Exclusive: ‘In the Heights’ Filmmakers Reveal Stage to Screen Challenges, Plus Anthony Ramos’ Message for Moviegoers

Screenshot: 'In the Heights' Global Press Conference with Cast and Crew, Hosted by Warner Bros. June, 2021 via BritAsia TV / Priyanca Kumari.

Director Jon M. Chu and co-writers Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, joined the cast of In the Heights for the global press conference — which saw a celebration of the Latinx community and messages of hope for audiences. 

In the Heights is a film is adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2005 stage show of the same name. The story explores three days in the characters’ lives in the New York City Latino neighbourhood of Washington Heights, who strive each day to make their sueñitos (little dreams) a reality, against a musical backdrop.

During the global press conference, BritAsia TV learned the intricacies about how the film was adapted from stage to screen after almost two decades, what Anthony Ramos hopes audiences will extract from the film and the biggest challenge Jon M. Chu faced as director.

Initiating the dialogue, co-writer and lyricist Miranda, revealed Cabaret (1972) as one of his favourite movie musicals before reminiscing the director’s stage to screen triumph. “Bob Fosse took enormous liberties in adapting a stage piece to the screen,” he said.

“And what emerges is a concentrated version of the themes in it and this endeavour, a lot of the credit for our adaptation goes to Quiara Alegría Hudes, who took a head start in writing the incredible screenplay and adapted a two-act show into a three-act structure pretty brilliantly and was courages in the moves she made.”

He revealed the joy in the adapted work, was in the “detail”, reflecting specifically on one song, Black Out. “In this version of the Black Out song, Usnavi (Ramos) and Vanessa (Melissa Berrera) run into each other,” he said, as he remembered thinking, “we have to write that piece of the song now, whereas I never got a chance to write that in the previous incarnation.”

Speaking further about adapting a stage property to film, Hudes said the key for her was to zero in on the intimate scenes that can be enveloped by the big production value of a musical number.

“When I think of my favourite movie musicals, I think of the opportunity to juxtapose a tremendous vision in the musical numbers with very intimate moments like being able to whisper a conversation like what happens between Abuela Claudia (Olga Merediz)and Nina (Leslie Grace) in one of the earlier scenes.

“So it’s an opportunity to get really big and awesome but also up close and personal. When developing the screenplay, Jon and I were going back and forth a lot on how big can we get and how human can we get, always pushing those extremes to create that dynamism,” Hudes said.

When asked about his ‘sueñito’ for In the Heights, which means little dream – the very theme driving the story – and his message for audiences, Ramos said: “My sueñito is that people walk away from this film, number one: Being excited about living and being excited about being outside and connecting with one another again. And that people feel hopeful when they leave this film.

“In watching each and everyone of these characters — not just Usnavi, but watching each character with whatever they’re dreaming for and the tenacity about the way they go about chasing those dreams in spite of whatever they’re going through,” he added.

“Especially given the almost two years we’ve had, where people have been set back a certain way or what people have never in their wildest dreams imagined they’d be going through, they can watch this movie and In the Heights can be this little ball of hope for them.

“They can sit in the theatre and watch all these characters go through these different things and see how they never give up and do their best to overcome it and keep going. That’s what this movie’s about – the people and how its community just keeps going, no matter what gets thrown at it or the people and in the process, they find joy in all of these moments and that’s what’s so beautiful.”

This sparked a certain gratitude for the film’s production, Ramos revealed, as it captured an authenticity of the Latinx community in real time and space.

“That’s why I’m grateful the movie was shot in Washington Heights”, he said. Adding, “we felt the vibrations of the community and we felt the people. People were riding their motorcycles through the shot, music blaring from peoples’ cars, we could smell [the food] coming from down the block.”

Corey Hawkins, who plays Benny, described the film as “transparent, filled with hope, and people are being seen,” before adding, “as a person of colour I know what that is, we all know what that is, and to be in a space where your voice is not only heard but not celebrated.

“So this was an opportunity for all of us to come together and kick the door — not just crack the door ope — but we’re busting the door open in a real way. And it feels tangible, timely, it feels like the time is now.

“And it’s just magic to sit in the theatre together, that moment when the lights go down and you can sit back and be next to somebody who is not from where you’re from, who doesn’t look like how you look but we all connect through that same line of humanity in space and time.

“I don’t know if I can come up with any more words but I just know the emotions are full and real and I feel it when I sit with this cast and when I speak about this movie, every time I feel the honour and joy of being able to lift up the Latino / Latinx community. I know when one of us wins, we all win. And that’s not just people of colour, that’s all of humanity so that’s the weight and honour of this movie for me.”

Both Miranda and Hudes were asked about the single most gratifying thing about the release, having written it almost 20 years ago, and each expressed a personal sentiment. Hudes said: “We talk a lot about the dream component of the movie, but one thing I’ve learned along the way is, the dream is not the finish line, it’s the process every step of the way.

“The most satisfying part is being part of this community of artists, this crew, these creators who held hands hand and made something together – just proud of the community this movie has created. For the last half of my life, that’s it for me – the path, that’s the dream,” she concluded.

Miranda said: “When we started this journey I was closest spiritually to Nina. I started writing it in my sophomore year in college after all. Nina feels out of place! She feels out of place at home and out of place at school and I felt like that in a lot of places throughout my life.

“And struggling with those questions with Quiara and putting those questions into our characters, we created these communities and families that continue to reverberate into the family of [this cast].

“One of the most satisfying moments — it really didn’t feel real to me until I got to watch this extraordinary company [film cast], with my original broadway company and man – the last shot of the opening number when that camera zooms in and you see Anthony dancing as hard as everyone else on that street, and that’s the real street this whole thing is a love letter to! Then hearing my family scream at what they were witnessing – that was a really good moment,” he concluded.

For Chu, the biggest challenge about brining In the Heights to the screen as director was realising both Miranda’s and Hudes’ aspirations that seemed inconceivable.

“Living up to Lin and Quiara’s vision of what they see the world as and that the world isn’t quite there yet,” Chu said, before adding, “we had to find the inch that we could push it all forward to get there and I think what we related on most, was about dreams.

“Even though I’m not from Washington Heights or Latino, I know what it felt like to be in my bedroom wanting to be a director one day. I knew what it felt like to want it so bad. Just like Usnavi in that shot where we’re in the bodega and we’re pushing in and the screws are tightening closer and the window’s right there, blocking him off from the world and the community is there – not feeling sad for him or sorry for him, but daring him to break that window, daring him to dream bigger and we see ourselves in that reflection. 

Amid the political and emotional sentiments, however, this love letter to Latinx New Yorkers, adapted for the silver screen, is a toe-tapping, body-popping, hip-swaying musical that reminds us it’s okay to embrace our culture as we chase our sueñitos. In fact, it’s better that we sing and dance about it along the way — telling the world “we are not invisible,” as Abuela Claudia muses.

Watch the official In the Heights trailer here:

In the Heights is out in UK cinemas on Friday 18 June, 2021.