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.
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.