In The Heights (movie)

Started by scenicdesign71, Dec 15, 2019, 06:30 AM

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Quote from: KathyB on Jun 11, 2021, 09:09 AMIt was--well--exhilarating to see the music and choreography come alive after only hearing the score before. I was wondering how certain moments worked on stage (I thought the dancing wigs would be terrific onstage)...

I believe the wigs (along with all the other magic-realist moments, and the beachside children's-storytelling frame that supports them) were an invention of the filmmakers; I've never seen the show onstage either, but as far as I'm aware, its only explicitly non-naturalistic elements consist of... well, the copious non-diegetic singing and dancing.

But I do have a funny story about the wig heads and how I first learned, to my astonishment, that they weren't just ordinary wig heads.  I was dying to tell you guys about it at the time, but if I had... then, according the standard NDA that Warner Bros. had us all sign, I would have had to kill you.

[TL;DR: It was stiflingly hot inside the salon set that day, and I was completely unaware that the wig heads were being rigged to "dance".  So when I happened to glance up from my work and saw them briefly swing into action -- just for a second or two (they were being tested by a prop person, who was controlling them from somewhere behind the wall and out of sight) -- I wondered for a moment whether I might be having a heatstroke-induced hallucination.]

So one day in July 2019, a good two months into production, I was working inside Daniela's salon, on the soundstage in Brooklyn.  Having originally been built as an armory, that stage is gigantic, not only in terms of its square footage but its height as well.  To give you some idea: the salon and bodega interiors were built there in their actual relation to one another, along with, eventually, their exterior façades and sidewalks and the entire "street" between them; with the addition of trees, cars, hydrants and lampposts, we ended up recreating an entire half of the intersection in addition to the fully-furnished interiors of the two businesses facing each other across the "street".  All of this took up less than half of the floorspace in the armory drill hall (and less than a fifth of its height, since we didn't build any upper storeys).  At the other end of the stage, the 60'x60' gravity-defying fire-escape erector-set and its greenscreen surround occupied another chunk of real estate, but in the end, all of these sets still "floated" within the enormous, wide-open drill hall with ample room around and between them.  (I believe there was even enough space left over to eventually also build Kevin's back office onstage, and maybe one other small set -- the lawyer Alejandro's office, perhaps? -- but I was off on location when that happened, so I'm fuzzy on the details).

A space that size -- built half a century before indoor climate control, as we know it today, existed -- is obviously very difficult and very expensive to air-condition.  The producers did so anyway (union contracts require it), though I'm sure the A/C was more thorough and effective once shooting began and it was the Important People's health and comfort at stake -- actors, dancers, directors, and camera crew of all stripes -- as opposed to us build-crew peons.  But at this point in the summer the VIPs hadn't arrived onstage yet; they were still out shooting exteriors in the actual Heights.

To be fair, the enormous drill hall overall wasn't actually so bad; during the workday they would crank up these giant rented A/C units and bring the temperature down to a reasonable coolth.  But, weeks away from shooting here, none of this cooled air had yet been specifically routed into the interior bodega and salon sets, which at this point were nearly finished, and which both had full (as opposed to partial), hard (as opposed to stretched-muslin) ceilings.  There may have been one or two "wild" walls (removable as needed for wider camera angles) on these sets, but for now they were shut up tight, trapping -- and stubbornly retaining throughout the day -- all the sweltering July heat that would gather during the 14 hours every night when no one was around and the A/C was off.  The salon set had no open-able windows and very few doors: just the "street" entrance at one end, and one or two crew-access doors at the other; opening those doors and plugging in a few box fans helped bring in a little of the cooled air, but not enough to have any significant effect.  Daniela's was basically a sweatbox for those of us working in it that day, so we drank lots of water and stepped "outside" onto the air-conditioned stage for periodic breaks from the soupy "indoor" heat.

