One of the biggest hits of 2017 almost wasn’t a hit at all. When the Hugh Jackman-fronted original musical The Greatest Showman first hit theaters in mid-December, the opening weekend numbers were actually a bit rough. But a funny thing happened in the ensuing weeks—for two straight weekends the box office numbers went up, then the film was bringing in a steady stream of moviegoers through the end of January. Indeed, the first time the film’s weekend box office was less than its opening weekend was January 26th—a full month after the movie first hit theaters.
Now The Greatest Showman is a certified hit, amassing a passionate fanbase who sparked to the P.T. Barnum origin story with a big heart, eye-popping visuals, and tremendously catchy original songs. With the film now available on Digital HD and hitting Blu-ray and DVD on April 10th, I recently got the chance to speak with director Michael Gracey about the film. Greatest Showman marked Gracey’s directorial debut, and during our interview he got candid about how he felt opening weekend, his belief that the film would eventually find an audience, and working some A-list behind-the-scenes talent like cinematographer Seamus McGarvey and production designer Nathan Crowley on his very first movie.
Gracey also talks about the positive atmosphere on set, where the film’s major stars would show up simply to watch their co-stars’ big musical numbers and scenes, and he discussed filmmaker James Mangold’s contribution to the film when the studio got a bit nervous during post-production. As Gracey explains, Mangold offered some key guidance and wrote new pages for the movie’s reshoots. Additionally, Gracey provided an update on the live-action Naruto movie he’s attached to direct and the long-in-development Elton John biopic Rocketman.
Gracey’s enthusiasm and positive attitude is infectious, and Greatest Showman marked a pretty terrific debut for a filmmaker who no doubt has great things to come in his career ahead. Below, check out our full interview.
The movie’s huge, it feels like you almost made a hit Broadway musical that keeps going and going. But it wasn’t one of those movies that exploded right out of the gate, so I was curious how were you feeling opening weekend and when did you first realize this was huge?
MICHAEL GRACEY: Yeah it’s interesting, I mean obviously opening weekend was disappointing for everyone. Everyone was like, “Really?” We knew we were up against huge films going into the weekend—Star Wars, Jumanji, it was a blockbuster weekend to be releasing a film. But I was always very confident that it was all about word of mouth. I kind of feel like with a musical, there’s so few original musicals that people just don’t know what to expect. Even from the trailer there’s always this thing historically with musical trailers, “Do we show people scenes? Do we not show people scenes? We don’t want to distance the people who don’t like musicals.” It’s such a bizarre thing because the argument can be the people who like musicals are going anyway, so really you should be targeting the people who don’t like musicals and try to convince them that this is actually worthwhile for them to see. So I just think that it’s definitely one of those things that relied most on people seeing it and then saying to someone else, “I know you don’t like musicals, but you should check this out.”
As disastrous as the opening weekend was, I was sort of just holding my breath for the weeks afterwards. A lot of phone calls came in that weekend and there were a lot of panicked voices, and I was just saying, “Look, let’s give it a couple weeks. Let’s see what happens once people start talking about it.” Because I had such huge faith in the cast that we put together and the dedication that they put into the film. They did 10 weeks of rehearsals. That’s kind of unheard of today when you’re creating films, that you have big name stars committing to 10 weeks of rehearsals.
So I knew everyone involved was there for the right reasons, and I genuinely am such a big believer in the environment in which something was captured comes across onscreen. So it doesn’t matter how much people are smiling—if it’s a stressful environment where people are screaming and yelling sure people can smile when they call action, but you can see in their eyes that it’s false. You don’t believe it. And I think the opposite is true with The Greatest Showman.
The set was electric. Usually on a film set it’s making sure that everyone is there for their scene, and the moment their scene is over they disappear. But on this film set literally the stars would show up for each other’s musical numbers just to stand behind the camera and cheer and clap and shout. It was such an incredibly supportive environment and it was so magical. If you’re performing and you’ve got Hugh Jackman standing behind the camera applauding you after every take and shouting out and cheering, it just elevates everyone. It just was os magical, and I’m a very big believer that you see that in the end film. You see the joy in people’s faces when they’re performing, you see that excitement, you see that electricity.
So I was always like as long as enough people see the film on opening weekend and talk about it, more people will come. And thank goodness they did (laughs). To be honest, I also look at films that I grew up with like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and for Jim Henson at the time they were flops in terms of their theatrical release, but they went on to become classics that people still buy to this day. So I also was very much like I really hope it finds an audience now, but if it doesn’t I genuinely do believe it will find an audience. Maybe it’s not in the first week, maybe it’s not in the third week, but at some point it will find an audience. And of course at the time you say that people they’re like, “It might not be on at the cinema in six weeks’ time” (laughs).
It definitely paid off and it definitely found an audience. I was also curious as a first-time filmmaker, what was it like working with a cinematographer like Seamus McGarvey or production designer like Nathan Crowley on your first film? That crew is insane.
GRACEY: You know when someone says to you, “What’s your dream crew to work with on your first film?” and you put down all the names of the people you’ve just revered and looked at their work and you go, “Well there’s no way I’m gonna get Seamus on my first film and there’s no way Nathan Crowley isn’t going to be doing a Chris Nolan film,” these are just my dream crew. Even down to Peter Kohn the first assistant director, Peter Kohn is literally the greatest First AD. He’s done everything from Birdman to the Pirates of the Caribbean films, he is such a big part of how I got to realize the film that we made. They were all my first choices and they all said yes, and as you said for a first-time director being surrounded with that depth of talent and daily inspiration, the stuff that those guys came up with and that they would offer up was incredible.
Even down to all of the exteriors in the film are these beautiful miniature shots, and it’s because of Nathan Crowley. We were told that we didn’t have the budget to do miniatures, he was like, “Listen Michael, go and buy six 3D printers and I’ve got 10 3D printers in the art department, and we’ll just print all the miniatures in the film, and then we’ll get the scenic artists who are already on the payroll to paint them for us.” And that is the only reason why all of those exterior shots in the film look so tactile and beautiful and hand-crafted, and that is one of a thousand suggestions that people who have that depth of talent and experience can just bring. So I feel so, so fortunate that team of people assembled. And for the musical numbers you’re basically dancing with the camera, you know the camera is as choreographed as the people in front of the camera. So having someone like Seamus who’s just all-in with finding a way to shoot it and just making it so poetic in terms of the way that he lights his scenes, it was such a privilege.
Then you have James Mangold, who came on during post-production. What did he bring to the project and what was it like having another filmmaker involved?