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Outside the United Palace Theater in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood sat a bright yellow carpet lit up by not just a scorching sun and 90-degree temperatures, but a collection of actors and filmmakers buzzing about what they think is the ideal film to bring back the moviegoing experience: In the Heights.
“I think we made this film for the theater,” leading man Anthony Ramos told The Hollywood Reporter, at the film’s world premiere, which kicked off the 2021 Tribeca Festival. “That was the intention; for people to sit in a theater to feel that music, to feel the vibrations of these massive dance numbers and these musical numbers and also to feel the scenes in a very visceral and big way — on a big screen.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote and originated Ramos’ character on Broadway, agreed: “It’s a big feel-good sing-along musical. Like, you can watch it at home and you will enjoy the movie, but man, if you’re going with your school cast or you’re going with your family…”
“I’ll tell you what people told me when they would come to the show,” Miranda continued. “I met so many folks who’d say ‘I came on a date, but I gotta bring my mom,’ or, ‘I brought my mom, but I got to bring my girlfriend. She’s from uptown.’ It is that kind of experience. I think it is a movie about the power of community and I think it’s best as a communal experience.”
Capturing the authentic essence of the particular community at the center of In the Heights — working-class residents of the predominantly Latin neighborhood of Washington Heights — was director Jon M. Chu’s main priority from the start, he explained to THR.
“We wanted to include the neighborhood,” Chu said. “We wanted to definitely shoot in the neighborhood and I wanted to use as many people from the neighborhood that we could. In fact, the end credits are photos from people who live in the neighborhood. I really wanted to, at some point, show what the people who live here see.”
Filming in the actual streets blocks from where Miranda grew up naturally made him emotional. As the Hamilton mastermind put it, “I cried for a different fucking reason every day.”
One especially poignant moment came when Miranda laid his eyes on the cart his character, known simply as “Piragua Guy,” would be pushing.
“There were things that Nelson Coates, our brilliant production designer, put in that I couldn’t even dare to dream,” Miranda recalled. “He found—I must have tweeted it at some point—a doodle of In the Heights that I did in my astronomy notebook my sophomore year in college. I was just doodling the title, and I hadn’t written the show yet. He put that doodle on the side of my piragua cart.”
While Miranda’s had a number of these full-circle moments, Ramos said he finds himself looking to the future — more specifically, to the next generation of creatives.
“I wish I saw these characters in a movie — especially all together in this way — but I’m happy it’s happening right now,” he told THR. “And I hope Latino kids all over the world can watch this film and they can be like, ‘Wow, that person reminds me of my aunt.’ ‘That person reminds me of my cousin. ‘That person reminds me of my dad, my mom.’ ‘And maybe I could do that! Maybe I can do that one day. Maybe, if those people can do it, maybe I can.'”
In the Heights is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max.
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Jon M. Chu