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Kristie Macosko Krieger has worked with Steven Spielberg since 1997, starting as his first assistant, having come from the Shoah Foundation, Spielberg’s nonprofit dedicated to interviewing and sharing the stories of Holocaust survivors. She’d spent several years working in the world of publicity before landing the assistant gig with Spielberg, who later said to her: “If you can run my life, you can produce a movie.” She has worked on every one of his films since 2001’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence.
Fast forward to today, and Krieger is on her third Oscar nomination for best picture alongside Spielberg (previously having been recognized for 2015’s Bridge of Spies and 2017’s The Post). West Side Story is perhaps their most ambitious project yet: reimagining a previous best picture-winning movie musical for a modern age.
What was that initial conversation about tackling West Side Story like? Were you skeptical about remaking such an iconic film?
[Steven] had always loved the musical. Having worked with him for so many years, we had watched [it] so many times. It was always a favorite of his. And so it wasn’t shocking to me that he would want to do it. But I thought, “Wow, are you crazy to do this? Does this make sense?” Any idea that he has that actually really sticks with him, and this one did, is something worth exploring. He had wanted to make a musical for forever. When he really stepped up and said, “OK, it’s going to be West Side Story,” it just made perfect sense. And, you know, “Let’s go make a musical!” Which, for me, was daunting, to say the least, but worthy of the challenge. I knew that it was something that he wanted to do in the fiber of his being, and so I thought, “We’re jumping on and we’re making this movie.” And so we did. I’m not going to lie. It was a daunting, daunting task and a steep learning curve.
You already have the incredible source material, the Jerome Robbins choreography, the Arthur Laurents play, the Leonard Bernstein music, the Stephen Sondheim lyrics. From your vantage point, what were the challenges and easy parts of assembling the team to make this movie?
Tony Kushner — Steven pitched him in the room when we were talking to all of the estates, because we had worked with him already. He hadn’t talked to Tony yet about the fact that Tony would write this, but he said, “I’m thinking of going to Tony Kushner for this,” and the rights holders, who have a giant legacy to protect, all said: “Absolutely. Tony Kushner. Perfect.” Because Tony comes from the theater world, his background was really fit to take something that is theatrical in nature and turn it into something that goes on the big screen. He has collaborators in the theater, and he knows people in that world. He was able to point us to Justin Peck and Jeanine Tesori to help with the choreography and with the vocal producing, respectively, of these incredible words from these incredibly young and inexperienced kids that mainly came from the theater. [Casting director] Cindy Tolan was a home run in helping us figure out and find triple threats that could step into these iconic roles and bring a youthful exuberance to this project.
And I would say, too: [costume designer] Paul Tazewell. Tony was like, “Paul Tazewell is an interesting idea.” So Steven and I met with Paul, and he had done Hamilton on Broadway. He comes from the theater, so as a costume designer he brought something new to the table for us. And then we’ve got all of our collaborators that we work with all the time, so you’ve got a Janusz [Kaminski, director of photography] and a Michael Kahn [co-editor] and an Adam Stockhausen [production designer], who also comes from theater originally. For this film, it felt like everybody was working on all their cylinders, everything was firing, everybody was at the top of their game.
I’ve read that Spielberg said something about not wanting to do a remake of the film, but an adaptation of the stage play.
There’s differences between the stage play and the film. It was about Steven identifying: “Yep, I’m going to go with the stage play over the film because there’s no way to remake West Side Story. That has been made, that was made perfectly and beautifully.” We wanted to recontextualize and reimagine the stage play for today’s audience, knowing that the property is timeless. Steven would say the [original] movie was made for all generations, our film was made for this generation. Maybe that will prove to be true.
What was it like blocking off New York City streets, and the logistics of that?
There was no alternative to shooting on the streets — we weren’t going to shoot this on a soundstage. Steven wanted it gritty and real. We were always going to go on location to give the film a real sense of time and place. There’s lots of New York that is timeless, right? Our film takes place in 1957. There are lots of places that look like that. We tried to impact the communities we went into as little as possible, and get in and out of there. We shot all over the place. In Harlem, in Washington Heights, we also shot on location in New Jersey. A soundstage didn’t feel right. This made it feel more real and cinematic.
The film came out in a very different market than you probably had been imagining. You got a ton of Oscar noms and raves, but with factors like COVID-19 and streaming, there was maybe a more lukewarm box office than you would have hoped. Where do you fall in terms of how the release went and the reception?
I think the release went as well as humanly possible. We had to postpone a year for COVID. And then we got caught in COVID again. It just was unfortunate, but I think the film needed to come out when it did. I’m glad it came out when it did. And I think everybody really loves it. I’m just so proud of it. And everybody got sort of destroyed by COVID. I mean, you could look at all the movies that came out in this window.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
This story first appeared in a March stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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