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West Side Story Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski on Making a Musical With Steven Spielberg


West Side Story
Image via 20th Century Studios/Niko Tavernise

Having made 18 previous films together in their 30-year cinematic collaboration, director Steven Spielberg and cinematographer Janusz Kaminski undertook perhaps their biggest challenge yet in updating the 1957 stage musical West Side Story, which had already been adapted into a film—to great acclaim—in 1961.

Foremost among myriad obstacles in the 2021 telling of West Side Story was how to achieve the look and feel of Manhattan, New York City’s west side area as it appeared in 1957; in the 1961 film, the filmmakers kept the present-day setting of the story, but in Spielberg and Kaminski’s version, they were reaching back 65 years before principal photography commenced to realize their incarnation of the famed San Juan Hill, Lincoln Square, and Hell’s Kitchen Manhattan neighborhoods.

Initially, Kaminski ascribed the success of his West Side Story to the efforts of the film’s production designer, Adam Stockhausen, who located and transformed practical locations in the greater New York area. “He was able to convert the streets of Brooklyn and Harlem and Bronx and Paterson [northern New Jersey] into America of 1957,” Kaminski relayed. “And that stuff does not exist in Manhattan anymore. But we found beautiful tenement buildings, beautiful streets. He found this amazing place in Paterson that consisted of existing buildings and empty lots with some buildings being dismantled. And he created sets within those locations and [would] bring in some period cars. I’ve always said it’s easy to turn the streets into [that] particular timeframe. If you have enough money to bring in hundreds of cars and extras in proper costumes, and you have enough money to block the streets from [the] traffic of modern cars, then the rest is relatively easy.”

In manifesting the late-1950s for West Side Story in 2021, Kaminski compared the production to the difficulty in portraying period America in his 2002 Spielberg project Catch Me If You Can. “We had a similar situation, except the money was half of the money and a third of the schedule,” he revealed. “That was a very, very hard movie to make because there was not enough money or time, so we had to be very precise with our angles, but, here, it was well-financed, and we had enough time. We could do the 360˚ shots, and show the entire life of New York as it used to be—you have to do it because it’s a part of the story. How can you limit yourself to showing fragments of the city if the city is part of the story?”

West Side Story
Image via 20th Century Studios/Niko Tavernise

When Kaminski signed on for yet another Spielberg film, albeit a musical, he knew that he was going to simultaneously embark on both a musical and cinematic journey. “You start going into [a] much more practical and concrete approach: how do you convey the beauty of a Broadway musical in the city?” contemplated Kaminski. “In the wide shots, where the actors are traveling through several blocks, it all has to look beautiful and consistent and romantic and enticing and gorgeous. That’s why you start bringing in the lights— lots of lights—and the cameras, the equipment. You start controlling the light. That’s where the art of cinematography comes to play. Having a great crew, a New York crew that I’ve worked with many times before, you may have [a] sufficient amount of time to do your work.”

As Spielberg is considerably well-versed in the language, technology, and mechanics of cinema, Kaminski detailed that his specific job is duly collaborative. “Working with the director, who’s aware of the light, when the light is not good, he will realize that—well, let’s get it better—let’s go,” unveiled Kaminski. “Not good light is a top light that creates eye shadows. And if you don’t have enough money that you can bring big lights to overpower the ugly sunlight, then you are stuck. But if you have enough money, you can bring the lights and you can create key light where the key light is as strong as the sunlight. Then the sunlight just becomes a light, and then you create your own light. So, in those instances where we’re able to light, we staged a couple of shots at the right time. I had some shots where I had to bring in artificial light to maintain [the light] of the sun.”

Continuing his explanation of shooting in New York in the daytime, Kaminski noted that he would devise a strategy for the types of shots that he aimed to achieve in West Side Story. “When the light is usually low-hour, usually backlight, we do our wider shots,” he said. “But if you look at the movie, the best way to judge the light [is where] you look at the shadow. If the shadow is as big as the person, then you’re shooting [when] the light is really horrible. So the artistry and craftsmanship of lighting the person, the cinematographer is to create [a] sense of beauty, even when the existing light is ugly, by bringing in movie lights—by doing proper old-style Hollywood.”

Of note, Kaminski remarked that his conversations with Spielberg involved many differentiated elements of immortalizing the story on celluloid. “We do not talk about light,” defined Kaminski. “We do talk about what the camera is going to do because he was the guy who would stage the scenes through [the] camera. There’s a great operator we’ve worked with for the last 25 years: Mitch Dubin. And we discussed the shots—how this is going to be achieved, and look. It’s a musical. You wanna see all the dancers coming towards the camera. You wanna see the camera following all the dancers. You want the camera to swoop across the dance, to see the movement, to see the drama, and then see the choreography that is going to dance with the camera.”

West Side Story
Image via 20th Century Studios/Niko Tavernise

In creating the mirrored movements of staged musical production numbers with actors and camera, Kaminski surprisingly commented that the approach among Spielberg, Dubin, and himself was often particularly logical. “We’re not creating very heavy metaphors to camera,” Kaminski stated. “We wanted to enhance the beauty of the shots, not to just make a stage play, but to make a movie out of the stage play. Steven would choreograph the movements with [choreographer] Justin Peck who’s already rehearsed the moves for the last three months on the stage, rehearsing in the controlled environment, which is the stage where your pavement is easy: there are no curbs, no fire hydrants. You are wearing gym shoes. It’s different from being on existing streets.”

