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Reteaming with his Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu, production designer Nelson Coates canvassed the streets of New York’s Washington Heights to find the ideal locations for In the Heights, the Warner Bros. production based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical of the same name. Some of the locations were also the basis for expansive sets built at the Marcy Armory in Brooklyn — included the one for “When the Sun Goes Down,” the gravity-defying performance by Leslie Grace (Nina) and Corey Hawkins (Benny).
A key filming location was the intersection for the film’s central bodega operated by Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), as well as other key storefronts including the beauty salon and Rosario’s cab company.
Coates says he was “hunting like crazy” before choosing the intersection at E. 175th Street and Audubon Ave. They need to find a “central intersection on the east side of Broadway, because that’s a historically Dominican, Puerto Rican and Cuban neighborhood, and we had to find an intersection that the police and fire and all the neighborhood associations would allow us to — at some points during the filming — close the streets. That adds a certain complexity in a very dense city.”
Coates reports that they took over one block in each direction of the intersection and went to work on the storefronts “putting up façades, signage, dressing, painting and totally transforming basically, four city blocks, both sides.”
The corner had an existing bodega but Coates says the interior wasn’t suitable for filming. “So we redid all the windows, changed out doors, put a whole façade on the front of it and then dressed all the windows so that we could at least do entrances and exits. And then the bodega with its full façade was built on stage with the sidewalks.”
The location of the salon, he adds, was built over a former daycare center and apartment. “We had to make the set able to open up, to allow access for people who lived in that townhouse when we were actually filming.” Like the bodega, they also built the salon’s interiors and exteriors on stage, “so that when you have people coming in and out, you’re actually on stage looking out across to the other set, which is also on stage.”
Another key location — the setting for the “96,000” production number — was Highbridge Park’s outdoor community pools.
The challenge was that as a city pool, it had to open to the community on the published date. “They were interested in our potentially filming, but it could not impact their being open,” Coates relates, “so we started talking to them about what the needs of filming would be. And part of that would be rehabbing the entire pool. I gave them the paint color for the pool. [We also] needed to take out fences and all sorts of railings. [The city] had to agree on all of those modifications, and they had to also agree to start filling the pool much earlier [to allow the water to warm up]. We ended up with a four day window [to film the scene], right before it opened because we needed to warm up the water.
“So we had a four-day window to shoot the pool, and it rained all four days,” he admits, saying that filming occurred during breaks in the rain.
“Jon was being the biggest cheerleader and he’s jumping in the pool and getting things to happen — in between the rainstorms,” Coates remembers. “You would hear Anthony just start chanting, ‘for the culture, for the culture’ and getting everybody excited, and Jon would get everybody excited. It’s a phenomenal number, and you have no clue how cold everybody is and how challenging it was to accomplish.”
Coates relates that Chu also wanted a romantic number “in a nod to old Hollywood” that features Nina and Benny dancing along the side of an apartment building. “When you’re in love, gravity doesn’t matter,” he says, noting that step one was finding a street and building with appropriate windows on which to model the set. “In order to really recognize someone dancing across a window (which in one shot is viewed by the residents from indoors), you need a double window because otherwise they’re gone too fast and they’re not very many double-window setups in Washington Heights.”
He found a building that had been built in the 1920s, which was used as the basis of the set, and the team did a LIDAR (3D) scan of the location to previsualize the look. They removed some features, such as a green bike lane on the street, and then added elements to the side of the building such as air conditioners “because if it’s flat, it feels like it’s artificial. Also the details on the fire escape had to be more dense so that feet won’t get caught on it.”
The set was then built at the Marcy Armory, with a moveable section. “It could drop in five seconds from vertical to horizontal into the wall. We could program it to be at whatever angle and whatever speed we wanted it to be,” Coates explains, noting that drapes were starched so that they would not move, similarly “the blinds and all the light fixtures are all attached.”
Notable details include the carving on the piragua cart pushed by Miranda’s character. “I carved a drawing that Lin did when he was 17 — before he’d written a note of the musical — into the side of the piragua cart. He wrote in block letters ‘In The Heights,’ and it had a guy getting off the Dyckman Street subway.” The camera offers a glimpse of this carving during the film’s post credits scene.
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