Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story is finally opening in theaters across the world and We Live Entertainment recently had the opportunity to be part of the film’s virtual press conference that featured Rita Moreno, Tony Kushner, and Steven Spielberg. The trio spoke very passionately about the project as they answered several questions that were asked by the moderator as well as members of the press. We put together a list of the 12 most interesting takeaways that we learned from the press conference.
- Stephen Sondheim’s blessing and involvement were crucial to the project.
Lyricist Stephen Sondheim was the very first person director Steven Spielberg met with when he first tried to get the rights to remake the 1961 Oscar-winning musical film West Side Story. Sondheim was just 24 when he wrote the lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s iconic music. Spielberg had wanted to remake West Side Story for a long time, but was always too nervous to confess it to the legendary songwriter. When he finally did, Sondheim was immediately on board and insisted on giving feedback on screenwriter Tony Kushner’s script. But, mostly, Sondheim was involved in the recording studio, where he was five days a week for all three weeks they recorded, offering guidance and support to the performers.
- Legends meet each other in the most interesting places.
Spielberg and Sondheim had only met twice before they sat down to discuss remaking West Side Story. They had first met at the premiere of Tim Burton’s film adaptation of Sondheim’s musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in 2007, which was made by Spielberg’s production company, DreamWorks. The second time they met was when they were each getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2015, along with Barbra Streisand.
As for Rita Moreno, she says Sondheim had thought he first met her at the premiere of West Side Story in 1961, and remembered her stepping on her foot with her high heels, but Moreno says she wasn’t even there. “Maybe it was Chita Rivera!” Moreno offers. Moreno actually met Sondheim for the very first time in the recording studio for this version of the film.
- The idea for the most pivotal change in the script came from Kushner’s husband.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner first thought Spielberg was insane for wanting to remake a classic, perfect, film and was looking for a way out of it. But when he told his husband, Mark Harris, about it, Mark offered a suggestion that made Kushner excited to do it. Harris’s suggestion was to replace Doc with Doc’s widow, to make her Puerto Rican, and to have Rita Moreno play her. It was also a way to get Moreno, whose Oscar-winning performance in the original film rocketed her to fame, involved in the project in much more than just a cameo.
- It had to be bilingual.
There are no subtitles for the Spanish lines of dialogue because, as Kushner says, “That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English with no help.” Moreno, who loves the choice, said it forces the audience to be more attentive to what the characters are saying. She hopes it inspires English monolingual audience members to see it again and bring their Spanish-speaking friends. The filmmakers noted that this is a bilingual country, so they needed the film to reflect that.
- Spielberg forced himself to not dance during shooting.
Spielberg admits he knew every song by heart as a kid. So, when they were rehearsing, he couldn’t resist singing and dancing along (off key and with three left feet) during the four and a half months of rehearsal. Moreno said she joined in as well. But, when it came time to actually shoot, Spielberg says he didn’t even so much as tap his foot. It was all business.
Although he didn’t dance, Spielberg did ask to be pushed around in his office chair during the big “America” dance number. He pulled out his iPhone to explore every angle possible, so he knew where to place the camera to capture the movements perfectly.
- The last time Spielberg felt this kind of family feeling on a set was E.T.
This was the most delightful family affair experience making a film for Spielberg since E.T in 1982. He says he felt like a Dad to all the cast members. When he was making E.T., it was the first time he ever remembered wanting to be a Dad, and then became one three years later. Filming West Side Story, forty years later, he said this was the only other time he’s had that family feeling on set. He also loved the diversity of the family and feeling a part of it, not the center.
- Shooting “America” was brutal.
The centerpiece musical number “America” was filmed during a heatwave in New York City. It was three days of intolerable heat. Because they could only close down the streets of Harlem, where they were shooting, on Saturday and Sunday, they didn’t have the option of delaying a few days until the heat broke. The temperature on Saturday was 96 degrees, with a heat index of 102. It was a complicated scene, which required a lot of coverage, a lot of takes, and took a long time to shoot. They had to digitally remove all the sweat stains from the actors’ costumes in post-production. After a good take, Spielberg would invite the kids into the tent, where there was shade. They also got to see what they had just shot, which got them all excited, and they couldn’t wait to get out there and do it again.
Sunday was supposed to be even hotter, so Spielberg cancelled shooting, saying he’d eat the cost. He just couldn’t put his dancers through that again.
When they did get back to shooting the number, it was back to a comfortable 88 degrees. But most of what’s in the film is from that scorching hot day.
- It wasn’t that hard to find places that looked like 1961.
When asked if it was hard to find places to shoot that still look like they did 70 years ago, Spielberg said, “You can find the city of New York in the 1950s alive and well in Brooklyn, in Queens, in the Bronx. And uptown Harlem.” They also shot in Paterson, New Jersey, which stood in for San Juan Hill. “That was much more architecturally what that part of San Juan Hill looked like between 59th Street and 72nd Street, and between Columbus and the river.”
For the opening shot, production designer Adam Stockhausen built five blocks of the ruins of the west side. The only computer enhancements in the film (other than removing sweat stains) were adding the Hudson River in the background and removing air conditioning units, satellite dishes and safety bars from the apartment buildings. The rest is pretty much how it looks today—which is how it looked in 1961.
- Rita Moreno admits it was hard to pass the torch.
Moreno admits it wasn’t easy to be on the same set as an 89-year old as it was when she was 29. She would be totally lying if she said she wasn’t envious of being that young again.
She says it was difficult and creepy to do the scene with Anita, the same scene that almost made her quit the original film because it was so hard to do, emotionally. It was strange for Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita, but even more difficult for Moreno. “I just kept looking at her, and I had the toughest time getting inside the scene.” Spielberg says the scene felt like an episode of Black Mirror.
- Spielberg wanted it to be as realistic as possible.
The first thing Spielberg said he wanted with this film was that he wanted it to feel dirty. And he wanted the kids to look starved and pale, to reflect the urban poverty that still exists now. He also was insistent that they look like real kids, not 38 or 39- year-olds playing 18-year-olds. Spielberg notes how important it was to him that every member of the Sharks and Jets are under the age of 23.
When asked why it’s not set it in present day, Spielberg admits although the music is timeless, the lyrics were very specific for the time, very reflective of the way kids spoke in 1957, so they kept it in the original time period. The only difference is nothing is in Spanish in the original.
- The wrecking ball looms large.
What Kushner really wanted to communicate was the landscape these kids grew up in was being demolished right under their feet. There was a bigger enemy than the rival gang. Spielberg explains the importance of the opening shot, “The territory that they’re claiming to be worrying about is all under the shadow of the wrecking ball. This is going to all come down, it’s going to be an equal opportunity urban renewal project in order to build the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. They are fighting for a junk heap.”
- The original was way ahead of its time, politically.
While Moreno admits this version of West Side Story is much more political than the original, Kushner points out how ahead of its time the musical was in 1957 and the film was in 1961. “Certain kinds of articulations and explorations weren’t available. And just doing as much as they did in ‘57 was an incredibly radical thing.”
Kushner believes the original musical and the original film were enormous strides forward in terms of representation. He specifically calls out Moreno’s portrayal of Anita challenging people to consider their own prejudices.