Significant Others’ Miky Wolf and Dan Sormani speak to LBB’s Addison Capper about ‘Welcome Back’, a Jeff Daniels-voiced film to mark the return of Broadway shows to New York City
'Welcome Back' is a short film that celebrates the return of theatre to New York City after more than a year of pandemic-related darkness. The two-minute piece of film gives us big, warming vibes of a night out in Midtown Manhattan and makes us miss doing exactly that.
It features the actual cast and crew of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as well as other Broadway shows. The script was written by the playwright Aaron Sorkin and features a voiceover from actor Jeff Daniels. "The moment the house lights went down and you and a thousand strangers felt the same chill," he says. "And we’ve been without it too long. But come this fall, we’re turning the lights back on.”
All of this was brought to life by the production company Significant Others and director Miky Wolf (who is also an editor at Final Cut). The whole thing feels about more than just the return of Broadway; it’s about the return of a city. LBB's Addison Capper chatted with Miky as well as executive producer Dan Sormani to find out more.
LBB> There are some huge names behind this campaign. How did it come about that Significant Others would work on it in the first place?
Miky> My background is in theatre and I’ve been doing theatre-related editing work for years. One of those projects was editing and directing commercials for the Tony Award-winning musical, The Band’s Visit, and it was those same producers who reached out to us with this project.
Dan> As soon as we started talking about the concept, I knew we wanted to be involved. It was a great opportunity to shepherd a project all the way from that seed of an idea through to a beautiful, finished film, which perfectly illustrates the ongoing evolution of Significant Others.
LBB> The film was creatively directed by Bart Sher and the script was written by Aaron Sorkin. Can you tell us about those processes? How involved were you as a production company working with them? At what stage did you get involved? Was the script already written or was it prior to that?
Miky> We were approached with the idea before the script was written. The first draft that Aaron wrote was a home run. I quickly put together a treatment and we presented it to the producing team, Bart Sher (director of the Broadway production of To Kill a Mockingbird), his producing partner Cambra Overend and RPM (the agency). Everyone loved it. We gave the script a visual language that everyone could sink their teeth into. We also presented a clear sense of how sound would play an important role in the execution.
Bart, Cambra, Dan and I became the core team that wrangled everything together. It was a complete collaboration from the start, with Significant Others as the mothership.
LBB> Once the script was locked in, how did you go about building your vision for the film? And how would you define that vision?
Miky> I was really excited about the idea of exploring the backstage pre-show rituals. It’s the machinery that makes it all work and a side of the theatre that most audiences never get to see. That’s what I wanted to capture.
The script was already very specific, as one would expect a Sorkin script to be. He hooked into the stage manager’s ‘countdown to places’ as a dramatic device. It was a brilliant choice that gave the piece immediate stakes. You can feel the tension rise as we get closer to the curtain rising. I was obsessed with the ‘flight control’ aspect of the stage managers’ work. They are always in front of their consoles and monitors guiding the cast and crew. You can hear their voices ringing through the dressing rooms and hallways. They run the shows and are truly the unsung heroes in the theatre day in and day out. All of the preparation of the actors and crew is also so beautiful and dramatic - I wanted to do it all justice and celebrate the immense amount of work that happens behind the curtain.
Most importantly we had to capture the rhythm that Aaron had written into the script. There is a build in tension that I knew would be tricky to sustain. And because we were working with pre-existing footage as well as our own material, I needed a deft editor that could mine the small details. My first call on the project was to one of my fellow Final Cut editors, JD Smyth. I love JD’s work. He has such an incredible eye for detail. And he works so well with sound and music. JD was my first call and I’m so grateful he agreed to do it immediately.
LBB> What were your main aims and ambitions with regards to the aesthetics and lighting of the film? It really does give me good vibes of an evening in Midtown.
Miky> Thanks for that, and I agree. Good midtown vibes, which we all miss! Part of that is just being in and around the Shubert Theater which is a true NYC landmark. Art direction was basically covered. Bart, Connie Huang (our incredible DP), and I discussed from the beginning that we wanted all the lighting to feel natural. We used work lights and stage lights and augmented them here and there as it was necessary. We were also using a bunch of found footage that was all vérité and we knew we had to match it all in post. There was also an important element of wanting the theatre to feel like a safe haven, a respite from the storm, so to speak.
