Cinematographer Alice Brooks has wanted to shoot an In the Heights adaptation for years, and her opportunity finally came when film school classmate, Jon M. Chu, was signed on to direct the movie.
In the following interview with Below the Line, Brooks broke down some of the challenges that came with shooting the film, including the “96,000” set piece featuring over 500 people throughout the two pools located at the Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights. The cinematographer also discusses her relationship with Chu.
Next up for Brooks will be tick, tick…BOOM! this fall on Netflix, which reunites her with In the Heights producer Lin-Manuel Miranda, who will be making his directorial debut.
Below the Line: How familiar were you with the stage musical before signing onto the film?
Alice Brooks: Before signing on to the film, I had wanted to shoot this movie for years before being signed on to the film, but I had never seen the stage show on Broadway at all. I was very aware of the project and when Jon Chu became attached to it—Jon and I went to USC film school together and we did a short musical in college called When The Kids Are Away. We bonded over our love of musicals. When I knew Jon was going to do a musical and that it was going to be in New York, where I grew up, I knew immediately I wanted to be a part of that.
BTL: How did you come to a decision on which camera to use?
Brooks: I tested lots of cameras over the course of prep. I went to many of the rental houses and tested different things. I’ve had a very long standing relationship with Panavision, and I tested Alexas and the Panavision DSL. That, with the combination of their anamorphic lenses, really, I felt was the right choice for the look of In the Heights.
It all sort of worked together, because when I arrived in Washington Heights in March 2019, we’d go to Washington Heights in the morning and we would scout. We would look at different locations. I just started to fall in love with the place and at the same time, I’d be testing cameras. I instinctually started to get a sense of the space and at the same time was testing cameras. I think that a big part of my choice was instinct.
BTL: In terms of the lighting, were there any films that were studied as far as the look is concerned?
Brooks: I made a conscious effort not to watch any musicals while we were prepping. Or anything current or modern. I think the most recent film I watched was probably made in the late ‘80s or probably early ‘90s. What I did look at were classic New York movies and that was an inspiration to me. I also took a lot of my own stills while scouting and the biggest influence visually for the movie was the community itself.
I love looking at local artists’ work whenever I go to different parts of the country or different parts of the world to film. I found lots of people on Instagram who lived in Washington Heights, and I would look at their photographs and then I would take my own pictures as well.
There wasn’t a specific movie that we watched and went, “Oh, we want In the Heights to look like that.” We definitely collaged and brainstormed—we really did collage. My look book for this movie, where I pull hundreds and hundreds of images, is probably the largest of any movie I’ve done. It just really was a feeling that I was trying to evoke through the camera.
BTL: When I watched the film in mid-May, I felt that “96,000” was one of the stand-out set pieces. What were some of the challenges that came with putting this scene together?
Brooks: “96,000” was probably one of the biggest challenges of the movie. I mean, the whole experience of making the movie was a fairytale. It had all these huge challenges that we had to overcome every day, but every person on the movie worked so hard together to make it happen. It was really a team effort and when it works, it’s magnificent. “96,000” is one of those moments where it took every single person to make it happen. It was the first time any film had ever been shot at Highbridge Pool in Washington Heights. It’s these two massively huge pools—the biggest swimming pools I’ve ever seen right next to each other, and they used to be the reservoir system for the rest of New York. Now, it’s a public pool, and we had to shoot it before the pool opened for the summer. The pool was filled with water and heated but there was a leak in the pool so the water never got warm. We’ve got over 500 people in the pool and it was freezing cold. It was late June. I think the pool opened the last few days of June so it was towards the end of June. It was just a cold week.
We had all these amazing shots we wanted to do high up above Vanessa in these Busby Berkeley shots. The other challenge we had was that because it was a reservoir, there are tunnels running under the pool deck. We could only put a certain weight of crane on the deck to get a high shot. We’re like, “Well, let’s just shoot with drones.” New York City doesn’t allow drones so we needed to make it work with a crane. We worked with New York City engineers, and we worked with the locations and the grip department really fine-tuned everything. The Key Grip, Kevin Lowry, was amazing. We did all these measurements and we figured out what the widest shot could be and then we went to choreography and explained to them how big a shot we could get.
BTL: Outside of that song in particular, what was the most challenging part of the production?
Brooks: I think the most challenging part of the production is also the most rewarding part of the production. It was filmed in a real community for a very long time. Our main intersection at 175th Street and Audubon Avenue in Washington Heights, we shot there for four weeks. To ask the community to give up their parking, to not walk on the sidewalks while we’re filming a shot or not letting traffic go through is a huge ask of the community. We had to pause because, obviously, ambulances had to go by, and fire trucks or police or we were doing a quiet scene and there were people blasting their music somewhere. We had to figure out what apartment that was coming from it.
