‘In the Heights’ Screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes on Killing Her Darlings and Fighting to Ensure Authenticity [Interview]

Long before Quiara Alegría Hudes wrote the screenplay for the new movie musical In the Heights, she wrote the book for…well, the stage musical In the Heights, sharing duties with songwriter Lin-Manuel Miranda. But a lot happened between those projects. She’s kept busy. She’s written more plays, more musicals. She wrote a children’s book. She won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her play Water by the Spoonful. Not asking her back to shepherd her Tony Award-winning Broadway musical about life and love in Washington Heights would’ve been a crime.

When I interviewed director Jon Chu, he talked about how this is such an audience movie. So considering the state of the world, I’m curious: have you had a chance to see the finished film with an audience yet?

Yes, I have. A few times now. I think his description is so spot on. Leave it to Jon to be able to describe the movie better than the screenplay writer. But yeah, it was really fun. I got to see it in Chicago with a largely Puerto Rican audience, and it was so fun hearing where they gasped. Mostly it was the food close-ups and when Marc Anthony appeared on screen. Then I also saw it with a general audience, which was the original Broadway cast, which is a more diverse crowd and for us, it was emotional knowing that decades of our lives have gone into creating this thing that’s now a major motion picture.

Yeah, you can’t get food close-ups in a stage play. So that must have been a fresh experience for you as a writer, to have that kind of reaction.

I remember I was trying to have a moment of stage magic where she opened a pot and steam curled out, but it really doesn’t read from the back row of a Broadway house. [laughs]

What is the energy like when you watch it on film versus the stage show? Is there a similar energy or vibe?

I think it’s a looser vibe in a movie theater. Well, maybe it’s just right now in 2021, it’s really novel to be in a room with people again. We have forgotten how to do that. But the vibe was really loose at both of the screenings I went to, and people were vocalizing much more than I think is accepted in a Broadway audience. In a Broadway audience, people paid a lot of money, and everyone is [shushing]. It can be a little like, “Calm down, everyone” for me sometimes. But people were dancing at some of the screenings I went to. People stood up and danced, or danced in their seats. It was awesome to see that.

There’s got to be a satisfaction in seeing that. That people have such a reaction that they have to let themselves be seen or heard like that, right?

Absolutely. People brought flags. There’s this song called “Carnaval del Barrio,” and we were really careful to try to get every flag in there that relates to Latinidad, Latin America. We had to pore over those shots over and over and over again to make sure. I could hear in the audience that if people saw their flag, they’d exclaim. That is so cool, I love that.

That’s really cool. You’re so intimately familiar with the show. How is the writing process different when you’re adapting your own work for a different medium?

If you’ve ever played Jenga, you remove a block, and that really changes the balance of the whole structure, and then you have to put the block back in a new place to kind of rebalance it. That’s absolutely the case. We knew going in – I knew we might have to cut some songs and we might even have to cut some characters, because it’s an ensemble piece. There is no lead character. The lead character is their togetherness, their community, actually. So how many characters can a screen show hold? How many songs, while still letting those elements breathe? I had some clarity, but a lot of it was also trial and error. I knew that we needed to lose a character, so I cut the character of Camila – who, by the way, I love and is one of my favorite characters. What that does, how that kind of rebalances the Jenga tower, is I need to really spend the work and time to therefore make Daniela and Abuela Claudia even more central as the matriarchal leaders of this block. Not just Abuela Claudia’s living room and Daniela’s salon, but they’re in the community leading in a broader and clearer way. So that’s one example of the kind of balancing act.

Was that your biggest darling that you had to kill? Are there any others that you’re still mourning?

Oh gosh, yes. I mourn so many of them. The song “Hundreds of Stories,” that was painful to cut. One of Nina’s most beautiful songs is called “Everything I Know,” and it’s like a power ballad that she sings, where she has a real change of heart and turnaround and understands the sacrifice that her parents have to make and the sacrifice that she emotionally has to make to survive at Stanford might actually be worth it. She really doubts that that bargain is worth it at the beginning. To be honest, I love that song, and we kept trying it for the screenplay. But it didn’t work, and the reason is about fifteen seconds into the song, you already get it. Because the camera can go in close. The close-up shows us her face, it reveals so much, and it kind of made the song obsolete. I still really miss that song.

