Summer is just different in Washington Heights. That was clear to In The Heights cinematographer Alice Brooks after her first visit to the neighbourhood, which inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda's Broadway musical of the same name. Being there, filming the big-hearted summer blockbuster "felt like being a kid at summer camp having the most marvellous time," she told Refinery29 over Zoom the day after In The Heights debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival.
As the director of photography, her job it is to help the director create the look of the film. And with In The Heights, she wanted to recreate the joy she felt while being in the Heights. "When you watch the movie, I want you to smell the smells, taste the tastes, feel the heat," she says. "I want you to see the beauty of the community that is already there." (It has to be mentioned that many have rightfully pointed out that the community represented on screen largely excludes the real Heights' Afro-Latinx population. Miranda has since apologized for the Afro-Latinx erasure in the film's lead roles, writing, in a statement on Twitter, "I promise to do better in my future projects, and I'm dedicated to learning and evolving [what] we all have to do to make sure we are honouring our diverse and vibrant community.")
The best parts of summer are on full display in the "96,000" scene, where the neighbourhood pool becomes the setting for one of the movie's most ambitious musical numbers. The nearly six-minute scene features over 500 extras, many of whom are dancers busting out ballet, hip-hop, synchronized swimming, and bone-breaking moves at Washington Heights' historic Highbridge Pool.
On screen it's one of the hottest days of the year — not to mention one of the most exciting. Someone in the neighbourhood bought a winning lotto ticket at Usnavi's (Anthony Ramos) bodega. The jackpot? $96,000, an amount that has everyone — future CEO Benny (Corey Hawkins), Usnavi's young activist cousin Sonny (Gregory Diaz IV), salon owner Daniela (Daphne Rubin-Vega), aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) — dreaming up how they'd spend it.
In reality, the shoot took place across three of the coldest and rainiest days of the summer. "The actors were freezing in the water so [director] Jon [M. Chu] spent his two days in the water, too," she says. He even acted as a "float wrangler;" holding Barrera and her purple floatie in place and guiding Sonny's pool floating admirer into the shot from off camera. "He’s like, 'If they’re going to be in there freezing, so am I,'" Brooks said.
Not that you would know that from watching the scene, which is the epitome of Usnavi's sueñito or "little dream." Taking a page from other classic New York City films including Moonstruck, Annie Hall, and Spike Lee's hot summer classic Do The Right Thing, Brooks wanted In The Heights to be "an elegant film about Washington Heights that is inspired by the community."
However, behind the scenes, things were fraught. "I remember on day two, you could feel that everyone was stressed out," she said. "After lunch, I just pulled my crew together and said, 'Thank you for working so hard, I promise you this is going to be something we’ll be proud of in the end.'"
Brooks is especially proud of her crew, who were able to overcome the obstacles, which included some structural engineering. Long before the Highbridge opened in 1936, it was an integral part of New York City's water supply system. A collection of intricate tunnels, which used to run the water 41 miles into New York City, still exist underneath the pool deck. To protect the landmark, "we needed to find out what weight the pool deck would support so that our crane wouldn’t go into the tunnels," she says. "That limited how high we could be for those crane shots."
Luckily, the height limitations didn't take away from one of the most dazzling shots in the whole scene: the Busby Berkeley-esque water ballet starring Vanessa. While Brooks didn't watch the classic director's films before making this movie, she believes the similarities probably came by osmosis. "I grew up loving musicals," she says. "Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies were on in my house all the time." (There's also a Berkeley homage in Brooks' first short film with Chu, When The Kids Are Away.)
Still, Berkeley's kaleidoscopic musical numbers feel like an appropriate inspiration for a character whose dreams are "very glamorous and romantic," she said. Benny's smooth moves and the dancers aggressively contorting through Sonny's rap also feel like the proper interpretations of their individual desires for their little spot at the top of the world. Well, their spot at the very end of the 1 train.
"These are real human beings with real struggles and real dreams. These are people who are figuring out what home means," she said. "And our movie allows them to voice their enthusiasm for this place they love."
Brooks' favourite shot in "96,000" is the underwater sequence, which was filmed in the final hour on the final day of the Highbridge shoot. "You see this choreographed number underneath and you pop up and we go to this magnificent crane shot of everyone dancing in those shallow pool," Brooks says. "It’s just got so much energy and the sun is just sparkling." (To get the lighting just right, she says they had to switch the direction of the crane in the days leading up to filming.)
When she saw the movie with an audience at the Tribeca Film Festival, it was this moment that got everyone riled up in the theatre. "As the camera climbed, the energy in the room climbed too," she says. "It was pretty exciting." Even more exciting is that that crowd's excitement over "96,000" wasn't a fluke.
On opening night, Chu snuck into a New York City theatre and posted a video on his Instagram of the crowd going wild over Sonny's rap about using the winnings to help the Heights get a better wi-fi hookup. (In the video, that is Diaz rapping along with his character.)
"It’s a full packed theatre and people are cheering and so excited for this scene," Brooks says of Chu's video. "And that was our objective, that the camera would make you feel like you’re part of the community.”