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Jon M. Chu on the Pool Scene From ‘In the Heights’

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Corey Hawkins as Benny, dancing in Highbridge Pool.

Corey Hawkins as Benny, dancing in Highbridge Pool.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

It’s the hottest day of the yr, and 4 younger males are strolling down the block in Washington Heights, bullshitting about their desires. A successful lottery ticket has been offered at the bodega run by one in every of them, Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), and the $96,000 prize is the type of cash that might change your life if used properly. “Yo, if I won the lotto, tomorrow …” Usnavi’s pal Benny (Corey Hawkins) begins riffing.

“96 G’s ain’t enough to retire,” Usnavi factors out.

“C’mon, I’ll have enough to knock your ass off its axis!” Benny responds.

“You’ll have a knapsack full of jack after taxes,” Usnavi counters.

It’s early on in director Jon M. Chu’s sweeping movie adaptation of In the Heights, the Broadway musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes. And on this model, they wind up someplace they couldn’t go onstage: at the public pool, the place phrase about the successful ticket begins to unfold like spray from a cannonball. The music shifts right into a dancehall beat as totally different characters take their very own verses to rap or sing about what they’d do with that type of cash. The essential characters’ melodies layer over one another in counterpoint, the remainder of the poolgoers becoming a member of in. In the water, swimmers break into choreographed routines. The digital camera chases a dancer doing a flip into the pool and geese beneath the water. The tune builds to a crescendo, with the ensemble leaping out of the water collectively in one in every of the largest climaxes of the movie.

Each of the songs in In the Heights takes off alongside its personal visible gambit. There’s a dream ballet journey from Cuba to America in the Nineteen Forties for the tune “Paciencia Y Fe” and a Fred-and-Ginger second in “Before the Sun Goes Down.” The “96,000” sequence, shot on location over three unseasonably chilly days at New York’s public Highbridge Pool, is the second when the film most adopts the visible grammar of a traditional Hollywood musical. Think of the geometric patterns in 1952’s Busby Berkeley–Esther Williams film Million Dollar Mermaid, with its equivalent synchronized swimmers, however with fashionable choreography and a principally Black and Latinx solid of dancers and actors of various ages and physique varieties. “This is an ‘I Want’ song not for one character; this is an ‘I Want’ song for the whole neighborhood,” Chu says. “This is a big spectacle, but in the end, this is about yearning. What would these people dream about?”

With In the Heights out in theaters and on HBO Max at this time, the inventive crew behind the film broke down how they made that show-stopping sequence — from the way it was first carried out on-stage by way of the grueling shoot and post-production course of.

As with many parts of In the Heights, the lottery-ticket plotline got here from Miranda’s personal experiences whereas rising up shut by, in Inwood. “My earliest memory, full stop, is going with my abuela to the bodega on Dyckman Street and eating candy as she played the numbers,” Miranda says.

The present began out as a tough assortment of songs and scenes he wrote and carried out as an undergrad at Wesleyan in 2000. In 2004, Hudes — a Puerto Rican playwright who had been working on a play about her personal childhood neighborhood in North Philly — joined Miranda to jot down the present’s ebook, and in 2008 it premiered on Broadway. The film model updates the motion for a time when DACA exists and the block has already began to alter in important methods. “We had countless four-hour meetings to talk about what era this was in,” Chu says. “We knew we didn’t want to make a movie about gentrification, because in a way, we’re in a post-gentrification time. It’s happening — what do you do now?” That gave “96,000” a brand new context too: Those who haven’t been priced out of Washington Heights but are in some methods already lottery winners, says Hudes, who returned to jot down the movie’s screenplay. Still, they know their place is tenuous.

“The plot point is that if you win the lottery, what are you going to do with the money?” Hudes says. “But what that really becomes is everyone in the community fighting over their little vision of what their dream would be. It’s an opportunity, through fantasy play and banter, to touch on what people want out of their life.” Usnavi desires about finding out his affairs and heading off to the Dominican Republic, whereas Benny, ever sensible, would need to use his winnings to pay for enterprise college. Most of the girls who work at a neighborhood salon dream of blowing it on Atlantic City leases and weaves — besides Usnavi’s crush, Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), who desires to flee downtown. Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), the youngest and most idealistic character, desires of getting the barrio computer systems and internet searching. “He’s the only one who’s like, ‘If I win, that’s not for me — that’s for my block,’” Hudes says.

Miranda says he selected the quantity “96,000” for very particular causes. “It was always intended to be not enough money to permanently change someone’s life, but enough to give them a little breathing room. That holds true today,” he says. “For me, the number ‘96’ has a subconscious wealth line connotation, because I was so aware of the price of living on 94th Street, where I went to school, versus 200th Street, where I lived. I always saw 96th Street as this economic dividing line as a child. It also has its own rhythm, just saying it aloud, like, ‘Maria’ or ‘Oklahoma.’ It makes you wanna sing it.”

There’s one notable lyric change from the unique model: In 2008, Benny imagined being on the hyperlinks with Donald Trump as his caddy. Now he sings about Tiger Woods as an alternative.

