Twenty years ago, while still students at the University of Southern California, cinematographer Alice Brooks and director Jon M. Chu worked on his thesis short film, “When the Kids Are Away,” a musical honoring motherhood that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003. That early partnership set the foundation for a creative affinity that has reached its greatest expression to date with “In the Heights,” Chu’s cinematic adaptation of the Latino-centered, Broadway hit penned by storytelling prodigies Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alagría Hudes.
Featuring 30 dancers and filmed in South Pasadena, California, “When the Kids Are Away” required Brooks to use a crane and shut down a street for the first time in her career. Now, two decades later, “In the Heights” showcases scenes with up to 300 dancers; instead of trees in SoCal, the George Washington Bridge frames the NYC spectacle.
Brooks and Chu honed their collaboration with other musically themed projects, most notably the feature “Jem and the Holograms” and the reality TV series “The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.” Both of those credits also included choreographer Christopher Scott, the man behind the dance moves in the “In the Heights” film.
“We still are doing the exact same thing we did on that short film at USC,” Brooks told IndieWire in a recent interview. “That’s the way I felt about ‘In the Heights.’ It is a much bigger beast than anything I’ve ever worked on before, but the collaboration is all the same.”
As soon as she heard Chu was attached to “In the Heights” (and before she was offered a job on it), Brooks preemptively started compiling ideas for the visualization of the story. “I didn’t have a script. All I knew was the music,” she said. “I started pulling all those images for almost three years. And so when Jon did eventually ask me to shoot the movie, I had lots of references.”
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Brooks arrived in New York at the end of March 2019 to start a 10-week prep period. At that point, the guiding idea was for them to shoot partially on location and then finish the majority of the scenes on sets built on a soundstage. But during that gestation period, a major turning point changed the course of the production.
Right at the intersection of 175th Street and Audubon, where the fictional narrative unfolds, the production had found an apartment that could perfectly serve as the home of Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz), the community’s matriarch. “We walked in and that was it. We knew it was Abuela and Usnavi’s apartment. You can see the entire intersection from the window. It’s the heart of the community,” she said.
As filmmakers, nonetheless, they knew the technical implications of shooting in such a limited space. But they took the plunge and in the end three musical numbers were executed there: “Alabanza,” the single-take “Champagne,” and a part of “Blackout.”
“That apartment is only 15 feet wide by 40 feet long with two windows on either side,” said Brooks. “It was very modern when we walked in, but it had everything else we needed. The production designer (Nelson Coates) went in and added two walls. He redid everything to make it feel like Abuela’s apartment.”
Inspired by the real locations, the objective was to keep the story grounded. To that end, the equipment package Brooks utilized included customized anamorphic lenses to add a sense of intimacy to shots where the camera focuses on one or two characters with everything around them falling away. Once they went wide, these same tools provided larger-than-life movie magic
“What’s unique to our movie is that each character can express their hopes and their dreams, their fears and their anxieties, not only through song and dance, but also through their environment. Many of the songs start very intimate and close and then grow. There are several numbers where we feel their environment shifted visually to correlate and show where they are emotionally,” she said.
Examples of those include “96,000,” “Paciencia y Fe,” and “When the Sun Goes Down,” a striking sequence where Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny (Corey Hawkins) dance on the side of a building. For now, Brooks is not allowed to reveal details of how that breathtaking segment was conceived. What she did share is that many of the numbers were storyboarded and animatics were created to deal with their complexities before getting to set.
Macall Polay/Warner Bros
In “96,000,” the entire neighborhood dreams of what they’d do if they won the lottery while swimming at the public pool. With hundreds of dancers performing in water, this was the movie’s most challenging set piece. “In the Heights” marked the first time a film production was allowed to shoot at Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights. In the past, the massive swimming pools had served as the water system for Manhattan, thus they have tunnels underneath the deck, therein the first setback.
