West Side Story has come to Deadline’s Virtual Screening Series. In an in depth on-stage conversation at the Fox lot’s Zanuck Theatre on a recent Sunday I moderated a discussion with several Oscar nominated members of the WSS team led by director/producer Steven Spielberg who started things off by explaining the reasons he chose to do a remake, or reimagining, of the classic 1961 film version which as winner of 10 Academy Awards remains the most honored musical in Oscar history. Sound daunting? You bet, but Spielberg had his reasons after I pointed out that the new film, though still set in the 50’s and dealing with the Jets and the Sharks is remarkably contemporary in many things going on today.
“That was part of the reason I wanted to do it again. The other reason was unadulterated love I had for the 1957 original broadway show which I listened to ad nauseum as a ten year old when we first got the album, and I had memorized every song and it was my favorite musical , and today it still IS my favorite musical,” Director and Best Picture nominee Spielberg said. “I think that and Porgy And Bess are the two greatest American operas ever written and the leap of fate, and the danger, was how much I adored the Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins 1961 movie which I loved so much, and that was always what kept me from doing this 15 years ago, that was always worrying me. But when the era that we live in started to echo the themes of West Side Story, love and hate, war and peace and no détente. When things started to look really like West Side Story was coming back into the news, especially along the borders, Tony Kushner and I really felt strongly that this was the time to start to mount this production because it would have some relevant meaning today.”
Best Supporting Actress nominee Ariana DeBose talked about the privilege of getting to work with WSS lyricist, the late great Stephen Sondheim who served as a consultant on the musical aspects. “It was just really special. He had a way about him. He would just sit there and listen and then say a few things,” she said. “I remember the first time I was in the recording studio he didn’t say much. I think he was just watching and looking, and it made me very nervous. And then afterwards he said, ‘you know I thought where did you come from?’ and I said, ‘I’m not sure but I am really happy to be here’, and he said ‘that was a really interesting version of the Quintet’, and I said ‘I am going to take that as a compliment’ and I just kept moving, but everyone had these little moments with him in different ways”
First time Best Costume Design nominee Paul Tazewell had a head start in working with DeBose. “Fortunately Ariana had done a couple of shows on Broadway iwith me, Hamilton and Summer, and I knew the game she was going to play , I knew what she was going to come in with. But (it was challenging) because of what Rita (Moreno) wore in “America” and what Rita did that is emblazoned in everyone’s head, and I am guilty of that too… but I needed to find a dress for Ariana’s Anita that would be just as iconic,” he said.
Adam Stockhausen , the Oscar nominated Production Designer talked about the uniquely different visual look of the sets and how he collaborated with Spielberg at the beginning. “It was really a starting point of our conversation that to say our first introduction to the space of the Jets was going to be in this bombed out looking, collapsed, demolition area of the site where Lincoln Center will eventually be built, but it really propels the action to say that ,first of all, this area that we are fighting over is already gone,” he said in emphasizing the connection between the story and how that is reflected in his production design. Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo added that the memory of the first film added weight to the assignment.
“Our challenge was to keep it as an homage to the original but without making it the same. We wanted to make it more modern,” she said.
For 22-time Oscar nominated Sound re-recording mixer Andy Belmer, the key was to bring it all home in post-production as he refined the Sound aspects with his director. “It was just a dream. For me, apart from the others up here on stage all involved in the production, for me it was just with Steven in post production with our own quality time…. We could build up the sounds of the city, and the sounds of the apartment and just transition into songs,” he said in emphasizing the joy of working on a musical.
Longtime Spielberg collaborator, and multi-Oscar winning cinematographer Janusz Kaminski talked a lot about the challenges of getting the lighting just right, particularly when it came to the many actors. He put it quite simply: “I kept telling myself “Make them look gorgeous , make them look gorgeous, make them look gorgeous.”
West Side Story has been nominated for 7 Academy Awards. To watch the entire Q&A just click on the link above.
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