The prolific Lin-Manuel Miranda has had a busy year, with the Warner Bros. of the musical of him in the heights coming to theaters and hbo max in June; writing songs for two animated feature films, Netflix Live (for which he also voiced himself as the lead character) and Disney Charm; and making his feature directorial debut with tick, tick… boom! on Netflix, starring Andrew Garfield as rental creator Jonathan Larson. (He also picked up another award for Hamilton: an Emmy for Outstanding Variety Special.) The multi-screenwriter spoke with THR about how his songwriting process for a movie compares to his work on Broadway and how Larson’s talents still inspire him today.
Which of the two animated projects was presented to you first? And what excited you to work on them?
vivo was originally a project for another studio and I really wanted to write music for it. I happily worked on it for a few years, but the studio ended up not doing it, so all the songs went back into my trunk. Then I had the incredible opportunity to revisit it, with my collaborator in the heights Quiara Joy Hudes writing the script and Kirk Demicco directing and writing as well. it was an amazing opportunity because it was about five years away. It was always a beautiful story about the enduring power of music and the specificity that Quiara was able to bring to it by creating the character of Gabi, who was one of the funniest characters I’ve ever written for. and then getting to write the musical diversity from cuba to miami, from something that feels like a good view social club to writing the cool 80’s miami freestyles my sister used to have on mixtapes.
enchantment really grew out of a desire to create something from scratch using disney animation. I had a great time working on moana, but I was the last to hire. I was part of an amazing songwriting team that included opetaia foa’i and mark mancina. I told my boss, Tom MacDougall, who is now in charge of all Disney music, “I just want to be on the ground floor of the next one.” with [co-writer] charise castro smith, [co-writer/co-director] jared bush and [co-director] byron howard, our goal was to write about an intergenerational family and that the central conflict of the film would not be some great quest, but the role we play within our families and how we see ourselves versus how we are seen [by others]. It was so much fun working with that, writing songs about how your siblings see you and how you see yourself, and about the black sheep of the family that we don’t talk about, but of course it’s all we whisper about. (laughs). Those are extremely universal family things that I got to write Disney songs about, which was really exciting.
When you write for a film, how is the process different from a theatrical production? How does your process start?
With an animated production, there are a lot more people, and I’m very aware of that. with charm, for example, I knew that given the number of characters we had on screen, the opening song would have to be as clear as possible, a summary of who is who, how they are related and what their magical gifts are. having written a couple of musicals, I know the opening number is the thing that’s going to change the most, because you have to write it first, and then you write the whole show and you come back and realize that the song isn’t establishing where we went. absolutely. I said, “Give me all the characters and all the powers, and Mirabel will take us and introduce them all.” let the song do the work: you can make big leaps of exposition, and if it’s upbeat, you can dance to it. I immersed myself deeply in Colombian music and culture and realized that it would be an opening number led by an accordion because the instrument is so important and essential to Colombian music.
once you start listening to the animators, that informs your story. when i wrote “we don’t talk about bruno” which is another great family song, i had an idea of what each character looked like. and again, that song is another chance to talk to all the characters because they all have a perspective on this family member that we’re not supposed to talk about. When I learned that Dolores had a super hearing power, I gave her a low, sassy voice, but a very fast pace, and that became part of how the animators characterized her. it’s wonderful to come and go, not with two other people, but with an entire department.
I imagine, too, that an animated project also expands the limits of what you have to work with. there’s so much more you can do visually than on stage, where you’re more limited in how you can perform magic.
That’s always the most exciting part. there is a song in charm called “surface pressure”. I for one am having fun finding edgy metaphors for the character to really feel. I can write a line like, “the ship doesn’t drift, you haven’t heard, how deep the iceberg is.” I’m having as much fun as I can with the language, and then [the animators] come back and I’m like, “oh shit! They drew a giant ocean liner and an iceberg! It can go as fast as my letters, as fast as the speed of free association. It’s really exciting. That’s something you can’t easily do on stage with a real human being.
on live, you play the main character. Is the process different when you write a song for yourself than when you write for other characters, like in charm? Do you have different instincts when you know it’s a song you’re going to sing?
The great joy of being a composer is getting to play all the parts. i can’t tell you how much fun it was writing “my own drum” for gabi [live]. I wanted it to be the lonely boy anthem to end all lonely boy anthems. And as a former lonely kid who knows that our best defense is our own imagination, putting all of that into Gabi was an absolute joy. As soon as I wrote the song, I was like, “I can’t stand to hear this in my voice.” In fact, on the first demo the studio heard, I actually asked Quiara’s daughter, because they really wanted to hear a little boy’s voice with all the energy that she would bring before the role was cast. that’s also part of the fun. as soon as you type it, you search for another voice to find the correct key. Part of the process is also listening to how it fits into the voices of other amazing artists and then adjusting accordingly.
once another performer performs a song, do the music and lyrics evolve?
[live,] there was a song I wrote for dancarino when he was a bigger part of the journey that got cut off along the way, but then [we cast] brian tyree henry [as] dancarino. I know brian from his musical theater days; I saw it in the book of mormon. I knew he could sing sing. I didn’t want to pass up that opportunity, so I basically wrote my dream ’90s r&b song, “love’s going to pick up,” and put all my jodeci, shai, boyz ii men-ness into it because I knew brian would knock it out of the park.
there’s a funny little moment at the end of enchantment when we hear this character named bruno, voiced by john leguizamo. he was like, “you have to write me a rap. I have to be able to tell my grandchildren that I did a lin-manuel rap”. which is really intoxicating for me because I grew up memorizing the individual shows of him. I actually wrote it at his request, he wasn’t a singing character, but, you know, the teacher asked me to.
I also want to talk about tick, tick… boom!, which as a film is a love letter to musical theater. I’m curious to know how jonathan larson influenced you as a songwriter.
what jonathan larson did very consciously as a songwriter, what i took and still do, was not to segregate his tastes in musical theater from his tastes in music. jonathan was very much like, “i don’t know why pop music and theater music can’t be friends”. really advanced that in so much tick, tick…boom! and rent he really wanted to thread the needle on a satisfying evening at the theater that you wouldn’t be embarrassed to pull out of your car radio. I was also very conscious of doing that when I started writing musical theater, because I thought he was right, particularly in terms of hip-hop and Latin music and music that I grew up listening to. I don’t think music lives in a silo. we silo things to make sense of them, but music transcends all that. I’ve pinched myself a lot this year thinking about the talent I’ve worked with as a result of the kind of music I’ve been lucky enough to make.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared on Nov. issue 10 of the hollywood reporter magazine. click here to subscribe.