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600 Extras, Lightning Storms and Heaps of Towels: How ‘In the Heights’ Director Jon M Chu Corralled That Huge Pool Scene

Plus, filmmaker tells TheWrap which role was most difficult to cast

If you were amazed by the gigantic pool scene in “In the Heights,” just wait until you learn how much work went into filming it.

Director Jon M. Chu broke down the logistics — from needing heaps and heaps of towels for the cast to ensuring no one drowned — with TheWrap’s film editor Beatrice Verhoeven ahead of the musical’s release.

“For the song ‘96,000,’ you have 600 extras who you need to make sure don’t drown or get electrocuted around lights,” Chu explained. “Their ages are from five to 80. You have to have enough towels to keep people dry so they don’t get hypothermia and they need to not only get dry once, they had to get dry over and over again. And you have barbecues, so there’s fires happening. You have your whole cast there — it’s stormy, by the way. So there’s lightning, so yes, at every turn, there was a huge logistical thing in the way.”

Even filming the opening scene, which went from a small bodega with a limited cast to the actual streets of Washington Heights with hundreds of backup dancers, took a lot of coordination. Chu felt equipped to handle it given his experience directing films like “Step Up 2 the Streets” and “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“That opening took the whole shoot to shoot,” he said. “We had real people from the real streets of Washington Heights. We were on the actual block of that, shooting in the middle of the street. So you have to close off two blocks to the left, two blocks to the right, two blocks south, two blocks north… The moment in that opening where the custodian is leaning on his mop and looking out the window dreaming. He was the real custodian for the building that we shot in for the apartments. As he unlocked the doors, we’re like, ‘Hey, do you want to be in a movie?'”

Chu and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda didn’t cast A-list actors for the film. Instead, they found talented, somewhat undiscovered actors who they knew could carry the emotional weight required. Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, the lead, and other cast members include Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera, Stephanie Beatriz, Jimmy Smits, Dascha Polanco, Olga Merediz and Gregory Diaz IV. Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote the screenplay, based on the stage musical of the same name by Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda. It tells the stories of people living in Washington Heights, New York, pursuing their own individual dreams of a better life.

“In the Heights” opens today. Read TheWrap’s Q&A with Chu below.

TheWrap: What made you want to be a part of the project? How did you get involved? 

Jon Chu: I remember seeing it when it was on Broadway — I was doing my first movie, “Step Up 2 The Streets.” We’re shooting in Baltimore. And we have a salsa section in the movie. And our salsa choreographer Lewis Salgado was a cast member on the Broadway version. So he’s like, come check this thing out. I never heard who this dude Lin-Manuel Miranda was, so this must have been 2009, possibly. When you first see a Lin production, you’re just — my jaw was on the floor, but it wasn’t because of the rapping. It was that it spoke a piece of me that I could never express what it felt like to grow up in an immigrant household, where your aunties and your uncles are raising you. Where your, my abuela Claudia, was my boo boo who taught me how to fold wontons. I never knew how to express that. And he did it even though it was about the other side of the country, and about a totally different culture. And so I knew the power of this story he created.

Back then as a fan, never thinking I’d have the opportunity to actually direct that until about a decade, a little over a decade later when Scott Sanders and Mara Jacobs came to me, who I met early in my career, just as a general meeting. I’d known them throughout the years. Scott, you know, is a Broadway guy, so he knows all the dance stuff I’m doing. And we always kept in touch and they came to me with the script and said, “We got this out of Universal. It’s at the Weinsteins. Do you think you could deal with Harvey and put this movie together?’ I leaped at the chance. I was at that point in my career where I was trying to figure out what scares me. What are the things that I’ve been working towards? Not doing sequels, not doing something that someone else worked on before, but like what are we contributing here? So it just spoke all those things. 

The cast is filled with such wonderful people, most of which aren’t these big movie stars. How did you guys make that decision to go with undiscovered or non A-list talent for such a movie? And did you get pushback from the studio?

