If you were at all surprised that Green Day’s American Idiot became a musical, you might want to look at how smoothly the transition went. Whether you accept the band as truly punk or not, there’s still the matter of this particular album being a very personal and very politically charged work that didn’t really seem to fit with the big time, business-oriented theater industry of Broadway. The documentary Broadway Idiot reveals that it translated well for the creative talents involved, particularly Green Day frontman Billy Joe Armstrong and American Idiot The Musical director Michael Mayer. Maybe too well if you’re hoping for some real drama in the film.
I talked to Broadway Idiot director Doug Hamilton this week about that lack of tension, as well as how he didn’t want the film to be just a making-of supplement to the show, getting Armstrong to open himself up for the cameras the challenges of getting access to rehearsals, what the film’s significance is years after its closure on Broadway, why Tom Hulce didn’t make it on screen and why Donald Trump did.
Nonfics: Is this a project that you pitched to the show’s producers or were you hired to make it? I know the doc is produced by Ira Pittelman, who is also a producer of the show…
Doug Hamilton: I knew the creative team behind this — Michael Mayer, Tom Hulce, Ira Pittelman, Christine Jones, the set decorator. Most of my life is doing documentaries for… I was at CBS News for 10 years and a producer at 60 Minutes, I’ve done 15 hours for PBS on Frontlines and Novas and that sort of thing. But I also on the side do still photography in theater. I like theater. I like the process of theater, and I like just having a visual way to do that. I had photographed the process of Spring Awakening, which was made by the same creative team. Then Spring Awakening became a big deal on Broadway, but at that point it was too late to do a documentary.
So on this one, when it was starting up and everyone was feeling like this could be a big deal because it’s Green Day and this team that had just won all these Tonys, that if it became what we all thought it might become or hoped it could become, it would be great to have footage early on. Tom and Ira, the producers, asked if I could shoot a little stuff early on just for their purposes. It was only well into the project that it was clear that this could be something bigger than just a making-of film, which isn’t what I was interested in doing. My background is all about finding the story. So what was the story here? I didn’t want to do a process film. There wasn’t a moment where I was hired or anything. It was completely a labor of love to do. It really just evolved into this.
Nonfics: So you were drawn in more as theater person than a Green Day fan.
Hamilton: No, I came in from the other side. I was a theater fan. I knew of Green Day, but I really learned about Green Day through the theater side. So I didn’t have that trepidation that a lot of Green Day fans had of what are they going to do and are they going to ruin American Idiot if they make it a Broadway show. But that initial tension between these two worlds is one of the things that attracted me to the story. I thought, how is that going to play out? That’s interesting. It played out very differently than I thought. But I knew something interesting would happen.
Nonfics: From the start, the show’s creative team seems so scared about whether Billie Joe would be into the show and want to do it. They acted like he was such a big intimidating celebrity.
Hamilton: They went a long way without having a real signed, sealed, delivered commitment that they could do all they wanted with this. Everybody was open to taking it to the next step, and there were check-ins along the way, but it wasn’t the sort of situation where you just neatly from the beginning get a contract to do all you’re going to do. So the stakes are high. They really wanted it to happen. They had invested a lot of heart and soul into it. Anytime you do something like that and you’re showing your stuff for the first time is very nervous-making.
Nonfics: Was it similar for you in trying to document him? It’s said in the film that he’s a private guy, so was he guarded at all for the doc?
Hamilton: Well, it took me four years to make it. I had the time to win him over. It took time for Billy to really trust me and the filmmaking process. He is so famous, and he is so used to cameras, yet Billy’s one of these guys who is really comfortable in front of a hundred-thousand people, but one-on-one is more uncomfortable. A camera that is that intimate is something to deal with. We have a couple interviews with Billy in there, and there’s one where he’s got his hair spikier and it’s a lighter color interview, and he’s more the Billy Joe Armstrong you normally see, where he’s playing with the camera a bit, and he’s performing for the camera a little bit. Later in the process I did the interview that’s kind of beige in color. By that point he was invested in this, and he had had such an amazing personal experience in this process of making the show that he wanted to share it with people and fans. He thought it was important. He showed up at that interview and was so honest and so stripped down. Incredibly revealing and open.
This is a common thing you go through with a documentary, you need people to get more comfortable. Often it’s people who aren’t used to being around cameras who finally relax around them. In this case you have someone who is hyper-used to being around cameras and who also needs to relax around ones that are there for the long haul that are trying to get more than a performance, that are looking for real moments and not the PR beat.
Nonfics: You went in expecting some creative differences between Billy and Michael. Are you disappointed there wasn’t more drama? Or was there and the producers nixed that material?
Hamilton: No, it was surprising how little creative clash there was. I thought there would be more. I’m not a reality TV producer. I don’t want to do that, stir the pot and make a cheap conflict for the sake of storytelling. But I did think there would be substantive differences, and I was really surprised that that didn’t happen. And the people involved in it were really surprised. Michael Mayer said it was incredibly collaborative and harmonious throughout in making this. I think everyone was surprised.
At first it made me concerned about what is my story, what is the tension, what is this film really about. Again, I don’t want it to be this happened, and this happened, and this happened… and there’s the making-of. So it wasn’t until this other story evolved of Billy’s personal journey that I felt confident that there was a story that had a broader audience. This wasn’t just an inside Green Day world, it wasn’t just an inside theater world. We have a story of an artist, one of the most famous artists in the world, who is trying to do something totally new and is discovering things throughout that pulls him more and more into the story, into his story. That’s what’s even weirder, too. It’s his story turned into an album, and fictionalized, that’s turned into a stage show abstracted another level, and then he enters it playing one of the characters based on what he wrote that has been morphed into these different forms.
