“A Storybook We Were Creating Inspired by the Truth of Washington Heights”: Director Jon M. Chu on the Spirited New York Musical In The Heights
“We were trying to break the rules of a musical genre that’s been around since the beginning of Hollywood,” director Jon M. Chu says about the making of In The Heights, his sensational adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-award-winning stage musical featuring a book by Quiara Alegria Hudes, who also wrote the screenplay. And the rules, he does break confidently, with a boisterous movie dedicated to the mostly Hispanic and Latin-centric communities of New York City’s Washington Heights.
When he first came on board to direct In The Heights, a massively-scaled screen musical that renews the Busby Berkeley spirit and brings it to this side of the 21st Century, Chu was going through a period in his life where he was not entirely feeling fulfilled by the movies he was making. It’s not that he didn’t love those films. But he was taken over by a pronounced desire to get more personal in his filmmaking, and thus, to embark on something that scared him on a different level he didn’t experience before. And so he started to search for projects he was intimidated by. One of them was Crazy Rich Asians and the other happened to be In The Heights. “I signed up for both of them at the same time, not knowing which would go first,” he explains during our recent chat over Zoom. “And it just so happened that Crazy Rich Asians went first. Lin and Quiara waited for me for like a couple of years to actually get this movie made.”
One of the most crucial things for Chu was bringing this movie to life with the biggest vision possible, something he knew he could push for and execute after having gotten enough juice in the business through a pair of blockbuster films in the Step Up franchise, a Justin Bieber documentary, the ever-popular The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers web series and even a tentpole with G.I. Joe: Retaliation. “Tyler Perry once said to me, ‘We have to dream bigger at this moment. This is the moment where we have the ability to change the story, the way it’s supposed to be, and that we need to dream as big as any movie that was before us. And these people deserve that space to do that.’” Chu remembers and reflects: “So whether it was Crazy Rich Asians or In The Heights, I wanted to make that room.”
A heart-stealing film about unity, the power of community and the immigrant experience, In The Heights is slated to kick off this year’s postponed Tribeca Film Festival tonight, before launching its nationwide release on Friday. And it’s hard to imagine a more joyous picture to mark a genuine return to film festivals and movie theaters, both in New York City and around the US.
Filmmaker: You seem to be drawn to stories about the immigrant experience, evidenced both by In The Heights and Crazy Rich Asians. You mine such specificity in these films, but then both open up to something universal, so much that you can hear echoes of yourself.
Chu: Yeah, that’s what I feel like when I watch movies in general. That’s what I felt like when I saw In The Heights on Broadway for the first time over a decade ago. I’m from a Chinese family. They started a Chinese restaurant. I had no idea who Lin-Manuel Miranda was when I saw that show, but what he did and what he showed [with] his brilliance spoke to me so deeply. It said things about my family that I never knew how to put into words.
I knew what it felt like to have aunties and uncles who took care of you, who put their hopes and their dreams on you for good, or for bad. I knew what it felt like to have my [own] Abuela Claudia, who showed me how to fold wontons. I just knew that I could connect in that way. And I knew that it would speak much grander to the world, then to just the community of Washington Heights. But I also knew that if we listened to our cast and our crew for the little details — from the food, to how they sit, to where they put the food at a dinner part –, those things were all going to be really, really important. Had I not gone through the experience with Crazy Rich Asians, I’m not sure I would have made the elbow room enough for everyone to be able to have a seat at the table and speak up about all the little things. So, it really helped me, and it also really helped to have Quiara [Alegria Hudes] and Lin right there by my side too so I could ask all the stupid questions.
Filmmaker: As I was watching In The Heights, I was truly taken and encouraged by the fact that it is a big, massive, flashy, beautiful Hollywood production, something that absolutely refuses to be small. But it is also full of small, intimate moments. What was that process like, with your key artisans…cinematography, production design, choreography, to strike that balance?
Chu: My team is amazing. I’ve worked with a lot of them for forever. Alice Brooks was our cinematographer. She shot my student film back in the day. We’ve done a lot of dance projects together. And the choreographer of all those projects that I’ve done in the last decade was Christopher Scott. We are all very close, so they know that we can call each other out. We can also try to achieve bigger things that we think is possible just by ourselves. My amazing editor, Myron Kerstein, I did Crazy Rich Asians with him. He knows how to find all the gems in every take. And of course, Nelson Coates, our production designer, did Crazy Rich Asians. Everyone kept saying, “Oh, let’s just go out on the street to Washington Heights and just shoot.” No, this was a storybook that we were creating inspired by the truth of Washington Heights, so [Nelson] had to envelop himself in that community and bring out the things, the history, the beauty. All of us, including Mitchell Travers, our costume designer, everyone had to be a storyteller in their own right.
