As part of B&H’s “Inside Digital Production” panel, acclaimed director Jon M. Chu and cinematographer Alice Brooks discussed their most recent film collaboration, the incredible big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights.
Other highlights include exclusive crew insights from the VFX supervisor to the Foley team:
Denise Bailie – "C" Camera Operator
Leslie Bloome & Ryan Collison - Foley Team
Caroline Ibarra – 2nd Assistant Camera
Mark Russell - Visual Effect Supervisor
Before the event, I had a chance to speak with Chu and Brooks about the movie and their longtime friendship, and finally put to rest the age-old question of "Which is the better Step Up movie?"
Jon M. Chu
Jon M. Chu most recently helmed the critically acclaimed adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical In The Heights for Warner Bros. Studios, which was released June 11, 2021 in theaters and on HBO Max. Chu is perhaps best known for directing the worldwide phenomenon Crazy Rich Asians, which was nominated for numerous awards and earned more than $240 million, making it one of the top 10 highest grossing romantic comedies of all time. It was the first contemporary studio picture in more than 25 years to feature an all-Asian cast. Currently, he is readying the production of Universal’s Wicked, the feature-film adaptation of the record-breaking musical phenomenon. For television, Chu serves as an executive producer and director of Home Before Dark for Apple TV+, which recently debuted its second season. Previous credits include Step Up 2: The Streets, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, “Justin Bieber’s Never Say Never,” and more, representing over $1.3 billion worldwide.
Director of Photography
Alice Brooks is a cinematographer who has photographed award-winning features, television, and commercials. She most recently photographed tick tick…BOOM! for Netflix and Imagine Entertainment, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda and produced by Ron Howard. Other recent work includes the 2021 summer release of In The Heights for Warner Bros., directed by Jon M. Chu, Home Before Dark (pilot and season one) for Apple TV+ and Paramount TV, and Anonymous Content, produced by Dana Fox, Dara Resnik, and Joy Gorman. Her feature film credits include the soon-to-be-released Queen Bees (director Michael Lembeck, starring Ellen Burstyn and James Caan) and the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion (directors Farah Khalid and Lisa Cortes). Brook is also known for her dramatic lighting and powerful camera movement, as demonstrated by Paramount’s The LXD (director Jon M. Chu) and Tainted Love (director Avi Youabian). Ad Age described The LXD as “by a wide margin, the most beautifully filmed, elaborately staged web series in the history of the medium.” Brooks is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, Local 600. Her work has been featured as the cover story of ICG Magazine and in editions of American Cinematographer Magazine. She is repped by UTA.
Brett Smith: Thank you so much for taking time to chat with me about In The Heights and also big congrats on the movie. I’ve seen it three times now and it’s just a beautiful film. From start to finish, you know, it’s just really special.
Alice Brooks: Thank you.
Jon M. Chu: That’s really nice, thanks. Happy to talk with you, too.
With In the Heights, one thing you notice right away is how much this movie feels like a New York movie. Same with Washington Heights. It feels very authentic. Was that something you were conscious of when you were shooting?
AB: We definitely had talked about wanting to make a classic New York movie. We looked at movies like Do the Right Thing, Moonstruck, Searching for Bobby Fischer to sort of see which parts helped make a classic New York story and let ourselves be inspired by that.
And was there something specific you did to make Washington Heights look and feel so authentic, or was it just by virtue of shooting some on location?
AB: Being on location in the Heights definitely helped but the thing we discovered that really gave it such an authentic feel was the light. The sunlight is different there than anywhere in the world. Even from the rest of New York.
AB: So, all the buildings in Washington Heights are much lower than the rest of Manhattan and they’re not the same color. Most of Manhattan has these red brick buildings, but in the Heights it’s mostly gray and yellow brick. And the way the sunlight hits them produces a very specific look that’s different from anywhere else. You see it and you just know.
So, following up on that, how much was shot on location versus a soundstage?
JMC: Most of it was on location in the Heights. Of the 49 days of shooting, I think only about 10 days were filmed on a soundstage.
