Unless you are too young to remember or have been living under a rock for the past 10 years, you probably were aware that in 2004, Green Day released a concept album called "American Idiot," and the world went a bit insane for it and the extended tour that followed. All of which made the band one of the biggest on earth (save your comments about your love/hate for Green Day; I'm just stating the facts).
One of the people "American Idiot" caught the ear of was theater director Michael Mayer, while he was in the midst of staging his Tony-winning musical SPRING AWAKENING (starring then-unknowns Lea Michele of "Glee" and John Gallagher, Jr. of "The Newsroom" and SHORT TERM 12). After a couple of years of using the songs as inspiration for character building and a loose story about young people attempting to find some stability in world that seems intent on keeping them down, Mayer presented his ideas to the band and they gave him a the go-ahead to keep working on his rock opera approach to their album (again starring John Gallagher, Jr.). The band's frontman, Billie Joe Armstrong was getting so excited about the idea, he even gave Mayer the idea of using songs from previous albums, "American Idiot" b-sides, and eventually songs from the subsequent album, "21st Century Breakdown."
At any point in the pre-production, Armstrong had the right to pull the plug, but the more he saw of the rehearsals and heard the reworked songs, the more he saw his true vision for this music come to life. And the best news about this entire process is that a great deal of it was captured on film by director Doug Hamilton, whose previous works include episodes of the PBS series "Frontline," "American Masters," and "Nova." Not being much of a theater expert, especially in the field of musicals, there is a certain fascination I have with watching a production like this come together, both in its pre-Broadway run and its critically acclaimed Broadway staging. I actually caught the show on its initial tour when it came through Chicago, and I was impressed and amused how they brought these songs to life and captured an existence that I'd never seen portrayed on stage before.
The resulting film Hamilton has put together is BROADWAY IDIOT, and its essential viewing for Green Day fans, theater buffs, and just people who love watching the creative process at work. I got a chance to talk to film director Hamilton and the musical's director Mayer a few weeks ago when they called from New York, and I had a fantastic time digging even deeper into how the stage show and the film came together. Enjoy my talk with Doug Hamilton and Michael Mayer…
Doug Hamilton: Hello.
Michael Mayer: Hello.
Capone: Hi! It might be best for the guy who transcribes for me if you say your names.
DH: I’m Doug Hamilton and I’m the director of BROADWAY IDIOT.
MM: Hi, I’m Michael Mayer. I’m the director of the Broadway show AMERICAN IDIOT.
Capone: Okay, perfect. Michael, was it you who was the one from Maryland?
MM: Yes, I am. I’m from Rockville.
Capone: Okay. I actually grew up in Silver Spring, so it wasn’t too far away.
MM: Where did you go to high school?
Capone: I believe my high school was technically located in Beltsville.
MM: Sure. My high school was not taken down, but it was dismantled as a school, and now it’s temporary housing for when another school is being renovated or something.
Capone: For background’s sake, I actually did see the original touring production of AMERICAN IDIOT when it came through Chicago back in February of 2012, so I have actually seen some version of this. What's interesting to me about putting a show like this together is that listening to an album is such a solitary meditation. And when people read a book or listen to an album that has characters in it, they often form their own ideas about what these people look like and sound like. How do you go about personifying them and giving them a look, a voice and a personality? How does that process begins?
MM: Well, first of all, I started working on this right around the time that SPRING AWAKENING was running on Broadway, so I actually imagined John Gallagher, Jr., who played Moritz in SPRING AWAKENING, as the Jesus of Suburbia character. So I actually named him Johnny, which is what we all call him. I started out with a very specific image of a human being in that role. The way I imagined other people in it all stemmed from that initial image of Johnny in my head, and I always imagined a Billie Joe-type person as St. Jimmy--maybe more overtly dangerous. In the first version of it, I went with a more heroin chic-type glam rock version of Billie, with that kind of charismatic energy. It was with those two ideas in mind I built the rest of it from there.
Capone: We don’t see auditions and things like that in the film, but I was surprised how much footage there was of those early stages of the rehearsals leading up to the Berkeley launch. Doug, did your team shoot that? Or was that provided to you? How early in this process were you involved?
DH: We shot all of that and we got in early. I take still photographs in theater and had been around during SPRING AWAKENING and had taken a lot of photos related to that.
MM: Beautiful photos.
DH: Once something becomes what it is, once it becomes something, it’s too late to do a documentary. So with SPRING AWAKENING, by the time it became this amazing, wonderful thing on Broadway, you can’t go back and do a documentary about how it came into being. So when this started in the early days, we thought, “Well, we don’t know where it’s going to go, but let’s get enough material that we can do something if it comes to that point.”
