Documenting a Genius: Alex Horwitz Talks Hamilton’s America

Movies Features Lin-Manuel Miranda
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Documenting a Genius: Alex Horwitz Talks <i>Hamilton&#8217;s America</i>

Talk about catching lightning in a bottle. Alex Horwitz has wanted to be a director for a long time. His college buddy Lin-Manuel Miranda always wanted to write Broadway musicals. So when Miranda won four Tonys (including Best Musical) for his debut show In the Heights, and then began musing about a new project, Horwitz sensed that perhaps his time had come. And, to make the obvious reference, neither of them threw away his shot. Manuel’s project became the cultural phenomenon Hamilton. And this weekend, Horwitz’s documentary Hamilton’s America debuts as part of the PBS Great Performances series. We sat down with Horwitz recently to discuss both projects, how they came together, and his long friendship with certified (via a Macarthur Grant) Genius Miranda.

Paste Magazine: As a documentarian, you know it might never be this good again, right?
Alex Horwitz: [laughs] Yeah, it’s certainly an exploiting moment with Lin, and I’m happy to admit it. Well, “exploiting” may have a negative connotation, but it’s using a friendship to mutually benefit friends. I’m getting a movie with incredible access because I knew Lin from college and he’s getting, what I hope he would see as a very stress-free cinematic scrapbook of this ride on Hamilton, made by a friend. So I’m happy, and I hope he’s happy, too. He’s been nothing but supportive since the beginning, and I certainly don’t take for granted the support I had from him, and by extension from everyone who took his word for it that I was the guy to make this movie. So yes, I don’t expect it to be this good ever again.

Paste: [laughs.] And it may be. Who knows? You know, all the Paste guys are obsessed with Hamilton.
Horwitz: Well, the Paste guys have good taste.

Paste: And this a constant source of conversation—what you do when you write the greatest musical of your generation the second time out? You know? I mean, I guess what do you do when you write a Tony Award-winning one the first time?
Horwitz: Well, I mean that’s right. People talk about Hamilton, and when I say people I mean a lot of people in the press.

Paste: As if it came out of nowhere, right?
Horwitz: As if it came out of nowhere!

Paste: [Laughs.]
Horwitz: People don’t get or don’t know that this kid in his twenties has a whole mess of Tonys for his first show.

Paste: And not only won a whole mess of Tonys—though nothing is as game changing as Hamilton, for the theater community, In the Heights was also a total game changer.
Horwitz: And was rightfully called revolutionary in the realm of musical theater.

Paste: It’s gotta be a weird place. We always speculate, what is it like to be in that head space? Okay, I’m going to a total musical theater nerd here.
Horwitz: It’s okay, you’re among your people.

Paste: There’s that great line in Evita where Che says, “A shame you did it all at 26.”
Horwitz:: Yes.

Paste: “There are no mysteries now, nothing can thrill you, no one to fulfill you.” And of course in history there’s Alexander weeping because there were no worlds left to conquer. And there’s that moment now for Lin where it’s like no matter how self confident you are you have to be thinking, “I may have just done my life- and career-defining work.”
Horwitz: I don’t think it’s my place to guess exactly how he feels about that, but I do know that he is a savvy guy and he was certainly aware of the fact that all eyes were on his followup after Heights. And afterwards he did some other things—he collaborated on in the Bring it On musical. It was not exclusively his show, but he wrote some music for it. He wrote some new lyrics in Spanish for West Side Story.

Paste: Right.
Horwitz: But by all reasonable standards Hamilton was his real sophomore effort. And he knew after the success of Heights, standards were high and everyone was waiting to see what happens next. And I’m sure being as savvy as he is that he knows that’s all the more true this time around.

Paste: Although I guess there’s still reaching the public at large. I’m still shocked when Saturday Night Live came on, people on Twitter were like,” who is this guy?”
Horwitz: Right, that was a joke in his opening monologue. He said this musical is one of the most successful of all time, which is great because it means that most of you haven’t heard of it.

Paste: Haven’t heard of it, yes! [Laughs.]
Horwitz: Which is true! Look, it’s a little crazy to think that you can make something as earthshaking as Hamilton as monumentally, runaway successful as it has been in musical theater, and in the record industry because the album went platinum, and you’re still talking about a sliver of this population that consumes pop culture.

Paste: And when Hamilton first came out that’s how people felt with In The Heights and all the “Johnnies come lately.” “What do you mean, you didn’t see In The Heights?” I think In The Heights was revolutionary in New York and in theater circles nationwide, but it didn’t penetrate the general consciousness outside of New York.
Horwitz: I think that’s probably right. We musical theater nerds, and especially New York-based musical theater nerds—ultimately that’s a pretty small group of people. And Hamilton has grown tendrils well beyond that.

