In early November, Mochi Magazine attended the New York premiere of “tick, tick…BOOM!”, a Netflix feature adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s semi-autobiographical musical, and we had the pleasure of chatting with Julie Oh, the producer who made it all happen. A force to be reckoned with, Oh began her career as a development executive at Scott Rudin Productions after graduating from the University of California, San Diego. She previously helped launch Imagine Entertainment’s Pod Producer program after joining the company as vice president of development, and she was also vice president of production and development at The Weinstein Company, overseeing projects in film, television, and theater. In 2021, Oh launched her own production label, OhCo, where she is currently under a first-look deal with Chernin Entertainment.
Mochi talked to Oh about the highlights of working on “tick, tick…BOOM!” (including collaborating with first-time director Lin-Manuel Miranda), how this project came to be, and her experience as a producer.
This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
IP: How was it working on this project with Lin-Manuel Miranda, especially with it being his directorial debut?
JO: This may have been Lin’s first time officially stepping into the role of director, but he’s been a storyteller his entire life. His artistic integrity and commitment to getting [the story] right is an incredible thing to witness. He knows exactly where he wants to take every moment, and he leads with a beautiful combination of confidence and humility. When Lin is directing, he’s lifting everyone around him up and bringing out their best work.
The greatest thing you can ask for as a producer is to work with a director who is a bold leader and a thoughtful collaborator, and Lin is both of those things and so much more. On top of that, he radiates so much optimism and positivity. That joy fueled our work every single day. Whether through singing, sharing a mind-blowing anecdote about theater or film history, or even leading a group planking session mid-meeting to get our energy flowing, this movie was made with lots of laughter — and that starts with Lin. Often, I’d hear a huge burst of laughter and bark of joy from Lin right before he would call “Cut!” on a take, and that spirit is emblematic of how we made the film.
IP: How was it bringing this musical to the big screen, as well as working with such a diverse cast?
JO: Casting is one of my favorite parts of the process because you get to finally meet your characters for the first time. Andrew Garfield was the first actor who joined us, right after we had our first draft from Steven Levenson, during our first workshop in the summer of 2018. Andrew had just finished his Tony Award-winning run playing Prior Walter in “Angels in America,” and we got to watch as he [began portraying] Jonathan Larson. He just threw himself in deeper from there to embody Jonathan’s spirit, learning to sing, play the piano, and perform in a way that he’d never done before in his career.
We knew the minute we met Robin de Jesús that he was tapping into something special. Not only does Robin bring a soulful and kind energy to the character, it was crucial to us that this character be played by an actor who was out. Also, we were casting a character who is a high-powered marketing executive, and there’s a certain known archetype that might [emerge] because we’ve seen it on the screen before. But what you see in Robin’s version of Michael is completely different — he’s a Latino LGBT man who hasn’t lost his dream of being an artist, but is putting himself into a corporate structure because that’s his version of choosing himself and choosing the best life for himself. But through it, he still understands the importance of creativity and dreaming, and that’s why he’s able to be the most supportive and loving friend to Andrew’s character, Jon. Robin was cast as Michael because he brought the most authentic, human presence to the character, and we wouldn’t have that if we were looking for something prototypical.
IP: How did you get involved in this project?
JO: In the summer of 2014, I was incredibly lucky to attend one of only a handful of performances of “tick, tick…BOOM!” at Encores!, which is a program dedicated to bringing groundbreaking musicals back to NYC for incredibly limited runs. This was months before “Hamilton” would begin rehearsals and Lin-Manuel Miranda played “Jon,” Leslie Odom, Jr. played “Michael,” and Karen Olivo was “Susan.”
That performance was my introduction to both the musical and the story of Jonathan Larson, and I felt like I had been hit by a bolt of lightning. It felt like Jonathan Larson was speaking directly to me and it felt like it was written for me. That night kicked off what ultimately was a years-long process to secure the rights and adapt the musical into a film. For the next two years after seeing the Encores! performance, encouraged by Jonathan Mills (the agent who represents the Larson estate), I sought answers to the questions I had: How would I put this together? And how could I ensure that this would be done in the right way?
In 2016, it finally clicked for me. I realized the answer was in front of me the entire time. Even though Lin-Manuel Miranda had never directed a movie before, I knew he was the right person because his passion for storytelling is innate and he deeply understands the complicated themes and emotions of this story.
