Leslie Grace (left) as Nina Rosario and Corey Hawkins as Benny in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Courtesy, Warner Bros. Pictures
Making its debut the first night of the , In The Heights, a feature film directed by Jon M. Chu and based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical of the same name, was filmed on location in the vibrant neighborhood of Manhattan’s Washington Heights. A love story about having big dreams, the film zeroes in on the diverse Latino community of Washington Heights and examines what neighborhood community means through sound, song and a dynamic cast of characters.
For its creators, the success of the film relies on its authenticity—how accurately it represents the people and culture of Washington Heights, from every dance step on down to the bottle of sauces on dining room tables. On set, the line between film and reality became increasingly thin as extras and residents mingled and actors wound up manning local bodegas.
We asked members of the cast and crew, many of whom lived in or grew up in the neighborhood, about bringing it to life for a global audience while staying true to the idiosyncrasies of life in Washington Heights.
Anthony Ramos (center left) as Usnavi and Melissa Barrera (center right) as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Photo: Macall Polay
Lin-Manuel Miranda, Creator/Writer/Co-Producer: I started writing In The Heights because it felt like the most natural place in the world to set a musical. There’s music coming out of every corner and every apartment and every store, especially in the summer.
Christopher Scott, Choreographer: When you listen to the soundtrack and hear Usnavi sing, “The streets are made of music,” you might think that’s very poetic, but then when you are standing [in Washington Heights] you realize it’s not just a cool thing to say—it’s true. You can hear it all day and all night. If it’s not actual music blasting from someone’s car or a group of people posted up with a boom box while playing dominoes, it’s the sound of a wind chime hanging outside a store or the rhythmic sound of an elevated train.
Anthony Ramos, “Usnavi”: The culture in Washington Heights is the music coming out of people’s windows, the merengue, the salsa, the bachata playing out of people’s cars with the door open on the street.
Melissa Barrera, “Vanessa”: Washington Heights is loud and alive. There’s not a dull moment in that neighborhood.
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Courtesy, Warner Bros. Pictures
Lin-Manuel Miranda: When you happen upon a film shoot in New York City, you’ll see period cars and people dressed like the 1930s or ’40s, or one block transformed into whatever it needs to be for the purposes of that movie, and it was the opposite for our movie. It was almost impossible to tell who were extras and who were just neighbors chilling and watching a movie being made.
Stephanie Beatriz, “Carla”: Because there wasn’t a weird reverence or separation, sometimes you would literally have people in the neighborhood walking into scenes and not really knowing that we were shooting something. How much more authentic can you get?
Melissa Barrera: I was inside the bodega waiting for my cue. The bodega was not operating because we had taken over, but people just kept coming in to shop. I’d say, “Oh, I’m not working right now,” and they’re like, “Oh, well, can I just grab something?” I was like, “I’m sure it’s all props, or the production will pay for it. Just grab whatever you need, but we’re shooting.” They would shop, and I’d just say, “Thank you so much for coming.”
Christopher Scott: One thing that really stood out to me was how many of the dancers had their own connection to the neighborhood. You’d be walking around on location and hear dancers saying how they had a first date at the restaurant on the corner, or how every year their whole family would spend Saturdays at Highbridge Pool, or, “That’s the barbershop I use to get my haircut at.” The stories would go on and on. We were telling a story about people from the neighborhood chasing their dreams, while people from the neighborhood were living their dreams. It truly was amazing.
Mitchell Travers, Costume Designer: Oftentimes I would just pick a corner and people watch, letting certain real-life outfits on the street inspire the outfits I would put on camera. One day while filming, a real-life abuela (grandma) walked by wearing the exact same dress our abuela wears in the film!
Gregory Diaz IV, “Sonny de la Vega”: We also just had tons of residents, whether they had a line in the film or were an extra in the back playing dominoes, just to have the actual community itself be a part of the film.
Jon M. Chu, Director: The neighbors treat you like family, and they share with you. They yell at you like family too, if you’re in their parking spot. I even brought my mom [to set] one day, and by the time I came back, she was having drinks with the neighbors.
Director Jon M. Chu (left center) and concept/music & lyrics/producer Lin-Manuel Miranda (right center) on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Photo: Macall Polay
Mitchell Travers: I will never forget the energy and pride on set that day.