We considered using stock footage at the top of the spot to convey the desolation of Broadway while during the shutdown. But Connie found a wide shot at 3am that is basically a dark and empty 46th street and it just worked - that paired with the actual ghost light from the Shubert stage told the whole story.
LBB> How did you find the challenge of shooting in a theatre?
Dan> It was no small feat to coordinate between the theatrical union and the film union - even though they're kind of like brothers and sisters, right? The theatre has its own rules, laws, and processes, which almost directly conflict with how the film union rules work. There was an epic amount of negotiation that needed to happen. Thankfully, in the end, everybody was there to serve the project and bring the shows back to Broadway.
Cambra was a stage manager on Broadway for a long time, so she had a lot of heart for the people that we were bringing in. She and Bart wanted people to be actual crew. A lot of the people in the film are the actual Mockingbird crew at the Shubert Theater.
Miky> Bart and Cambra pushed for us to use all the talent from the show. Even if it cost more they always argued that the value of having the actual crew celebrated in the film would be worth the extra dollars. They were absolutely right.
Dan> Bart was insanely collaborative and just super cool. He was a lovely partner. He's so accomplished yet incredibly down-to-earth and nice.
Miky>This was also about bringing his show back. Aaron’s too. We were grateful that they trusted us to help out.
LBB> When you have someone like Jeff Daniels voicing your film, how do you go about directing them? Did you just let him do his thing or was it quite collaborative?
Miky> Jeff and Bart know each other well, so there was no awkwardness. We let Jeff do his thing. He's also worked with Aaron so often that he understood the tone of the script immediately. He was such a pro. I think it was the quickest voiceover session I’ve ever been to.
LBB> I feel like this film is about even more than just Broadway - it feels synonymous with New York opening up as a city too. What are your thoughts on that? Did it ever cross your mind when working on it?
Miky> For obvious reasons, this is a moment we’ve all been desperately waiting for. Broadway is synonymous with New York. You can't have a functional New York City without a functioning Broadway. This was our chance to say ‘Welcome back’, not just to visitors and tourists, but also to New Yorkers, the people that work in the theatre, my neighbours, friends, and family members.
LBB> What is your personal relationship with theatre and broadway? And personally, how did it feel to work on a project like this?
Miky> I graduated with a BFA in directing for theater. My process as an editor and as a director is completely shaped by my training and experience in the theatre. I'm also a huge fan. I've been lucky that I've been able to combine my film and theatre work in so many ways. To me, this was very personal. Being in the theatre - shooting in there, directing in there - was exhilarating. The best part of it was that I had old conservatory friends, stage managers, and lighting designers that wrote to me to thank me for telling a story about the theatre that featured crew members. I did feel uniquely suited for this kind of project. I was grateful to Dan for being such a fantastic partner. He was in it 100% and that’s what you hope for from your EP. I don't think this would have happened without his spirit and dedication.
LBB> What were the trickiest components and how did you overcome them?
Miky> The biggest technical challenge was shooting the marquees. We had to plan everything with the Shubert’s in-house engineer, as the marquees of all the theatres are pre-programmed. It was a night shoot that went from 8pm until about three or four in the morning. Controlling the marquees on Broadway is not something you get to do that often.
LBB> Any parting thoughts?
Dan> I talked to the producers and they are running this film like crazy. It’s on every morning on CNN and on Sunday before Face the Nation. They said it's doing great.
Miky> I saw it this morning on the Today show. Originally, there was no media buy for TV. It was only going to live online. They loved it so much that JD cut a :30 for broadcast. It’s a terrific spot.
And let’s not forget the beautiful Elmer Bernstein track underneath the film. The value of having the rights to the theme song from the original film can’t be understated. It’s a gorgeous piece of music.
Dan> This film is just the beginning of our evolution for Significant Others. We currently have a full slate of design driven animated projects complemented by several live action commercial and branded projects in production. Miky is also directing two other exciting feature docs, currently in production. These projects are indicative of the direction we are headed. It’s an exciting path to be on for us at SO and we’re always looking for new collaborators to bring your projects to life!