I’m not Latino, I’m not from Washington Heights. Everyone had to find their own inspiration — to go meet with the neighborhood, be embedded in that neighborhood. In fact, the blocks became so integrated in our [movie that the neighborhood] wasn’t just a character in our movie, it became a crew member, a writing partner. And, in fact, I had a baby during the time of our shooting. I named him Heights because it was such a beautiful [word]. I loved being inspired there, the idea of hopes and dreams beyond your window. I wanted to say, “Heights,” out loud every day of my life, and I wanted my son to hear that word every day of his life.
Filmmaker: You will probably soon get tired of talking about the 96,000 number filmed in the community swimming pool. But it’s basically the most astonishing set-piece, even centerpiece for this movie. It’s extremely ambitious, and it has already been compared to the Busby Berkeley musicals, for good reason.
Chu: First of all, it wasn’t scripted, it came from a very real place as we were getting a tour of Washington Heights from Lin and Quiara. And we’re all like, “What’s that building over there?” And Quiara was like, “Oh, that’s our public pool.” “You guys have a pool?” “Yeah, we go there every summer.” So we went there, and we opened up this door, I’d never seen a pool like this. Giant, so much that our producers are like, “Oh, we should leave this place.” [As in, “Don’t] get any ideas.” But it was too late, we saw it, and Quiara looked at me and we made a joke like, “Oh, wouldn’t that be funny to do a big Busby Berkeley, Esther Williams number here in this pool with all the people of the neighborhood of all shapes and sizes, and ages, and color. How great would that be?”
And we laughed about it, and then we went back home. And [I was] like, “We have to do this.” And that took, 500, 600 extras and towels to keep them all dry. Lifeguards because we had to make sure no one drowned. We had electricity everywhere, so the safety measures alone were huge. The heat of the pool was huge. The costuming that everyone had to have, not the same costume, they’re all different but complementary in their ways. Fire marshals to get barbecues going. It was storming and raining, by the way, it was not a sunny day.
A lot of elements [were] coming at us. In a way, it sort of epitomizes how much in sync we all had to be. All the departments, costumes, and AD’s, and everybody in order to pull that off. If one was a weakness, we would have all gone down with it. And it just so happened that it worked out, and our whole cast was there, and it turned out to be one of those sequences you just pushed through. The spirit, you could feel everyone fighting their way through it, and I think that’s the energy you feel.
It was sort of like one of those weird musty days, and there was lightning, so you had to stop every hour for 20 minutes until it cleared. But the pool itself, we tried to warm it for a week, and it still didn’t get warm. It was like freezing cold. At a certain point, I had to get into the water because everyone was like, “It’s so cold in here.” So I was like, “All right, I’ll get in with you.” And so I got in with the monitor inside and it was indeed very cold.
Filmmaker: I remember you were shooting around the same time as Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story, not too far from where I live. There were these ridiculously hot 95-degree days back to back during that time. Did you have to shoot under that heat as well?
Chu: I’m sure we were, of course. Those days, they were all hot, and we just built it in — we started spraying everybody with sweat right from the beginning because we knew that that’s where they were going to head anyway, so…. And yes, West Side Story was shooting down the street, not the whole time, but there were moments [we were] so close. [There was this time] their catering truck was in our shot, that we had to like, “Hey Steven, can you, like, move your truck just a little to the left?” [Laughs] And we got it. But it was beautiful, it was beautiful that this community could have so many people working so you could hear the music coming from all the buildings, not just our productions, but people just blasting music. When we say their streets were made of music, it really was. And I think that inspired every one of our crew members to envelop themselves in this neighborhood, to feel, and bring whatever their tools are.
Mitchell said that there was a guy who was walking past and [said], “Hey, I heard you guys needed sneakers.” So he brought a box of sneakers, and we put those on the dancers that danced with it in their number, that’s how close we were. We were inspired by photos on an Instagram account, Uptown Collective, that had pictures of the neighborhood: people from the neighborhood, the image of their Washington Heights and how beautiful it was to them. We actually used those images in our final end title sequence. So, we did our interpretation of Washington Heights. But those [in the] end title sequence, they’re pictures taken by other people of Washington Heights of their own neighborhood. That’s what I loved about it, it was much more than just making a movie.
Filmmaker: Perhaps a little serendipitously, In The Heights will maybe be the first movie a lot of people, and maybe even a lot of New Yorkers, will see in a theater or in a crowd for the first time in over a year. It must be special moment for you, especially that you had to make a tough decision to delay the release until the theaters open again.
