Images of Warner Bros. 2021 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
In the heights is Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ode to the Latino neighborhood near where he grew up. The musical won a Tony on Broadway, and now director Jon M. Chu and his crew have brought the story from the stage to the big screen. The film’s opening this weekend was shot on location in Washington Heights, in upper western New York City.
“The streets were made of music,” says Usnavi, a young Dominican immigrant who tells the story of his Latino neighborhood on a hot summer. He is played by Anthony Ramos. The film takes place as he opens the bodega he owns, rapping, “It lights up in Washington Heights / lights up at dawn / I wake up and I have this little punk that I have to hunt …”
Usnavi looks out of his shop window on the corner of 175th Street and Audubon Avenue. Director Jon M. Chu says he looks out, “with this desire, with this hope of seeing something beyond, but he’s trapped by that window.”
Warner Bros. Pictures / 2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
In the reflection of this window, we can see the people of the Usnavi district starting to move in a synchronized fashion. “They challenge him,” Chu said. “Challenge him to break that window, challenge him to dream bigger.”
Suddenly, an elaborately choreographed flash mob erupts through the streets, singing and dancing.
Chu worked with cinematographer Alice Brooks to zoom in on the action from a 50-foot crane. Choreographer Christophe scott says it’s one of the tough dance numbers in the movie, “because it’s lightning speed.”
“You don’t even see Usnavi dancing there at first, you just see all these dancers,” Brooks explains.
The camera rushes, Scott notes, “and Anthony is in the middle of it, holding his own among 75 professional dancers.”
“You would never choose him until you zoomed in on him,” Chu adds, “and you realize he’s the main guy in this movie. And he’s looking straight into the camera. We could have chosen anyone. who among this crowd, but instead we chose the owner of the corner bodega, with his dreams, his hopes and his struggles. “
Chu says he enjoyed adapting Miranda’s production for the big screen. “Lin made an amazing story that resonates beyond most musicals, and I think it was meant to be a movie,” he says. “You know, in a movie, you have a perspective. So you can be 10,000 feet or two inches away. And we control that. It’s not where you’re sitting, it’s the only frame that you. get it. Now we are part of the dance itself. “
Chu is a longtime fan of musicals like Meet me in Saint-Louis, which, he says, inspired the way he framed some scenes in “In the Heights”. He and cinematographer Brooks met while they were film students at USC, where they started doing musicals together. They met choreographer Scott 15 years ago while working on the series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. Since then, they have collaborated.
“It’s very fluid in the way the three of us work,” says Brooks. “The camera is really a dancer in this movie.”
For In the heights, they worked out the choreography of the dancers and the cameras. Brooks says she used a couple of Steadicam operators to sneak into the dance scenes, in addition to cameras on cranes and wagons. “Sometimes we needed one of the choreography team to literally be right next to us to count us,” she says. “It would be like: one, two, three, move. So we knew exactly what pace to be on and we rehearsed that way.”
Taking what they had rehearsed into the streets they closed for the production was like an improvised dance; sometimes they had to stop filming to let ambulances or police cars pass. And their time was also limited by natural light.
“I wanted to shoot at a specific time when the sun was right over the George Washington Bridge, because down 175th Street you can see the bridge and the sun lining up perfectly,” Brooks recalls. “And it was so beautiful, because as we enter Usnavi there is a slight little rocket on his face for the very end of the issue. We moved really fast, then the birds fly over and we see the title d ‘opening. “
There were other logistical complexities to go through, such as getting heavy cameras and lighting to the graffiti-painted 191st Street subway tunnel for a number. On the other hand, they had to find the camera tips for a Fred Astaire / Ginger Rogers dance on the side of a building. Scott and Chu walked into an icy public swimming pool to direct and motivate 90 dancers for a complicated dance number in which they moved in geometric patterns, like in an old Busby Berkeley musical.
“It’s not easy,” said Scott. “You know, synchronized swimming is one thing. I was like good, we have dancers, we can do it. It was probably the hardest part of the whole movie. Keeping the circle perfect was like, come on, And they’re freezing in the pool. I hope we’ve done Busby justice.
Dancer Eddie Torres Jr. developed Latin styles, like mambo and salsa, both of which were popularized in New York City. And Scott, who choreographed for Disney’s ZOMBIES and other shows, added other New York street moves to the routines: acrobatic b-boys – back-spinning breakers, one of them, with sparklers … and Brooklyn-style flexors, twisting their arms and legs. “I’ve always been a fan,” says Scott, who spread the word for dancers in the community to try the film, “because they don’t have agents. A lot of them have agents. day jobs and they’re ‘trying to support their families and they don’t come to a lot of auditions.’
Scott says he’s proud the film authentically represents New York’s Latino community, starting with lead actor Anthony Ramos. “You know, Anthony being from New York, he moves a certain way, he dances a certain way because he’s been around him all his life. So we just built that.”
Some of the actors in the original scene made cameos in the movie. Scott says they also found local dancers: Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, Cubans, old and young. “I’ll never forget the feeling at the auditions. It was different,” he says. “We made a whole Latinx call to get the whole community out. And every time a group walked into that room… everyone was waiting outside. The door opened for a group to leave, and you wouldn’t hear. that a round of applause. It was powerful and moving, because it was one of the few auditions where they didn’t come to book the only Latin American dancer, you know what I mean? was their call, to show us what they do. “
Chu remembers the synergy between the dancers and the real people of the neighborhood, like when they filmed the Carnaval del Barrio number in a courtyard. “All the neighbors were in the windows watching us, playing the song over and over,” he says. “They weren’t yelling at us, they had their flags with us. They had their Puerto Rican, Dominican, wherever they came from, outside. And they loved watching this thing happen. That’s what happens when you. take a language that was created in these streets or through struggles similar to this. You turn on a camera, and it comes to life in a way that it never could on stage, never on tour. It had to be. there in Washington Heights. “
Chu says he’s thrilled to share this exuberant community musical with an audience ready to celebrate after surviving a tough year of the pandemic.