film The Ring­mas­ter Steps into the Spot­light

Dar­ryn King on Michael Gracey and The Great­est Show­man

The Monthly (Australia) - - CON­TENTS - Dar­ryn King on Michael Gracey and ‘The Great­est Show­man’


the leap from film­ing tele­vi­sion com­mer­cials to di­rect­ing a big-bud­get, star-stud­ded, orig­i­nal Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal would be a daunt­ing one. For Los An­ge­les–based Aus­tralian di­rec­tor Michael Gracey, maybe not so much. For an ad for T-Mo­bile, Gracey staged a flash-mob dance in Lon­don’s Liver­pool Street Sta­tion, with 350 dancers mov­ing in sync to ‘Get Down on It’, ‘Do You Love Me’ and ‘The Blue Danube’. In an­other, spruik­ing Lip­ton Ice Tea, a weary Hugh Jackman takes an in­vig­o­rat­ing gulp be­fore whirling into ac­tion, strut­ting and spin­ning through a Tokyo ho­tel. And then there was surely the most thrilling com­mer­cial for a de­greaser and grime-re­moval spray ever made: a one-man dance spec­tac­u­lar in an auto-re­pair shop, set to ‘Ma­niac’ from Flash­dance. “I got used to shoot­ing fast and used to shoot­ing big,” says Gracey over the phone line from LA. “I was very com­fort­able among the cir­cus.” “The cir­cus”, in this case, is not just a metaphor. Gracey’s fea­ture film de­but, The Great­est Show­man, star­ring Hugh Jackman, Michelle Wil­liams and Zac Efron, ar­rives in cin­e­mas in De­cem­ber in Aus­tralia and the US – 20th Cen­tury Fox’s Christ­mas hol­i­day tent-pole fea­ture, boldly pitched against the new Star Wars film. It tells the story of PT Bar­num, the ex­u­ber­ant cir­cus