AB: We only used three sets. The rest was all shot on location.
Oh, wow. That’s got to be a crazy schedule. Now I’m trying to think which sets were real and which were staged. Can I guess?
JMC: Go for it.
OK. So, the bodega was probably a stage.
JMC: The inside of the bodega was a set. We built that. But the scenes outside of the bodega were real. That was a spot over on 175th Street and Audubon.
Right. And then Abuela’s apartment had to be a set, right? I mean, that one-shot you did for "Champagne"—that would have been impossible otherwise.
JMC: Abuela’s apartment is real. That is a real apartment.
What. No. How’d you film that then? How’d you get the gear in there?
AB: So that was pretty challenging. Especially the lighting. For "Champagne," we had an ARRI 18K Fresnel and an 18K ARRI Airmax on a lift outside the living room. The Airmax shot light through the curtains onto these beautiful wood floors and it just bounced everywhere and gave it that very specific look and color we were looking for. And then we also had a couple of ARRI M90s in the back. But that was about it.
I have to watch that scene again. I was positive there was no way you could do a oner in there. But speaking of difficulty: Was there a single set piece that stood out as more challenging than the others? Or because all the scenes were so different, were they equally challenging, just in different ways?
JMC: (laughs) Yeah, probably that. Each number was its own think, you know. Whether it was how to fit a crew inside a very limited space like Abuela’s apartment or building this gigantic rotating wall for the “When the Sun Goes Down,” every scene and musical number had its own unique set of obstacles we had to overcome.
Yeah, that makes sense. I mean, you watch this film, and you’re just like wow, they’re doing something new and crazy and wonderful in every single number. I have to think, though, just from a logistical standpoint, shooting “96,000” had to be crazy. How hard was that?
AB: “96,000” was probably the most challenging, just because of the size of it. We shot it in Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights, which is these two massive swimming pools right next to each other. We’ve got over 500 people there and, even though it was June, it was raining a lot and it was freezing cold in the pool. So on top of the difficulty of shooting such a big, complicated scene with this amazing, intricate choreography, we had to also be very cautious about safety concerns. You know, we had to make sure nobody drowned or got hypothermia from the cold. It really was very challenging, but every person on set worked so hard to make it happen and in the end it really was magnificent.
Alright, so I know we’re lucky enough to be hosting you guys at a special panel in the future, which we’re very thrilled about, but I thought because I have you here, I might close this out with a couple of questions that might not come up during the panel—you cool with that?
JMC: Yeah, for sure. Go for it.
OK, first question. This one is for Alice. Of the three movies that make up the original trilogy of the Step Up franchise—Step Up, Step Up 2: The Streets, and Step Up 3D—which is the best?
AB: Oh, obviously Step Up 2, come on.
That is correct. Step Up 2: The Streets is objectively the best film in that series. The choreography in the rain scene? Get out of here. I rewatched that again last night and it’s insane. Oh, I should probably mention—in case anyone doesn’t know—that you, Jon, directed Step Up 2.
Yeah, otherwise that would just seem like a very weird and random question.
JMC: Can you imagine that, though? Just an interview where all you do is ask someone Step Up trivia?
Oh man, why didn’t I think of that? That’s the best idea I’ve ever heard. Alright, so here’s your question: In 2013, you rescued the G.I. Joe franchise with G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which saw the character of Duke, played by Channing Tatum, killed off in the first ten minutes—spoiler alert. Tatum, who was the star of the first Step Up movie, only had a brief cameo in your film, Step Up 2. So my question is: What’s going on here? Do you not like Channing Tatum? What’s the deal?
JMC: Honestly? Channing Tatum is the nicest guy and one of the best people to work with. I cannot say enough good things about him.
That is correct. Channing Tatum does seem like the nicest guy and he would be really cool to work with. Thank you for confirming that. Not sure that this is gonna make it into the interview, but it’s something that personally makes me feel better knowing it’s true.
JMC: You’re welcome.