Paste: Let’s get a little more concrete here and talk about how you and Lin met at Wesleyan. Was it through theater?
Horwitz: It veered towards it, but initially we just met through a friend, who is still one of our best friends. We met late freshman year, sophomore year we were neighbors, and senior year we were housemates. We did work on some theater together. I was in an improv comedy troupe called Desperate Measures that I think still exists on campus.

Paste: Nice.
Horwitz: And Lin was sort of the fifth Beatle on the group. He was not an official member, but whenever we did a musical game he was the accompanist and music director. I do remember one point in particular in which he really mercilessly accepted the suggestion of hip-hop as a style and forced me to freestyle. I did better than one would expect. But I’m certainly not Lin.

Paste: [Laughs.] Wow.
Horwitz: But that’s like Beethoven asking a child to compose a symphony for his amusement, you know.

Paste: [Laughs.] Right!
Horwitz: But, yes, we were in the creative trenches at Wesleyan together. I was at the first table read of the Wesleyan version of In The Heights. I read the part of Kevin, the father. But other than that, I was never a collaborator on anything after school, at least not in this realm. I’ve just been around. I’ve just watched the rise in his career as a friend and I actually was introduced to RadicalMedia through Lin. I met Radical because they did a documentary for PBS on In the Heights. I have been here since mostly as an editor, and this is my first time directing for Radical. But Lin and I have been close ever since college, and at a certain point I just decided to exploit the friendship as we said earlier. And I asked him if I could start rolling on this thing as he was working on it. It was just a handful of songs at that point. By the time we rolled the camera, which was three years ago almost to the day, it had begun to take the shape of a musical. We knew we were casting actors and doing that as opposed to the concept album, which was the initial thought. But he was still very much in the writing zone at that point, and we just went from there.

Paste: Did you at that point know you wanted to be a director and were looking for the right project?
Horwitz: I’ve always had those ambitions. I’d already made a short zombie film called Alice Jacobs is Dead that won best horror film at DragonCon.

Paste: Atlanta proud!
Horwitz: It got some brief notoriety in the horror festival circuit; it starred Adrienne Barbeau. So my tastes are all over the place but, yes, I guess my ambitions were always in writing and directing. Once upon a time there was something even before In The Heights, that Lin and I worked on that might one day see the light of day, but for now I’ll leave it secret. But, you know, writing and directing was always something I wanted to do. In the documentary space that is so often a matter of simply striking while it’s hot and seeing the opening and going for it. So I knew that one day someone would approach Lin about doing the documentary, and I just happened to be there and be first. And I’m just completely grateful that he just said, “Yeah, you’re the guy. Let’s do it.”

Paste: I think it’s really interesting that this would’ve been a really, really good documentary if all you were doing was a very straight forward behind-the-scenes thing on the making of Hamilton. Especially for those of us who are fans. All of the personalities, including Hamilton himself, are so compelling, the historical personalities are so compelling, the people in the present were so compelling. But I love that you had the ambition to sort of say, “No we’re also going to do something really different here. In fact we’re going to do three or four things at once. We’re going to do the behind the scenes, but we’re also going to tell the historical story. We’re also going to do some interviews, and we’re also going to go into Lin’s history.” You’ve got a lot of balls in the air. And it works really, really well because there are so many parallels between them. I’m curious whether that developed over time or whether from the beginning you said, “No I want to do something different.”
Horwitz: It was conceived from the beginning. I won’t claim any particular ambition other than just to say that it was a movie I wanted to watch. I like process films; I think that there are some extraordinary process films. There’s a famous doc about the recording of the Company cast album that is an extraordinary fly-on-the-wall piece of artistic process. But look, RadicalMedia and PBS Great Performances had already partnered on In The Heights: Chasing Broadway Dreams, which I thought was a very wonderful film about a bunch of unknowns that come together and wondered if their dreams were going to pay off and boom they win a lot of Tonys. It’s a really exciting film, but that’s not something I thought I was going to be able to bottle that lightning, and even if I could, frankly I just thought, “I’ve seen that movie. I don’t want to do that again.”

Paste: Mmm hmm.
Horwitz: So from the beginning, I said to Lin, “Look this could just be a straightforward “the making of,” but I’d rather do Looking for Richard.” If you remember that film, that was my reference point.

