on the big screen, but the fact that it’s out in the world and can be seen on July 3 on Disney+, is what’s important.

So, since the pandemic started and Broadway shows have been made more available online in livestreams, etc., do you think Broadway will begin to look at the internet more as a way to make shows more accessible?

The thing about Hamilton, is that we released the album on Spotify alongside the show, and it helped it become [a phenomenon]. So, I think that that’s what’s so powerful about streaming, and what’s so powerful about screen adaptations, is they’re just able to reach so many more people immediately. When I did a live musical for Fox of Grease in 2016, during the first year of Hamilton, in that one night, 12 million people saw the show. That’s the equivalent of a show running for 25 years at the Richard Rodgers. That’s roughly 24 years in one single night. So, to me, I want to make things for the people, I want to make things that everybody can find their way to. You know, when Lin gave us a blueprint with the show to construct, it was the best material I’ve ever worked on in my life, and I wanted to honor that. And I think we all felt that.

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