Filed in: Art Direction, Featured, Film, Interviews, Making the Scene

Making the Scene: Nelson Coates on That Fire Escape Scene for In the Heights

June 22, 2021 08:45 | By
In the Heights

Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace In the Heights

We’re going to do something a little different this time, because normally, we’d run an interview with a creative crafts person, and then save a separate “Making the Scene” to run afterwards. In fact, we have an amazing interview with In the Heights Production Designer Nelson Coates that we can’t wait to share with you, but while we’re still working on that, we wanted to give a little teaser, a little taste if you will, for the many fans of the movie.

In fact, if you haven’t seen the movie In the Heights, directed by Jon M. Chu, you might want to do so before reading this, because it talks about a really special moment in the last act of the film where Corey Hawkins’ Benny is professing his love for Leslie Grace’s Nina in song while they’re out on the fire escape on a hot summer’s day. And then they start dancing, but they don’t just dance on that small part of the fire escape, they continue to dance up the side of the building as the people inside go about their everyday lives completely oblivious.

It’s an amazing and magical scene right out of one of those great MGM or Busby Berkeley musicals, but it’s also an achievement not only in choreography but also visual effects, cinematography, and of course, production design, which is why Coates was the one to share how this dance number was planned and accomplished.

 “Jon had this idea that we didn’t know if we could pull off well, or if it would pull you out of the film,” Coates begins. “His idea is that if you’re in love, gravity doesn’t affect you. And yet, it needed to look like everyone else was still subject to gravity, because they’re not the ones in love. So it was like, well, how do you do that?”

“So the idea was to start on the fire escape, and then to move into this number,” Coates explained. “Basically, in order to accomplish this, there were multiple things. We wanted to make sure that we could get a shot from inside the apartment, or to have them dancing across the windows so that we as an audience know that gravity hasn’t disappeared, and that they’re dancing across the window. And so there’s that wonderful moment when the kid sees that. And then there was just, “Okay, how much do you need to physically build?” because really, those old MGM musicals, when you look at them, it’s really just a big flat floor with lots of stuff. That just felt artificial to us. We really wanted to feel like we were on the side of a building. In my scouting around Washington Heights, I was looking for multiple things: One, a lot of the brick is a lighter color, and I wanted a darker color brick, so that our actors would stand out on that. A lot of the buildings only have single windows in their punctuation of their buildings, and I really wanted to have a double window, so you have enough moment to recognize them when they’re dancing across the glass.

In the Heights

Hawkins, Grace with Director Jon M. Chu (R)

First, Coates would have to find just the right building on which this dance number would happen, and that involved a building auditioning process probably as intensive as the one Chu used to find his cast. “Walking around the Heights, I was taking pictures of buildings and details that we liked and found a particular style of building that had been built in the 20s, and there were four of these in different parts of the heights that had kind of similar details,” he says. “But literally we’re shopping for here’s window details, here’s sash details, here’s stone, here are the rostrums, here are the patterns for the fire escape baskets, which some, when they’re on their sides, are too porous, and there’s no way you could ever stand on them — you’d fall through the rails.”

“Every aspect of this was totally designed for somebody to be able to dance on, and then in real-size scale once we had landed on how much of the building to build, and how many windows and where and what distance,” Coates continued. “The choreographer wanted a straight run of brick of a certain width. I’m trying to take all these things and put them into one design, and then we printed out sections of windows in real scale on paper so that we could put them on the floor and everyone could examine, “Okay, this is how wide this window should be,” basically twisting and shaping buildings. And then it was a matter of how much relief do you have in your building, how far down is the glass as opposed to the frame around the glass or an air conditioner or all of those elements, because you want to be able to actually then use them to your advantage. So it was a lot of stretching and pulling in and figuring out the drawing. And we ended up with a section of building that was almost 60 feet by 60 feet, and it’s built like a tabletop. Everything that’s dressed behind the Lexan glass is done in a way that like all the fabric is starched, and all the lighting and things are screwed in so that they’re there, as if literally the building was laid down on its side. 

“And then there was a section of building that is built on hydraulics, and it was vertical, about 26 feet by 26 feet of the building was perfectly vertical,” he said about the actual mechanics of making the building tilt. “I worked with my special effects team, because I really wanted us to have the ability to stop it at any increment and also to lay that section down as fast as possible. You actually can’t choreograph it until you know what you have and what you’re standing on. So that section of building could actually go from vertical to flat in five seconds.”

“When they saw it they’d go, ‘Whoa, it’s too fast!’” he added, “But I said, I want it so that we can control every speed, and we can control stopping it at any increment. And we can ramp up the speed. I just wanted Chris Scott, the choreographer, and Jon, to have any ability to move around on the piece. So before we even got to this point, we had done a layout in a large rehearsal hall, on the side of the building. And they did a motion capture with some dancers, so we could see if it actually worked. Kind of all line drawing, so that we could say, ‘Hey, is it going to be hokey, is it going to be magical? Do we need to push the dance further? Or is it too extreme?’” 

“One of my favorite little moments, is when Benny lets Nina reach down, and you see the dripping off of the air conditioning unit, and she catches that in her hand,” Coates says about one of the scene’s nicer touches. “So you’re like, ‘Oh, wait, the gravity still is going the other way, and she’s experiencing it like that.’ All of those types of things happened as a part of the rehearsal process and the gestation, and then you’re going, ‘Wait, the air conditioner should be in this window, as opposed to that one.’ I mean, it’s super carefully planned out, and yet, it feels so organic, and so spontaneous. What [Cinematographer] Alice Brooks did to make the sun align with the building so that you never know that the building is not just vertical the whole time. Jon and I were standing beside each other as we were filming and had our arms around each other. He’s like, ‘You know, we’re witnessing Hollywood history. And we’re actually making it.’”

InTheHeightsBennyNina

“I do have to tip my hat to Mark Russell, our visual effects supervisor,” Coates concludes. “When you’re doing a building, one of the things that I gave you was all the notes of everything we wanted, and we LIDARed a particular street that I found that’s not near our intersection at all. To create the street that we wanted and the view of the bridge we wanted, we still had to paint out things like a bicycle lane that was all bright green that would take you out when you’re looking around. And then we placed our building within that block and extended our building beyond our set, so that it would have a proper distance. He took all, not just our set piece, but we actually designed the rest of the building, and the visual effects team did a beautiful job with those notes, taking it on beyond that.”

Look for the rest of our glorious interview with Nelson Coates soon. In the Heights is still playing in theaters and will be on HBO Max for a few more weeks, and then it will only be in theaters, which is the best way to see it anyway.

All pictures courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures; Photographer: Macall Polay.