pro­pri­etor. In a mar­vel­lous mar­riage of con­tent and form, it’s an orig­i­nal mu­si­cal. For Gracey, the film is also the cul­mi­na­tion of a marathon cre­ative jour­ney. “Af­ter seven years’ de­vel­op­ment, to then be stand­ing in the mid­dle of a three-ring cir­cus, and there are per­form­ers and trapeze artists and peo­ple fly­ing through the air and burn­ing hoops, and Hugh Jackman stand­ing in the mid­dle of it all singing his heart out? It’s just elec­tric, you know?” The film marks yet an­other Aus­tralian mak­ing a splash with the in­her­ently Amer­i­can art form of the mu­si­cal. “It’s like a lot of things in Aus­tralia,” says Gracey. “If you want to pur­sue it, there isn’t nec­es­sar­ily the amount of op­por­tu­nity that you would have in Amer­ica. That’s why a lot of Aus­tralian tal­ent rises to the top on the world stage. This was true for Peter Allen, it’s true for Tim Minchin and Baz Luhrmann. If you de­cide that that’s what you want to do, you have to do it to a de­gree that is re­mark­able.” The Great­est Show­man, writ­ten by Jenny Bicks (Sex and the City) and Bill Con­don (di­rec­tor of Dream­girls, as well as this year’s Beauty and the Beast), could have wound up as a juke­box mu­si­cal, along the lines of Moulin Rouge!, with a sound­track of reimag­ined pop tracks. It was Gracey who in­sisted on the need for orig­i­nal songs. “Which, you know, was the stupid de­ci­sion that cost me many years of my life,” he says. “It’s hard enough do­ing an orig­i­nal film in Hol­ly­wood at the mo­ment. To do an orig­i­nal mu­si­cal was seen, at the time, as im­pos­si­ble.” Gracey does seem ir­re­sistibly drawn to un­con­ven­tional projects. At var­i­ous times, he has been at­tached to an El­ton John biopic, a biopic of Mup­pets creator Jim Hen­son, and Dis­ney’s gritty Snow White spinoff, de­scribed as “Snow White meets Seven Sa­mu­rai”. (Other projects still on the cards in­clude an adap­ta­tion of the Ja­panese manga Naruto, and his own adap­ta­tion of a fan­tasy novel, Daugh­ter of Smoke and Bone, plus two more orig­i­nal mu­si­cals, in­clud­ing an an­i­mated film, The Christ­masaurus.) Even aside from his im­pres­sive work in the com­mer­cial sphere, it might be said that Gracey had been pre­par­ing his whole life for The Great­est Show­man. He grew up with four sib­lings in a mu­sic-lov­ing Mel­bourne house­hold. Their mother played piano and gui­tar, and all five Gracey chil­dren played mu­si­cal in­stru­ments; young Michael grav­i­tated to­wards the sax­o­phone. (“It was the ’80s,” he ex­plains apolo­get­i­cally.) They were taken to all the lat­est shows in town, and one bed­room was left free for show-busi­ness guests. The first time Gracey saw Hugh Jackman was from the or­ches­tra pit, dur­ing a re­hearsal for Sun­set Boule­vard; its mu­si­cal di­rec­tor, Guy No­ble, was stay­ing with the Graceys at the time. The ex­pe­ri­ence left an in­deli­ble im­pres­sion. “It was a peek be­hind the cur­tain, you know? Sit­ting in an or­ches­tra pit, hear­ing this beau­ti­ful An­drew Lloyd Web­ber mu­sic be­ing played. I still watch Mary Pop­pins, and I still watch The Sound of Mu­sic, and I still watch West Side Story and Sin­gin’ in the Rain, and I watch my nephews and nieces watch­ing them. And it makes me smile to think that those films were made such a long time ago and yet, to this very day, the world still en­joys them.” Other life lessons were ab­sorbed, too. “My mum taught at a school for dis­abled chil­dren. She would come home and re­mind us of how for­tu­nate we were, all five of us, to be able to com­mu­ni­cate ideas and to be able to move and ex­press our­selves.” Gracey’s fa­ther, a tech-savvy pho­tog­ra­pher who went on to de­velop in­dus­try-stan­dard dig­i­tal com­posit­ing soft­ware, was also a big in­flu­ence. Gracey’s first job af­ter school was as a visual ef­fects artist and an­i­ma­tor with then-fledg­ling Syd­ney ef­fects stu­dio An­i­mal Logic, even­tu­ally work­ing on Ge­orge Miller’s Happy Feet. As that film’s shim­my­ing an­i­mated pen­guins sug­gest, pixel-push­ing might seem a world away from the ki­netic ex­pres­sive­ness of dance and mu­si­cal theatre, but they’re nat­u­ral bed­fel­lows. “It’s the art of mo­tion,” says Gracey. “The same thing that makes an amaz­ing an­i­mated per­for­mance is the same magic that makes a dance per­for­mance.” Gracey made re­mark­able use of his twin pas­sions in his com­mer­cial work. His “Roller Ba­bies” ad for Evian – fea­tur­ing a nappy-clad crew of well-chore­ographed, street-skat­ing, CGI-en­hanced in­fants – was at the time the most suc­cess­ful vi­ral ad cam­paign ever. It was on com­ple­tion of the Lip­ton Ice Tea com­mer­cial shoot that Jackman brought The Great­est Show­man, a long­time pas­sion project of his own, to Gracey. “Every film star you do a com­mer­cial with says, ‘We should work to­gether again’ at the wrap party,” says Gracey. “But Hugh was true to his word.” The project caught the in­ter­est of 20th Cen­tury Fox – but they wanted songs. Gracey met with the then rel­a­tively un­known Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The song­writ­ing duo has since won a Tony Award for the Broad­way mu­si­cal Dear Evan Hansen and Acad­emy and Golden Globe awards for their lyrics for La La Land (Justin Hur­witz wrote the mu­sic). “All they had was a small off-Broad­way mu­si­cal [A Christ­mas Story, soon to be a US tele­vi­sion spe­cial]. I met them and knew right away these were the guys. They turned around two songs in two days. One of those songs is one of the great

Gracey took a leaf out of the mu­si­cal-theatre play­book. “We stopped giv­ing peo­ple the script and in­stead got ev­ery­one to­gether in a room to sing the songs.”

