The Greatest Showman: director Michael Gracey interview

We chat to the director of The Greatest Showman, about making the movie...

Getting a big movie musical made can be difficult, and not many directors would attempt to tackle the task as their first project. But Michael Gracey has done just that, bringing the life of P T Barnum to life with the help of Hugh Jackman and a host of other stars.

We spoke to him about the process of making the film, how he got involved and the behind-the-scenes technicalities of making a contemporary musical.

Are you excited for people to finally see the film?

I’m so excited. It took so many years to make, that you kind of forget the joy of watching others experience it for the first time. Just in the last few weeks, seeing what people take away from the film, sitting in screenings where they don’t even know who I am, listening to their honest appraisal afterwards. It’s been incredible. To me the ultimate thing is if people leave the cinema humming a song from the film – that to me is real success.

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How did you first get involved in the project?

Originally, Hugh Jackman brought me the script. He and I did a commercial together and, as is often the case when you shoot with film stars, during the wrap party after a couple of drinks they always say “We should make a movie together!”. Early on in my career I got excited and I’d be calling my parents and my friends… then of course you never hear from them. Hugh, to his credit, sent me this script and said he thought it could be really special. So we started working on it, and there was a lot of conversation about the difficulty of doing an original musical.

There was a time when there was a lot of pressure to do it as a jukebox musical because then you know that people already love the songs. If you’re using hit songs, you’re halfway home. But Hugh and myself felt really strongly about creating an original musical with all original songs, and that one decision meant years and years and years of work trying to find the right people. When we found Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, at the time they had only done an off-Broadway show which were not the credentials that anyone felt confident about.

Except I knew that when I met them and I heard the first songs that they wrote for the film, those two were the perfect people to write something that is a nod to musical theatre but is also very heavily influenced by contemporary pop music. We wanted to sit somewhere in the middle. Some songs, because they’re narrative songs, tend to be a little more musical theatre because you’re telling a story within the song, but others could afford to be a little more pop, lyrically.

People can say what they like about the film, but the music is exceptional. You can’t watch the film and wake up the next day without hearing one of those songs in your head. That to be was why we spent so many years writing and rewriting. To their credit, we were rewriting all of those songs again and again and again before we even had a greenlit film. There was no guarantee that their work was ever going to see the light of day, so I owe them everything because there would be no film if it wasn’t for the work that they did. Their belief in me to continue working on it even when, at times people had told us to stop working on it because it wasn’t going to happen.

How did the timing work out? Did the films come before the songs or the other way around?

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With very early scripts, I’d put in placeholders where I thought the songs should go. It’s not genius, for me you sing when words no longer suffice. At an emotional low or high you break into song. And then Benj and Justin took those briefs – ‘here will be a song that’ll take you from this place in Barnum’s life all the way up to him as an adult, after doing A, B and C’. They would take those briefs and look at the lead in, and where it finished, and would then create a song to sit in that place.

What would happen over time is, as we refined all of the songs, we also refined the script around them. It was a real back and forth. We took more of a musical theatre approach because we would put the film up on its feet, and would do readings. People would read the script and when there was a song they’d stand up with the piano and sing it. That’s more akin to a musical theatre process, but it was the only way we could really judge the script and the songs in the flow that they’d ultimately be presented in the film. We learnt so much from those workshops.

The casting for this film fascinates me – you obviously have Hugh Jackman, but also Zac Efron who appeals to people who grew up on High School Musical, and then Zendaya who’s very popular with younger people. How did the casting come about?

When you put it like that it sounds like a very strategic and clever way to cover a large demographic, but the truth is that Hugh Jackman was attached from the start so I didn’t get that choice. Some people ask me if he was my first choice, and I say “No, he brought me the project.” But even if that hadn’t been the case, there’s very few people who can do what he does so effortlessly.

Zac Efron was a really interesting one. I was also fascinated to see a more mature version of Zac, both in terms of his acting ability, and his singing and dancing. He sings and dances in this film better than he ever has. I was fascinated to see what would happen if he came back to do a musical – wouldn’t that be exciting? I’d met him years before and we’d stayed friends, so he was one of the first people I asked. He came on board very early on and was incredibly supportive of the film. In some of our darker moments he would get on the phone with the studio and say, “This is really special, trust me I know musicals and this is something that’s going to be amazing.’ For a first time director to say their film is going to be amazing means nothing, that’s what we all say, but coming from Zac, particularly with his background and legacy, saying that he’s willing to come back and do this, it meant a lot.

