Jon M. Chu On Why He Cried (Happy Tears) Every Day While Directing ‘In the Heights’

In the Heights

In the (American) summer of 2019, Jon M. Chu, Lin-Manuel Miranda and a cast and crew of hundreds, began shooting the film version of In the Heights in New York City.

It was important to Chu and Miranda, along with screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes, that the adaptation of Miranda’s Broadway hit be shot as authentically as possible — which meant that city blocks in Washington Heights and local residents took the place of sound stages and meticulously cast extras.

For Miranda and Hudes who both hail from the predominantly Latinx neighbourhood in Upper Manhattan, this was something of a homecoming but for Chu, it represented being welcomed into a vibrant and diverse community that is rarely portrayed — at least not positively — despite the complexity and importance of their stories.

“I cried every day on this shoot,” Chu told The Latch in an interview. “[This film] made me stop and listen, to be honest. To show a community that’s taking care of each other just meant so much and it took our whole shoot to shoot every piece of that. It meant a lot.”

In the Heights
Warner Bros.

The “Magic Sauce”

Revealing how he and Miranda addressed their cast and crew as production on the long-awaited adaptation finally began, Chu laughed, “We gave a lot of speeches, but the main thing was: ‘Okay, we know we have weight on our shoulders —  let it go. Let’s entertain the hell out of this crowd.’

“That was the magic sauce — that this was going to be joyful and entertaining and we’re going to show the world who Washington Heights is.”

That weight, of course, refers in part to the political discord that was rife as In the Heights started filming — as then-president Donald Trump and his administration continued to emanate their dangerous rhetoric about immigrants, while simultaneously trying to roll back as many of their rights as possible.

The theme of the challenges faced by Latinx immigrants — including discrimination, poverty and deportation — has always been present in the musical, but resonate even more with the film thanks to some updated references. For example, Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV) urges Nina (Leslie Grace) to attend a protest against the government “trying to kick out Dreamers” — a nod to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy that was threatened under Trump’s administration.

Warner Bros.

A Timely Reminder

Chu explained that the goal of everyone on set was to prove that “we can rise when we’ve been knocked down”.

“Washington Heights knows how to survive and knows how to be there for each other and the world needs that reminder more than ever,” he told The Latch. “We need that reminder of like ‘Oh yeah, we can. We are not powerless. We are powerful.’ So, we gave a lot of speeches like that not knowing where this was all heading.”

Where this was all heading, of course, was a film that had to be delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but will finally be in Australian cinemas on June 24th, taking audiences on a truly captivating tour of one of New York’s most culturally enticing neighbourhoods.

in the heights
Chu and Miranda with Anthony Ramos on set.

The Importance of Authenticity

Chu was committed to making sure that he took the responsibility of bringing Washington Heights to the masses extremely seriously, and made sure that he constantly checked in with the locals to ensure everything you see on screen is truly a representation of their culture. This meant even enlisting people from the community to make their big-screen debut.

“The opening is so large,” Chu said of the film’s first eight minutes, in which bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) introduces most of the musical’s characters through the title track.

“It’s so beautiful,” he said. “We used actual people who work there — the custodian who is mopping is the real guy who let us into the building to show us the apartments that we were possibly shooting in. The guys and the women who are opening up the tyre store are really there.”

Warner Bros.

The Scene He’ll Never Forget

For Chu, directing a film that involves so many cast heavy scenes complete with big song and dance numbers, was right up his alley — after all, this is the man who brought us the epic celebration that was Crazy Rich Asians. However, there was one particular number from In the Heights that will stay with the filmmaker forever.

“I would say Carnaval del Barrio was probably the single most amazing shooting day of my life,” he enthused.

“We shot that whole scene in one day — eight minutes of screen time — in a real courtyard in Washington Heights with all our characters in one spot. They could basically do the whole eight minutes live, and so it was me just trying to keep up with it and finding new positions.”

He continued, “the energy in there was unlike anything I’ve ever felt — when they grab their flags, and those drums kick in, and Anthony’s up on that table…that is real energy.

“I’d call cut and nobody would stop. It was not a performance at that point. It was as fulfilling of a moment of telling stories as anything I’ve ever experienced.”

in the heights
‘Carnaval del Barrio’

In the Heights lands in Hoyts Cinemas on June 24th, with advance screenings now showing.

Watch the first eight minutes of the film below.

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