For an Australian filmmaker making a name in Hollywood, Michael Gracey is virtually unknown in his own country.
But the visual effects artist and commercials director has just directed his first movie – and it happens to be a mega-budget musical about circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum starring Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron and Michelle Williams with music by two of the composers who won an Oscar for La La Land this year.
While yet to open anywhere – it’s out in the US this week and Australia on Boxing Day – The Greatest Showman has already been nominated for three Golden Globes, including best musical or comedy movie, best actor for Jackman and best original song for the stirring This is Me.
So how did a newcomer land a gig like that?
“That’s a very good question,” Gracey said cheerfully ahead of the Australian premiere in Sydney on Wednesday night. “It came out of doing a commercial with Hugh for the Japanese market.
“I actually got the gig because they thought, being Australian, I knew Hugh Jackman, and I didn’t. But I also didn’t correct them.”
After bonding over that Ice Tea commercial, Jackman suggested they make a movie together then surprised his new friend by sending him the script for The Greatest Showman.
“That started a seven-year journey,” Gracey said. “We went down a number of different paths.
“There was a stage where we were being encouraged to do a jukebox musical … But not being content with that, Hugh and I were like ‘let’s make an original musical’.”
The movie follows Barnum’s rise from humble origins to drawing together all kinds of exotic performers – a bearded lady, a tiny man, conjoined twins – into a phenomenally successful circus then risking everything on a singing tour by a Swedish soprano.
Gracey said fellow Australians Baz Luhrmann, Tim Minchin and Peter Allen were inspirations as he made The Greatest Showman.
“There is something about musical narrative and Australians,” he said. “If you want to do something, you kind of have to do it at a level – because we’re so far away from everywhere else – that exceeds what is just normal if you want to convince people that some guy from Australia is worth backing for an original musical.”
Gracey hopes The Greatest Showman will have a life like classic original musicals The Sound of Music, Singin’ in the Rain and Mary Poppins.
“I’d be very surprised if The Greatest Showman didn’t end up on Broadway at some point,” he said. “And I wouldn’t even be surprised if it ended up on Broadway with Hugh Jackman playing the role.”
Gracey, 41, grew up in Melbourne – in Carlton then Kew – then started working in visual effects and music videos before making his reputation in advertising, impressing with his Christmas commercials in the UK and US.
Rather than a bio-pic, he sees The Greatest Showman as “a musical reverie” about a famous impressario whose creativity extended to three autobiographies that told different versions of his life.
“I kind of feel like if P. T. Barnum was around now, this would be the version of his life that he would tell and he would cast Hugh Jackman, who looks nothing like P. T. Barnum, to play him,” Gracey said.
While Gracey has been linked to a movie adaptation of the Japanese manga series Naruto and an Elton John bio-pic called Rocketman, he is not sure what his next project will be. Much depends on how The Greatest Showman fares at the box office.
“If you look at the things I’m drawn to, it’s always stuff that’s got a lot of imagination and heart,” he said. Gracey ‘kind of a big deal’: Jackman
Zac Efron, Zendaya, and Hugh Jackman arrive at the Australian premiere of The Greatest Showman in Sydney. Photo: AAP
Jackman has said that when he first met Gracey, he was already “kind of a big deal” in musical storytelling. And pitching the project around Hollywood while they were trying to get it financed, “he was better than I’ve ever been playing P.T. Barnum”.
At the Sydney premiere of the film, Jackman said the past seven and a half years developing the passion project had been surreal.
“For the first three years I was acting like I knew the film was going to happen but I really wasn’t sure,” he said.
“At the time I’d never done a movie musical, I’d done a lot of movies and a lot of musicals and I’d just hosted the Ocsars. I thought ‘I’d love to give it a go’ but I wasn’t sure I’d get a shot.”
When The Greatest Showman was green-lit by 20th Century Fox, there hadn’t been an original Hollywood movie-musical for over twenty years.
“We just put everything into it and we took a risk. I’m very proud of the film,” the 49-year-old said on the red carpet at The Star in Sydney.
The Golden-Globe nominated actor said he’d be game to portray Barnum if The Greatest Showman were ever to be adapted for the stage.
“I’d be interested in that. I really really love the music.”
A week after Disney’s takeover of 21st Century Fox was announced, industry heavyweights are still scratching their heads on what the merger will mean for the film-making landscape.
“It’s a huge shift, it’s a lot to take in. I don’t think anybody really knows what the plan is moving forward,” Jackman said.
When asked whether less risks would be taken with movies going forward, Jackman said only time would tell.
“I don’t think we can assume that Fox or those departments are not going to make these kinds of movies any more. I think the next year will tell.”
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