Just over three years ago, filmmaker Alex Horwitz decided to make a documentary. He didn’t know exactly what he was documenting ― at that point, it could have been a concept album or maybe a show. But Horwitz did know that whatever his college pal Lin-Manuel Miranda was cooking up in 2013, he wanted to be the one behind the camera capturing it all.
Fast forward to today, and Horwitz’s “Hamilton’s America” film, produced by Radical Media, is the behind-the-scenes passport musical fans have been waiting for. It does indeed follow Miranda as he perfects the songs and performances that make up “Hamilton,” the theater phenomenon that’s arguably become the center of gravity for pop culture in 2016. It moves from backstage on Broadway to the research actors embarked upon to craft their characters. But it’s hardly, as Horwitz was quick to point out in an interview with The Huffington Post, a typical making-of.
”That movie has been made, several times. It’s been made about Lin,” Horwitz noted, citing Radial Media’s “In the Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams,” a documentary about Miranda’s first Tony-winning production, a story of a company of young, unknown performers putting on a make-it or break-it show. Instead, “Hamilton’s America” would be about history ― “How Hamilton the man comes to life through whatever it is you’re doing,” Horwitz pitched Miranda.
To tell that story, Horwitz recruited not only a gang of “Hamilton” insiders from the cast and creative crew, but also a brigade of politicians and historians capable of drawing parallels between the very real theatrics of two centuries ago and the political maelstrom of today. From Elizabeth Warren to President Barack Obama to a famed historian who refers to Alexander Hamilton as an “asshole,” the resulting film centers on creative writing’s ability to bring the past back to life.
The day after the first presidential debate of this year, we spoke with Horwitz over the phone. Ahead of the last presidential debate of the season ― and the PBS premiere of “Hamilton’s America” on Oct. 21 ― here’s what the filmmaker had to say about rap battles, George Washington, and Miranda’s unchanging personality.
I want to talk a little bit about the politicians you speak with in the documentary. How did you choose who you would interview?
I’ll answer with a negative first: I knew I wanted to interview politicians, but I knew I wanted to stay away from the current political season; I wanted to stay away from current presidential candidates. I was very deliberate in getting politicians from both sides of the aisle evenly. There’s a treasury secretary from each side of the aisle. There’s a prominent member of Congress from each side of the aisle. And we were very fortunate to get a president from each side of the aisle. So that was important, because I do think it’s a film about politics, but it’s not a political film itself. I wanted all of these interviewers to reflect on history and political philosophy a bit, but not to talk about contemporary issues, other than by way of mentioning how connected the conversation of today is to the political conversation of 200 years ago or more.
As to the specific names ― it might be obvious to anyone who sees the movie, but I just kind of shot for the moon. If you were to ask someone to name two very prominent members of Congress, it’s very likely you’re going to get Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren on that list. So I just kind of went for people I thought would speak well, were informed on history, and were in the public eye. Because, usually in historical documentaries, when you cut to an expert, it is someone you don’t instantly recognize. The cliche was, when we were watching those documentaries in high school, was that it was time to be bored by a person I don’t care about. But if I can ride the wave of goodwill from the musical “Hamilton” toward the offices of some very prominent people like Elizabeth Warren and Paul Ryan, I’ll take it. I think they just do a lot to immediately grab your attention.
True. There’s also a noticeable difference between the way Paul Ryan and Elizabeth Warren handle Hamilton’s legacy. Ryan seems to admire Hamilton’s tenacity, while Warren is a bit more measured ― acknowledging that he’s kind of an elitist. Did you anticipate that there would be a partisan divide amongst Alexander Hamilton fans?
I had my suspicions as to how sympathetic or critical of Hamilton these various politicians would be. And I think, for the most part, I was right there. But you’ll note that even Warren, whom you very astutely point out is a little critical of him and has a complicated opinion of him, she also lavishes him with praise for his foresight and for how ingenious he was. I knew that all of them would speak with some reverence and respect, as most politicians do about most of the Founding Fathers. I suspected that if anyone would give me that sort of measured criticism of Hamilton’s financial legacy it would be Elizabeth Warren. So, yes, I certainly did want to talk to someone who was so on the record as being very critical of today’s financial markets and the current banking system. But I also know that she knows her history and has worked within that system for many years.
