I'll Cover You: The Filming of Rent

Special Features   I'll Cover You: The Filming of Rent Performances in the waning weeks of Broadway's Rent run were filmed to create a unique cinematic special event.
Final cast members of Rent.
Final cast members of Rent. Photo by Casey Stouffer

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Few musicals can boast of leaving behind as thorough a document of their existence as Rent, the trailblazing Jonathan Larson musical that gave its final performance at the Nederlander Theatre on Sept. 7, after 12-and-a-half years on Broadway.

The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center filmed the show early on in its run. In 2005, the show was adapted for the silver screen by Chris Columbus, who employed many of the original cast members. And, finally, @radical.media has filmed the Broadway production for a "cinecast" that will be screened in movie theatres nationwide. Audiences around the country will have the chance to view the Broadway production of Rent Sept. 24 and 25 (evening screenings) and Sept. 27 and 28 (afternoon screenings).

The filming is part of a new business venture launched by Sony Pictures Releasing, entitled The Hot Ticket. The Hot Ticket, according to a press release, will "distribute event programming, including popular music concerts, the performing arts, and sporting events in high definition digital projection to select movie theatres nationwide." The actual filming of the show was handling by @radical.media, a producer of short and long films, documentaries, commercials and commercial photography, with Justin Wilkes as one of its producers and Mike Warren directing.

Wilkes said he got a call from Rent producers Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller about the project in March. @radical.media had already been working with the producers on a documentary about the making of the musical In the Heights. Wilkes said he still recalled having seen Rent as a young man when he first moved to New York. "Just to be a small part of the history of this show, but also to record it for history, was thrilling." The filming of the production was executed over two nights: Aug. 20, when the bulk of the shooting took place; and Sept. 7, the actual final performance. On Aug. 20, the cast was brought in for six hours without an audience.

 

Renée Elise Goldsberry as Mimi
photo by Casey Stouffer

"Cameras were all over," recalled cast member Rodney Hicks. "They took out the center orchestra. They had cameras on dollies as well. It looked like they turned the whole theatre into a movie studio. We spent the first six hours filming out of sequence, without an audience. Cameras were mainly on stage and getting a lot of shots that they could not get in the audience. Crane shots and everything. I don't think people have seen musical theatre filmed this way actually, ever."

Wilkes, explaining his approach to the project, said, "We tried to get cameras where no audience member could ever get, not just on the stage, but inside certain scenes." The producer said he and director Warren wanted to recreate on celluloid what it was like to actually be in the theatre seeing the musical. "Anyone who's seen Rent remembers everything about it, the way the Nederlander Theatre smelled, how the actors looked on stage, the way the audience reacted. We tried to capture all that."

The mission, Wilkes said, included not just what the show looked like, but how it sounded when viewed live. "The CD of Rent, I felt, was rather clean and disconnected from the energy of the live performance — though I listen to it again and again." Nonetheless, the soundtrack is very crisp and eliminates the possibility of missing a lyric or not clearly hearing a line — one of the unavoidable pitfalls of seeing the rock musical in person.

After the six hours of filming, the cast was given a break. A studio audience was then invited in and the actors performed the show again — this time playing the scenes in chronological order, though with a few stops and starts in the proceedings. Hicks said the cast did not act differently because there were cameras around. "They were very keen on our not altering our performances," he said.

Wilkes, meanwhile, was equally concerned about another aspect of the performers' work. "If was kind of funny, because we asked the cast to come in on Aug. 20 and give a performance as if it were the last one they'd ever give."

Warren and Wilkes and the crew returned for the final Sept. 7 show. Wilkes said the resultant film is composed primarily of footage taken on Aug. 20, with some Sept. 7 used. Of the Aug. 20 material, half is from the work done with an audience present, half from the work done without an audience. The composite, however, feels as though the crowd is present the entire time.

However, even though the viewer may feel the presence of the audience at all times when seeing the film, they will rarely see spectators. The heads of first-row ticketholders are seen only occasionally and straight-on audience shots are never used. "We watched a lot of documentaries of musical events and we felt that whenever you cut away from the action to show the audience, you just lost the thread of the story," said Wilkes. "So we made a decision to focus on the stage most of the time."

Hicks was surprised how nuanced the film was. The camera snakes around the architecture of the set, and darts in and out of the wings. It follows Mimi's twists and turns in the scaffolding in "Out Tonight," is there on the table at the Life Café in "La Vie Boheme," and follows every plot and song-line in the ensemble number "Christmas Bells." (It also has an actual, ten-minute intermission, just like the show.) He said the movie records moments in the staging that he had never noticed before, even though he performed the show hundreds of times. "People who have seen it say it's so crisp, so clear," said Hicks. "You feel like you're in the first row without feeling claustrophobic or having to look up."

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Rent filmed live on Broadway will be in movie theatres nationwide Sept. 24-25 (evening shows) and Sept. 27-28 (matinee shows). For locations, and to purchase tickets, visit rent.thehotticket.net.

Justin Johnston (as Angel) and Michael McElroy (as Tom) in front of the cameras.
Justin Johnston (as Angel) and Michael McElroy (as Tom) in front of the cameras. Photo by Casey Stouffer
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