“My Cutting Process is Very Old School”: Editor Myron Kerstein on In the Heights
The smash hit that launched creator and leading man Lin-Manuel Miranda into the Broadway stratosphere, In the Heights was less an overnight sensation than a constantly developing passion project. Early iterations of the musical, about a group of residents in Washington Heights who are more family than neighbors, originated at Wesleyan University and Off-Broadway before subsequently making the move to the Richard Rodgers Theatre and winning the 2008 Tony Award for Best Musical. Highlighting the intricacies, passions, and dreams of Dominican culture (as well as the inner struggles and homesickness of immigrants and first-generation New Yorkers), the show was praised for providing some much-needed representation on the Broadway stage, both in its diverse casting and musical score.
Increasingly frustrating stages of development hell delayed In the Heights’ eventual move to the silver screen for well over a decade, but now—after its creator found even more success with a Pulitzer Prize-winning musical about Alexander Hamilton and a global pandemic put the finished product on the shelf for an entire year—the film adaptation finally arrives in theaters and on HBO Max. Directed by Jon M. Chu (Step Up 3D, Crazy Rich Asians), the film is both a faithful adaptation as well as a more up-to-date take on the source material (a lyric about the reality TV star who would become the 45th President of the United States has been excised, while references to DACA recipients have been added).
But most of the show’s nods to its characters’ rich histories, as well as its own place in musical theater history, remain. “Does your cousin dance?,” asks Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), a young woman who frequents the bodega of the shy but love-stricken Usnavi (Anthony Ramos). “Like a drunk Chita Rivera,” Usnavi’s cousin, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), humorously replies. Just mere blocks from In the Heights’ film shoot over the summer of 2019, production on Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story remake was underway, both musicals representing the pinnacles of Latin-American representation in musical theater. Chita Rivera, unsurprisingly, has ties to both.
A frequent collaborator of Jon M. Chu, editor Myron Kerstein brings his vast cutting experience and knowledge of New York City (he edited Raising Victor Vargas, Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and numerous episodes of Girls) to the production, and the results are as kinetic as they are subtle. A few days before the film’s release, I caught up with Kerstein about finding the musical’s visual grammar and the difficulties and pleasures of editing musical numbers.
Filmmaker: You’ve worked with several filmmakers multiple times, from Zach Braff to Peter Sollett, Paul Weitz and, now, Jon M. Chu. What have you found to be key to building a successful partnership between an editor and a director?
Kerstein: I’ve been very fortunate to be a repeat customer of several directors, it’s true. For me, when I’m given the opportunity to work with a director I’ve connected with, that’s everything. Building up a strong sense of trust with another artist can be close to impossible, but when you’re able to make several films together, you’re very lucky. You develop a shared shorthand and the process becomes that much more fluid. You move past debating questions of taste and get to a place where you can say, “How about you take a first pass at this and tell me what you think?”
I’m now at that point with Jon, where he gives me the freedom to put together my own version of a cut (every scene, every musical number, etc.) without any outside input. Jon will sometimes ask, “Do you even want my input?” And honestly, I’ll often respond, “No, I don’t want your input,” because I want a fresh take on how I think a scene should work. Being able to continuously build that trust is a huge part of what ultimately makes a film successful.
Jon and I first worked together on Crazy Rich Asians and he didn’t “know me from Adam,” so to speak, but while in production in Malaysia, we were able to screen dailies in an actual theater. That’s how we built up a shared trust. Throughout the Crazy Rich Asians shoot, I sent Jon different cuts of certain scenes, and that too was a worthwhile experience. If, after three months of filming in Malaysia, he were to have been presented with my first cut of the film cold, it probably wouldn’t have gone very well, as that was our first time working together.
Filmmaker: Was he reviewing dailies with you on a nightly basis after that day’s shoot?
Kerstein: It was more like two or three days a week, definitely not as intensive as every single day. That would’ve been close to impossible with the schedule we were on, but reviewing footage several times a week was something he really wanted to do with me. Getting to watch dailies on this large screen and checking in with the rest of the keys [key production crew] about what was working and what wasn’t was huge for me. In fact, I tried to replicate that routine on In the Heights, but our shooting schedule just wouldn’t allow it. Nonetheless, that experience on Crazy Rich Asians was key, as it became clear that we shared a similar taste for performance, music, pacing, etc. By the time we began In the Heights, I just knew I’d be able to go for it [on my own].
Filmmaker: With In the Heights having been a very popular Broadway musical, did you ever get a chance to see it? Were you even familiar with the show prior to coming aboard the film? Or did you want to avoid anything related to the show once you knew you’d be working on this production?
Kerstein: Similar to my experience with Crazy Rich Asians (where I had not read the book the film was based on prior to being hired), I wanted the film version of In the Heights to succeed on its own merits and didn’t want to catch myself comparing our work to the source material. That being said, I watched a few YouTube clips of Lin performing in In the Heights on Broadway and immersed myself in those as much as I could. Funny enough, the Broadway show that had a greater influence on my In the Heights work was Hamilton!