So we were there early on, thanks to Michael here, and really to the actors. I mean the amazing thing is that they let us into that rehearsal room, which is generally a sacred space. The reason you haven’t seen that in other kinds of films is that normally that’s off limits. This is a chance for the actors to try something new, to make mistakes, to not necessarily be good, but that’s all a part of the process. So for them to let us in with our cameras at that stage took a kind of generosity on Michael’s part and the actors.
Capone: Michael, if I’m seeing the film right, you started working on this more or less without the band’s involvement. Maybe you had their permission it sounds like, but maybe not their involvement. At what point they could have actually pulled the plug on this thing?
MM: That is correct. We set it up in a very particular way, which was that at every juncture they had the opportunity to say no to us, if they were going to pull the plug. So the first thing was literally a reading, just in a music studio, and Doug was there for that. We had 12 singers that basically sang and talked through what I had written at that point, and Billie, Tre and Mike came that day--that was June 2008--and they could have that day said, “You know what? Nice try, but no.” But they loved it and they were really inspired by it and they said, “Go go go,” and encouraged us to make even more radical adjustments to the songs to accommodate the story that we were going after.
Then the next phase was a workshop in a rehearsal room on Broadway and again, they had an opportunity to say no, and then the next phase was at Berkley Rep when we went into production. If they weren’t happy with it there, then we never could have come to New York with it or anywhere else. There was phase each time, and there was a phase where we worked on it up in Poughkeepsie at New York Stage and Film as Vassar, where we were showing them a lot of the new material that Billie had given us to try to incorporate into the show. At that point too, the stakes were always very high whenever the band was in the room.
DH: It made Michael very nervous.
MM: It did. I had to take a half a Klonopin if I knew they were coming that day. [laughs]
Capone: I can’t even imagine having to go through that over and over again, but it seems like each time they were more sold than the last time.
MM: I know. You'd think that I would finally get it, that they were into it, but I never went to that place. I’m too much of a pessimist in that way.
DH: One thing that the film documents bit by bit is Billie Joe and the band falling completely in love with Michael and the actors and the process. It got to the point where they weren’t going to pull out. They loved it. In fact the opposite happened, they ended up joining it. Billie ends up in the show [as St. Jimmy].
Capone: That’s certainly one of the stories that emerges. Doug, not just that Billie Joe's involvement grows, but that he seems to become self aware of what these songs really mean to him. It seems like he even grows to appreciate his own artistry even more I think through this process.
DH: It was a very important personal experience for Billie, and some of it was the connection to the community of actors and artists, and some of it was really about music. The musical gave him a new way to hear his music. He wrote this for his band and orchestrated it in a way that he hears it. Then to have Michael and [arranger]Tom Kitt present it back to him orchestrated with women singing and violins in this whole new way gave Billie a different way to hear his own music. Mike Dirnt from Green Day said, “The only bad thing about being in Green Day is that we never get to hear Green Day,” and this gives them a chance to hear Green Day.
Capone: That moment when Tom is at the piano showing Billie how there are roots in theater found in his basic melodies that he’s created is a real revelation to him. That was a nice touch.
DH: You see how touched he is by it. I mean Billie, this big major star, is very dear and genuine there, and I think he’s just so touched by this process and the collaborative experience he had with Michael and Tom and others in the company.
Capone: Michael, you say it went back as far as 2005 or 2006 when you first started thinking about this. Green Day put out another album while you were in the early stages of putting your musical together, and you incorporated some of that music, you have some b-sides, and you’ve even got this new song ["When It's Time"] that they gave you. How did you open the show up to that material?
MM: What was really amazing was that we had a pretty sturdy structure, and I was very committed to not interrupting the order of the songs on the album. It might be an arbitrary thing on my part, but I just made that vow to myself that I was going to do the album in full without changing the order. I would interrupt for dialog and stuff like that. But then I found these b-sides that I didn’t really know about, and two of them were so perfect and were able to solve problems that I had: how to get Tommy into the military for one with “Favorite Son,” and how to show Heather and Will’s life problems and that was “Too Much Too Soon.”
Once I incorporated those--and Billie and Mike and Tre all felt good about that--I think they actually started to think about the work that they were doing on "21st Century Breakdown" was kind of an extension of "American Idiot." Sddenly, I didn’t ask for this, but I started to get emails from Billie Joe with mp3s of demos of their new album. “What do you think? Do you think you could use this?” That’s like buried treasure. You open the trunk up and don’t know what’s in there, and it’s all this gold and riches. It really, really changed the dynamic of the show, because we could give other characters a lot of stage time, lyrics and music.