The reality is is that there are not a lot of big roles for Latinx stars to start, to become the big four-quadrant stars that a studio may demand at a certain point. I had just come off of “Crazy Rich Asians” where we made stars. And so we knew that the opportunity here was to pave a new path and to find people who could do this well. This was not about performances, even though we’d have big spectacles. It all had to come through the character first, so we needed actors who could actually do that. They spent more time and more money on this casting. It was a long, long time.

Which role was the hardest to cast or which one took the longest?

Gregory [Diaz IV] took the longest. Sonny has always been played by a little bit of an older person. And so we were looking in that realm, but then this 14-year-old kid came in with not a ton of experience and he was just like, goofy. And we’re like, “Is this too goofy for us?” And he and Anthony just hit it off. You could see Anthony protecting him, not talking to him like his homie, but talking to him like a little brother. And you’re like, “Oh, this opens up our whole movie. It’s no longer just an older dude who acts like a boy. This is a boy who’s growing up.” And that gave a lot of juice to what we’re trying to do.

But Anthony was sort of the biggest milestone of our casting because he was the center of the story. He was going to be talking to the audience, he was going to have the direct relationship with the audience to tell the story. And not many people can look at the camera and not make you push away from it, but he actually invites you in. Once I met Anthony, it was like, “Oh, the movie is going through him.” His tone. And that’s what every piece, every ounce, every costume, every set, every camera we’ve had to come through that same lens. It’s so amazing. 

And you mentioned ‘Crazy Rich Asians.’ Did you take any influence from the film specifically?

I learned a lot from “Crazy Rich Asians.” I couldn’t have done this movie without the experience of “Crazy Rich Asians.” I think the biggest thing was the power that that movie actually had. I understood intellectually before but living through “Crazy Rich Asians,” seeing what people held onto in that movie — four friends driving in a car at night in Singapore like made people cry for some reason in that movie, it was just because it was normalizing for Asian friends that you aspired to be in the car with. So the details of food, the details of a place that wasn’t ancient and old, but was new yet had history and had a story and was lived in, to me, those things made it very relatable. And so coming into this again, I’m not Latino and I’m not from Washington Heights. I looked at it from a similar perspective of “tell me about your block.” I said to Lin and Quiara, show me your block. Show me where you shot your home videos. Oh, that’s the place where you guys spent your summers at the pool. This is amazing. We have to show this and I leaned into those things. It was more like, if I’m the perspective of the audience, when they’re telling me the stories of their block, what is making me curious? What is making me want to hear more and see more? I would just bubble those up to the top for the movie. The spectacle came from literally learning, it didn’t come from a place of what’s big here? It came from a place of, what made you dream here?

You just said it yourself — You’re not Latino. You didn’t grow up in Washington Heights. Did you ever have a trepidation to do a story like this?

Honestly, I didn’t think about it until after doing “Crazy Rich Asians.” When I was done, I definitely was reassessing it and I turned to Lin and Chiara and I said, “Do you think I’m the right person for this? I know what I can bring to the table. I know that I’m going to have to be an antenna through this and listen and react and try to bridge some gaps here. But I know what I can bring to this and I can help elbow out room to give room to the authenticity of whether it’s through a crew member or a cast member. Are you guys to help guide me in that?”

And they were like, ‘You’re the one, Jon.’ They didn’t even question it. Had they said, ‘you know, we really want a LatinX filmmaker,’ I would have understood that 100%. And that’s still a debate that can be made. I’m okay with that debate. I think that’s a fair thing, but I also know what happens when we can work together, when I can bring my skills. Not saying, ‘hey, this is the picture I want to paint of Washington Heights, everybody fill in a color.’ It’s like, no, we’re telling their story. There’s a process. A movie is a collaborative team effort. I have my role, but how do we build this together? How do we set this table? And it was very effective. 

Where else did you draw inspiration from?

It’s been hard to pinpoint where it comes from. I mean, we’re in a generation of where music is at our fingertips, you know, when we were in college or even just in high school, getting any song you want type typing that in. I also lived the life where I couldn’t get songs by typing it. I had to actually go find the CD and look for it and then buy it and save money for it. We now have people who understand vast amounts of different types of music, vast amounts of media consumption of the speed at which you’re getting information, the tone, the colors and the patterns that you’re getting every day. And so in a way, this was a musical for them, for us, but not ever losing the fact that the reason why musicals exist is because when words aren’t enough that you need something else in cinema that expresses what it feels to be lonely, to yearn, as much as a close-up does in cinema. That’s not a real thing that happens in real life, but that’s what it feels like. You feel like you have a closeup when you’re having that moment of yearning.