Chu: Yeah, it was tough last year. In fact, I couldn’t think about it. I sort of had to put it in a box. We had, of course, our families to worry about, the world to worry about. So it was sort of easy to put it in a box. I didn’t hit me how much I was emotionally affected until we started showing the movie again, this February. And then people started to see it, and you’re like, “Oh yeah, we actually made a thing and people haven’t even seen it yet.” And it made all of us very emotional. It’s very overwhelming. But when we were shooting the movie, we were always trying to [convey] truthfulness. Lin wrote it about the truth in this neighborhood.
And we got to ground it again because we’re shooting in the neighborhood to find that truth. The idea of struggle, the idea of hopes and dreams and yearning for something more than just beyond your window, this idea that your community and family could be there for you when you got knocked down. How does it feel to feel powerless when God rips the electricity cord from you? Where do you head? You scatter to the people you love the most, the places that you feel most safe, and that’s our community, that’s our families.
And so I love this idea that it’s going to be Washington Heights that people are going to watch as inspiration to know how to pick themselves up again after a year of isolation. That it’s going to be this community who’s dealt with this for many, many years, generations even, that it’s going to be their example that shows us that there’s hope on the other side towards light and that we can actually get up together and move forward.
Filmmaker: Obviously, you’re no stranger to filming dance and music. You’ve done the Step Up movies and I would argue even Crazy Rich Asians has kinetics and a certain musicality to it. But this is different, being an existing stage musical you’re bringing onto screen. So what was that process like, working with both Quiara and Lin-Manuel, making sure that you’re still keeping the spirit in tact, but also making it cinematic?
Chu: I think you said the magic word, which is process. That’s something I’ve learned over the years, that process is everything. And luckily Lin and Quiara believe that as well. So when I first started with Lin, he was really busy with Hamilton, and he really trusts Quiara. And Quiara is the key to all of this. They’re best friends, they’re neighbors, and so I got to sit down because he trusted Quiara, he trusted me. And also Lin is a cinephile, so he understands the power of film, and that it is very different than a staged show.
You’re allowed to be 10,000 feet away in a film. And you’re allowed to be two inches away to someone’s eyes. And when they say a line, you can see when they’re lying about it, even though they say they’re telling the truth. That’s a power that only cinema has, that only the big screen has. And everyone we had on this, from Alice to Chris, to Myron, to Mitchell, and Nelson, and Lin, and Quiara, we all understood that we needed to use all the dynamics of film, to tell and go back to the truth, the source of the truth. Not the show, but the source of the truth of what he was trying to write when he was so young.
So I think it just shows every single crew member, every single actor was there to be a storyteller. The big thing that we added on top of what the show did was adding a bigger external. When you’re making a movie, you want a villain. We didn’t add a villain. We resisted that idea; the big, bad mayor is going to come in here and buy this stuff and they got to fight it. We made a very conscious choice to say, no, this is all internal struggle. So instead of getting bigger in that way, we’re going to go bigger inside.
We want to see their dreams come to life. We want to feel like an art installation inside Washington Heights. I just know growing up in the Bay area, in a Chinese restaurant, imagining what you could be, imagining becoming a film director. And I would be in the restaurant imagining how I would shoot a movie, right there. Not something I didn’t know, like what it felt like to be on an actual movie set. But just the things I know.
So it gave us really great parameters to be creative. For instance, when Vanessa runs down, when she’s feeling trapped and just wants to yell, she doesn’t. We go into her mind and she runs down the street and she doesn’t cry either. Instead, fabrics of all different colors come down the buildings as if they are her tears, because that’s how she sees things, that’s how she feels things and she runs as fast as she can. And then we pull back, she runs past us and we see that we’re just in the iris of her eye and that she hasn’t gone anywhere. And that’s what it feels like. That’s what it looks like to feel trapped. And that’s what it feels like to feel trapped. That’s the thing that I think we brought and that’s the thing that everybody knew we were trying to evoke when the audience watched that movie. You can’t do that on stage like that.
Filmmaker: And the source, being about Washington Heights, definitely benefits from being transposed to a movie where you can see the actual Heights on the big screen.
Chu: I’m excited that you’re actually talking about the craftsmanship of this. Because I think it’s easy to get over what it feels like in it, but what you’re writing about is all the details that made it happen. And that was the hardest work, probably the least sexy work, but the hardest work of us banging our heads against the wall to figure out how to crack these things in a genre that has been done a lot.