Obama is somewhat of a significant “character” in the documentary. At one point, you have this beautiful camera work that moves from a portrait of George Washington down to Obama watching a [“Hamilton”] performance at the White House. Were you yourself trying to draw parallels between Obama’s presidency and some of the narratives told in “Hamilton”?
I’m so glad you took note of that shot. And I think that shot is the answer to your question. We don’t have to do much work to illustrate the parallels between the life of “Hamilton: The Musical” and the Obama administration. Lin premiered the first song at the first art event that the Obamas held during their administration at the White house. We follow that through to an event they held in their final year, when they invited the full cast back in March. That shows the journey that Lin took, from a song that he had written and was performing alone, to the phenomenal success of the show with a full company.
I think a lot of journalists and critics have read plenty into the connection between the Obama administration and the casting of the show and the chronological life of the show. I don’t have anything to add other than what is in the documentary that you saw. You know, that shot tracking down from a portrait of George Washington to President Obama ― with Chris Jackson, an African-American man, playing George Washington and singing the words of George Washington ― says it all. My impression is that Lin was never consciously trying to… well, I don’t want to put words into his mouth. But I look at it as a beautiful accident of timing. You can’t really write better synchronicity than that.
Throughout the documentary, you got the sense that the actors were very attached to their characters. From Leslie Odom Jr. to Christopher Jackson to Phillipa Soo, they are all, of course, very knowledgeable of their historical counterparts, but also a little bit defensive of them, as well. What was it like for you to witness these kinds of connections behind the scenes ― the kinds of connections you don’t see onstage?
I don’t think I was surprised to find that the actors had immersed themselves in the personal histories of the characters they played. As is evident to anyone who sees the musical or listens to the album, they are consummate professionals and incredibly talented actors. And when you are playing characters that rich, of course you would rely on the source material. Most of them used Ron Chernow’s Hamilton biography as a starting point for that.
I think that the field trips to those locations you saw [in the documentary] were trips that the cast were so eager to take ― some of them for the actor’s work of it, and some of them for their own personal edification. I think they would all have a different answer about those field trips. But it was nice to see, as you said, Leslie Odom so beautifully articulate the humanity of Aaron Burr, a character whom history has vilified. Leslie, in order to play him well, has to develop a sympathetic angle on him, and that results in a better theater experience for all of us. Hamilton is not just a hero; Lin has written a very flawed character because he was a very flawed character. These were real people. And I think the actors just embraced that, not only in their performances but also in those field trips and just in their study of history.
A lot of the coverage of “Hamilton” has focused on the fact that the show has cast actors of color as white figures from history. But I think this documentary was one of the first moments we really heard from the cast, talking about how they themselves attempted to reconcile the fact that these white figures they are playing owned slaves. Was that deliberately important for you to cover in the documentary, or did it come up more organically in conversation with the cast?
Well, first of all, at the risk of sounding like I am correcting you, you’ll notice that Christopher Jackson says that it’s something that cannot be reconciled ― nor does he try to.
Yes, he does.
I was very happy to have that said by the man who’s actually crafting the portrayal, because as you said, a lot has been written about this and a lot has been said about this. The cast and the creative team of the show, to their credit, I think, have usually opted to let the casting decisions speak for themselves. And I do think that very little needs to be said on the matter. But I did know that if I was making this documentary I wouldn’t want it to be the elephant in the room. The best example being Christopher Jackson going to Mount Vernon. Christopher Jackson is an African-American man playing a white slave owner. I don’t think it’s worth making that the focus of the documentary, but it was certainly worth exploring when we happened to be down in Mount Vernon. So that’s sort of the launching point for that discussion in the documentary.
There are other moments in the documentary, for example, when Daveed Diggs says, yeah, Thomas Jefferson wrote this beautiful document … he also kind of sucked.
Yes, that is easily one of my two or three favorite lines in the doc.
OK, you were obviously friends with Lin beforehand, then you spent three years filming him. Did he change throughout the course of “Hamilton,” as you were documenting him?
Lin has always been the same player, it’s just that the stage around him has gotten bigger and bigger. He is remarkably unchanged personally from the guy I met in college. Although I think his eyes have gotten wider as he himself has been shocked by the lengths to which “Hamilton” has changed American culture, he’s the same guy. That’s just a testament to him as a person. He is grounded and is as good a friend as he is a collaborator. I’m sorry to disappoint you and say that he hasn’t changed much. [Laughs]
Did you, personally, have any idea that “Hamilton” would be as popular and culturally prescient as it has become?