Capone: It seems like at one point you had an embarrassment of riches, and you’re still trying to keep it to a one-act show, too.
MM: That became slightly problematic. You see the people...
DH: Bathroom breaks.
MM: Yeah, the bathroom breaks that they’re not getting, and so at about 1 hour 20 minutes, you know you’ve got about 20 more minutes. There are a few moments of restless like, “Oh, I don’t want to leave, but God I’ve got to pee.”
Capone: That’s a really beautiful sequence in the film where you’re cutting between the three different versions of “21 Guns.” I guess I should give props to your editor for that one, but that’s a really nice transition to show “the band is fully onboard now” to the point where they are incorporating the cast into one of their performances.
DH: The editor, Rob Tinworth, did a beautiful job throughout all of it and has a real lyrical sense. One of the things with that scene, the actual moment that the company learned they were going to Broadway, it didn’t happen in like one little beat, and so it was hard to incorporate that excitement of it in this. So that scene gave us an ability to make a transition; they get into Broadway and they transition to Broadway-- you see the sign going up and all of that. It gives it an emotional, ecstatic beat that they got into Broadway and they're headed there. It serves multiple purposes in the film.
Capone: Speaking of great footage, the footage of Billie Joe as a little kid singing those show tunes, I’m guessing that came from him. It made me realize at that point that the Billie Joe was now involved in this film, and not just a participant; he has become something of a collaborator. Did there come a point in the production of the show where Billie said, “Oh, there’s a film being made too. We should take a look at what’s happening there and provide some footage”?
DH: This experience for him on Broadway and working with Michael was so important to him. I think his motivation to do the film was really to share that experience with the Green Day community and with others, and that’s what motivated him to open up to us at some level. Specifically on that footage, I had found some old footage of Billie singing at a nursing home that I had cut in, and he was singing holiday songs, but they were classic songs. The scene worked, and I was excited about it and I showed it to Billie, and he said, “That’s great, but I can do better.”
I didn’t know what that meant or if something would ever happen, and then a couple of weeks later, he called me up and he said, “I’m sending you something.” He had gone to his cousins and gotten this old footage of his family just around with him singing, and that’s the footage you are referring to. That was an amazing contribution that came very, very late in the process. I mean, I had mixed the film, and it was ready to go, and once he sent us that we had to go back and change things. It was such a gem.
Capone: You premiered this at SXSW, right?
DH: Exactly, and that happened a couple of weeks before our premiere that I got it. So it was kind of a race to broadcast.
Capone: If there is a real moral to the story, we find it at the end when Billie has that moment where he talks about how the bigger Green Day got, the more of their old friends they lost. And it took this experience for him to know what it was like to make friends as a result of a popular creative effort. That admission is gold for this film; it’s such an honest moment from him.
DH: Billie is nothing but honest. He came to this film in a way that was very stripped down, pure and honest, I thought. He was quite revealing about moments of his life and issues for him, and so it was very important to the film. Ultimately, the film never tries to be a “making of”; it tries to tell the story of this great artist and this group of artists and their collaboration. It shows this getting closer and closer together and ending up some place it never started off, with Billie in the show and having had this amazing experience.
Capone: Speaking of that moment, Michael, when it was decided that Billie was going to be in the show, you had to transition your role with him from a collaborative one to being his boss, basically, and giving him direction. How did that transition go?
MM: He was fabulous about it and took it so seriously as an artist, and I think that he trusted me at that point, obviously. I think what was trickiest for me was that I had to be critical of him at all, that I had to give him notes. That was awkward for me, but he really relished them and wanted them, and so that worked out ultimately very well, And when we got into the rehearsal room, he was, again, incredibly committed to it from the perspective of really wanting to do a good acting job. I think he knew that he could wow the audience with his vocals and his energy and as a performer, but the fact that he was so interested in the acting and creating a character was very touching to me, so I jumped in with him.
Capone: I don’t think I’d ever seen footage of him doing that, so that was kind of exciting to see that happen.
MM: He was incredible.
Capone: Speaking of potentially awkward situations, in this situatino, you’re not able to go to the songwriter, as you might be with an original musical, and say, “Can we change or add a line here?” or “We need something more here?” Was that a restricting thing for you, to have to build a story around this set of songs that you weren’t able to really change?
MM: I found it liberating, to tell you the truth. I’m not technically a writer. This is the first thing that I’ve ever made where I made up a story. Part of the story is in the album, but then I created other characters and had to actually write a story and make dialog for them using the lyrics. So the fact that I gave myself the assignment to just use that was really great, because if I could use anything in the world, God, I don’t know what I would have done. I’m not that person.
Capone: Gentlemen, thank you very much for taking the time out to talk.