When production designer Nelson Coates first saw Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” Broadway musical in 2008, he was so “blown away” that he immediately bought tickets to two more performances. He vowed to be a part of any movie adaption of this Latin celebration of music, dance, and community in Washington Heights. But he played coy during the making of “Crazy Rich Asians,” when director Jon M. Chu asked if he’d like to join him on “In the Heights.” “I didn’t tell him how much I really wanted the job until we did the series, ‘Home Before Dark,’ when he said: ‘You dork.'”
But their previous collaboration on the Asian-American rom-com hit proved to be a valuable springboard for transforming Washington Heights into a playground for each musical number. Only the amount of detail was staggering and a lot more complex, as they incorporated influences from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. “One of the exciting ideas that Jon had for the whole movie, instead of having each number being variations on a theme, he wanted each one to have its own identity and its own look and feel,” Coates said. “And when you take a stage musical and bring it to the screen, how do you re-imagine things to show the breadth and scope of a place you’re portraying?”
The production design of “In the Heights” — a block party commemorating the individual and collective diversity of the neighborhood through its cultural pride and island memories — became a creative patchwork of actual locations and set builds at Brooklyn’s Marcy Armory. Coates scoured the entirety of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan, soaking up its early 20th century architecture and taking note of is modern gentrification.
His goal was to find the right neighborhood to best represent the tone of the stage play, particularly the intersection anchored by the bodega owned by Usnavi de la Vega (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of returning home to the DR to re-open his father’s tiki bar.
“I walked every street of Washington Heights and Inwood and half of the Bronx and Harlem,” Coates said, “taking pictures of bodegas, salons, and shops and trying to understand what made Washington Heights distinctive. He landed on the intersection of 175th and Audubon. “Ironically, it had a bodega and a car service on two different corners, but there were six different salons that I had to get rid of or hide [along with] the weakest corner with a series of town homes. So we put facades and dressing and signage and murals, and redid four city blocks in order to make it feel like we did nothing.” The result was a “very curated, color-controlled, sun bleached, hot palette.”
The bodega was a combination of an actual bodega exterior and interior set build, which required some imaginative reverse engineering for the more elaborate transformation into the El Sueñito bar at the end. “The early incarnation of the bodega was a shorter version,” added Coates, “as if they hadn’t opened up the walls and had storage in the back area … inspired by the arch ways and pillars of a building in the DR. But, then in the finale, I’m basically Graffiti Pete [Noah Catala]. I had to design all of those [mural] elements so we know where they fit in with the beach, and then, of course, it’s a lot more colorful on the inside [after the big reveal].”
The older-looking salon set for “No Me Diga,” spotlighting the gossiping hairdressers, was one of the most difficult to navigate because of the long, narrow spaces, and lack of motivational light sources. “In a lot of storefronts in the neighborhood, you only have windows at the front,” Coates said. “Alice Brooks, the DP, and I talked about where we could introduce something. I had a couple of windows on the side, but it still didn’t drive enough light from both directions with appropriate fall off. So we did an industrial window back at the hair washing station. But I couldn’t find the lino [floor] I wanted for the hair washing station, so we printed the pattern that we found, and Alice went crazy because when she saw it, she said her very first apartment had the exact same pattern — odd shaped pink and cream dots — on the floor.”
Also, because such a long space can be visually dull with everyone on the same level, Coates introduced a riser area in the back, which helped with the dance number, in which all of the chairs needed to roll and move to Christopher Scott’s choreography. And then you had the dancing wig heads that were operated by two dancers parading to the choreography as well.
But the ingenious location for the “96,000” synchronized swimming number — the Highbridge Park Pool — actually came from Chu during an early scout. “It was in disarray and turned into the largest public pool in all the five boroughs, and they never allowed filming there,” Coates said. “So we had to get a lot of agencies involved to get permission to use it. The idea was, if this is indeed the hottest day of summer and there is a blackout going on, pretty much the whole community would be trying to get cool.”
However, they only had four days to shoot the sequence, and it rained most of the time. Coates provided paint chips of exactly what he wanted the pool to look like, and they had all sorts of fencing and safety rails that needed to be removed for the singing and dancing in the water. The production designer also added a lot more color with the banners and signage. But the multicultural celebration was also important. “You see every age (from 6 to 86), every body shape, every skin color, every hair texture, as they’re dreaming about winning the lottery,” Coates said.
The location for the “Carnaval Del Barrio” block party number was also impressive. Coates did a Google scout of Inwood and discovered that most of the apartment complexes are adjacent to the backyard of another, so when he found the area he wanted, Coates had to get permission from six different landlords. Plus they all had to agree to remove all of the fencing and dead trees that got in the way of the dance number and to let them paint the backs of their buildings to look more colorful. “And they’re all at different levels because they were built at different times,” said Coates, “so we had to create platforms for the dance surface and for the cameras, and there needed to be engineering on all of the fire escapes for them to stay up and have activity on them safely. Something that looks natural and simple was not effortless.”
Speaking of effortless, Nina (Leslie Grace) and Benny’s (Corey Hawkins) gravity-defying dance on the side of a building for “When the Sun Goes Down” posed the greatest production design challenge. It’s a modern twist on Fred Astair’s legendary ceiling dance in “Royal Wedding.” “The idea is: When you’re in love, gravity does not matter, and how do you then show that?” Coates said. “And if your gravity has changed, how do we know that everyone else’s hasn’t changed and it’s sci-fi? So is that an emotional or physical gravity? We didn’t even know if this idea would work.”
First, Coates had to find the right building for the set construction (inspired by elements of four different places, reconfigured and re-proportioned to fit the choreographic needs), as well as the appropriate neighborhood (W. 176th near J. Hood Wright Park) to serve as the backdrop, with the George Washington Bridge adjusted for emphasis. “I searched everywhere for architecture that would make sense,” he said. “The majority of buildings have singular windows, and, with that sort of punctuation, it’s hard to ever have the magic of being on top of glass because you’re off of it almost as soon as you’re on it. But I found some buildings from the late ’20s with double windows. I also wanted dark red brick for our actors to stand out more.”
A complete building was designed, and the eventual set consisted of a two-story 26’ x 26’ section of the building, which included four double hung windows and two fire escape baskets and ladders, dense enough to support body weight and to create a danceable surface area. It functioned almost like a tabletop, but with certain allowances for elevation points and tricky maneuvers. “As much as you want to choreograph it, it’s still different when, all of a sudden, you have a fire escape basket on its side,” Coates continued. “What size is it? How do you keep someone’s foot from catching in the details? How do you make something easily danceable so you don’t grab a shoe on a brick?
“We want you to feel that it’s totally real and yet your brain’s going: Well, it had to be all visual effects, maybe. Actually, it’s all involved in real things, which makes it that much more amazing because they’re holding onto objects, they’re dancing up and sliding down, and it’s tough in a way that you wouldn’t be able to do in an artificial environment.”