The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey on meeting Hugh Jackman, casting Zendaya, and the film’s eight-year journey to the screen.
Michael Gracey makes his feature debut as a director with The Greatest Showman, a musical drama film written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. The film stars Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson, and Zendaya and is inspired by the story of P. T. Barnum’s creation of the Barnum & Bailey Circus, and by the lives of its star attractions…
When did you first meet Hugh Jackman?
There was a commercial out of Paris for Lipton Ice Tea that was between a French director and I. The agency assumed that I knew Hugh Jackman so they gave me the job (laughs). It was an amazing, big-budget commercial and I didn’t correct them. I didn’t say that I didn’t know him so we just let that sit. But then, of course, on the first day of rehearsal with Hugh Jackman showing up, all of the agency people were there to see the big star. And Hugh walks in and he goes, ‘Michael!’ and he comes over and hugs me. He is hugging me and whispers ‘They think I don’t know you, mate. Just go along with it,’ and we pretended to be best friends.
And that was the first time you met?
That is literally the first time I met him but we had so much fun in doing the commercial that at the end he was like, ‘We should do a film together.’ The truth is that movie stars do lots of commercials for Japanese and Chinese markets that no one here ever sees, and they all say the same thing at the end. In the euphoria of the wrap party and after a few drinks they are like, ‘We should make a movie together,’ so by the time Hugh Jackman said that to me, I was like, ‘Yeah, sure.’ I literally said those words. I was so unimpressed with this suggestion, thinking I would never hear from him again. But then, of course, he sends me this script and says, ‘I think the story of P.T. Barnum would make an incredible film.’ That was eight years ago, and that was when we started working on The Greatest Showman.
Hugh Jackman and Michael Gracey
Why did it take eight years?
We are in a time where it’s more common for Hollywood studios to make a franchise film, whether that be superhero films or Fast and Furious, or remakes – films that have an in-built audience. That is what they find very appealing. And fair enough, too, considering the money they spend on them. If they do a musical usually it is something that is known, has been running for 30 years, and has a huge audience. To pitch an original film is difficult enough. To pitch an original musical with a first-time director is utter madness (laughs).
So you had to work hard to convince people that it was worthwhile…
Yes, and a big part of that was writing the songs. We spent over three years with Benj [Pasek] and Justin [Paul] writing the music. At the time no one knew who they were. We worked on this before the Tonys for Dear Evan Hansen and before La La Land. They were just guys who had done an Off-Broadway musical. Music is so subjective. There’s a Walt Disney quote, ‘Make it so good, they have to want it,’ and that became our mantra.
These songs just had to stick in your head. These songs have to be so good it is undeniable. Even if you don’t like musicals you have to go, ‘Well, yes, that song I heard, the next day I couldn’t get it out of my head.’
We worked really hard and it is to their credit because at this point we did not have a green-lit film. We had years and years of working on it with every year being told, ‘We are not going to make it yet.’ And in some of our darkest moments we would be sitting there listening to a song as incredible as This Is Me thinking, ‘Maybe no one will ever hear this song,’ which is terrible but it would be true if the film didn’t get made.
And so you stopped giving out scripts?
Yes. We learned very early on that when you read an original musical with all the lyrics, you don’t know the songs and so you read the lyrics flat. Boy meets girl and I can’t believe she feels the way I do. Cue song, she loves me, yeah, yeah, she loves me, yeah, yeah, yeah, she loves me. It is infantile and so you skip the page. And even though it is a great song, you just don’t know it yet. That’s how people read every single moment. And in a musical you sing when words no longer suffice. You sing when you are at an emotional low point and you can’t find the words to express yourself, or an emotional high and your joy breaks into song. So that means you are hanging over a script where all your emotional highs and lows are flat and they feel like nothing.
So we stopped giving out the script and we did something more akin to a process you would go through on a Broadway show. We would get everybody in a room and we’d get Hugh and a bunch of Broadway stars and we would just read the script and people would stand at the piano and sing the songs.
That became the best way for us to gauge where the script was at. It also became the best way to show people what we were intending to make. That’s how we found Keala [Settle], who plays the bearded lady. She was one of the Broadway stars who sat in on our very first read-through and the very first moment she opened her mouth it was like, ‘Yeah!’
Throughout those eight years, did you always have faith that it would come off or were there some deep, dark moments?