We have this one shot that is inspired a little bit by ‘Meet Me in St. Louis.’ It’s about home as well. And there’s a lot of frames through windows and through stuff. That one where Usnavi is looking out the window, we’re pushing in and he’s just looking out and it’s just Usnavi really yearning about his dreams and there’s a piece of glass that blocks all of it. And it’s his community that’s in the reflection, but they’re not sad for him. They’re daring him to break that glass. They’re daring him to dream bigger and we’re pushing it very slightly, just tightening that screw as we get closer and closer. So that pressure is what we want to feel. It took all of us to come together, to the production design, to the costume design, for that one moment to how it feels. And so we tackled every moment –Vanessa feeling trapped, she ran out into the street and instead of crying, we have tapestry fall over the buildings and different colors and patterns because that’s how she expresses feeling trapped. So we just use all those elements more than just music, more than just a song and dance to express emotion.

I know this movie has been years in the making. Do you think now is the best timing for the movie to come out? I know there was some discussion about taking it to streaming.

It was always a question for us a year ago. I mean, it was very hurtful last year when we could have released, because we knew we had a special movie that we wanted to share. It was at a time when things were changing around the country, around the world. And so we felt like there was a very timely message. But from the beginning, Chiara and Lin said, ‘Jon, just to let you know, this story has a life of its own. It chooses its timing. It chooses where and how it’s going to be made best. Whatever you do, just hang on.’ I didn’t know what that meant. I had no idea. And so when the pandemic happened, I looked at them, and I was like, ‘you guys aren’t kidding.’ We did have a discussion — does this mean we need to go streaming so more people see it, give them joy right now?

The biggest thing that came out of ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ wasn’t the movie itself. It was the stars that we made, from Henry Golding on the cover of GQ Magazine, to Constance Wu being on the cover of Time, to Awkwafina hosting “SNL” and eventually winning a Golden Globe. I wanted that for this cast. Because I know they have so much to give to this world. Each one is a firecracker and is going to pave a lot of new roads. That only takes a giant company like Warner Bros. to spend tens of millions of dollars to promote it, like a Gap ad to get behind it.

“In the Heights” knows its time and place to drop. And it just so happens to be the perfect time that it’s going to be Washington Heights that shows the world how to get back up again, because they know. Because they’ve done it over and over again, when they feel powerless during a blackout or in other situations. And we need that lesson more than ever right now.

Also, I think we’re living in a time where we realize our struggles between each other may be different. But actually, our solutions are very similar. In order to be an ally, you have to support each other. And maybe that’s the next chapter of finding our place and our identity — community beyond our own tribe. And I think that that’s healthy. I think that also honestly Lin and I coming together to find common ground, to tell this story still make it as authentic as we could and each of our own worlds. I think that speaks to a lot. I think that it shows where we need to go.

You have “Wicked” coming up next. What are you going to take from ‘In the Heights?

‘Wicked’ is different from ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘In the Heights’ — it’s also a musical, but it’s a very different caliber. For me, ‘Wicked’ has to be relevant for today. It has to be a diverse cast. It has to speak to what’s happening right now. And I think what’s happening right now is everything is changing around us. The fairytale we thought we knew is not anymore. Our innocence is a loss. And what we realize is that things aren’t given to us — you’ve got to fight for it. You’ve got to change for it. And true change comes from not being in your own bubble and feeling happy all the time. True change comes from going through fear, going through anger, fighting through all of that, going into forgiveness and grace and coming out with a better understanding of your neighbor and yourself and I think that that’s what the world needs now more than ever that yes, the world is not the fairytale we were told, but you know what? We make that fairytale. We make that story. I think Elphaba and Glinda’s relationships are the perfect example of how we can come together. So I hope that we can infuse more of that timely essence into it now, because I think it’s an amazing musical. When we take people away to another place, not Singapore, not Washington Heights, but back to Oz.