Australian director Michael Gracey is one of the hottest properties in Hollywood after his debut film The Greatest Showman amassed more than $US424 million worldwide.
The Los Angeles-based filmmaker has been inundated with offers before and after the release of the period musical drama starring Hugh Jackman – but still hasn’t decided on his next project.
“I am an agent’s worst nightmare,” Gracey tells IF. “Over the years I was offered films that were set up at studios and I would say, ‘Yeah, that’s great, but anyone could make that film.’ I wanted to make The Greatest Showman because it brings together a lifetime of work in music and dance and it plays to my strengths, although I was often told it may never happen.
“There are a lot of scripts the studios want to make but you could interchange whoever is directing them and it would be yet another film. It’s not about the genre. I would happily do a superhero film or a sci-fi film. But when I read the script it has to be an amazing story and there has to be so much scope for me to bring something to it. There are projects that I love but the script is not there yet.”
Gracey admires filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuarón who have the ability to move seamlessly between films as diverse as Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Children of Men and Gravity, while bringing a clear and distinctive vision to each.
Without sounding in the least bit arrogant, from the outset Gracey was extremely confident the P.T. Barnum musical would resonate strongly with audiences.
He knew that because he had to pitch the project multiple times to actors, key crew and international distributors as well as Fox. He refined the pitch each time, treating it as a working document.
“I was always way more ambitious [about its commercial prospects] than anyone else,” he says. “In the pitches you always get a sense when people are engaged in the story because they have to sit there and listen to you for 45 minutes.”
Generously the filmmaker shares a lot of the credit for the film’s success to his collaborators, including DOP Seamus McGarvey (The Accountant, Nocturnal Animals, Fifty Shades of Grey), songwriters Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, first AD Peter Kohn (La La Land, Birdman) and production designer Nathan Crowley (Dunkirk, Interstellar).
He credits Jackman with fighting for years to make the film with an untried feature director and rejecting suggestions that an experienced filmmaker would be a safer bet.
In the US tentpoles and other big films typically end up making three or four times their opening weekend tally. Astonishingly, The Greatest Showman’s $US173.3 million gross is nearly 20 times that of the $8.8 million debut. Similarly the movie co-starring Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Rebecca Ferguson and Zendaya has shown great legs in Oz, scoring $34 million in 16 weeks.
Gracey was not surprised at the level of repeat business as he often sat at the back of cinemas in the US, Australia and London and observed the ripples that went through the audience before each musical number.
He spent 10 years virtually living in hotels as he shot TVCs in LA, New York, London, Paris and Australia until he settled in LA three years ago. As has been well documented, he met Jackman during the shooting of a TVC for iced tea in Japan nine years ago.
Jackman asked if he was interested in making a feature with him. He said yes, albeit without much enthusiasm as he did expect to hear from Hugh again.
True to his word, Jackman sent him the first draft of the screenplay written by Jenny Bicks and Bill Condon. So began a seven years long and at times frustrating development process.
“Fox took a lot of convincing,” he says. “This pre-dates La La Land so there was no recent precedent for a musical that would appeal to a commercial audience. It was such a hard sell. It is a credit to Fox that they took a chance and ultimately gave us the go ahead.”
Even so, Rupert Murdoch’s studio only put up half the reported $US84 million budget so the production was not fully financed until Peter Chernin’s Chernin Entertainment and TSG Entertainment came on board.
Gracey would love to see a Broadway adaptation of the film, which he has discussed with Jackman, Pasek and Paul.
Among the projects he is attached to direct is Naruto, an adaptation of a Japanese manga series for Lionsgate, which Zareh Nalbandian’s Animal Logic Entertainment will co-produce with Arad Productions’ Avi Arad and Ari Arad.
Written and illustrated by Masashi Kishimoto, the manga follows adolescent ninja Naruto Uzumaki, who dreams of becoming the village ninja, the community’s protector and leader.
Gracey enlisted Kishimoto’s support after writing a story treatment and he and Nalbandian are keen to shoot the film, which is still being scripted, in Australia. It could well spark a franchise based on hundreds of characters created by Kishimoto.
No stranger to Animal Logic, Gracey spent a year there as an animator, taking a year off school between years 11 and 12 when the company was based in Crows Nest and had about a dozen employees.
Back in 2013, Elton John’s Rocket Pictures asked him to direct Rocketman, the biographical musical film which would chart John’s journey from a 5-year old prodigy, who won a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Music when he was 11, to global icon in partnership with songwriter Bernie Taupin.
Gracey loved the script by Lee Hall (Billy Elliot, Victoria & Abdul) and wanted Tom Hardy to play the lead but the financing wasn’t in place, The Greatest Showman intervened and Matthew Vaughn and Taryn Egerton have since boarded the project. However, he may still be involved if they shoot the script that he worked on with Hall.
Earlier in his career he hoped to make The Muppet Man, the biopic of the late Jim Henson, who created The Muppets, with the co-operation of the Henson family including Jim’s daughter, producer Lisa Henson.
During his research he had the privilege of reading Henson’s meticulous notebooks, recalling: “It was such a magical world to be invited into. His story and his relationship with an imaginary green sock on his hand which he called Kermit and convinced the whole world to believe in this character… it is a most beautiful and touching story. That film has to be made.”
Almost every day during the shoot of The Greatest Showman he was reminded he had not made a feature before. That annoyed him because he had such a clear idea of what he wanted after videoing the entire film during rehearsals, which gave him, Jackman and the creative team the chance to rework some scenes and songs.
He concludes: “I am so excited about what’s next because while I am sure I will have many arguments, I won’t have that one any more.”