Director Jon M. Chu on set with Hawkins.
Photo: Macall Polay/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Onstage, the “96,000” sequence takes place on the block the place practically all the motion is ready. “We knew we had a lot of scenes at that intersection,” Chu says. “So as I was getting a tour of Washington Heights, we got to the end of the block and I was like, ‘What’s that building?’” It was the entrance to the Olympic-sized Highbridge Pool. The large advanced, with side-by-side swimming and wading areas, was constructed with WPA funds in the Nineteen Thirties as a part of Robert Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s pool-construction mania. “It was immense,” Chu says. “I had never seen a pool like that before.”

He and Hudes began riffing about the potentialities of capturing an outdated Hollywood–type quantity at the facility, which is run by the NYC Parks Department, however the concept appeared inconceivable. A serious film had by no means been filmed on location there, and the logistics of capturing with a big crowd appeared prohibitively costly. “But then, as we walked away, we were like, Oh no, we have to do that,” Chu says. “So that’s where we started, and all our producers’ jaws dropped.”

They filmed the scene in early June 2019 — after the metropolis had refilled the pool with water, however earlier than it opened to the public. They imagined an overhead shot of Vanessa surrounded by synchronized swimmers that might usually be completed by placing a digital camera on a drone, nevertheless it’s unlawful to pilot drones inside New York City. Next concept: Get the largest crane potential. “But there’s a reservoir system of tunnels under the pool deck, and the weight of the crane was going to be too heavy,” says Alice Brooks, the cinematographer. “So we worked with all these engineers to figure out the exact weight allowed to get the height we needed. It was a big science experiment to figure out how many people we could fit in the frame based on the height we could get.”

The sequence provides a tour of New York dance types. In the pool locker rooms, there are B-boys and B-girls breaking, a method born in the Bronx. During Sonny’s verse, he’s surrounded by dancers doing contorted strikes based mostly in FlexN, which developed in Brooklyn. When the salon girls calm down on the steps by the pool, they pose with Caribbean-inflected dancehall strikes developed by affiliate choreographer Ebony Williams. Since Vanessa’s dream entails getting the heck out of the neighborhood and pursuing a style profession (“If I win the lottery, you’d never see me again”), Barrera walks down a ramp into the pool with balletic poise, with the pool railing performing as a barre. “Something about ballet gave me a sense of high art, high fashion, though I treat street dance with the same respect as high art,” choreographer Chris Scott says. To fill out the blocks of dancers, he employed specialists in every type. “You could see people teaching each other stuff on the side. We created a community at the pool surrounded by a real community of dancers.”

Scott, Chu, and Brooks bumped into issues that might solely come up from a water-based dance sequence. If they needed to get a shot of a dancer (Brandon Rosario) doing a bounce and twist into the pool, that additionally meant calculating simply how briskly a digital camera might observe him — it could must dunk into the water with sufficient pressure to overwhelm its pure buoyancy and absolutely submerge. The scene climaxes with a sweeping overhead shot of a giant group of dancers splashing in the water in unison, which Scott and his crew of choreographers workshopped in a separate pool. “The level of the water was the biggest factor — if it’s too low, it looks dumb,” he says. “We had about 20 versions of that choreography.”

Capturing dancers in the pool.
Photo: Macall Polay/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

After all that prep, the In the Heights solid and crew arrived at the Highbridge Pool on what turned out to be some particularly chilly and wet days. “It was great,” Anthony Ramos says enthusiastically, earlier than hedging a bit. “I mean, it was hard, it was gray, it was raining, and the water was cold.”

The climate got here with scattered thunderstorms, and the solid and crew needed to work round their interruptions. “Every time you hear thunder, you have to shut down for 30 minutes and turn off the electricity,” Chu says. They additionally couldn’t movie if it was raining too onerous — any dripping or disturbance on the pool floor would make it clear this wasn’t, the truth is, the hottest day of the summer time. (They colour corrected the sky and pool in postproduction to make it look sunnier.) Although they’d, in keeping with Chu, 500 to 700 folks on set, that also wasn’t sufficient to make it appear crowded, “so we were shuffling people around and changing their bathing suits.”

Between pictures, the actors and dancers huddled in towels and robes to heat up, although a lot of the dancers needed to keep in the water for lengthy intervals of time. That made the strikes much more difficult. “Popping is so connected to your muscles and being able to understand the tension in your body, but when you’re freezing you can’t feel the tension,” says Scott, who additionally received in the pool. “The water is splashing in their faces, and they had to do their best not to look like they’re splashing water in their faces and hold their eyes open. Whatever the dancer award for making it work is, they should get that.”

When they tried to seize that massive overhead shot of Vanessa posing in her internal tube whereas surrounded by rings of dancers, the tube saved transferring every time the ensemble splashed round her. “Eventually, Jon was like, ‘Everybody get out, we’re just going to film Melissa by herself and then superimpose it [onto a shot of the dancers],’” Barrera says. Even then, she and her internal tube would begin to drift out of body. “So Jon jumped in the pool and held me in place for the entire shot,” she says. (Chu, resident pool wrangler, additionally pushed the lady on a floaty who reveals up at the finish of Sonny’s verse.)