Paste: Yep.
Horwitz: It’s “Looking for Hamilton” with you. It’s the history with you as the lens on it. That grew to the include the principal cast going on all these field trips, and the incredible list of interviewees that we were going to try to snag, but it was always going to be a weave of, as you said, Lin’s journey with the show, the progress of the show itself, the music, the work itself, excerpts of the work itself. And ultimately at its core, the life of Alexander Hamilton, that would be the backbone of the whole thing. And Lin, again all due credit, just said, “Oh great! That sounds good to me. Let’s just make that.” So it serves I think more as a companion piece to Hamilton, than as a behind-the-scenes memento of it. Ultimately, my hope is that it’s a film that will be as interesting and substantive 50 years from now when people don’t remember the zeitgeist of Hamilton as well. Even though I do think that Hamilton will still very much be a part of our cultural tradition.

Paste: Absolutely. This is the first 21st century show that I can confidently say will be in our textbooks for the next 200 years.
Horwitz: Not Book of Mormon?

Paste: I like Book of Mormon, but, you know…
Horwitz: I tend to agree with you.

Paste: But even In The Heights... I mean I love In The Heights, but…
Horwitz: Look, I totally felt that way. I love In The Heights, obviously, but when he played through those first songs with Hamilton I thought, “Ummm I definitely want to make a movie with this.”

Paste: I just said it’s not just a fly on the wall piece, but here I am going to talk to you about one of my favorite moments in the movie, which is in fact a fly-on-the-wall moment.
Horwitz: Burr’s bedroom.

Paste: Yes!
Horwitz: Well, more like a fly on the dolly tracking on the floor

Paste: Exactly.
Horwitz: But fair point.

Paste: I mean, arguably the signature piece of the show —
Horwitz: Yeah.

Paste: Not completely written yet —
Horwitz: Right

Paste: There are several points where I got huge chills in the movie but I think my biggest chill moment was when he was doing Burr’s part and he goes, “Da da da da da da da da da da, shot!”
Horwitz: “Shotty shot.”

Paste: Yeah, “Shotty, shotty, shotty, shotty, shot” and I was like — [gasps].
Horwitz: He doesn’t know.

Paste: But I know what goes there!
Horwitz: And there’s also a line in the movie where he says, a few weeks after that rehearsals start and who knows what that becomes.

Paste: Yes, yes!
Horwitz: And in that scene you go [both gasp]. He doesn’t know yet!

Paste: That moment of creation—it’s interesting that we just saw Dylan win a Nobel Prize, right? I mean this is really kind of like being in Dylan’s bedroom when he’s writing Blood on the Tracks. It’s such a historic moment.
Horwitz: Such a historic and historical moment. That is not lost on me. I mean I certainly don’t take it for granted that we got to be in there. That is one of the first pieces that I shot.

Paste: Wow.
Horwitz: I think we had sound that day, but for some of those early shoots I was doing sound. It’s one of the more memorable scenes I think. Again, all the more credit to Lin, as warm and open as Lin is with his fans and the press, he is also a consummate artist, and he is rightfully so protective of the writing process. So the fact that he said, “Yeah come on in!” is something I don’t take for granted. And it’s not that I was there every day he was writing.

Paste: You didn’t need to do that.
Horwitz: Right. But it is a rare piece of tape to have that moment with a creator who is happy to talk to the camera at that point in the process and then to be intercutting it with the finished product is a nice bit of cinema. I was very happy.

Paste: It’s really very striking. The other thing that’s really special about that moment is—and again I’ll make a comparison—the reason why I hated the Star Wars Prequels was that I think that they were obviously made by someone who didn’t care about the fans anymore. And although this latest movie has tons of weaknesses, tons of weakness to the point that I almost don’t think it’s a good movie. But, but!
Horwitz: It’s got a lot of fan service.

Paste: The director loves the fans.For me, it was the first time since Empire that I felt like I was seeing a movie who was made by one of us. There were so many of, as you say, those little fan-service moments in Hamilton’s America.
Horwitz: I wanted to take care of the fans, even though I wasn’t going to give them perhaps the movie that they were salivating for. I wanted to make a movie that would play just as well for the diehard fans as it would for the few remaining hounding skeptics in the world—and it’s hard to imagine, but there are even a few of those.

Paste: Or for the people who don’t even know about it.
Horwitz: Or people who’ve never heard about it. Hamilton’s America was designed to be watchable and enjoyable for any of those parties. And I knew even though I was going to do that for the history buffs, I’m not going to make a movie about the biggest moment in pop culture for the last several years without giving the fans some service. There is some lovely behind-the-scenes stuff, there are some great charming moments with the cast, there are some references that are in jokes only if you know the soundtrack well. And I encourage everyone to keep tuning in until the very end of our end credits where we put the easter egg. I wanted everyone to be happy.

