Kicking off the PBS Fall Arts Festival, the 90-minute documentary Hamilton’s America provides intimate access to Tony Award winner Lin-Manuel Miranda and his colleagues during the two years leading up to the Broadway opening of the smash hit musical and pop culture phenomenon Hamilton while also bringing history to vivid life through the contemporary perspective. Featuring a young, dynamic cast of actors, along with commentary from some of today’s most notable thinkers and artists, including President Barack Obama, the film includes exciting and fascinating insight into why a hip-hop musical about Alexander Hamilton, a poor immigrant who built himself up from nothing to become one of the nation’s most vital architects, has become one of the hottest theater tickets, ever.
During this exclusive interview with filmmaker Alex Horwitz, who became friends with Lin-Manuel Miranda while the two were in college together, spoke to Collider for this exclusive interview about how surreal it’s been to witness the growing success of Hamilton, during the three years he’s worked on this film, observing it all as a documentarian, the incredible people they got access to interview, the historical field trips they went on with the cast, never wanting to influence the creative process, and where he’d like to take his career next.
Collider: Has it been completely crazy, surreal and bizarre to watch what Hamilton has become while you’ve been documenting all of this?
ALEX HORWITZ: Yeah, it has been surreal and strange. But when you’re looking at a story through a camera lens, you watch it and you’re editing in your head, as you go, or at least I was. My attitude towards it remained professional, in that sense. The premise of the film was not one that was affected by the phenomenon that the show became. We just kept doing what we were doing, and it only helped. Obviously, I was aware that it would only help the film and the whole experience, for Hamilton to succeed, so I was grateful for that. I wouldn’t say I bet on the right horse because I always thought the horse was gonna win, but it was gratifying to watch. Also, I come to this as a friend of Lin’s, so I was just thrilled for a friend, at the same time that I was observing as a documentarian.
What would have happened to this footage if Hamilton hadn’t become what it did? Would you just have had a screening in your living room, or were you pretty sure that someone would be interested in this?
HORWITZ: Lin became a household name, in a way that he hadn’t, with Hamilton. He had achieved the heights of Broadway success. That’s the thing that people forget. People say, “This kid came out of nowhere!” This kid had won the Tony for best musical already. Because of In The Heights, there was always going to be an interest and an audience for Lin and his next show. Worst case scenario, the show wasn’t going to be that big of a hit, but we would still have a very interesting look at a creative process and at history coming to life through music. That was always going to be the case. It may not have had the audience that I hope we will get now because there are Hamilton fans in the world, but I would like to think that it would have had a venue. We might not have gotten a yes from all of the interviewees that we reached out to, but I think some version of the film would still exist. It just got bigger and better.
What was it like for you to have access to people that you probably would never have gotten into a room with, otherwise?
HORWITZ: I do not take it for granted, the access that we had to important people on this film. It’s rare for a documentarian to have that kind of good will, out in the world, when you reach out. Before our film was even a film, people knew what Hamilton was and wanted to say yes to us because of that. That is an incredible gift that we had, in the making of this. We reached out to Presidents, sitting and former. We reached out to very prominent members of Congress. We reached out to a legend like Stephen Sondheim and had him go, “Oh, yes, I love Lin and I love the show. Let’s try to work this out.” That was a wonderful place to start from. I had nothing to do, but just be thankful and use it.
Was there anyone that you got in a room with and just kept thinking of questions you wished you could ask them, but couldn’t because they wouldn’t be on topic?
HORWITZ: Of course! All of them. We have interviews with all of the principal cast of Hamilton, who are wonderful, brilliant, fascinating, funny, articulate people, and I could have talked to them about anything and everything, for a long time. I didn’t have that long with them, and I was just focusing on their interpretation of their characters, and how they take us through a moment from history and dramatize it and make it exciting. I didn’t talk to them about their process, as actors. I would have loved to have heard that, from all of them. They’re all at the top of their craft.
I did most of the interviews for this film, and Lin did a couple of them on screen. The scene with President Obama is Lin on screen with President Obama. The rest, I’m behind the camera, off camera, interviewing people. The one with Obama was very tight. We had a very limited amount of time. They did an incredibly efficient interview, and it was great. I was a fly on the wall for it and I was honored to be there. For President George W. Bush, I had 40 minutes of the man’s time, just me and him. We asked for less time than that, and he gave us that. I was so grateful for it.
When you have the ear of a President, where to begin! I could have asked him about anything. To get to sit down and connect with somebody who has lived that life and done those things, good or bad, whichever side of the political aisle you’re on, is an incredible privilege. I was focused in what we talked about, but after the interview was over, he hung out and talked about his paintings for 10 or 15 minutes. I could have gone on forever, listening to him talk about that. It’s incredible to get that kind of access to someone. Lin talking with Stephen Sondheim and John Wideman, which is in our film, is a movie on its own. Those are very important people. That’s rare air, and there they are, talking shop. Only so much of that conversation had a place in our film, but I was lucky to be there. I could have listened to them go on forever.