All of this needed to be completed in three days, earlier than the metropolis opened the pool to the public. This meant that one last little bit of the scene was shot “night for day,” at 9:30 p.m. “It’s so painful to me,” says Brooks. “It’s just the shot of Anthony Ramos splashing in the pool at the end. We lit him as much as we could and then visual effects helped us get as close as possible.”

But if days have been lengthy, there was additionally a way of camaraderie. “One of the most special moments on set for me happened while shooting that,” remembers Ramos. It got here whereas getting that massive sweeping shot of the dancers leaping out of the pool and splashing in unison. “Right before Jon called action, everybody was hyping each other up and a few of us were watching from the sidelines going, ‘This is for the culture! Let’s go! Let’s go!’ At that moment, it was just like we’re doing something that’s way bigger than us.”

“Well, he did that often,” says Chu. “He did it whenever anything felt hard. He was our spiritual leader.”

Melissa Barrera as Vanessa.
Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Picture

The movie’s government music producers, Bill Sherman and Alex Lacamoire, are the similar individuals who orchestrated and organized Miranda’s songs in the Off Broadway and Broadway variations of the stage musical. “We’ve been working on this for 20 years, and whenever Alex and I reapproached this music, we always went, ‘What’s the 2.0 version?’” says Sherman. “For ‘96,000,’ we went, how do we get it the most hip-hop, the most dancehall, and the most reggaeton?” They introduced in producers Mike Elizondo, who targeted on the hip-hop parts, and Trooko, who targeted on the reggaeton elements.

They additionally prolonged a few of the transitions and constructed out the tune’s climactic conclusion. When the present moved to Broadway, they’d added an enormous “button” — in musical-theater parlance, that instrumental “wham!” at the finish of the tune that tells the viewers to start out clapping. “Then we had to outdo ourselves, again, on film,” says Lacamoire. They added in eight extra measures of music to intensify the tune’s construct, at Chu’s request, in addition to some motion on the baseline, which begins to rise on the option to the movie’s even-bigger button.

The actors themselves knew they have been working in the shadow of well-known, beforehand recorded performances by the unique Broadway solid, together with Miranda himself as Usnavi. “I’ll never do it like Lin, so I didn’t necessarily aim to do it like him,” says Ramos. “I was just like, Yo, he’s going to be Anthony, the most honest version of this guy to me.” Though Miranda did assist coach Ramos on the music, Ramos says, “Lin was never in my ear unless some scansion was wrong, but it was always musical. It wasn’t about a character choice.” The actors filming the “96,000” scene weren’t recorded stay on set — as is just about customary for many film musicals — however as an alternative recorded temp tracks prematurely, which have been performed at the pool, after which rerecorded extra audio later to raised match the footage. “Sometimes it would be, ‘Can you see how your mouth cuts off that word a little earlier than in the pre-record?’” Lacamoire says. “That level of finesse.”

Even with the time crunch on set, “96,000” got here into the modifying room with way more footage than they ever might have used. “I watch a lot of musicals and there’s way too much overcutting,” says editor Myron Kerstein, who had beforehand labored with Chu on Crazy Rich Asians. “I didn’t want it to feel like a music video, where I was overcutting things just because I had the footage.”

The sequence begins out with bits of animation scrawled onscreen over the characters in a approach that references the mixed-media magic of the unique Mary Poppins or 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. They’d deliberate on persevering with the drawings all through the sequence, however in the modifying room, it rapidly turned clear that the embellishment was an excessive amount of. “We weren’t watching their faces, and their faces were the thing to watch,” Chu says. “Our struggle for the whole movie was to only use things to communicate an emotion, never doing it just to wow an audience.”

“We’ve spent most of the film introducing characters, and now this is our big set piece where each specific character could talk about what they would do with the money and hand it off to each other,” Kerstein says.

The tune closes with the massive reveal of the successful lottery numbers. Before filming, the inventive crew debated easy methods to pull them up — from reducing backwards and forwards to Usnavi’s bodega as the successful numbers went up on the wall to having actors form pool noodles into the digits. Finally, they settled on having the character Graffiti Pete (Noah Catala) spray the numbers onto towels in the locker room with sunscreen. The viewers isn’t certain what he’s writing till the massive reveal of the numbers on towels proper at the finish.

The punchline after the reveal is that nobody at the pool really has the successful ticket; when the tune ends, the temper deflates like a punctured seashore ball. In the stage musical, we study who gained quickly afterward, however the film delays that discovery. That alternative additionally makes the “96,000” spectacle, on its personal, extra of a full-stop in the motion — “like a one-act break, structurally,” says Kerstein.

As for these successful numbers: 5-7-16-26-33. Chu, whose spouse was pregnant with their second youngster throughout the shoot, slipped in some particular meanings. “Five is the month of my wife’s birth; 7-16 is my daughter’s birthday; 7-26 is my anniversary and also the day my son was due. Thirty-three is my favorite number,” he says. “Then when I showed my wife, she was like, ‘You know our anniversary is the 27th, right? And the baby is due on the 27th.’ However, just a few weeks later, my baby was born on the 26th, so he had my back.” They named him Jonathan Heights Chu.


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