I had no idea what Lin would think, but Julie Larson [Jonathan Larson’s sister and the film’s executive producer] gave me her blessing. With the help of Lin’s agent, John Buzzetti, I reached out to Lin and asked if he would be interested in directing “tick, tick…BOOM!” as a film. I’ve never gotten a quicker reply. From our first meeting on this project, it was obvious that we both understood why this film needed to exist and the responsibility of telling Jon’s story the right way.
IP: What did you like most about working on this particular project?
JO: It seems too on the nose that a film that is a love letter to the creative process would, in turn, have its own lovely creative process, but it’s true. Every step of making this film was thoughtful and meticulous, and we had the time and space necessary to explore threads, ask questions, and pressure test every element until it came together exactly as it needed to. As a producer, getting to protect that space, watch the magic happen, and see the results reflected in every detail — from Steven Levenson’s screenplay, to the performances, the production design, and the music, and so on — was a dream.
On top of that, Jonathan Larson personally had so much respect and admiration for those who came before him, and that was a foundational part of “tick, tick…BOOM!”. Jon had huge respect for [composer and lyricist] Stephen Sondheim, whose mentorship was the fuel that kept him going, and we sought to bring elements of that into the movie.
We are especially thankful that our creative heroes saw what we were doing and came to the table for the film, especially as we were shooting in a pre-vaccine world. The film would not be complete without Stephen Sondheim’s voice, Bernadette Peters’ acknowledgement of Jon during “Sunday,” Rosa Stevens’ very real advice perfectly delivered by Judith Light, and every other incredibly talented human who gave their time, talent, and energy to the film. I don’t know that I’ll ever have the privilege again of working on a story that allows for this level of acknowledgement to the greats who have come before you, and I personally loved every moment.
IP: How did you become interested in being a producer?
JO: It’s hard to know what’s possible if you aren’t able to see it with your own eyes. When I was younger, I didn’t know that producing was something someone who looks like me could do, but I knew that I found all forms of storytelling intoxicating. It didn’t matter if it was a book, a movie, or even a music video — I was like a moth to a flame, and that magnetism is what initially led me to film and television.
Growing up, I had seen the credits on movies I watched — executive producer, producer, associate producer — but had no idea what they actually meant. My greater questions when I was getting started were: How did the movies and TV shows I loved get made? Who was responsible for bringing them to life? As I started doing my own research, I realized that almost every single element involved a producer in some capacity. When I realized that producing was actually a job that I could have to make my life’s work, it was like a lightbulb went off and I had found my calling.
IP: What advice would you give to an aspiring producer, especially a young Asian American woman who is finding her way in the industry?
JO: To me, producing is all about passion, intention, and efficacy. To do it at the highest level, you need to become an expert on how to guide a project through many different kinds of situations and challenges. As a producer, people are relying on you, and you have a real responsibility to work tirelessly to bring a story to life. I spent over a decade working for very experienced producers who have built their careers championing directors, writers, and stories that matter, and [I] tried to learn every aspect of the industry from them. That way, when I sat in the [producer’s] chair, I would be doing so having spent time learning from people who came before me. Even now, I learn something new every day, and that education and knowledge is crucial because it’s something everlasting. You take it with you no matter where you go.
IP: What projects are you looking to produce?
JO: During the early months of the pandemic, when our “tick, tick…BOOM!” shoot was interrupted and we were still trying to figure out a safe production path forward, I found myself sitting at home for the first time in over a decade. This new and uncertain space was the right thing to push me and say, “You’ve put your Malcolm Gladwell 10,000 hours in — what’s next?” It led me to take the leap of faith and launch a production company, OhCo, and find the right partners to support that endeavor. We have a first-look deal with Chernin Entertainment, run by Peter Chernin and Jenno Topping, two powerhouse producers and wonderfully supportive humans whose guidance over the last year has been invaluable as I’ve taken this step.
I aspire to produce stories that are exciting, elevated, and contain universal themes. The best stories are those that take you on a ride, deeply move you, and make you immediately want to share it with as many people as possible.
When considering material, I ask myself: Why is this important? Why is this ambitious? And why am I the right champion for this? We are building a slate now that is filled with projects that have an undeniable answer to these questions.
Watch “tick, tick…BOOM!”, released on Nov. 12, 2021, on Netflix.
Photo credit: Netflix
Last modified: January 5, 2022