The salon interior was pretty close to being complete.  Except for one or two guys finishing a few trim details, the carpenters had moved to other sets-in-progress elsewhere onstage, or in the large adjoining construction-shop space, or out on location.  The set dressers had already done a good deal of their magic, installing salon chairs and mirrors and window treatments and lighting and outlets/switchplates and at least some of the everyday small-proppage one would encounter in a real salon.  This set ultimately had a lot of mobile furniture for the choreography of "No Me Diga", and I don't think absolutely all of that was there yet -- shelves and displays and countertops weren't yet fully stocked with shampoo and towels and scissors and curlers and whatnot -- so it remained as yet uncluttered-enough to allow us painters handy access for our own finishing touches.

Paint, wallpaper and floor tile had all been finished prior to dressing, along with any general overall aging glazes to tone them down from "we-just-built-this-yesterday" freshness.  Today's task was to go back over everything in more granular detail: to push more "age" into corners (of walls, floors, steps, shelves, and any other nooks and crannies); to dull down all the brand-new metal hardware (door hinges, drawer pulls, brasstone outlets and switchplates); to knock down any other shiny or bright-white surfaces with more tinted glaze; to make the furnishings look well-used, where appropriate, by lightly sanding down pristine factory-sharp edges and corners; to scuff up the floor in what would presumably be highly-trafficked spots around the entrance, the salon chairs, the steps, and add subtle grime around light switches, door/drawer/cabinet knobs and other high-touch areas; and to generally make the place feel lived-in.  Per the designer's instructions: Daniela and Carla take proud care of this place, but it has been around for quite a number of years without major renovation.*

It was in this context that I first noticed a large, mauve, Miami Deco-style shelving unit full of wig-heads (along with some random hardware and electrical gack someone had left lying around).  Because someone from the prop department was supposedly going to be doing some kind of work on these shelves, we couldn't age them for the time being, and would have to circle back around to them later -- to our mild annoyance, since it would delay the moment we could consider the salon set 100% finished, and get out of this sauna for good.  There were only three or four of us scenics in the entire salon; plus a carpenter, who finished installing some baseboard trim and then left; and that prop person, who kept to himself and only ever seemed to make very brief intermittent appearances, futzing with who knows what on the wig shelves, before leaving again.  I didn't really pay any attention to the mannequin-head armatures themselves, but I remember thinking it odd that at least some of them seemed to have separate, squishy covers -- made of latex or something? -- that I had noticed lying on a nearby counter as soon as we arrived in the salon.  They looked like accurate castings of the classic soft-featured, long-necked wig form in a variety of grayscale values.**  But why not just use the real thing -- and why make them of soft latex?

Heat and/or tiredness might account for my not having pursued these questions and either formed my own hypothesis (in 20/20 hindsight, the explanation seems pretty obvious) or else just asked someone.  But for whatever reason, those options didn't occur to me; it wasn't my department, and I was focused on my own work: making this newly-built set look real enough that you'd never guess we hadn't simply filmed in an actual decade(s)-old-but-still-working salon.  So when, fairly late in the morning, I thought I heard sounds coming from the general direction of the wig shelves -- subtle, indescribable, but suggesting muffled mechanical movement of some kind --  and glanced up from where I was scuffing the freshly-installed baseboard, maybe ten feet away, I was totally unprepared for what I saw.

I kinda wish there were candid-camera video of my reaction.  Saucer eyes?  A literal jaw-drop?  I think an actual double-take may have occurred.  However I may have looked at that moment, I remember feeling for a second as though someone had perhaps spiked my morning coffee with something very strong indeed -- or was the heat just getting to me?  The bizarre spectacle lasted for two or three seconds, tops, and compounding that head-swimming sense of doubting my own eyes was the fact that no one else had seen it: my co-workers either weren't around, had their backs turned, or just weren't looking up at the right moment.

To cite a different "magic" moment from the finished movie: when I eventually saw it, I knew precisely how that kid felt during "When The Sun Goes Down," gaping from inside his apartment at weightless Benny and Nina dancing across the window while his oblivious family enjoyed their dinner.

