The Hamilton movie arriving on Disney+ on July 3 is different from the other musical movies you might be familiar with. It’s not a fully produced film adaptation, like the recent versions of Mary Poppins or Les Misérables, nor is it a live TV musical like the ones that have flooded network television over the past few years.
Instead, the film is something of a hybrid: it captures both live 2016 Broadway performances as well as closed-set renditions of songs shot from the stage. Thomas Kail, the director of the stage production and the film, wanted to convey the show’s immersive energy while also zooming in on quieter, more character-driven moments. The result, he hopes, offers “a way to give the viewer an opportunity to understand what it was like to be in the Richard Rogers Theater in June 2016,” he tells TIME.
As the film arrives amid a global pandemic and protests for racial justice, some are skeptical that a musical primarily about white slaveholders can speak to a moment in which long-held American narratives about opportunity and justice are being forcefully debunked. But Kail hopes that the show can “move the conversation forward and continue to amplify the movement.” In an interview, he discussed how the project came together across four years; composer Lin-Manuel Miranda and actor Phillipa Soo, who plays Eliza Schuyler in the film, also offered insight into the experience in separate conversations.
In 2016, the creative team behind Hamilton decided to film the show
By the summer of 2016, Hamilton was already a huge smash on Broadway: it had broken the record for Tony nominations with 16 nods, and it was pulling in more than $2 million a week at the box office. On June 12, the cast performed a rousing rendition of “History Has Its Eyes On You/Yorktown” at the Tonys, proving that the show could translate well to two dimensions.
But the relentless pace of Broadway, which requires 8 performances a week, was taking a toll on the original cast. In June, Miranda, Soo, Leslie Odom Jr., and other cast members announced their departure the following month. To the show’s creators and its many fans, it seemed obvious that a historic show’s original cast should be preserved for posterity. “This company was so alive and so deep into their roles,” Kail says. So he decided to shoot them over three dates, between June 26 and 28.
The cast did not rehearse specifically for the shoots
Kail was no stranger to filming musicals: earlier that year, he had directed Grease: Live on a Warner Bros. Studios backlot. Before filming Hamilton, Kail says he did not give any unique instructions to his cast, nor did he hold a film-specific rehearsal. “I said the same thing I said to them that I would say on any other performance: ‘No more, no less. You know what you’re doing,’” Kail recalls. “The connection was molecular. They didn’t need me to guide them at that point.”
“It required very little gearing up for it,” Soo says. “All I asked of myself, especially since I was so exhausted at that point, was just to show up and let the story guide me.”
Kail used a variety of techniques to shoot the show
Declain Quinn, the Hamilton movie’s director of photography, fastened three cameras overhead, then put six camera operators around the Richard Rogers Theater. One hundred microphones were also placed across the venue. On June 26, Kail shot the show’s matinee performance with all of its roaring crowd noise, then asked the cast to stay behind to shoot a few more songs.
The next day was a Monday, which was usually the cast’s off-day. Instead, Kail spent 12 hours shooting various scenes with them, especially ones he thought would be captured better with an intimate approach. Instead of staying in the audience, Kail got directly onstage, filming with a steadicam as well as a crane and a dolly-mounted camera.
This technique allowed him to get inside the action and match the show’s kineticism with his own. In “The Room Where It Happens,” for example, Kail starts by honing in closely on Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, mirroring the conspiratorial and private nature of their scheming. As the scene progresses, however, the camera shifts to Aaron Burr, who longs to be privy to their negotiations. “It gives you an opportunity to be inside and have a relationship to the interiority of the moment, which is harder to do when you’re watching something in a theater where there might be 100 people sitting in front of you,” Kail says.
Some details come through on film that even the highest-paying audience member might have missed. Toward the end of “The Room Where It Happens,” for example, Odom Jr. stands on a table and jumps while the tablecloth beneath him is pulled away; the overhead camera presents a vantage point unseeable from the front row.
The various camera techniques also allowed Kail to capture the show’s quieter and more emotional moments, including Soo’s heartbreaking ballad, “Burn.” “It was fun to feel like I could go inside a little bit more,” Soo says. “Especially during ‘Burn,’ Eliza is so exposed out there and so alone. It was interesting to explore that knowing that the playing space was a little bit different.”
The following day, Kail shot Tuesday’s performance, and then loaded out. The entirety of the Hamilton movie comes from those three days of shooting.
The footage went unreleased for four years
When Miranda originally announced that he was filming the show, he tweeted that he had “no idea” what they were going to do with it. “Throwing it in a vault at Gringotts for a bit probly,” he wrote, referring to the ultra-secure bank in Harry Potter.
Kail and editor Jonah Moran started editing the footage together in the autumn of 2016. They edited on and off for 18 months, and developed a rough cut by the summer of 2018.
At that point, however, productions of Hamilton were flourishing around the world. Kail and Miranda didn’t want to decrease the value of those productions by releasing the film, so they decided to put it on hold. The New York Times reports that they shopped the film around Hollywood at that time but ultimately turned everyone down.
Last year, the team felt they were ready to move forward, and struck a deal with Disney+, which paid $75 million for the rights, according to Deadline. Kail finished up “the last 1.5%” of editing in April. The film was supposed to arrive in theaters next year—but due to the pandemic, Disney pushed up its release, on the small screen, to coincide with July 4 weekend.
Miranda says he hopes the show will resonate in this moment. “Every issue, every problem, every fight we have now in this country was present in our founding,” he says. “When I wrote the Cabinet Battle about state’s rights, we’re still having that fight, only now it’s about the pandemic and supplies. And the original sin of slavery can still be found in the systemic racism and police brutality of this country. I see so much of the connection of the language of revolution between what’s in the show and what’s going on right now.”