Paste: So, not many documentaries that you can get two presidents interviewed in.
Horwitz: Two presidents and the founding members of the Roots and Nas.

Paste: And Sondheim.
Horwitz: And Jimmy Fallon, and they all have a reason to be there.

Paste: It’s funny because I’ve described Lin as a cross between Nas and Sondheim.
Horwitz: I had a moon shot list of names we’d go after, and it’s remarkable to me that the final list we have is almost exactly that. That is a testament not to our ability to get good interviews as filmmakers but to the road that Lin paved, the goodwill that he cultivated for us from the world. I think people picked up the phone and returned the calls because of Hamilton, because Lin created something that permeated, that saturated every aspect of American culture, pop culture, political culture, educational culture. He sort of revolutionized every aspect of American life in some small way.

Paste: He stopped a change in the currency!
Horwitz: Yeah! He’s changed not only musical theater, but he’s changed popular music in America. For the first time in decades, a Broadway album reached the top of the charts. He has changed educational curriculum in America for obvious reasons. He has changed political discourse in America because here is his candidate ending her speech by quoting Hamilton and citing her source at her convention.

Paste: He’s changed, at least in New York City, you know, and hopefully in cities to come, he’s changed the way an entire generation of minority children see themselves—
Horwitz: Right!

Paste: ...as being connected to the founding of the country. To me, that’s bigger than everything else.
Horwitz: Name one other piece of art that has affected change across so many different parts of the country, or parts of society.

Paste: I can’t think of one, other than Bio-Dome.
Horwitz: And possibly Weekend at Bernie’s 2..

Paste: Right? [Laughs.]
Horwitz: Yeah, but I mean I’m waiting for someone to tell me, like I’m sure there are movies that, you know every person in the world sees that change our pop culture or identity. But I mean just the sheer number of realms of our lives that he has touched with Hamilton is, to me, unprecedented. But to get back to your question about that list of people, yeah, the good will was out there, all we had to do was amp into it, and I don’t expect it to ever be this good again as a documentary filmmaker.

Paste: Did you get any pushback about including W?
Horwitz: From whom?

Paste: From anybody, I mean, not from Lin. From Radical, from investors, from anyone
Horwitz: From the beginning I wanted to actively make politics not important in the film. That was very important to me because Lin did not make a show for anyone on one side without the other.

Paste: I mean everybody from Dick Cheney to Hillary Clinton, right?
Horwitz: Well, yeah, and Obama has that famous line, “This is the only thing that I and Dick Cheney agree on.”

Paste: [Laughs.] I hadn’t heard that, that’s great.
Horwitz: The musical and the film are about common values and shared history, not opposing ideologies other than in the historical perspectives since, which we’ll talk about, including Hamilton and Jefferson fighting. But I’ve always wanted to make that and no, on one suggested to me that I do otherwise.

Paste: I’ve been fortunate enough to become friends with some of the actors I’m fans of, and I’ve been fortunate that some of the people I’ve known for a long time have become a success. There’s one particular friend of mine, someone I’ve grown up with, that I’ve been friends with for 45 years. This person is also an award-winning actor, has had some really good success, also happens to be the best actor I know. And when she was doing a lot of theater I would have this weird experience where I would see her in a play, and just be transformed and blown away by her performance. And then we’d go out for a drink afterward and it’d take me a little bit to fully realize that this person who had just done this performance was the same person I was friends with, that I’d known when we were kids. And I can’t imagine if someone in college wrote In the Heights and then went on to write Hamilton. I’m not asking about your relationship with Lin, I’m not trying to pry into that, I’m asking just you, how does that feel for you?
Horwitz: There is no bump in that road for me, which I attribute to Lin’s consistency as a human being. Lin just has a really great head on his shoulders. The Lin you meet that is surrounded by fans outside the theater is very much the same one you meet in private, just like at Wesleyan University in 1998. He’s just always been this normal gregarious guy who if he has skeletons to help him make his art, has them very well hidden. He’s just a good dude, he’s a good hang, and his public persona is very much his private persona. Open and caring. And I’d say, from my vantage point, he’s unchanged since his zeitgeist moment in Hamilton. The stage has become bigger, and there are more eyes on him, but he’s the same dude. It’s just fun to watch him. It’s exciting to see.

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