I always had to be the person who was like, ‘This is happening.’ Other people can have moments of doubt but as a director you have got to drive it. And, at a certain point, I felt a huge responsibility to the songwriters who had given up years of their lives creating this incredible musical, and to Hugh who had the belief in me and backed me in the vision I had for this film. As more and more cast came on board and more and more people signed up to make the film, I knew I was onto something special because these people can choose whatever they want to do and they have their choice of whatever project and they are saying, ‘Okay, I want to do this with you.’ At the same time you are like, ‘If this doesn’t happen, all of these people’s belief in me is for nothing.’ So it wasn’t that I was having moments of doubt that it wasn’t going to happen. It was more that I had this incredible responsibility, now that I had gathered together this circus of people, to see it through.
You are very brave to take all that on. It is remarkable…
I feel so fortunate in that I had people whose agents were saying, ‘What are you talking about? You are not signing up for this! This may never happen.’ And they were like, ‘I don’t care if it takes him ten years. I am going to make this film with him.’ When people like that believe in you it definitely gives you a drive and emboldens you. It’s not just Hugh Jackman, or Zac [Efron] coming out of retirement to do another musical (laughs). And credit to Zac, actually, because he’s saying, ‘I am not only going to come back and do a musical but I am going to go toe to toe with Hugh Jackman.’ And, by the way, he holds his own beautifully.
Hugh is crazy about the young star in the film, Zendaya…
I didn’t know of her enormous following. I felt incredibly old when I had to have her background explained to me. But I met her and I was just so impressed with her because for a girl so young she has the most amazing maturity to her. And her singing, dancing and acting are just beyond reproach. In terms of working with people she just blew everyone away. Again, she takes up no space in the room, meaning during rehearsals she will sit in the corner and happily hit play on the iPod while we have a dance rehearsal. Or she’s not even on for another one or two hours or she’s finished and she just wants to hang out.
She is so laid back and so genuine about her enjoyment of what we were creating even when that was in rehearsals.
She did the most amazing trapeze rehearsal and she would send me photos of her hands all blistered up from the trapeze work she was doing. And then she would send other shots of her flying through the air and being caught and she would have a little fist power punch. I’d get this amazing shot of her flying from one trapeze to the next and being caught and then just a fist pump.
There’s a scene in the film when she sings Rewrite the Stars at the bedside with Zac and she was never meant to sing in that moment. She was just sitting there with Zac and she’s really emotional and I asked her to hum Rewrite the Stars and she was really tentatively barely humming it and I am going, ‘This is an amazing shot. It is so beautiful.’ And for whatever reason I said, ‘Just sing it,’ and that is the take. She just sang it once and I was like, ‘Cut! We got it. There is nothing else to be done here.’ That is the power that she brings to her scenes and her moments and even certain looks. She would have moments when she would just be looking over at Hugh or at Zac and it is just the presence that she has. It is just incredible. I feel very indebted to her not only for what she did on screen but also because she was one of those people who backed my vision for this. She supported it and she fought for it and she’s this new breed of star. I think she is going to be one of the biggest movie stars in the world. I really do.
Did you insist on her doing her stunts?
Yes. I pitched it to her and she was all in. Again, you have to understand that when we were pitching to people they come from a world where they could do two films in the time that we did one. There were a lot of people saying to them, ‘You don’t want to do that. We could be doing something else with a big-name director.’ So it took a lot for them to commit to ten weeks of rehearsal before we even started filming. And Zendaya was all in. She started training. We could see her arm muscles just getting bigger and bigger from all the working out. Her shoulders got bigger and her arm muscles got more defined and there is a believability to that.
When you see her swinging on the trapeze and you see her shoulders and arms you believe that it is a trapeze artist. It is not someone pretending to be a trapeze artist.
So that entrance shot where Zac sees her for the first time when she swings up, that was her swinging through the air. You can see the veins in her temples pulsating and she comes flying at the camera and it gives it a level of credibility. We could have done it on a green screen but it would not have felt as real.
Did your vision change throughout the movie?
At the very end of the film in the credits there is some artwork and they are the very first sketches that were done eight ago to show the film that we intended to make. They are by an artist called Joel Chang and the two of us sat down and we painted every shot of the film. And the reason why I put those in the credits is because it is very satisfying to look at these frames and how they resemble the film that you have just watched. So no, the vision didn’t change.
Did those paintings form a large part of your initial pitch?
I used to tell the story of the film before I even had the music with just the pictures. And then as I had the music I would then add the music in between. I would have the pictures playing over the music. The initial pitch had no music then the second round of pitching had three songs and it was that thing of, ‘Here’s three songs for the film. Let’s get the green light for the film and we will write all the other songs.’ And they were like, ‘Okay, why don’t you go and write all the other songs and then we will green light the film.’ By the end we had written all of them. We had written a version of Jenny Lind’s song but the version that was in the film was written at the eleventh hour during production
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