After Peck worked on the rehearsal stage with the film’s dancers, Spielberg and Kaminski brought the cast onto the locations—with interiors shot at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, New York—where they concocted a shooting strategy. “It took [a] couple of rehearsals for him to realize what he’s dealing with and then accommodate the choreography towards the camera,” Kaminksi said of Peck, though he noted that their approach would reverse on set. “Often we would accommodate the camera towards the choreography. Occasionally, Justin would have to do little changes to, to convey what Steven envisioned here. It is so beautiful.”

Widely known is the reality that Kaminski and Spielberg shoot on 35mm film in an era when many major productions have shot with digital cameras, but Kaminski offered basic reasoning for their choice. “I think it’s about advantage,” he said. “I think it’s just about what we know. The truth is, these days, [digitally acquired] films are so structured to meet the requirements of the digital post-production. It’s got a little bit of a different feel, but I think we like the whole nostalgic aspect of it—the regime of making a film with 35 millimeters. You’ve got [a] thousand feet, which is about 14 minutes of film. And you reload—that moment, it’s nice. It’s what we’ve done for the last 20 movies. Why change if it’s good? And there’s a little mystery as well: what is it going to look like when it comes out of the lab? You don’t get that with high definition.”

Where producers, directors, and cinematographers find the digital cinematic production pipeline to be a reliable, stress-free system, Kaminski confessed that making cinema possesses other qualities for him. “I like the stress of not knowing what is going to come out,” he said. I like being nervous about the next day, when I see the dailies [then with] my color timer. The negative gets processed. You are still putting the film through a machine. It’s exciting. I like the mystery of moviemaking.”

Janusz Kaminski and Steven Spielberg
Image via 20th Century Studios/Niko Tavernise

Unquestionably, one of the most dynamic passages in West Side Story (2021) occurs with the very first shot in the film. “It’s conceived by Steven,” Kaminski related of the historic sequence which envisages ‘slum clearance’ in the primary neighborhood in the film to make way for the construction of the eventual Lincoln Center arts complex. “We knew what the rest of the scene is because we’d already shot the rest of the scene— we knew what the light supposed to be. So, we start on the part of rubbish. You are seeing now bricks. You are seeing this, and that there is some resemblance of structures. One thing that I like to pinpoint is the fire escape element that’s lying on the ground, which is the foreshadowing of what’s gonna happen. So we go through that, and we’re pushing the Technocrane. And we crane up to the banner that introduces the new infrastructure, which is the new 10 buildings—Lincoln Center. There’s a little flare—we take over from that moment. On the drone, we’re going to a digital shot. And now the drone takes over and goes up in the air to show the landscape of the city and the buildings being dismantled to accommodate the new buildings. And, from the drone, we go back into Technocrane. When we boom down, as we’re booming out, the wrecking ball comes in the frame, clears the frame. And that takes us to the ground—the ground bursts open with one of the dancers coming out. It’s [a] combination of CGI and photography: two blends within that sequence. Once there’s an idea [of] what we are doing, once they have the live photography, [visual effects artists] are able to match the live photography. I supplemented some of the buildings with extra light and the thing was more about the speed of the camera. We rehearsed that the day before. And we found the right speed of the camera crane: it’s not too precious, but it’s not too fast so that you are losing the essence of the shot.”

Concerning his longtime collaboration with Spielberg, Kaminski mentioned a shocking cornerstone to their partnership. “We don’t talk much,” he said. “I know that other cinematographers and directors go analyze the scene and the script; we just don’t do it—we’ve never done it. We have certain ideas of what the movie should be, but it’s written the script. The next thing is to choose the right moment of the day [in which to shoot a scene]. And that’s about it. Through the course of 20 movies, almost every year, with two exceptions, he would go and make a movie. Often, they have to be high budget. Occasionally, I can make a smaller movie [without Spielberg], like The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. I can do those movies, but Steven’s just a very productive director, when you go from movie to movie. From the very beginning, we’re very respectful of each other and very frank with each other. I never cease to be amazed by his ability. I think he’s becoming much more of a character director.”

Regarding the current state of the industry, Kaminski noted a sea change once corporations got involved in running the studios. At present, Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount, Columbia, and 20th Century Studios — which produced West Side Story — are all conglomerated. “The talent is not nurtured anymore,” Kaminski lamented. “The relationships with the artists are not nurtured. I missed that thing where talent was respected, talent was nurtured; talent was given a chance to fail. That doesn’t exist anymore. It’s sad because I think the quality of storytelling is on [a] decline and we’re making very particular movies these days where the machine is almost controlled, not by the filmmaker, but the production departments. Filmmaking is such an elaborate discipline — it’s a platform as a way to express yourself. In the end, it’s a very artistic profession.”

Finally, Kaminski exuded a sense of comfort in what he achieved with his captured images in West Side Story. “In the end, when I look at it, the work was put in, the final result is what matters,” he said. “It feels just so festive. It feels so beautiful and so busy, with all the people, all the kids dancing, all the traffic. What a privileged position I am in to make a movie like that. Here is some man from Poland. I’m making a movie that is a special American movie. And I’m following the tradition of the greatest Hollywood cinematographers. I can’t believe I did it.”

West Side Story
Image via 20th Century Studios
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