Christopher Scott: “Carnaval Del Barrio” will always hold a special place in my heart. We only had three days of rehearsal and one day to shoot this seven-minute-long number. It seemed impossible, but when we got the cast, dancers and team of choreographers in the same room, everything just came together so naturally. I remember at one point Anthony [Ramos] yelling out, “This is for our ancestors!” When we wrapped after what must have been around a 16-hour day, everyone stayed on set jumping up and down chanting, “New York! New York!”
Jon M. Chu: There’s the music itself, but when we were filming it, all the dancers, all the actors, even the crew members were moving to the music, and I called, “Cut!,” and nobody stopped. Everyone just kept going. Lin-Manuel Miranda was on the fire escape playing a character, and everyone looked up and started chanting, “Lin! Lin! Lin!” and it went on for so long.
Jimmy Smits, “Kevin Rosario”: That was a very emotional day because that was [Lin’s] story being told. He was able to look down on [the street] and see it being realized. It was magical—a really emotional moment while we were in the midst of celebrating our culture.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: It was a miracle day.
(From left) Daphne Rubin-Vega, Stephanie Beatriz, Melissa Barrera, Olga Merediz, Gregory Diaz IV, Dascha Polanco and Jimmy Smits in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Courtesy, Warner Bros. Pictures
Lin-Manuel Miranda: You know, there is the nightmare Hollywood version of this where it looks like a telenovela and has nothing to do with this neighborhood. But we cast these incredible actors who have lived in authenticity, who don’t feel out of place next to our neighbors on 175th Street.
Jimmy Smits: You did feel the onus on you to get it right. We’re going to tell the story [of Washington Heights residents]. I think there was a big realization on the part of the community that we were there in an aspirational kind of way.
Jon M. Chu: Every day, we knew the responsibility to share, as truthfully as we could, what it felt like to have family and community there. Even down to the food and the sauces. One of the actors would say, “Oh, you know what, they wouldn't have these sauces here,” and someone would bring sauce from home, so we put that bottle on the table. It was a constant conversation to make it as truthful as possible.
(From left) Noah Catala, Gregory Diaz IV, Corey Hawkins and Anthony Ramos in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Photo: Macall Polay
Lin-Manuel Miranda: In The Heights exists because in so much of the entertainment world, particularly in musical theater, Latinos are invisible, and so, my mandate, my dare to myself when I started writing this with Quiara [Alegría Hudes, co-writer], was to put us on the map and tell the stories I wasn’t seeing [in the media].
Anthony Ramos: [A 2012 touring production of] In The Heights was the first time I had a lead role in anything. It was a principal role where I got my union card, which then allowed me to audition for Hamilton, which is how I met Lin. In The Heights set it off for Latinos, and now, hopefully, the movie can be that.
Gregory Diaz IV: I started out in musical theater and never really saw anybody who looked like me, and it wasn’t until I heard about In The Heights that I was like, “Let me listen to the soundtrack.” [It was just like] music that I’d heard before, but this was the first time hearing it in a musical. I did some research, and I’m like, “Yo, this is about me. This is about us and showing other people what we have to bring to the table.”
[To Lin] I thank you writing that for yourself and creating and telling these stories and allowing people that look like us tell these stories. Let Broadway know, we’re here and we’re talented.
Corey Hawkins (left) as Benny and Leslie Grace as Nina Rosario in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “In The Heights.” Photo by Macall Polay
Corey Hawkins, “Benny”: I was blessed and fortunate enough to live in the Heights while I was broke and in school. It was beautiful, it just felt like I was thriving there.
Leslie Grace, “Nina”: For me, it was beautiful being able to go back to a place that I know so well and that my family has so many memories. My mom’s first business as a salon owner was a couple of blocks from where we shot.
Lin-Manuel Miranda: I think the most autobiographical lyric in this whole movie for me is, “I used to think we lived at the top of the world when the world was just a subway map.” That was true for me. When you watch movies about New York, or you look at a tourist map, they hardly go above 96th Street. That used to drive me crazy growing up, because I grew up at the top of the A train, and I just loved my neighborhood.
There’s something about Washington Heights that just is undefeatable. It’s historically been an immigrant neighborhood. When I was growing up, it was a largely Dominican neighborhood. Before that, it was a Puerto Rican neighborhood and Cuban neighborhood. Before that, it was an Italian neighborhood, an Irish neighborhood and Jewish neighborhood, but there’s a lot of first chapters in American life that begin in this neighborhood.
It’s for strivers and it’s for survivors, and I’m really proud to call it home.
“In The Heights” is a trademark of 5001 Broadway Productions, LLC and Barrio Grrrl! Productions, Inc.