Interview :: Doug Hamilton

Doug Hamilton is the director of the groundbreaking new documentary Broadway Idiotwhich chronicles the process of bringing Green Day’s American Idiot record to the Broadway stage. The film is available now via Video on Demand, iTunes, and in select theaters. Doug took a few minutes to chat with me about the process of creating his film and the many layers of music, stage, and film intermingling.


Doug Hamilton Interview

quotes have been minimally edited for clarity

Ryan: I got to watch the film last week and I just want to say, first off, congratulations on bringing it to fruition.

Doug: Thank you. Thank you. I feel very good about that. You know, it’s hard to get a documentary out in the independent world and I feel good that it’s having a life.

Ryan: Absolutely. And I know you came into the project really early on in the creative process. How did you get involved that early – to see where it was going to be – or to see the future and where it might end up?

Doug: Part of what I do professionally is photograph in theater. My main work is in documentary film and public television and that kind of thing. But for at least a decade, I have photographed theater and the development of theater.

I had photographed the show Spring Awakening [writer’s note: music by 90’s recording artist Duncan Sheik] which became a big hit. That was created by many of the same people who did American Idiot – the director, the producers, John Gallagher Jr. [HBO’s The Newsroom], a lot of others were in it. So I knew these people and I knew that American Idiot was coming up. So, when we started talking about it, we all thought: well, if this becomes what we imagine it could become wouldn’t it be great to be able to do a documentary on it. And that requires being in the room early, shooting video. Once Spring Awakening became a hit, you can’t really do a documentary on it. It’s too late. So, there was an opportunity to do a documentary on it this time and we didn’t know quite where it was going to go with certainty. But we were able to get in there with cameras early enough that we had that covered.

Ryan: And it’s been a while since the musical’s premier – and, obviously, it’s gotten a lot of rave reviews. Why wait until now to put the documentary out? Has it just been a post-production issue or is there a specific timing of right now for you?

Doug: It’s pretty much just that’s how long it took. This was not something I did full-time. It’s been really a labor of love for myself and my editor, Rob Tinworth. Our day job is working in public television and we’re fortunate to get to do that. But that’s a demanding job, so we’ve done this in between projects, which is part of it.

But also, it takes time to really understand the material and work with it and create the kind of narrative that an independent film like this needs to have. So it came out now because it was ready to come out now. It’s not really connected to the show in any way, so we weren’t worried about that. We weren’t trying to promote the show in this, we just wanted to do an honest documentary about it. And that led to it coming out the way that it did.

Ryan: But you did have the big premiere this weekend and that was the CBGB festival, right?

Doug: Yeah, it was great. It’s very exciting to have a public event around a film project. It felt a little more like Broadway opening than a documentary opening. I’m not used to that world. I’ve worked in broadcast television all my life so 30 million people may see something I’ve done on 60 Minutes, but I’m watching it at home on the couch with four friends. So, this was a very different experience.

A lot of the creative team and actors came out for this, which is exciting. Michael Mayer, the [musical’s] director was there, and Tom Kitt the musical supervisor and John Gallagher came, Rebecca Naomi Jones was there. So really it was wonderful to be surrounded by these people in watching the film. And then the fact that it’s CBGB just in and of itself is kind of perfect because of the connection to the alternative music scene.

Ryan: And are y’all looking at other festivals? Do you think that there’s a future life for this? Or are you just going to be grateful for having accomplished your vision and whatever happens, happens?

Doug: Well, we’re getting out in the world now. This week we’re rolling out in 35 cities – which, for a documentary, is pretty big. Some of those are one-night stands in some cities where there are hopefully a lot of Green Day fans. And then, most of those are regular runs in good, independent theaters. So we are having a life. We’re out there on iTunes and Video on Demand now, so there are lots of ways to watch it.

There’s a short window that it is available in cinemas. It’s interesting for me to see how this film is different when you see it in a theater versus on your laptop or your iPad. I mean, I watched it on my laptop for years as I was working on it, but it’s really gratifying to see it large.

Ryan: I think, for me, being such a fan of that record that was so groundbreaking, and hearing about the musical (though, down here in Texas we don’t get a lot of stage theater as you can imagine) there was kind of a disconnect. And I think that you were really able to bridge that gap – hopefully for a lot more people than just myself – between what was this iconic record and putting the music that we’ve heard from the soundtrack in a context and telling a cohesive story.

Doug: Thank you. You know, the layers of this are pretty extraordinary. You have Billie Joe’s experience that then gets translated into his album, which obviously was an extraordinary piece of work and is so important to so many people. And then it becomes a stage show. And then he ends up in it playing a role that sort of is representative of part of him. And then we do a film about that.

