Larger Than Life: Director Michael Gracey on the Making of ‘The Greatest Showman’

If there’s one thing La La Land proved, it’s that there’s still an appetite for original movie musicals. That’s good news for The Greatest Showman director Michael Gracey, who makes his feature directorial debut on the musical biopic, which stars Hugh Jackman as legendary circus impresario P.T. Barnum.

The splashy 20th Century Fox release shares something else in common with Damien Chazelle’s film: It features songs by that movie’s Oscar-winning lyricists Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. With its all-star cast, which also includes Michelle Williams, Zac Efron, and Spider-Man: Homecoming breakout Zendaya—not to mention a script co-written by Oscar winner Bill Condon—it certainly doesn’t lack in pedigree.

In advance of The Greatest Showman’s December 20 launch, Boxoffice spoke with Gracey about his previous work with Jackman, why he was so adamant about creating original songs for the film, and why he chose not to use real-life animals onscreen.

You previously directed Hugh Jackman in a Lipton Iced Tea commercial that involved a lot of complex choreography. Is that how you came into this project?

Yes, that’s exactly right. I’d never met Hugh, but the commercial was out of Paris, and it was between myself and another French director. And he was a bigger name director than me, and they ended up going with me because they assumed, because I was Australian, I knew Hugh. Which I didn’t. But I didn’t correct them either.

And then the first day of rehearsal for the commercial, Hugh came in and he was like, “Michael!” And he was all smiles, and he was hugging me, and as he hugged me he whispered in my ear, “They think I know you mate, so just go along with it.”

And then at the end of that commercial, Hugh suggested we do a film together. But I wasn’t that excited because I’ve been shooting commercials for like 15 years. And what I’ve learned is that whenever you shoot with a celebrity, you know, a film star, they always, in the euphoria of the wrap party, say “Let’s make a movie together!” And early on in my career, I would be excited about that. And then you would never hear from them again.

So by the time I was working with Hugh and he said it, I was like, “Yeah, yeah, sure.” But true to his word, he sent me this script, and that was The Greatest Showman.

I’d read that this was originally a straight biopic, but that you really pushed to make it a musical. Is that correct, and, if so, why did you push for that?

[Original screenwriter] Jenny Bicks wrote [it as] a musical, but it didn’t have any songs, and my sort of big thing with the studio at the time was to make it an original musical. Because there was obviously a lot of success with films like Moulin Rouge! which used existing hit songs.

But I felt really strongly that we should be making an original musical. Because at the time—this is before La La Land—it had been so long since someone had made an original musical. So I just felt it was really important in a time where there are a lot of remakes and a lot of preexisting properties on film, I felt that it would be truly wonderful to have something original. So that was something that I really fought for.

Thank God for La La Land, right? That really changed the perception of what an original musical could do.

Yeah, Damien [Chazelle] is like my guardian angel. Because that came at a time—you know, we had just finished filming and La La Land came out and it just, it was like a huge relief for a lot of people that an original musical could find an audience.

Also, the other advantage was that the songwriters [Benj Pasek and Justin Paul], who had been working on The Greatest Showman for three years at that point, had got brought in to work on the lyrics for La La Land. So all of a sudden, they were behind an incredibly successful original musical. It couldn’t have come at a better time for The Greatest Showman, in terms of reintroducing the world to an original musical.

So when Benj and Justin came onboard your film, what was your mandate for them as far as what kind of songs you wanted?

Well, I was talking to lots of songwriters at the time, and I sort of gave everyone the same brief, which was, “This whole film is a mix of what I call the classical and now.” So the wardrobe, the choreography, everything’s got this sort of fusion of elements of the old and elements of the new coming together in an original way.

And so for the songwriting, it was really writing songs that served as narrative, as you would in a classic musical theater scenario, but it also had a pop element, you know? And by pop element, that sort of idea of it having a hook that was catchy, but also you could record and play it on the radio today.

When your attachment was first announced, there was a lot of talk that the focal point of the movie was going to be P.T. Barnum’s relationship with opera singer Jenny Lind, played in the film by Rebecca Ferguson. But it doesn’t feel like that’s much of a focal point anymore. Was that relationship a bigger element in the original script?

Yeah, I mean the story evolved. And as time went on, it became more about what Barnum unwittingly did in gathering up all of these oddities and sort of pulling them out of the shadows and pushing them into the spotlight.

It’s not only that he turned them into stars, but he made them feel love for the first time in their lives. He made them feel accepted, and actually celebrated for being different. And I just think that’s such a relevant and powerful message today, to remind people that what makes you different is what makes you special. And so as the drafts went on, that became a sort of shift in the focus.

How many years of his life are we seeing reflected on the screen?

You’re looking at a 40-year span. But we sort of took the tentpole moments in Barnum’s life. You know, Barnum rewrote his autobiography many times. And he adjusted his life story. Which I think is one of the most wonderful things ever.

So the approach we took to the film was, “If Barnum was making this film, what would he do?” For a start, he’d get Hugh Jackman to play him. You know, he just—he never let the truth get in the way of a good story. So we looked at the sort of major milestones, if you will, of P.T. Barnum. Being that it was P.T. Barnum, it felt very in keeping with his own life narrative that we embellish it.

Did you use any real-life circus performers in the movie? 

Yeah, there were definitely circus performers in the film. And again, talking with them and just hearing about what the life is as a circus performer.

You know, we decided very early on that we weren’t going to use any circus animals. So all the animals you see in the circus are computer generated. And I think that that’s just a sign of the time we live in, which is wonderful. I have a very strong conviction that I didn’t want to be standing on set having someone directing an elephant or a tiger. To me, that would feel inhumane.

So this is your first feature, and it’s getting this big Christmas release and has all these major stars in it. Has it felt overwhelming for your first movie to get such an enormous platform? 

No. Because we all worked on this for so many years, not knowing if it would even get made. And again, all the people, from the artists to Benj and Justin to Hugh—all the people who rallied around to create this film, and the studio, and the producers—I think [for] everyone, it became such a passion piece.

And in your heart of hearts, all you hope is that it reaches an audience. You’re telling a story that you hope connects with people, and so the biggest hope and the greatest dream you can have is that after years and years of work, it gets released, and it gets released in a way that as many people as possible can see it.

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