“We knew we wanted this very high Busby Berkeley type shot on Vanessa in the swimming pool, but the weight of the pool deck would only support a certain crane. We also couldn’t use a drone because New York City doesn’t allow drones,” Brooks explained. Eventually, an engineering team found the exact weight of the largest crane the deck could withstand.
The production was only allowed to film there for two days. Unexpectedly, pouring rain ruined the days they had scheduled. And since the swimming pool was set to open to the public for the summer, there was little flexibility. The initial two dates expanded into four intense days. On top of that, the water was freezing cold. The pool was filled up and heaters were set in place to warm the water, but given that there was a leak (unbeknownst to the production), the water kept being replenished, preventing the temperature from rising.
“Jon was in the pool with the dancers for four days because he felt, ‘If they’re going to freeze, I’m going to freeze.” He kept everybody’s energy up by being in the water with them,” said the cinematographer.
Brooks only had one day to shoot “Carnaval del Barrio,” a number that reenergizes the story late in the plot. Considering it entails eights minutes of music and 75 dancers and cast members, the mission was next to impossible. A 14-hour shoot day, from sunrise to sunset, ultimately gave life to this anthem celebrating the characters’ Latin American roots.
The first half of the day crane shoots took precedence. The number takes place in a concrete courtyard between four buildings. There was only one way in and one way out, so the crane was put in position the day before. At lunchtime, the rigging team took the crane away, and the rest of the afternoon was spent capturing all the steadicam shots. On screen, the resulting images flow with the electrifying rhythm of people waving their homelands’ flags as they dance.
Months later, during the pandemic, when Brooks was finally able to work on the digital intermediate color correction in Los Angeles, she began the process with “Carnaval del Barrio” as a mood barometer.
“I wanted to start with ‘Carnaval’ because, to me, the movie is about community and about giving people their power back. It’s about finding your power. I felt that if we could get the color on that number exactly right, especially since it features so many colors in that space, then the rest of the movie would fall into place,” Brooks said.
For all the logistical issues a movie of this magnitude inflicted on Brooks, the artistic liberty and emotional potency of “Paciencia y Fe,” Abuela Claudia’s moving number about her immigrant journey, was endlessly gratifying. “The first time I saw the dance number, when Abuela is shoved in the seat of the subway car, I started shaking. I knew the scene was going to be incredibly powerful,” Brooks said.
For the film adaption, the song is performed in a dream-like realm with the elderly woman detailing her experience moving from Cuba to New York. Chu wanted the number to be an elegant light show, but it was up to Brooks to interpret that request. As they searched for the ideal location, the team saw theaters and beautiful architectural spaces, but none of them felt appropriate. The idea of a subway train kept popping into Chu’s head.
“We then started looking at subways and we looked at all these platforms that the MTA allows you to shoot on, but they all just felt very confined,” Brooks said. That was until they learned of an MTA station in Brooklyn that had been abandoned for a long time. It was perfect. They brought in both old and modern train cars so that they could use both sides of the platform. “When she comes out in one platform we have one lighting set up that refers to Cuba. The color of Cuba is a warm, yellowish light. Then the color of New York is cold,” said Brooks.
However, given that MTA didn’t allow the production to switch out any lighting, gaffer Charles Grubbs had wooden structures created and painted the exact same color as the train so that they could hide the lights. The process was intricate and labor-intensive throughout. They were three stories underground without an elevator, so the rigging crew had to bring everything down by hand. There were more lights in that number than in any other space seen in the film.
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For the conclusion of “Paciencia y Fe,” Brooks introduced pillars of lights that were the same diameter as the subway poles in order to do a seamless cut between past and present as Abuela grabs onto it and we’re back in a subway car. Existing the station, Abuela walks through a 900 feet long tunnel at 191 Street Station enveloped in commissioned graffiti art and colorful lights for a stunning finale.
“In the Heights” is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now. Brooks’ next foray into the musical will be with “In the Heights” creator Lin–Manuel Miranda, on his directorial debut “tick, tick… BOOM!,” set to be released by Netflix this fall.
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