But we didn’t want to compare our work on the film version of In the Heights to the stage production. You get to include so many things on a film that you wouldn’t be able to on stage, right? We have tight closeups on each of the performers and closeups of various parts of each dance sequence, and in the theater that’s just not possible. Depending on where you’re sitting, the performers can look extremely tiny as they stand on the stage’s proscenium and the intricacies of their performances get lost. It seemed unfair then to revisit the stage production and try to resist being influenced by it. The film had to be on its own merits.
Filmmaker: After a brief intro on a beach that introduces us to the film’s narrator, the opening credits put us right in the heart of Washington Heights. Many of these establishing shots are aerial-based, but then we quickly get “on the ground” and identify the people who make up this specific section of Manhattan. Folks are waking up for work, showering, getting dressed, making breakfast, etc. We get numerous shots of this even before we transition into the opening musical number that gives the film its title. The “In the Heights” number establishes the key supporting characters of the story, of course, but prior to that, the opening montage has to rely on quick cuts to establish the macro of the community, non-speaking roles and various shots packed with tons of visual information. What was your gameplan in opening the film that way?
Kerstein: It was a puzzle that we had to build very slowly. I literally had images of the George Washington Bridge pulled from Google Maps to represent some of the aerial footage [in the film]. I had stock footage of people going to work and representing the “community chorus.” Jon then wanted to incorporate the beach into the opening sequence and wanted bits of text to appear on screen and to have Usnavi walk over a manhole cover in Washington Heights, spinning it with his foot like a record on a turntable. That opening sequence made us design and, for the viewer, establish, the visual grammar of the entire movie. The opening hints at the magical realism we include later in the film, as well as establishing how they work in relation to the moments that are more grounded. Then we incorporate all of this aerial footage, complete with jump cuts and shots that just hang on Usnavi’s face as he stares out the window (the ensemble dancers appearing via the reflection across his face). There’s an equal sense of scale and intimacy in that opening number and I think it represents what the film is.
But yes, that took a long time to build out. We would spend our time experimenting, suggesting things like, “OK, we’re going to be playful with this moment. Let’s use the beach/narration device to purposefully pull you out of the movie, so that the viewer will go, ‘Wait, they stopped the story? Will you get back to the story please?’” And having Usnavi tell his story to a group of children on that tropical beach implies that that’s ultimately where he winds up moving to, right? But that wasn’t necessarily meant to trick anybody, as the beach is an essential part of our taking momentary breaks from the film’s musical numbers, of reminding us that Usnavi is telling his story and that it’s important to retell that story to future generations. It was a big puzzle, with numerous discussions, a lot of experimentation, and a lot of failures.
Filmmaker: And when the “In the Heights” number gets to Usnavi’s bodega, we’re introduced (in rapid succession) to the main players who factor into the film. On stage, each enters the bodega, establishes their relationship with Usnavi in approximately forty-five seconds of verse, then exits in time for the next character to come in. You expand on that routine however, using split-screens to note who’s coming into the shop (on one side of the frame) and the distance between their own businesses to Usnavi’s (on the other side of the frame). The editing is connecting these characters simultaneously to Usnavi and to their shared block. Did the storytelling dictate those editing decisions?
Kerstein: Yeah, and it’s all in service of reminding us that Usnavi is narrating this entire story and having some playfulness with how he tells it. We have even more footage of Anthony Ramos talking directly to the viewer and breaking that fourth wall, but we wondered how much of that to include, i.e. “Does it provide a nice, brief moment where he can wink at and address the viewer, or are we relying on that device too much?” We had options. I could also cut back to that beach anytime we wanted, as Anthony knew the entire opening song with everyone’s parts in his head, so if we wanted to pull out of the bodega and cut back to Usnavi on the beach, we could. We used it to remind people that this was a story being told from his point of view. It was also fun using split-screens to introduce the salon ladies in that opening number. It was another layer of goosing the viewer.
Filmmaker: We see them walking over to Usnavi’s bodega from their salon across the street. If memory serves, we first get a wide shot as they’re crossing the street and then there’s a cut to the camera in front of them as they walk toward us. And by the time we get to the large dance ensemble that closes out the opening number, you implement some overheads and a wide array of faster cuts that complement and add upon the choreography. How do you even put that all together?
Kerstein: As far as the introduction of the salon ladies, I had so many different versions of the actresses walking across the street to Usnavi’s. I had footage of them crossing the street, walking up to the bodega door, entering the bodega, etc. and I had to ask myself, “How long should I stay on their feet? How much time should I spend on switching over to a wide shot and watching them strut from a further distance?” Everything the actresses were doing was fun to watch, and then there’s that funny moment where we cut to the two ladies listening to all the gossiping from outside their window. These shots were their own puzzle pieces and we played with their ordering to find the best dramatic sequence. There’s a version of the salon ladies’ introduction where you could hold on their feet the entire time, as that too was really funny.