There’s a discipline for writing for the stage – knowing that you have the proscenium and the audience and that you’re working in this very specific space. But as you said, the camera loosens that up. You can have close-ups, see close-ups of food, get different types of reactions. As someone who is so accomplished on the stage, you suddenly have a whole new toolbox to play with.

One thing that comes too mind is there’s a big dinner scene that’s about halfway point, and it’s always been the fulcrum of the show. On the stage and on the screen, the family dances together. But it’s a small family, it’s a small space, and it’s a big Broadway stage. It oftentimes felt a little underpopulated on stage. But on screen, not only is the room appropriate to the size, but we could get the camera down to waist level. I was like, “I really want to feel like I’m inside the dance. I don’t want to be watching the dance from a distance.” So [cinematographer] Alice Brooks really got the camera down, sometimes to shoulder level, sometimes to face level, and sometimes to hip level. That is actually what it feels like when my family gets together for a meal and we dance together, just socially and playfully. You’re in the action, you’re with the bodies, you’re moving together.

It sounds like you were really active in the film beyond writing. You have a producer credit, and I’ve heard so many horror stories of writers who were tossed aside when the cameras roll, but it sounds like you were a valuable resource. It sounds like they actually wanted your input on this during the production, right?

I wasn’t originally going to be a producer on the film, but it became clear to me that they were leaning on me and asking me for a lot of cultural input and a lot of language input. And I thought, if they’re asking, it’s because they don’t know. And they’re willing to admit they don’t know. I would like to be on set providing these answers and providing this perspective as the only Latina producer. [We had] a team of phenomenal producers, and they brought a tremendous amount to the table that I know nothing about, like actual film production. For me, it was a much more artistic and cultural side of production I brought, from anything like casting to – here’s one example. Before we even did the dance calls, I told the choreographer, Chris Scott, who was really asking my opinion and wanted to talk about the dance, I said, “It’s so important that we have elderly people as featured dancers in this, because otherwise it just does not reflect the truth of how we dance in the community.” You see in the movie, in carnival, this whole thing starts when this elder woman stands up and does these beautiful dance moves with so much strength. She looks like a tree, man. That’s what starts it. You’ll see – I’m pointing out my window because I live in Washington Heights – you see viejos schooling the kids in terms of dance here. So those are the kinds of conversations I was really happy to be having as we moved from script land into production land.

How much detail goes into writing dance sequences and musical numbers? A screenplay has to be written to really give the details to the reader, to the actors, to the crew. How much detail do you put in, and how much is left to the director and the choreographer after the fact?

My favorite number in the movie is Abeula Claudia’s big number. It’s a wonderful little short story embedded into a larger story. It’s such a beautiful song. It’s beautifully staged. I’m curious about writing that scene. It’s earlier in the show than it is in the movie, am I correct about that?

It’s a little later. It’s at a different moment, for sure. That’s an example of one that I did write out beat by beat, in terms of the story. I was imagining the “A” stop at 191st Street. If you enter the subway station at 191st and Fort Washington, you have to walk down a series of steps. Then you go through the turnstile and then there’s a precipitously steep escalator that feels like it’s maybe three or four building stories [tall] – it feels like it goes deep into the Earth – that is frequently broken. And so what happens is, that stop, which does service a lot of elderly people, you see elderly people walking up and down 150-200 stairs. I was like, “OK, I want it to be the hottest day of the summer, she stars out the song singing ‘Calor, calor,’ and the escalator’s out of service and she has to walk down the steps.” Then I imagined that she gets on the subway and she sees her history in the reflection of the windows in the subway car. Then that becomes a reality of the spaces we’re working in. Jon Chu didn’t end up choosing that particular subway stop. Instead, he chose one that has a really long tunnel that’s flat. Once he chose that location, he then had the idea that it’s going to be lit up, she’s going to turn around and see this very long heavy perspective, because it’s such a deep tunnel, line of her ancestors behind her. That’s something that the idea comes from the space itself. That was not a script idea, that was not a storyboard idea. The space told us what to do there. The thing I love about that is, it shows us Abuela Claudia had an abuela, too. Even the mother has a mother. Even the grandmother has a grandmother. It’s not just the youngins who have an abuela. She’s looking back on all she’s accomplished in her life. So that’s a long-winded answer to the subway question.

In the Heights hits theaters and HBO Max on June 11, 2021.

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