Warner Bros. Pictures/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 team have translated the story from stage to the big screen. The film opening this weekend was shot on location in Washington Heights, on the upper, upper West side of New York City.
“The streets were made of music,” says Usnavi, a young Dominican immigrant who tells the story of his Latino neighborhood one hot summer. He’s played by Anthony Ramos. The movie unfolds as he opens the bodega he owns, rapping, “Lights up on Washington Heights/ up at the break of day/ I wake up and I got this little punk I gotta chase away …”
Usnavi peers out the window of his shop to the corner of 175th street and Audubon Avenue. Director Jon M. Chu says he’s looking out, “with that yearning, with that hopefulness of seeing something beyond, but he’s trapped from this window.”
Warner Bros. Pictures/2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
In the reflection of that window, we can see people in Usnavi’s neighborhood beginning to move in sync. “They’re challenging him,” says Chu. “Daring him to break that window, daring him to dream bigger.”
Suddenly, an elaborately choreographed flash mob bursts out on the streets, singing and dancing.
Chu worked with cinematographer Alice Brooks to zoom in on the action from a 50-foot crane. Choreographer Christopher Scott says this is one of the film’s challenging dance numbers, ” ’cause it’s lightning speed.”
“You don’t even see Usnavi dancing there at first, you just see all these dancers,” says Brooks.
The camera swoops in, notes Scott, “and Anthony’s in the middle of that, holding his own amongst 75 professional dancers.”
“You would never pick him out until you just happen to zoom in on him,” Chu adds, “and you realize that’s the lead guy in this movie. And he looks right in the camera. We could have picked anybody amongst this crowd, but instead we picked the owner of the bodega around the corner, with his dreams and 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 perspective. So you can be 10,000 feet away or you could be two inches away. And we’re in control of that. It’s not wherever you’re sitting, that’s the only frame you get. It’s now we are part of the dance itself.”
Chu is a longtime fan of movie musicals like Meet Me in St. Louis, which he says inspired the way he framed some of the scenes of ‘In the Heights.’ He and cinematographer Brooks met as film students at USC, where began making movie musicals together. They met choreographer Scott 15 years ago while working on the series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. They’ve been collaborating ever since.
“It’s very fluid the way the three of us work,” says Brooks. “The camera really is a dancer in this movie.”
For In the Heights, they worked out the choreography of the dancers and the cameras. Brooks says she used two or three Steadicam operators to weave through the dance scenes, in addition to cameras on cranes and dollies. “Sometimes we needed one of the choreography team to literally be right next to us counting us in,” she says. “He’d be like: one, two, three, move. So we knew exactly what beat to be on and we’d rehearse that way.”
Taking what they had rehearsed to the streets they shut down for production was like an improvised dance; sometimes, they had to stop filming to let ambulances or police cars roll through. And their time was also limited by the natural light.
“I wanted to shoot at a specific moment when the sun was just above the George Washington Bridge, because down 175th Street, you can see the bridge and the sun lines up perfectly,” Brooks recalls. “And it was so lovely, because as we push into Usnavi, there’s this slight little flare on his face for the very end of the number. We pan up very quickly, and then the birds fly over and we see the opening title.”
There were other logistical complexities to dance through, like getting heavy camera and lighting rigs down to the graffiti-painted 191st street subway tunnel for one number. For another, they had to figure out the camera tricks for a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers-type dance on the side of an apartment building. Scott and Chu got in 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,” says Scott. “You know, synchronized swimming is a whole thing. I was like well, we got dancers, we can pull it off. That was probably the most challenging part of the whole movie. To keep the circle perfect was like, c’mon, guys. And they’re freezing in the pool. I hope we did Busby justice.”
Dancer Eddie Torres Jr. worked out the Latin styles — like mambo and salsa, which were both popularized in New York. And Scott, who had choreographed for Disney’s ZOMBIES and other shows, added other New York street moves to the routines: acrobatic b-boys — breakers who spun on their backs, one of them, with sparklers … and Brooklyn-style flexers, who contort their arms and legs. “I’ve always been a fan,” says Scott, who put the word on the street for dancers in the community to try out for the film, “because they don’t have agents. A lot of them have day jobs and they’re trying to support their families and they don’t come out to a lot of auditions.”
Scott says he’s proud the film represented New York’s Latino community authentically, starting with the 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 it his whole life. So we just built off that.”
Some from the original stage cast made cameos in the film. 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 did a whole Latinx call to get the whole community out. And every time a group would come in that room … everybody else would be waiting outside. The door would open for a group to leave, and you would just hear a round of applause. It was powerful and emotional, because this was one of the rare auditions where they’re not coming to book the one Latin backup dancer, you know what I mean? This was their call, to show us what they do.”
Chu remembers the synergy between the dancers and real people in the neighborhood, like when they filmed the Carnaval del Barrio number in a courtyard. “All the neighbors were in the windows looking out at us, playing the song over and over and over again,” he says. “They weren’t yelling at us, they had their flags out with us. They had their Puerto Rican, Dominican flags, wherever they’re from, out. And they were loving watching this thing happen. That’s what happens when you take a language that was created on these streets or through struggles similar to this. You turn on a camera, and it comes to life in a way that it could never on a stage, never on tour. It had to be there, in Washington Heights.”
Chu says he’s excited to share this exuberant movie musical about community with audiences ready to celebrate after surviving a difficult pandemic year.