Could you ever have imagined, when you met Lin-Manuel Miranda, that the two of you would be here now, still friends and bringing your artistry together, in this way?
HORWITZ: Yes, I could have imagined it. People say, “Did you know?” Of course not! No one knows what the future holds for anyone. But I knew, from my earliest days of doing shows in college with Lin, that his talent was evident and that he had rare gifts. Did I know that that would mean not that long later, he’d have Tony Awards and would have changed the face of musical theater? No, no one can guess those things. But, he was always that guy. He was always this gregarious, talented friend and collaborator. I got to see that, as a friend, as he did In The Heights, and I got to bear witness to it, in an even closer sense, during Hamilton. I am not a collaborator on Hamilton. I cannot claim to be. What Tommy Kail, as director of that show, and Lin and his incredible creative team and cast have put together is a major work of art that we will be talking about for many decades to come. My film, the best it can hope for, is to be a worthy companion piece to that phenomenon. I am so grateful that they gave me the time and access to do that. Lin, because he is a generous friend and a conscientious collaborator, made what we were doing on the documentary part of the Hamilton family, and I’m glad he took it as seriously as he did. It could have just been a little bit of access and a little bit of B-roll, from a distance, but we’re really part of the brand. That’s a gift.
This film could definitely enhance the experience for somebody who’s seen the show, but it will also give people who haven’t seen the show a deeper understanding of what it is and how it came about.
HORWITZ: That’s my hope. There are still a few people in the world who go, “What’s that Hamilton thing I’ve been hearing about? It can’t really be that good, can it?” I hope my film will answer those people’s questions. But for somebody who is already a fan, this film might elevate their experience and understanding of that content, of the history they’re in, and of Lin’s process and how he puts together a song. It is a film for everyone, in that sense. Even if you don’t think you care about musicals or hip-hop, at all, there is another angle on this film with the historical element. I’m hoping that it is a film for all tastes and all interests.
You hear people say that when you do a documentary, you should be removed from your subject, but you’re not, since you and Lin are friends. Did you think about how to embrace the friendship you have, but also step outside of it?
HORWITZ: Sure! There’s no one way to make a documentary film. I’ve always thought that documentaries are really just another kind of film. Certainly, if you are making a film that is about policy or world events or even just a slice of life of story, big or small, fly on the wall filmmaking can be glorious and bring you amazing things. That’s one approach. On the other end of the spectrum, you have a Michael Moore approach to filmmaking where there’s a lot of comedy, there’s a lot of writing, he’s engineering scenes and it’s very clear what his viewpoint is. That’s a wonderfully unique kind of documentary experience. There’s no one way to do it. I don’t think that my closeness to the creative team of this show ever influenced their creative process. It was never my intention to get in their noses with a camera and change what they were doing in a creative session. I simply wanted to use that access to get a vantage point that others didn’t have. It doesn’t unfold just as a fly on the wall creative process film does. I take you through it with a lot of interviews and a lot of outsiders commenting on that process, and then we have this other texture of the field trips, where we take the cast out to sites of historical significance. Those were engineered for the documentary, in the sense that not all of those field trips were going to happen, if I had left the cast to their own devices. I invited them to come out and do those trips for the documentary. So, there’s a little bit of engineered documentary filmmaking in this movie, and there’s also a lot of fly on the wall stuff. It’s a mixture of textures, and if we’ve done our job well, you won’t see the seams between them. It will all just feel like one experience with the telling of history and Lin’s process.
By the time we see this documentary on PBS, how long will you have worked on it?
HORWITZ: It’s been three years, almost to the day, between my first rolling of cameras and the premiere of the film. We were rolling for about two years, leading up to opening night, and we’ve captured a lot of the year that’s followed.
What are your goals, as a filmmaker?
HORWITZ: My tastes are everywhere. I had a short zombie love story (called Alice Jacobs is Dead) that was at the Comic-Con film festival a few years back and won Best Horror Film, and here I am making a documentary about American history and musical theater. I fell into documentary filmmaking. I love it and have great respect for it, but I come from genre writing. The things I write and the things I want to make range from science fiction and horror to more documentaries that I have ideas for. I am figuring it out, but my tastes are everywhere, both in terms of genre and also in terms of form. I love documentaries. I’ve spent the last six years or so of my life, primarily as an editor of documentaries. Meanwhile, what I go out and see in theaters is usually very far from documentaries. Good stories are good stories, and there are so many different ways to tell them.
Hamilton’s America airs on PBS on October 21st.