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I was introduced to Zendaya by one of the executives at Fox, and like every single person who’s met her, you completely fall in love with her talent and her maturity. She just has such taste with what she decides to do with her career, and has done from a very early age. It’s very inspiring to meet someone that young who really knows who they are and what they want. She immediately connected with the character and the message of the film, and like Zac she became a real champion for the film getting made.

Did you have any big influences?

To me I grew up watching All That Jazz and Cabaret, and when I was younger Mary Poppins, The Sound Of Music, and Singin’ In The Rain. I wanted this to feel like a classic MGM musical, of a time gone by where it had a technicolour feel and the music wasn’t just one or two good songs. Mary Poppins is just hit after hit after hit. When you rewatch those films you know every single song.

To emulate that in a contemporary setting was a big point of reference. Taking a very direct visual reference, myself and the incredible productional designer and cinematographer, would often talk about the colour palette. If they were going to New York and dancing on the rooftop, it’s all blues and she’s in a pink dress. Wardrobe as well, it was all about palette. If you look at those classic MGM films there are such distinctive colours. We were trying very much to be inspired by that but not so wedded to the contemporary or the traditional. Often in the choreography or the music or the visual style, we were constantly looking at what was then and what is now, trying to find the middle ground that would allow our film to musically and visually have its own signature.

I noticed when watching that you’ve used a mixture of stage and screen conventions…

There’s a version where you’d have Hugh and the girls on a rooftop with a green screen, and you would digitally put in a photo-realistic New York City. I didn’t want that, I wanted it to feel like it was a beautiful painted backdrop, and so we painted this enormous 360-degree traditional backdrop. There was just something about that, even for lensing to be able to look through those beautiful scenes, having this out-of-focus painterly backdrop behind them.

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It’s a very conscious stylistic choice, even down to the exteriors when we fly over New York City or Barnum walks up the fire escape. They’re all miniatures. It feels more traditional than a contemporary film because we’re using more traditional techniques but doing it in a modern way. Rather than building the models by hand, we built all the models in the computer and 3D printed the city and the buildings before having scenics paint them. Again, it was using cutting edge technology to emulate traditional techniques.

Barnum’s quite a difficult character to get right, because he can be quite unlikeable – how did you get that balance right?

There are two things – one is that he was a deeply flawed character, and I genuinely think he put those people together just to make money. From all that I’ve read he was definitely getting these people together because he knew that the public would be fascinated and pay good money to see them. But in the film, I also think that there is something to be said for, over the course of time, realising that he didn’t just take those people who were invisible to society and turn them into stars, he made them feel love for the first time in their lives and inadvertently created this family of circus performers.

In truth they were the only people there for him when he lost it all. In real life there was no Philip Carlyle, so when he went bankrupt – which he did multiple times – and lost everything, it was actually Tom Thumb who gave him the money to restart the circus and became his partner. Clearly the oddities fell in love with Barnum, and what he’d given them. With what he had created in this place where they were celebrated and where they found their own family. There was often that conversation of how dark of a moment it is when he turns his back on the oddities, but I always knew two things. That an audience would be more willing to forgive Hugh Jackman than just anyone, and that during the song From Now On you forgive him everything.

What do you think it is about musicals that are always considered a risk despite the fact that a lot of them are very successful?

It’s a really good question. It is a huge risk, and credit to Fox for taking that risk. You have to remember that we were in production before La La Land had come out and had its great reception at the box office, but original musicals are so reliant on the music. In today’s environment, what feels safe is something that has an inbuilt audience. Chicago, Les Miserables are shows that have run for 30-odd years on stage, so that’s 30 years of audiences they know will want to see the film. With that comes a sense of security, but to do something wholly original, there’s no guarantee that anyone will be interested or that you will write music that will connect with the cinema going audience.

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It’s not the same as a stage production, where you can start off-Broadway and have word-of-mouth. People forget that even the biggest hit shows, like Hamilton, started off-Broadway. People talk about it and then enough of that groundswell means that it can transfer to a much bigger theatre. That’s still just one theatre in New York City. The studio is taking that same risk but they’re releasing it in theatres across the entire world. You don’t have that same window of time to get people to say ‘hey, you should really go see this thing’, because it may not be showing anymore. So it’s a much tighter window, with a very big risk in terms of the cost to produce a movie musical as opposed to a stage musical, but if you get it right not only do you have something that really can stand the test of time, but also you can then turn it into a stage production. The Greatest Showman would be an amazing Broadway hit.

Michael Gracey, thank you very much!

The Greatest Showman is in UK cinemas now.