And another twist that just happened is that on Friday night when we had our screening in the cinema the latest company of American Idiot – which is the third national touring company just starting its rehearsal process – they actually all came to the theater. The producers thought it was really important that they experienced where this all came from as part of their process. So, we’re documenting the process of theater and now we’re part of that process. It’s a weird twist, but it’s very gratifying to me.

Ryan: I don’t ever mean to question anybody’s art, I was just curious… One of the few things in the film that I felt kind of missed the mark: I would have loved to have heard more from the cast, their response to being involved in such a groundbreaking project, working with an iconic artist such as Green Day. You really took to focusing on Billie Joe and his journey. Was that just for the cohesive story? Or, what made you go that route?

Doug: That’s a fair criticism. When we do interview the cast, early on, there’s one little section where the cast (John Gallagher and Mary Faber, Rebecca Naomi Jones) are all talking about how important that album was to them as people. And they help us, early on, explaining what that album was. So we touch on that and I certainly could have done more with that and followed them. But I think it was the point you make – the cohesiveness of the story.

One of the challenges in the edit was to hone in on what our main story was. You have to have a discipline to keep staying true to that main story. As a filmmaker who’s been in the field getting all this material you fall in love with all of it. I loved everyone in that cast. There were scenes we cut of the process and of the cast that I thought were wonderful, but when you’re putting them all together and you have a 3 hour cut, something’s got to go.

So you have to keep asking yourself: is this scene really supporting my “A” storyline? And if not, I’ve got to be willing to part with it. And so I think that’s where it got focused more on Billie Joe and his experience which, for the audience, becomes a sort of vicarious way to experience what it’s like to be in the theater company like that and make your way to Broadway.

Film Review :: Broadway Idiot

Release Date: October 11, 2013 (in theaters and on demand)

When I first heard about a musical based on Green Day’s Grammy Award winning, magnum opus, American Idiot, I was pretty skeptical. When I finally heard the cast recording soundtrack – I’ll be honest – I was underwhelmed. The album is so iconic that it’s hard for much of anything to measure up. Earlier this summer, however, I found my interest in the musical renewed when I learned that two artists whose work I have followed sporadically were part of the original cast: John Gallagher Jr. (HBO’s The Newsroom) and Tony Vincent (recording artist, NBC’s The Voice) playing lead characters “Johnny” and “St. Jimmy” respectively. Earlier this week when I learned of the new behind-the-scenes documentary Broadway Idiot I found my chance to finally get a look at what this whole thing was all about.

In general, I think that stage theater is under-exposed. Down here in Texas, it’s mostly unheard of but for the local high school production of The Music Man. So, for the uninitiated, it should be noted that the pop music theater musical is something that has been growing in popularity. In recent years Mamma Mia (music of ABBA), Jersey Boys (Frankie Valley and the Four Seasons), and We Will Rock You (Queen) have all graced the stage. All that to say, the concept in and of itself wasn’t completely original – thought it may have garnered more public awareness on the back of a Grammy Awards performance featuring Green Day and the cast.

Broadway Idiot takes us not just behind the scenes, but deep into the inner workings of the theater. We hear songs as the arrangements are being written and we learn why certain creative choices are made. We see the actors learning their parts and creating their characters. We sit down with the director, the choreographer, the music director, and the author himself, Billy Joe Armstrong of Green Day. While we don’t witness the entire performance of American Idiot, we see enough to understand the story and gain a new found respect for the creative process and the end result.

The high points of the film, in my mind, center on the development of the musical numbers. The stage show contains the entirety of the American Idiot album, as well as a large portion of Green Day’s 21st Century Breakdown record. While the cast performs with much gusto, the vocals still lack the brilliance of their source material. The best moments, though, are when songs are brilliantly re-imagined such as the Beach Boys-inspired take on “Last Night on Earth”.

Director Doug Hamilton also takes us back in time to learn more about Billy Joe’s history with theater and singing lessons as a child. We’re also able to experience a certain sense of catharsis as Armstrong hears his own material afresh and realizes how much more there is to it. In a pivotal moment, he states that the best thing about the musical is that is a source of affirmation and validation of his songwriting – something that isn’t talked about a whole lot in rock music.

If the film is lacking in anything, it is its engagement with the cast. While actors names do flash on screen and several one or two sentence statements are made by the actors, they are surprisingly silent in the story-telling element. This was particularly disappointing to me given the fact that there is so much fertile ground including actors making their Broadway debuts, or the simple fact of working with an artist like Green Day. In the director’s defense, he does present the movie as “following Billy Joe Armstrong’s journey from punk rock to Broadway.” That goal is certainly accomplished.