Um. You’ve asked me that in a different way than most people do. Most people are like, “You knew it was going to be a hit, right?” And, you know, no one’s ever going to know that! I knew that it was going to be good work. I knew from the beginning that it was going to be compelling. And that anyone’s doubts about whether the history of our founding fathers would work as a hip-hop musical ― I knew that those fears were unfounded because the work was just so good. It was successful from the beginning in that sense. From that level, it always worked. Anyone who heard it, anyone who saw something, just got it right away.
As for how prescient? I didn’t know Lin was going to tap into the zeitgeist the way that he did. No one could have. Lin has certainly expressed publicly many times how the thing just got bigger and bigger than he ever could have hoped for. I think Lin was excited to do something he hadn’t seen in musical theater. But here we are, several years later, and Lin hasn’t just changed musical theater ― although, obviously he has. He’s also changed popular music in America, because all of a sudden a Broadway album is on the charts in a way that hasn’t happened in many, many decades. He has changed educational curriculum in America, because every middle and high school has absorbed “Hamilton” into what it does in its social studies and history classes. He’s changed political discourse in America, because a major party candidate was quoting his show on the convention floor. And it could also be argued that he’s also changed hip-hop music. So this has permeated so many aspects of American culture, not just pop culture, and I don’t think anybody could have foreseen that.
What was your favorite moment from the documentary?
Joanne Freeman ― who, along with Ron Chernow, is one of the world’s leading Hamilton’s scholars ― refers to Hamilton in our documentary as an asshole. Which just makes me grin every time I see it, because when else do we hear a reputable scholar using such plain and coarse English to describe one of our Founding Fathers?
I think we need more of that frankness, because they were just guys at the end of the day: flawed, funny ― sometimes not funny enough. And we should by all means take them and their work seriously, but if we can’t look at them as humans in all of the many senses that that word implies, then we’re deifying them. And that does us no good. So I love a moment like that, where Joanne calls him an asshole, because we don’t often see that in historical documentaries.
Was there an interesting scene or moment that was cut from the documentary that you could talk about?
Oh, there are so many. I mean, look, we shot over the course of three years just about 100 hours of content. Which is a lot for a movie that runs less than an hour-and-a-half. We have extended interviews not just with the cast of the show but with all of those politicians you saw ― there were just excerpts of them in the documentary. I would love to think that one day we’ll be able to share those with the world because they’re educational and informative.
If you can answer this in two or three sentences ― what do you think is the most important part of Hamilton’s legacy that you wanted to capture in the documentary?
A lot has been made of the specific legacies that Hamilton left us ― like the banking structure, or the Coast Guard; specific examples. But in general, I wanted to convey a sense that Hamilton was a futurist, more so than any of the other Founding Fathers. That he foresaw everything we mean when we say “modern society.” He foresaw a very complex, often convoluted system of governance and finance and culture and human strengths and weaknesses to create what we call society. That his vision for America was more prescient and more clairvoyant than any of the other Founders.
My last question: “Hamilton’s America” airs shortly before the upcoming presidential election. Do you find yourself thinking about the debates ― or even discourse online ― and comparing them to the rap battles in “Hamilton”? Do you see any connection at all?
I don’t think one can help but do so. Yeah, I mean, the first debate was last night and you can’t help but think, well, if they’d just do this as a freestyle battle, we could settle the undecided vote much more quickly. Something that I always knew, but really got to dig into in this film, was that it was always thus. Politics was always dirty. The mudslinging and name-calling that John Adams and Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson dished out at each other publicly would be rated NC-17 by today’s standards. You can dig up these letters. They just happened to also get work done very well together. That may be the part that’s missing from today’s politics.
But, as Joanne Freeman told me in a bit of interview that didn’t make it into the film, in the election of 1800, there was a group of Federalists that started to publish the false news of Thomas Jefferson’s death in newspapers to try and get people to not vote for him. I mean, really brazen, ugly stuff happens that we can laugh off now, but in light of that, the current political discourse doesn’t seem so far-fetched perhaps.
Alright. That’s a bit hopeful, I think.
Yes, I think we should find hope in the fact that we’ve always been this messed up.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
“Hamilton’s America” will air on PBS as part of the Great Performances series on Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, from 9:00 to 10:30 p.m. ET. Check your local listings here.