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In the Heights had all the elements to be a smash hit: an adaptation of a Tony-winning musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda, an incredible cast of Latinx performers with backing from Warner Bros. and a final product that earned critical acclaim. And yet, its theatrical release, which grossed $44 million worldwide, was underwhelming, likely because it premiered during the pandemic and also on HBO Max. But director Jon M. Chu notes that the lackluster box office performance is not something to harp on, because the film achieved something much greater.
“This is the new face of leading men and women in Hollywood, and they’re all people of color,” Chu tells THR. “The biggest accomplishment [is] putting joy out into the world with a movie that has not existed before, that shows the precedent of a studio that can do this and throw down for a story like this, with heroes that don’t look like the heroes that Hollywood usually delivers.”
The film, wrapped before COVID-19 struck, was written by Quiara Alegría Hudes and based on the Broadway musical of the same name by Hudes and Miranda. Its cast included Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera.
Chu spoke to THR about why he wanted to adapt In the Heights for the big screen, the challenges in doing so, the criticism of the lack of Afro Latino actors in the film — and why it’s important to have these conversations.
What drew you to make a movie adaptation of the musical?
I saw it when I was making my first movie, Step Up 2: The Streets, and it immediately spoke to my family and my community story, even though I’m not Latino and I’m not from New York City. Lin has an amazing way of translating human-to-human experiences. And I felt it. I have my abuela — my boo boo — and I have my pressures that my parents give me. As Asian Americans, we had all different approaches to what it means to be Asian American. But I never thought I would actually be able to make the movie. When I was approached about it by [producer] Scott Sanders — I didn’t know Lin at the time — what I liked about it was that it wasn’t a simple translation to a movie. It wasn’t a direct one-to-one. That gave us a lot of freedom to be able to craft a story and find the nuggets and piece it together. And credit to Quiara, she was the key to all of this. Lin and Quiara really understood both worlds and could merge the two. And we became very close during that time as we developed it, and we got to speak freely of our experiences. That’s an amazing way to make a movie.
You said yourself you are not Latino and didn’t grow up in Washington Heights. What steps did you take to learn about the culture?
I had Lin and Quiara, who still live in Washington Heights, to be my guide for the specifics, because I know how important all that is — the food, the traditions, how you sit at a table, who sits where at a table. That’s why I knew it could be a story that would transcend its specificity because I already related to it, and I think it’s a movie that celebrates working people and people who take care of each other. Our eight-minute opening number is about the bodega owner that you pass by every day. It’s about the piragua guy that you don’t pay attention to. And these people have hopes and dreams … and let’s put that on the pedestal. We got to do that on the big screen with a big studio, like Warner Bros., to back that. I feel like we didn’t fully get to celebrate how amazing the accomplishment of making a movie with an all-Latinx cast in a musical backed by a giant studio was, whereas Latinx characters usually only get 4.6 percent of the dialogue in a movie — that’s crazy to me. And it was about joy. No guns, no fighting, no drugs, no enemies.
What went through your mind about its box office performance?
We can’t control who shows up, but we can control the art that we make and what we’re trying to put on that screen, especially in a time when we’re resetting what stories should look like. I wish more people saw it because I thought it could have been such a breakthrough moment for Latinx actors in the way Crazy Rich Asians broke open that cast. But then again, our cast did break open. Anthony Ramos is the lead of Transformers. I know that would have not happened without this movie. Leslie Grace is Batgirl. Corey Hawkins is in The Color Purple. You have Melissa Barrera in Scream 5. Stephanie Beatriz in Encanto. So much has come from this movie — people may have not been connecting the dots, but that is incredible.
The movie received backlash for its lack of Afro Latino actors. What was your reaction to that discussion?
I’m really proud of the conversation that is able to be had. You can’t have a conversation about colors without a movie with people of color in it. Nothing’s intentional, so you’re like, “All right, someone’s telling you they aren’t being seen.” We’ve been those people before. So how do you want to react when you say that to them? And we tried to act in that way — not to be defensive, not to cut the person who’s trying to express this to you, but instead to give room for that conversation … I think what it mostly shows is that there need to be more storytellers and more stories from studios so that more movies can reveal more things that we need to be doing. Of course, it was hard to hear, but at the same time, that’s what happens when you’re at the cutting edge of what we’re supposed to be doing. The worst thing that it could do is stop us from doing more. The best thing it could do is illuminate that there’s more stuff for everyone to do in this … We put an African American man and an Afro Latino woman on the side of a building that spun around and they danced like Fred [Astaire] and Ginger [Rogers] in the most elegant, iconic way and showed that they could have been starring in these movies 50 years ago. And now they’re movie stars that are leading other franchises. That’s the legacy of this movie. And as well as the conversation that proceeded [from] it. That’s all progress.
Who was the most difficult character to cast?
The hardest person for me to cast was Usnavi because if it was being told through his point of view, that person had to come in and out of song, dialogue, movements and real-life moments so fluidly and so naturally and so honestly. That person was going to lead the tone of this movie, and they were going to be very vulnerable. We looked at a lot of people. [Ramos] was brought up early [in casting discussions], but I was also starting to avoid anyone that had done the show in some way. I sat down with him at coffee and he told me his story, who he was and what the story meant to him, and we both were bawling. I knew that we could not just cast him in this movie, but the whole movie could be built around him.
How many extras would you say were part of the movie?
The pool scene alone had 700 people in that number. In that opening number, we have so many people — not just extras, but people from the actual community. The guy who’s sweeping the floor is the guy who actually sweeps that floor. The people who work in that dessert shop are the people who actually work in the dessert shop. It was a whole community helping us, plus dancers — we understood that diversity also meant in the language of dance and movement and music. Every day, extras, crew or actors could speak up about the authenticity of something there, and it was always a part of our process.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot?
It was “Paciencia Y Fe.” That scene was shot in a real, abandoned subway station, and we had to light it up like a stage with evolving colored lights, with 50 dancers down there and all the choreography was around Olga [Merediz]. I think we’re like three stories down, and it’s icky and smells nasty down there, and you have Olga performing and it was a huge feat to pull off. We wanted to tell [her immigrant] story in the most epic, elegant way, because that’s the way she remembers this trip. And then she has to decide, has she done her duty here on earth? It has this very emotional pivot to it that I loved. That’s a scene that I’m very proud of, but there’s a lot of great scenes. Obviously, turning around on a building is insane. That took everybody — both Corey and Leslie were very vulnerable because they’re not “dancer dancers,” and I can’t cut away from them. They have to be able to do it … In “Champagne,” between Usnavi and Vanessa, they’re singing live in a real apartment, there’s a piano in the streets playing. We’re in a very small space, you can’t have a camera shadow and you can’t see the lights or the cords. This thing has to be in complete sync and live. That’s probably our biggest moment when we all thought, “Wow, we’re truly a team.”
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a November stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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