The heads had no actual wigs on them yet, so their movements were all the more unmistakably clear, and I recall them as even more dance-like than they appear in the quick cutaway shots that ended up in the film.  They were like three trios of girl-group backup performers, all in perfect synch, with a shocking fluidity and grace that could never have been achieved using real, rigid-styrene wig heads.  Gazing out from the shelves, chins cocked insouciantly, they swiveled up-to-the-left, then up-to-the-right, then back to neutral-resting-face where they froze once more, innocently symmetrical, as though nothing out of the ordinary had just occurred.  The initial hair-raising have-I-been-drugged? cognitive dissonance resolved almost instantly (latex, random wiring gack, the rarely-there prop guy: mystery solved) into a flush of tickled, childlike wonder: do it again!! please? (They didn't, at least not for quite awhile, long after I'd regained the ability to speak and alerted my co-workers to be on the lookout for the coolest thing ever).

...Tickled, and in a strange way, warmly reassured: in direct and thrilling juxtaposition with our everyday work of making artificial worlds look meticulously, unquestionably (indeed, more often than not, unremarkably) "real"... if what I just saw makes it into the final cut, I have a feeling this movie just might turn out to be pretty amazing.

* I'm fascinated by just how much lighting, framing and color-correction can do to emphasize -- or de-emphasize -- this kind of lived-in texture; in the finished film, Daniela's salon takes on two subtly-different atmospheres during the two scenes set there.  In "No Me Diga," indirect-lighting practicals impart a spiffy retro sheen, as in the recessed ceiling and the wig shelves; and the warm pink-and-gold color scheme is foregrounded and enhanced, giving the environment a slightly "sweetened" movie-musical quality.  (Mr. Chu's camera angles heighten this effect, using the proscenium-like draperies and the raised, stage-like area at the far end of the salon to frame his wide compositions and show off all of the set's niftiest features).  By contrast, later on, at the end of "It Won't Be Long Now", the visual mood is more sober and realistic, reflecting Vanessa's perspective: harsher daylight floods the salon's front windows, with noticeably less fill light and cooler tones predominating, while the camerawork stays tighter and more strictly-functional (the "freeze" moment, with Daniela's spray-mist hovering in midair, is a beautiful touch, but the arguably-slickest "magic" in this shot is literally invisible: the digital erasure of the camera itself, as it faces a row of mirrors while tracking alongside Vanessa from her chair, near the center of the salon, all the way to the front door).  It's the same actors wearing the same clothes on the same set as before, but shrewd adjustments by cinematographer Alice Brooks lend everything an emotionally resonant new sense of unsweetened naturalism: the room itself feels more real and workaday, less punchy and highly-designed (in effect, less like a studio set -- though it is one -- and more like a real location) than it did in "No Me Diga".  For a much more extreme example of the same general principle at work, see AMC's new show Kevin Can F**k Himself.

** Even the unexceptional decision to make the wig heads in various shades of gray rather than, say, a range of brown and beige skin-tones, makes more specific sense to me in retrospect: it allows the wigs themselves to stand out, but it also mitigates the risk, however remote, of any accidentally-grotesque shock when we first see them in motion.  We don't want to perceive these disembodied heads, even momentarily, as being so uncannily "alive" that they might, for instance, start singing along -- a bridge too far, fantasy-wise -- or worse, so uncannily "not alive" that they might, for instance, start bleeding.  (Or worst of all -- watch out, Little Shop -- both at once.) Indeed, I wonder whether their apparently simpler, jerkier movements in the film, and their audible mechanics (left in, or deliberately added to, the finished sound mix), might be there for the same reason: to keep them as far away as possible from the realm of creature-FX ickiness and closer to that of magically-kooky wind-up toys -- unreal in any case, but unambiguously cute and fun, not uncanny-valley creepy.


One more (briefer, I promise) production memory.

Up here on 175th St, the Santo Domingo bodega (whose exterior, along with that of the nail salon next door, became Usnavi's) remained open for business throughout production -- even during filming, when shoppers would only be allowed to enter or exit the store between takes.

