Why Andrew Garfield sings underwater in ‘Tick, Tick ... Boom!’

A man asleep next to a keyboard
Andrew Garfield plays a composer-lyricist with writer’s block in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!”
(Macall Polay/Netflix)

Midway into “Tick, Tick … Boom!,” Jonathan Larson is wrestling with writer’s block. And losing. Badly.

“Here I am,” says Andrew Garfield, who portrays the composer-lyricist in the movie, now streaming on Netflix. “The musical to which I have devoted my youth is about to be put on public display for every producer in New York. I haven’t written a single note or a single lyric to the most important song in the show. I have no electricity. My best friend is furious with me, my girlfriend isn’t speaking to me.

“And there is only one thing I can think of to do: swim.”

The song that follows is “Swimming,” a structureless stream of consciousness about what Jonathan sees, thinks and feels during his midnight workout. A track once cut from Larson’s original one-man production has become the movie’s most conceptually ambitious and narratively satisfying musical moments.


“I love that song because it really is so perfect for that moment,” Garfield said ahead of the film’s world premiere at AFI Fest. “Water, symbolically, is all about the unconscious, the deep self and the mystery. He’s so lost in his own way, so he’s going to the pool to push himself down and down and down and get rid of all the obstructions in his mind until he finds this treasure of a song. There’s a ritualistic, mythical, magical aspect to that sequence that I find so beautiful.”

The man behind “Hamilton” directed the unlikely Netflix adaptation of Jonathan Larson’s rock monologue ‘Tick, Tick ... Boom!’

According to J. Collis’ book “Boho Days: The Wider Works of Jonathan Larson,” “Swimming” was initially part of Larson’s September 1990 presentation but was cut the following year. It was never added back to the three-actor version of the musical that was reconfigured after Larson’s tragic death in 1995.

Miranda immediately prioritized the song upon hearing Larson’s archival recording while at the Library of Congress. “It’s an incredibly cinematic song — even the way the lyrics work, it’s all so visual,” said screenwriter Steven Levenson. “But he’s swimming in a pool the entire time. You could see how, on a stage, that would feel static. In a movie, you get to see Jon in that pool and what it’s doing to him as he’s pushing himself to the limit and trying to find that song.”

Andrew Garfield and Lin-Manuel Miranda in a bookstore
“I want this to sound like the Nine Inch Nails song Jonathan never wrote,” said Lin-Manuel Miranda, pictured on set with Andrew Garfield.
(Macall Polay/Netflix)


Transforming “Swimming” for the screen began with amping up the guitars and drums and distorting the bass. “Most piano players who write rock music, like Elton John and Billy Joel, write very piano-centric rock music,” said executive music producer Bill Sherman, who managed the film’s orchestrations with Alex Lacamoire. “Lin said to us, ‘I want this to sound like the Nine Inch Nails song Jonathan never wrote.”

As for the vocals, Garfield focused less on trying to sound exactly like Larson and more on staying true to him as a character, pulling back or belting freely when it narratively made sense to do so. “There was no imitation happening,” said Garfield’s vocal coach Liz Caplan, who also helped Miranda prepare for a 2014 production of the musical. “That’s Andrew’s voice entirely, but through this lens of Jonathan and how a human voice would sound as a result of going through these deep emotions.”

The scene’s indoor pool was initially chosen because of its distinct tiling design, which immediately inspired the idea that its lane dividers can transform into a music staff. Yet it also happens to be the very pool that inspired the song’s lyrics, as it’s the same YMCA in New York’s West Village that Larson frequented daily. “‘Red stripe, green stripe,’ ‘50 feet, 60 feet,’ — there are lyrics in that song that don’t make sense unless you’re at that particular pool,” said Miranda.

Lin-Manuel Miranda makes a fine feature directing debut with this Netflix adaptation of a musical written by and about ‘Rent’ creator Jonathan Larson.

The fantastical sequence was meticulously planned, thanks to cinematographer Alice Brooks’ animated storyboards cut together and put to music — a strategy she learned from Jon M. Chu on “In the Heights.” “That number is tricky, because how many shots of swimming do you need?” she explained. “You don’t want to just cut back to the same shot. He’s swimming something like 40 laps; if we only film him doing it a couple times, you’re never going to get that sense of the pressure mounting, and the actual amount of exertion he’s putting in to get it all out of his body, quiet his mind enough and hear the song.”


The team got creative with camera angles, thanks to underwater camera operator Sean Gilbert, who also collaborated with Brooks on the “In the Heights” pool scene. It took three days to film and might have taken longer had Garfield not swum it all himself. The actor has been treading water since childhood; his father, Richard Garfield, is the head coach of the UK’s prestigious Guildford City Swimming Club. “I swear, the fact that he’s a Michael Phelps-level swimmer is just total serendipity,” said Miranda. “Once he got started, the stunt double looked at me and said, ‘I can’t swim that fast.’”

Garfield’s father was supposed to be in the scene with him, as the fellow swimmer Jon overtakes in his frustration (“Too slow, touch his heel, move!” Jon sings onscreen). However, he couldn’t take part due to the shoot’s COVID rescheduling. “He loves mosaics in pools, so he was bummed and very jealous,” said Garfield. “But it was so much fun because I was hanging out in the pool all day, singing to the track underwater,” said Garfield.

An aerial shot of a man in a pool with sheet music as lane lines
A key moment in “Tick, Tick ... Boom!” has Andrew Garfield singing in a swimming pool.

The sequence visually replicates the song’s lyrics with a loyal precision, edited together at an urgent and frenetic pace. It resolves with phrases from another number, “Come to Your Senses,” as if the notes of that missing song are materializing before him. That grand overhead display was impossible to pull off in such a tight space with a low roof, so the shot was plated “so that we could artificially zoom out to the distance we need it for the pool to read as staff paper,” said Miranda.

All the effort was worth it for the director, who knows firsthand how tough the right song can be to write, and that “Eureka!” feeling when it finally eases. “I’ve had that experience maybe two or three times in my life,” said the “Hamilton” creator. “One of them was ‘Wait for It.’ I had done my research on [Aaron] Burr and I had a chord progression in my head, and then the entire chorus came at once while I’m on the A train to Williamsburg for my friend Jacob’s birthday party, which is a pretty bad time. I remember going into that party, having a swig of beer and going, ‘Happy birthday! I have to go!’

“That feeling when inspiration strikes and a song arrives — that’s a really hard thing to describe to people,” he continued. “You get into this rigorous process of trying to catch all the things that are floating in the air and in your mind, and then you get hit with a thunderbolt, like the three cherries line up in the slot machine. That’s what Jonathan was writing about in ‘Swimming.’ As a fellow songwriter, I wanted to honor that.”