All those things were really challenging but also, the purity of being in a real place with no green screen and no backdrops, that purity, that authenticity, I think, really adds a texture to the movie. All the things we had to overcome, I think, is what makes In the Heights so special. Because we could have shot that open—since you’ve seen the movie, I’m so glad you have because some people I’ve talked to haven’t—the end of the opening number where we push it on Usnavi and we’ve got dancers down the street, we could have done that on a soundstage but we didn’t. We made the choice to be there and to be inspired by the community. I’m so grateful for that.
BTL: This movie was only my second day back in theaters since the pandemic.
Brooks: Oh, you actually saw it in a theater, too? Oh my gosh, how amazing! Oh, sweet.
BTL: This is one of those films where I just cannot imagine my first viewing being on my 43-inch TV.
Brooks: No. We made it for the big screen, and I understand we’re coming out of a pandemic in this country. I saw it for the first time finished on the big screen on Sunday. The way the sound is mixed in the movie is just amazing—to be so immersed in it and then having the picture so big and just being sucked into all the actors’ emotions. It just is such a different experience because I’ve been watching it on my TV for the last six months. It’s fun, isn’t it? How crowded was your theater?
BTL: I didn’t really count how many people were there but of the three press screenings I’ve attended so far, it’s definitely among the most just because of how big this film is going to be.
Brooks: That’s good to know. It’s gonna be interesting to see. I’m just fully vaccinated, too, and I’m so happy I can go see a movie. I mean, being careful, obviously. It’s wonderful to sit in a dark theater again and hear other people laugh, cry, and cheer.
BTL: And not worry about all the distractions that come with a cell phone being a foot away!
Brooks: Yeah, I know. It’s just nice to not have those distractions. Oh, I’m so happy you got to see it in a theater. You’re the first person I’ve talked to that’s seen it in the theater.
BTL: Can you talk about working with Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda?
Brooks: Jon and I have a long history. We’ve known each other for 20 years. We made his short musical 19 years ago this month. We’ve had a long collaboration especially on music-driven projects of his. It’s just the best collaboration I can imagine and I’m so incredibly grateful for that relationship. We trust each other, we have a very quick shorthand, we don’t even have to say things to each other, and we know what the other one’s thinking. We also both have the same work ethic and focus where we just completely jump into a project and that is what all our focus is.
Jon, Chris Scott, the choreographer, and I would spend Sundays, all through prep and all through shooting, at Jon’s apartment, planning every single detail out of the shots. Chris and I have also known each other for a long time. Chris sort of joined our group about 12 years ago. We did a series called the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers starting in 2009, for about two and a half or three years. We’ve done lots of dance stuff together. We would go look at locations in the morning. Sometimes, Chris would go when we were close to knowing what location it was but otherwise, we’d meet Chris in the afternoons at the dance rehearsal space.
Jon and I didn’t prep In the Heights in a production office, we prepped it in the dance studio. We’d be in the corner sitting on the floor of the dance studio, like all the other dancers, clicking away at our computers, making shot plans, and then for dialogue scenes, and then Chris would go, “Oh, here, I want to show you this part of this number.” We’d look at it and all three of us would film it on our iPhones. On Sunday, we’d get together and we’d all share our video files. Jon would take them and put them into Final Cut and start cutting them together. And we start to say, Okay, this part of the number looks good from this angle and we really are going to want an overhead here or something low for this moment. That’s how we designed the movie. And it was such a great collaboration.
Lin-Manuel is a great producer. He totally trusted Jon, and he was there every day the whole movie. He didn’t miss it. He also trusted Jon. I didn’t have a huge amount of interaction with him on In the Heights, but we did go on to do another movie together called tick, tick…BOOM!, which comes out this fall and is his directorial debut. I have a directing relationship with Lin-Manuel, and he’s a fantastic collaborator, too.
BTL: My understanding is that the movie was on principal photography when the pandemic hit last year.
Brooks: Yes, we were in the middle of principal.
BTL: How far away from completion were you when the pandemic forced the shutdown?
Brooks: Oh, my gosh. I’m not at all prepared to talk about that movie. I would have to look at my notes, but as with everyone, the pandemic interrupted everyone’s lives very abruptly.
BTL: I imagine it also impacted the process once the film resumed production.
Brooks: All the studios have done an excellent job getting people back to work, and it’s very impressive how well taken care of and safe an environment productions have become. I hear it across the board—people feel really, really well taken care of and that is wonderful. I’m looking forward to shooting now that I’m fully vaccinated. I’m looking forward to shooting something in about six weeks. I know we’ll still have all the same protocols with mask wearing, social distancing, and being tested. I think, overall, the studio wanted everyone to feel safe so that they could do their job really well and I think they’re achieving that.
In the Heights is now playing in theaters nationwide, as well as streaming on HBO Max. Look for more interviews with the creative craftspeople over the next couple weeks, but you can also read Below the Line’s interview with Editor Myron Kerstein.
All stills courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures.