Moments of artistic inspiration can be notoriously difficult to depict onscreen, especially since they tend to be preceded by a lot of what seems, externally, like doing nothing. In Lin-Manuel Miranda’s film adaptation of Tick, Tick … Boom!, Andrew Garfield’s Jonathan Larson spends much of the movie unable to write what he knows will be the key song for his upcoming show, an act-two solo for its female lead. With the deadline approaching, he cycles through every form of procrastination, gets into a fight with his girlfriend Susan (Alexandra Shipp), finds the power at his apartment shut off, and then, finally, resorts to swimming laps at his local indoor pool. There, in a sequence set to the song “Swimming,” a song from early versions of the musical cut during its development, inspiration strikes when he’s in the middle of the pool. He looks down and sees the song written across the tiling below him. Cinematographer Alice Brooks, who also worked with Miranda on In the Heights (which has its own big pool-centric number), walked us through how the crucial moment came together with the help of an animatic she drafted during the film’s development process.
Preproduction and location scouting
Miranda and screenwriter Steven Levenson had already arrived at the idea of using “Swimming” to get the character of Larson to his eureka moment when Brooks started working with them but hadn’t yet filled out the specifics, like the notes’ sudden appearance at the bottom of the pool. “It was a process of discovery and collaboration among everyone,” Brooks said. Miranda “had us prep in the same way he would workshop a show, where we didn’t have to know all the answers right away.”
Some of those answers came through the process of trying to find the right indoor swimming pool. After a citywide search, the film crew settled on the pool at the Tony Dapolito Recreation Center in the West Village. “The pool had these ancient patina tiles that you only have in New York,” Brooks said. “And we started noticing things, like the striped lines at the bottom of the pool, Lin thought they looked like musical staff paper.” Later, they realized that the tiles’ green and red colors matched the green and red mentioned in Larson’s song — because this was actually the pool he used to work out.
When they went over the footage that Brooks filmed at the pool, they also noticed the 30-foot marker “perfectly positioned almost in the center.” “Lin kept looking at the 30 and then said, ‘What if Jonathan touches the 30, the number he’s so scared of turning, and it turns into a treble clef?’” Brooks said. “And that was ‘Swimming.’”
After that stroke of inspiration, Brooks, Miranda, Levenson, production designer Alex DiGerlando, and assistant director Mariela Comitini worked together with storyboard artist Grant Shaffer to draft ideas for how exactly to film each sequence. After they had a rough idea of which shots they might use for the number, Brooks cut the storyboards together into animatics (you can watch one for “Swimming” above) based on the prerecorded version of the tracks they had. “They made me learn so much about making sure all our transitions were planned, especially how we were getting in and out of the musical numbers,” Brooks said.
At the pool
Soon after Tick, Tick … Boom! went into production in early 2020, the COVID pandemic hit New York and filming shut down. By the time they returned to the “Swimming” scene eight months later, scaffolding had gone up around the pool, which meant redoing their lighting plan and figuring out how to best fit the cameras inside the building. They ended up spending three days installing a platform on top of which they could film their crane shots (which also went underwater), then moved on to filming in the locker room, scrapped the platform, and had their divers come in to operate the cameras underwater, hooking into a rigging system to keep up with the pace of Garfield swimming.
In the process of making the scene, Garfield swam back and forth for three days. His father happens to be a swim coach, “so Andrew is an amazing swimmer,” Brooks said. “It was very impressive, to be able to take off your goggles and keep your eyes open for that long underwater and act at the same time.” Garfield himself had the idea to mouth some of the lines from the song underwater, which they filmed with the help of an underwater speaker to sync up the timing. They only used a body double for a couple of shots, rigging them up with a GoPro to capture footage of the character’s arms moving.
Putting it together
Before filming, Brooks wrote out all the shots they needed to get on a spreadsheet alongside the timecodes they would occupy and the lyrics that would go along with them. “It was very specific for each shot because everything cuts so quickly,” Brooks said. “It’s the moment of highest anxiety for him, and so everything is pretty claustrophobic until he’s finally under the water, and then he’s finally able to expand. The tightness of the shots and the rhythm of the cutting is to build that tension.”
When that realization hits, the visual effects kick in, with Larson wiping away the 30 to reveal a treble clef. The notes of his song “Come to Your Senses” appear on the tiles in front of him and the lyrics behind him. The notes and the 30-to-clef transformation were part of the original idea for the sequence, and Brooks worked with the movie’s visual-effects team on pre-visualizations to make sure she included enough space for the notation in her shots and to “know how much time Andrew was going to need to stay underwater” as the music unfurled. Once Larson’s inspiration strikes, the film cut back to a shot that encompasses the whole pool, where we can see how the tiling resembles staff paper (that was a composite shot of three sections of the pool given that it was impossible to get high enough to shoot it all indoors).
In the editing process, Miranda also had handwritten lyrics appear behind Garfield during Larson’s epiphany, concluding a recurring visual motif in other parts of the film. “I like that because some people can read music and other people can’t,” Brooks said, “And there’re two parts to a song, music and lyric, so it was a beautiful addition to add the lyrics.”
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