Nonfics: It is funny how humbled both sides are. Mayer is humbled by this rock star who is letting him adapt a personal album, and Billy Joe is humbled by this production that is so in love with his album that they want to interpret it in this way. It helps that balance that Billy Joe isn’t a humongous icon who is really demanding or controlling or full of himself.
Hamilton: That’s who Billy is. He could be. He has the success to be. It’s just who he is, he doesn’t live that life. His ego has not gotten totally out of control. This is where his background comes through today. He is anti-establishment, he believes in that true punk ethic that you just get to what is raw and pure and that’s where good things come from. In the process of making American Idiot the album he went to a very vulnerable raw place where he didn’t know…
He talks about elsewhere that he either wants to get an ‘A’ or an ‘F.’ He doesn’t like the middle ground. There’s something he believes in about being stripped down and raw, and it’s a good place to be coming from that lets him be an honest, true, genuine person. He’s got to build up protection around this machine of celebrity and what not, but he is genuinely that person. In the beginning people treated him like a superstar or thought of him as a superstar because that’s how they had known him. It was only by him being a real person and pure and not a diva that something really different happened in that room where it was genuine. A genuine human connection.
Nonfics: I love at the end when Billie Joe does an impersonation of Tom Hulce scolding him. But it made me wonder, why isn’t Hulce in the doc at all?
Hamilton: The story became mostly about Michael and Billy and their back and forth. There were times that I interviewed Tom, and he certainly is creatively deeply engaged in that whole process, but Tom didn’t want it to be about him. The unique chemistry that existed was between Michael and Billy and those became the principals in telling the story. One of the things I felt strongly about in doing this was that we got amazingly unique access into this world, into this room, into this process. I didn’t want to step outside of that. Tom was not outside of that, but I didn’t want people analyzing what was going on between Michael and Billy when we had the opportunity to tell it between Michael and Billy. My focus was on Michael and Billy throughout the process and then in the editing it became honed more down to that in the narrative storytelling.
Nonfics: I know there’s a real challenge to getting permission to film rehearsals. But the more and more docs there are made about the theater world, is that getting easier at all?
Hamilton: It’s technically easier in some ways. It used to be you couldn’t film in the room. You just couldn’t. Or it was only for a press op. The new union rules technically allow for some of it, but you still are up against this trust issue. People willing to let you in there. There’s a generational difference between like Tom, who thought very strongly to protect the room and the privacy of that room, because as an actor he appreciated that. That is this time to be bad, to be experimental, to not do a performance. If there’s too much pressure early on to do a performance, you don’t really dig out the best performance, is some people’s idea.
The cast of American Idiot is a different generation. They live online. They would always be coming up to me saying, “Hey, we’re doing this. You want to shoot that?” They were much more comfortable and weren’t editing themselves as a result. That’s something that’s changing. You still need to not get in the way of what the rehearsal process is all about, and that’s finding and developing something that then is broadcast in the theater. So they don’t want to be broadcasting before in a film.
Nonfics: It’s been two and a half years since the show ended on Broadway. Do you consider this a kind of record of its existence for posterity? Had you hoped the show would still be going when it came out?
Hamilton: The show is still going on. It’s in its third national tour. And one thing that is really interesting is this weekend Tom has actually got tickets for the new company, which is here in New York this week (I think they started the rehearsal process last week), for them to see the film, in a sense to understand its history and legacy and how it came about. To me that’s really interesting, that we documented the process, but now the film is being used to help the theater process.
It is a document of something that happened and a process that happened, and theater is ephemeral in the way that we have a record that wouldn’t otherwise exist, and that’s valuable just from a documentary sense. A very influential film for me was a documentary called Dancemaker, which is about Paul Taylor, the choreographer. Years ago, I wasn’t into dance at all, and a friend of mine took me to that documentary one night and then the next night took me to a Paul Taylor production that was in San Francisco where I lived at the time. I just loved it. I loved that the documentary brought me inside the world, helped me understand this artist and his process. I felt like I knew everybody in the company. It really brought me in as an insider. Then to get to see the performance the next night ,I understood it on such a different level. It made me a big, big fan of Paul Taylor and the company.
Early on I hoped this could be something similar and to a limited degree it is, but these films take time. Rob Tinworth, the editor, is somebody I work with regularly on PBS things, and this is something we were doing as a labor of life on the side, so we had to fit it into the rest of our lives and do other things that paid the bills. That certainly made it take longer than it would otherwise.
Nonfics: Well, the good thing is that the film will be on VOD so anyone wherever the touring show is stopping will have that chance to watch Broadway Idiot the night before seeing American Idiot.
Hamilton: I would think so. I would hope so. It’s possible. I showed an earlier cut of this — I’m originally from Indiana and I was back there where my family is and showed it at Indiana University. They have a spectacular theater there, state of the art movie theater with Thomas Hart Benton murals around it. It’s unbelievable. By coincidence, the company was performing at Indiana University as part of the touring company and so that was great, the people got to see both. I took my 82-year-old dad first to see the film and then to see the punk rock show. He was a really good sport.
Nonfics: Speaking of people you don’t expect to see at a Green Day show, did you try to get an interview with Donald Trump to find out what the f — — he was doing there?
Hamilton: No, again I didn’t want to step outside the process and have anyone else analyze it. I think Billy said all he needed to in that little soundbite. That was where the worlds collided in an unexpected way. Donald Trump going to embrace Billy Joe Armstrong’s story of disenfranchisement.
Broadway Idiot opens theatrically in limited release and debuts on VOD this Friday, October 11.