“If you flipped this film to black and white, it would just look like a clas­sic film of the early days of Hol­ly­wood.”

songs of the film. It’s ex­actly what they played me two days af­ter meet­ing me.” Equipped with songs, Gracey took a leaf out of the mu­si­cal-theatre play­book. “We stopped giv­ing peo­ple the script and in­stead got ev­ery­one to­gether in a room to sing the songs. That’s ul­ti­mately what led to the film be­ing green-lit. It was amaz­ing to be sit­ting in the room with Hugh Jackman read­ing PT Bar­num, and then jump­ing to his feet to sing these songs. It blew away the room.” The mu­si­cal read-throughs were not only the best way for the stu­dio to com­pre­hend the project – they were use­ful in the con­tin­ual work­shop­ping of the screen­play. “You would see the cast flip­ping through the pages to see when the next song was. That was a sure sign that they’re look­ing for a song about now.” In the time that The Great­est Show­man has been in the works, there’s been a ma­jor shift in at­ti­tudes to­wards movie mu­si­cals in Hol­ly­wood. Bol­stered by the jug­ger­naut suc­cess of Frozen, Dis­ney has re­turned to the form, most re­cently with its live-ac­tion Beauty and the Beast. Last year’s La La Land, di­rected by Damien Chazelle, and re­leased while The Great­est Show­man was film­ing, demon­strated the com­bined draw­ing power of big stars, solid tunes and nostal­gia for a cin­e­matic golden age. “La La Land dove­tailed beau­ti­fully with what we were do­ing,” says Gracey. “It proved that what we were em­bark­ing on wasn’t just pure in­san­ity.” The cast re­hearsed for ten weeks be­fore film­ing be­gan – an un­com­monly long time for any film project. “With stars of the cal­i­bre we were work­ing with, they ba­si­cally could do two films in the time we did one,” says Gracey. “It re­ally had to be a pas­sion piece for them.” Much of the film­ing took place in Brook­lyn’s Marcy Ar­mory, a 5500-square-me­tre mil­i­tary fa­cil­ity. Two chore­og­ra­phers from Gracey’s com­mer­cial days, Ash­ley Wallen and Daniel “Cloud” Cam­pos – “mas­ters of the art of dance”, ac­cord­ing to Gracey – put the cast through their paces. Gracey can dance, he says, “enough to con­vey an idea. And then, quite of­ten Ash­ley will say, ‘OK, I get the idea. Stop; you’re go­ing to hurt your­self.’ “There were some in­cred­i­bly de­tailed num­bers that took a lot of takes to get right. You look at it in the film to­day, and it looks ef­fort­less. Which is how it should look. Zac and Hugh stand­ing to­gether – they look like two big-time Hol­ly­wood movie stars of old. If you flipped this film to black and white, it would just look like a clas­sic film of the early days of Hol­ly­wood.” Apart from one un­planned fire on set – Efron has said that Jackman car­ried him from the burn­ing build­ing, “every girl’s dream” – it was a joy­ous shoot. “I’m a huge be­liever in the idea that the mood of the set comes across on cam­era. If peo­ple are stressed or an­gry and they’re fight­ing, it doesn’t mat­ter if ev­ery­one smiles on ‘Ac­tion!’ – you don’t be­lieve it. You don’t see it in their eyes. For a film like this, I think the real magic is that you see peo­ple who are hav­ing so much fun do­ing what they’re do­ing. It was just a joy to turn a cam­era on it.” Some his­to­ri­ans have dis­missed PT Bar­num as a cynic and swindler; the idea there’s a “sucker born every minute” is pop­u­larly, if falsely, at­trib­uted to him. But Gracey sees the im­pre­sario as a cham­pion of in­di­vid­u­al­ity. “I think the mes­sage is cel­e­brat­ing what it is to be dif­fer­ent and unique. It’s a re­ally im­por­tant time to be con­vey­ing a mes­sage like that.” The Great­est Show­man will also be the first big-screen show­case of Jackman in all-singing, all-danc­ing mode. “He fought for this film to hap­pen,” says Gracey. “He was just spec­tac­u­lar. And he has to wear a lot of this re­spon­si­bil­ity of liv­ing up to a ti­tle that lit­er­ally says ‘the great­est show­man’. You’d bet­ter de­liver on that.” When The Great­est Show­man is re­leased in the US and Aus­tralia, Gracey will be at home in Mel­bourne for a time-hon­oured fam­ily De­cem­ber tra­di­tion: in lieu of presents, the Gracey sib­lings dust off their in­stru­ments and put on a Christ­mas Day con­cert for their mother. “We hit the same wrong notes every year, in our lim­ited reper­toire, but that per­for­mance will still be hap­pen­ing,” says Gracey. “It’s our stand­ing en­gage­ment.”

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