Before then, we were there for several weeks transforming the entire intersection, all four corners, for a block in each direction on both sides of the streets: every storefront got new awnings and signage, walls and stoops and doors/windows were repainted, street furniture (payphones, hydrants, trashcans) brought in or rearranged, and murals added (one painted onsite, directly onto an existing brick wall; another pre-painted on plywood panels and installed in sections; and a third printed and wheatpasted onto the side of a building like wallpaper, its outer edges blended into the brick with washable spraypaints).  And the exterior of Daniela's salon -- a wholesale fabrication bearing no structural relation to any existing architecture at that location -- was brought in pieces from the scene shop in Brooklyn and assembled on a steel-truss skeleton erected at the intersection's southeast corner.

At some point during all of this bustling activity, word spread that the Santo Domingo -- a tiny hole-in-the-wall establishment, a quarter the size of Usnavi's bodega-interior set and distinctly less photogenic, but run by the sweetest Dominican family -- sold homemade virgin piña colada slushies every afternoon for three or four bucks, which quickly became a favorite way to beat the heat during our daily 3pm coffee break.  (Indeed, these frosty treats became so popular that, on particularly heavy crew days, they couldn't always keep up with demand -- which would mean a deliciously anticipatory wait for the slushie-machine to churn up a new batch).

Ice-cold, sticky-sweet and insanely (coconut-)creamy, I'm sure they were approximately half a million calories apiece, even at a moderate serving size (they were served in what I'm guessing was a 12oz cup, perfectly just-shy of "too much" for something this overpoweringly rich and sweet).  But boy, were they tasty; I should wander back over there one of these days...


Our production designer has written a lavishly-illustrated cover article about In The Heights for Perspective, the journal of the Art Directors Guild:


It's now out on DVD, Blu Ray and 4K UHD (in addition to having been available for rental or purchase on many of the major streaming services for the past month or so).  I bought the Blu Ray and haven't yet watched it all the way through, but I did watch the main extras, which comprise a roughly hourlong multi-part making-of featurette.  For such length, it's not especially informative; mostly a protracted actor-director-creator love-fest, of which a little goes a long way (even for me, notwithstanding all my own proud burbling-on about the movie here on this thread).

Or maybe I've just been watching so much similar stuff online for the past few months that I'm burnt-out.  Regardless, I'm super happy to finally own the movie itself on disc.


The 191st St pedestrian tunnel featured in "Paciencia Y Fe" was painted-over last week -- "white: a blank page or canvas" for artists and taggers to start over from scratch, with attendant conflict over which qualifies as what, art or vandalism.

The original murals were commissioned by the city in 2015, but had since accumulated layer upon layer of unsanctioned additions by graffitists of varying abilities.  Just about halfway between then and now, in the summer of 2019 when we were there filming, this was already very much in evidence, as can be seen in the finished scene -- though we also added a few (removable) tags of our own.

It's hard not to wonder whether this tunnel's existence mightn't have played a part in Mr. Chu's and Ms. Hudes's decision to set "Paciencia" on a sort of subway-time-machine.  (The idea of filming it in a more abstract, theatrical black limbo had previously been considered, to no one's real excitement).  Hudes and LMM, who both still live in the neighborhood, would already have been aware of the tunnel, while I imagine Chu and Coates likely encountered it while scouting around here in 2018.  But the shrewdness of choosing it for the song's final section may also have been helped along by lucky timing.  A few years earlier in 2015, it might merely have read as what it was, at the time: a colorfully-trippy MTA public-art project, brand-new, squeaky-clean and a bit on-the-nose for an upbeat movie musical set in a (thereby) sanitized WaHi.  Conversely, buried entirely under tags a few years later in 2022, it might have suggested 1970s-style decay, graffiti-as-inner-city-horrorshow.  But in 2019 (and with spiffily-enhanced lighting), it was a perfect balance, gritty and celebratory and also something more: a fantastic urban tapestry resonating with the other murals shown throughout the film, "official" art in rowdy conversation with improvised self-expression; a slightly-unreal piece of production design that lands perfectly, in part, because it is in fact real; and, in bringing the song's dreamlike historical travelogue right up to the present in pre-pandemic Washington Heights, the perfect "final passage" for Claudia.