As the song builds, you want to build upon that larger sense of community. When the song begins, we see the characters in intimate settings, in their apartments waking up or cooking, and then build on the energy of the community coming further to life. We start by being street-level, then expanding the scope with aerial footage and building to larger crowds/ensembles. However, at the same time, I’m never trying to get in the way of the choreography as it’s performed. I didn’t want to cut the shit out of their dance moves! Some people have the belief that, “Oh, we should just use wide shots,” which I don’t agree with. I want to savor a lot of different people doing a lot of great choreography, right? Then I can build to something more massive, like that big crane shot at the end of the number where we could just sit and hold on it. That’s the finale of the number and that’s our money shot. It’s all about artistic experimentation and getting a sense of when something is too much. I’m given so many different camera angles and so much different footage that make up any given moment in the film, and my role is to reduce the footage down to its essence. A lot of the finished musical numbers you see in the film are very close to my assemblies, too, and I take a lot of pride in the effort I spent building things like that opening number. Usually it’s just Jon and I saying, “I think we can simplify this moment a bit more,” or “We can switch it out with something that has that extra needed spark.”
Filmmaker: A few editors I’ve spoken with say that they enjoy using the Multicam function in Avid Media Composer, especially when it comes to action sequences that feature a lot of quick, precise movements. Is that something you use for dance sequences?
Kerstein: As far as viewing dailies, I’ll use Multicam the first time around to view the footage that was shot from all eight cameras or so, but beyond that, my cutting process is very old school. When I’m literally selecting footage for performances, I do everything on the single camera. I build select reels and fully refrain from toggling between different cameras. I will always build things off of selects, off the single camera. Of course, that makes it a painstaking process, as I don’t use Multicam the way I would if I were cutting a sitcom or a music video together. That choice is probably to my detriment, but I don’t want to miss anything! Building out these gigantic select reels of performances allows me to be very thorough, yes, but also prevents me from using the Multicam as a crutch.
Filmmaker: When you’re slowly piecing together a musical sequence, I imagine you’re listening to the same song over and over and over again. Is there a separation between your work and the music that you try to establish? In what way is your craft working in tandem with the music?
Kerstein: I had to treat the music like it was standard dialogue, and because much of the music is inspired by rap, that felt like a fitting approach to take. I was listening to the music in much the same way I would typically listen to dialogue, and as I was picking for performance, I tried to match it to the spirit of what was being sung at that immediate moment in the song. The vibe of the song becomes almost secondary [laughs], almost in the way a score might be included to complement a particularly dramatic scene.
Take a musical number like “96,000,” for example. There are so many different layers of harmonizing in that number that I had to literally isolate different performers’ vocals in order to know who was singing where. There’s that section of the song where Usnavi, Vanessa, and Benny (Corey Hawkins) are all singing over each other, and I had to isolate each of their voices in order for me to cut appropriately. What each of them is singing in that moment is equally important, so how could I emphasize that? The approach helped me build out a number like “96,000,” and in some ways it was like crafting a giant action sequence.
Filmmaker: So your ear picks up on one voice, you identify who that singer is, isolate it out, and then rinse and repeat.
Kerstein: Yeah, and then of course, the music department and I were working so close [in tandem]. I had two great music editors, Jim Bruening and Jennifer Dunnington (who have essentially worked on half of Rob Marshall’s films) and I learned so much from them, as far as syncing performers’ voices to people’s mouths goes. There’s a lot of live [singing in-camera] musical moments in the film, and there are also a lot of pre-recorded and post-recorded audio tracks to sync up as well. We worked tirelessly together for about eight months, trying to get it right.
I also worked closely with [executive music producers] Alex Lacamoire and Bill Sherman, often asking them “Hey, I temped this piece of music from the original stage production. Is it kosher for me to do that? Or do you want to write something new?” Or, “Hey, I actually need to ask you to extend ‘96,000’ a little bit so that it fits a particular moment or amount of screen time in the scene.” It was a continuous back-and-forth process, an extension of picture, really.
Filmmaker: It’s nice to know that the source material is regarded as a living document, with additions still being made to complement new takes on the material, whether via film adaptations or otherwise.
Kerstein: That’s absolutely right. The story is a living document that will live on way beyond us and this is just our interpretation of it right now. Everyone was game for what we were attempting to accomplish, everyone from Lin, Alex, Bill, our screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes and even receiving the blessing of Tommy Kail [the director of the original off-Broadway and Broadway productions].
As a brief tangent, I’m working with Lin on his movie right now—
Filmmaker: Tick, Tick…Boom?
Kerstein: Yes, I’m back in the city working with him on that. Long story short: he recently showed me a documentary (which I hadn’t seen before) about the original production of In the Heights and the journey it took bringing it to Broadway. Now, I knew a lot about the production origins of the musical (many from the book they’re about to put out), but seeing the documentary made me feel an additional heavy layer of history I’m glad I hadn’t felt before I started working on the movie. I would’ve gone insane or worked even harder than we did! It’s amazing to be a part of and add to that history though. It’s a living, breathing thing that we get to be a part of at this particular juncture.
Growing up, I loved movie-musicals like The Music Man and Grease and All That Jazz and the old Bing Crosby/Bob Hope collaborations, and then, as I got a bit older, films like Purple Rain. Each of those films helped influence and shape who I am today as an artist. Now, thanks to In the Heights, maybe this will inspire someone down the line in a similar fashion. That would be great.