‘West Side Story’: Creating a Period-Authentic, Danceable NYC for Steven Spielberg’s Musical Reinvention

Adam Stockhausen could earn his first Oscar with Spielberg for his gritty authenticity and danceable production design work.
"West Side Story"
"West Side Story"
20th Century Studios
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For a brief time, while working on Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” designing an array of hand-crafted sets from the ’50s and ’60s in Angoulême, France, production designer Adam Stockhausen was also prepping his Oscar-nominated “West Side Story.” Stockhausen multi-tasked while readying for Steven Spielberg’s reinvention of the iconic Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical about the delicate dance between love and hate and the difficult immigrant experience.

“Steven had me do this early design phase where we locked in a lot of locations and we did the basic bones…and a proof of concept early,” said the Oscar-winning Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”). “And then I went away to do ‘French Dispatch,’ and every Sunday I would go into my office, crank up the Broadway cast album from ‘West Side Story,’ and get to work with my location scout and scenic illustrator and we would work away.”

The first conversation Stockhausen had with Spielberg about “West Side Story” was about getting out into the streets, getting gritty, and shooting as much as possible on location. “And then in the next breath was, ‘Can we do it in New York late ’50s?'” he said. “We were up and running in five minutes, in a way, because you can’t just roll up on West 68th Street and expect it all to be there because the city has changed so much.”

The biggest production design change was an idea hatched by screenwriter Tony Kushner: turning the Upper West Side’s San Juan Hill neighborhood of the Caucasian Jets gang into a Hiroshima-like bombed-out rubble setting as part of the construction of Lincoln Center.

“It’s a neighborhood on the edge but very vibrant where the Puerto Rican community is living, but the Jets’ territory is already destroyed,” Stockhausen continued. “That’s where we open the film. But the trick was finding that. We did it two ways: one side of it being the street locations. There’s a chunk of it in Patterson, New Jersey, and then there are chunks of it throughout New York in Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. We pieced it together like a jigsaw puzzle to look like one continuous neighborhood.

"West Side Story"
“West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

“The other half of it is the Jets area where the destruction is ongoing,” Stockhausen continued. “And for that, we talked briefly about a backlot build. But, again, following Steven’s first impulse, we built it in the middle of the city and got some city surroundings that can add incredible depth to the sets. We settled on these parking lots in Patterson that had an adjoining street and some buildings that became the background where we didn’t have to add blue screen. It had light and depth outside of the set. But then what we did in that area was a full backlot construction site.”

Meanwhile, the interior sets were built at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, utilizing an old factory building separate from the new stages but part of the original Brooklyn Navy Yard structure. This provided a working height of much more than 50 feet, which is much taller than the purpose-built stages.

“We knew we wanted that because of the fire escape balcony scene,” said Stockhausen, “and we knew we wanted to make Bernardo [David Alvarez] and Anita’s [Oscar-nominated Ariana DeBose] apartment up in the air so we could have a real walking out of the fire escape at height and Tony [Ansel Elgort] actually walking up to Maria [Rachel Zegler] as continuous action.”

This became the core of the stage work, and the art department built everything else around it, utilizing the construction mill, scenic painting and sign painting areas, and sculpture area, where they carved the rubble and destroyed buildings. “Steven was very tolerant of my having an entire construction operation going on where he was shooting, and we did our best to be quiet,” Stockhausen said.

Paloma Garcia-Lee as Graziella, Mike Faist as Riff, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Ariana DeBose as Anita in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

Yet because this was Spielberg’s first musical, accommodating the dance choreography and the camera movement around that of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Janusz Kamiński became a central part of the production design process. For Stockhausen, who began his career in theater, this was an utter joy. “Steven was so excited and so energized by that,” he said. “It was electric being around…this organic process. There was a long period of rehearsals and we would all go and watch them. But we were also watching Steven with his iPhone thinking through the filming of the dances as they were coming together, and getting to understand how he was thinking. It really informed how the whole thing came together. We were plotting out where the scenery pieces would have to break and open to be able to put crane arms through in the right way.”

For the famous gym dance sequence where Tony and Maria first meet, Stockhausen chose an actual location: the St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School gym in Marine Park. “This had complicated camera work, but, from my end, it was complicated because the location had to be just right visually and stylistically so we were chasing the right details,” he said. “We needed a gym that has the stage on one end, where the basketball hoops crank up out of the way. But because there’s a fixed number of dancers and Steven wanted to show the entire space, so we couldn’t cheat.”

Mike Faist as Riff and David Alvarez as Bernardo in 20th Century Studios' WEST SIDE STORY. Photo by Niko Tavernise. © 2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“West Side Story”Niko Tavernise

The joyous “America” dance number spanned Queens and Patterson, with lots of period store facades and signage to depict the colorful Puerto Rican neighborhood, and culminating with Pachanga-influenced block party shot at the intersection of Broadway and 68th Street in Washington Heights. “‘America’ took the most effort,” said Stockhausen, “because it’s sprawling and keeps moving through the neighborhoods as the story of that song develops.”

The rumble was also visually unique, with Spielberg and Kushner wanting to film in a storage facility adjacent to the West Side highway where street salt was kept. “There is something important about these two gangs being separated by the community by going to this extreme place,” added Stockhausen. “Physically, we were at a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex that used to be an old fish processing [plant]. But what was noteworthy about it was this great architecture. It was big enough for us to work in and fill it with salt. But it also had a large window space. Steven wanted the West Side highway to always be present and have the lights from the traffic going by and being seen the entire time as a rhythm to the whole thing. The two gangs are isolated but still within reach of the larger community.”

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