As millions around the world eagerly await the release of the much-anticipated film of the Pulitzer Prize-winning show, the film’s cast – some of whom have been associated with the piece since its inception a decade ago – began making the regular rounds of press junkets and publicity events that accompany a major studio release. For all of them, the completion of “Rent” has been at once exhilarating and cathartic.
“It’s an incredible sense of closure that I’ve been given, to have originated it and then come back ten years later,” says actor Adam Pascal of his performance as the melancholy rock musician Roger, who is struggling to find the one final song that he can leave behind before his body succumbs to the AIDS virus.
“To return to it was great because I’d had such a long break from it. It was all about the perfect alchemy. I felt the same chemistry that I did on Broadway between the cast and Michael Greif and Jonathan Larson. It needed to be right. Jonathan was watching us. If you believe in that kind of thing, he brought us all together. Now, this is on film. This is forever.”
Over years of seemingly gossip about the seminal musical’s transformation to the silver screen, the project was attached to directors ranging from Martin Scorsese to Spike Lee. But it was the passion and determination of filmmaker Chris Columbus (“Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Stepmom,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone”), and his partners at 1492 Pictures Michael Barnathan and Mark Radcliffe, that ultimately brought the adaptation to fruition.
While the process of turning the phenomenally popular stage show into a film needed a director and producers to realize it, the entire project would not have been possible without the support of author Larson’s family. Larson, as is now well known, was struck down on the eve of the show’s first preview by an aortic aneurism. Right from the moment of his passing, Larson’s family believed that the only proper thing to do was continue on with the preview period, then open the show as scheduled, just as Larson would have wanted. Still, the prospect of seeing Rent potentially maligned by a Hollywood studio was not something the family was eager to witness. The task of overseeing Larson’s estate and material was entrusted to his sister Julie, a co-producer of the film. She certainly had her own reservations.
“It was a big discussion among our family whether we would allow the whole idea of a movie to be made and whether Rent can translate to a film. We weren’t sure whether it would or not. We realized that a lot more people would be able to hear Jonathan’s music. We also realized what would have kept us from going ahead and making a movie would have been fear. So much of what Rent is about is to not choose fear and that was for me a very motivating factor in deciding to take a chance and see if it could be translated.”
Securing the family’s blessing, however, was only the first step that Columbus and his partners had to take to get the project off the ground. Robert DeNiro and Jane Rosenthal’s Tribeca Productions had long held the film rights to the material. In addition, there was the little matter of finding a studio that would be willing to finance a musical film about a group of friends in the grungy East Village of 1980’s New York City, all of whom are affected in some way or another by the rapidly spreading AIDS virus. This—as well as the heroin addiction of the film’s lead female and the numerous scenes dealing with same-sex relations—gave some box-office-minded executives nightmares.
Columbus, however, didn’t care.
“It’s okay to shake people up a little bit,” Columbus says. “I think it’s important that people wake up and see this. They have the opportunity to walk out and get their money back if they have problems with it. I think people need to see this movie, you have to understand that. People have to be a lot more accepting and a lot more tolerant. Maybe I’m just incredibly naïve.”
With this irrepressible attitude, Columbus, Barnathan and Radcliffe were able to broker an agreement with Tribeca Productions in 2004. Soon after, Joe Roth, the head of Revolution Studios, overheard a phone conversation in which Barnathan was telling Columbus that their latest attempt at funding had fallen through. Roth immediately jumped at the opportunity to finance the film and within a week the three companies had a deal.
The long-bandied-about topic of what performers would fill the roles so expertly created by show’s original stage cast then began. Meetings took place, some with complete unknowns and some with music superstars like Justin Timberlake and Christina Aguilera. But Barnathan remembers feeling something unique after meeting the original actors.
“There was that thing that they shared. The experience of doing the show, the experience of losing Jonathan in the middle of it, they shared that experience for a couple of years and that was very powerful. Chris felt that was the bond that would hold the film together.”
With original cast members Adam Pascal (Roger), Taye Diggs (Benny), Anthony Rapp (Mark), Wilson Jermaine Heredia (Angel), Jesse L. Martin (Collins) and Idina Menzel (Maureen) on board (Fredi Walker felt she had aged too much and Daphne Rubin-Vega was pregnant during filming) the producers cast Tracie Thoms as Joanne and rising Hollywood star Rosario Dawson as Mimi to round out the ensemble.
For Thoms, it was a lifelong dream fulfilled.
“I’ve been a Rent-head since 1997. I saw the original cast and it became my mission in life to be a part of Rent in any way, whether it be bus and truck, whether it be the fourteenth homeless women in the ensemble on Broadway, I didn’t care.”
Dawson was instantly able to connect to Mimi’s hard-luck life due to the unusual circumstances of her own upbringing. Fed up with being under the control of slumlord in a building on New York’s Lower East Side, her family packed up and moved into a squat with no running water or electricity a few blocks away.
She recalls, “when we first moved in there was a great big, gaping hole in the floor and there was plastic for windows. There was a plywood door with a chain. We had an extension cord that went from the building across the courtyard for the one refrigerator that we had for the entire building.”
Since the material was still in previews when the author passed away, many involved in its creation felt that there were certain sections where the show seemed unfinished. Shaping the film version of Rent meant that the filmmakers were able to zero in at close range on the relationships that make the show’s characters so endearing to audiences. It also provided the opportunity for actors such as Taye Diggs, who plays Benny, to refine how he is perceived.
“I feel that’s just one of the positives of being able to use film. One of the main differences is that it’s much more intimate so you’re just able to see all these characters far more closely then you did on stage. I think you’re able to zone in and hone in on specific characters at specific times. It allows you to see more of them and the different aspects that they possess, the subtleties.”
For the actors and artists who worked to bring the film into being—both those who have been with the show since day one and those who only recently became involved—carrying out the author’s ideas was just reward for their efforts.
“When we were doing the show initially we where dealing with a whole lot of heaven and a whole lot of hell,” muses Jesse L. Martin. “We lost Jonathan Larson before the show even got on its feet. That took us all for a loop, we weren’t sure what was going to happen with the production. I’m so glad we got to put this on film because somewhere – Jonathan—those big ears are just flapping, going `Yeah!'"
“Rent” is presented by Revolution Studios in association with 1492 Pictures and is a Tribeca Production. The film goes in wide-release in the United States on Nov. 23.