Filmmaker Steven Spielberg says he is working on the adaptation of West Side Story was a “delightful family affair” and as enjoyable as directing his beloved 1982 children’s sci-fi classic ET the Extra-Terrestrial.
An adaptation of the acclaimed 1957 Broadway musical of the same title, the film was created to praise Spielberg’s nuanced take on period history and his depiction of the love affair between Rachel Zegler and Maria and Tony of Ansel Elgort, whose ill-fated romance fans the bitter rivalry between local New York street gangs, the Sharks and the Jets.
The remake was written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and marks Spielberg’s first musical feature film. Recalling the experience working on the film, the 74-year-old director said that despite having “three left feet”, he jumped out of his chair during rehearsals.
“I jumped out of my chair and sang and danced for the cast, singing out of tune and dancing like I had three left feet during rehearsals,” Spielberg said at a world press conference attended by also PTI.
“We did four and a half months of intensive rehearsals, both around town at Lincoln Center and in Brooklyn at a place called Dumbo there and that’s when I really got to jump off my seat. Rita (Moreno) was there too and danced with the cast. We have been so influenced or compelled to stand up. It was such a life in the air, singing and dancing, ”recalls the director.
Spielberg said that during rehearsals everyone was dancing and singing, during the filmmaking process he was just paying attention to the actors.
“And I didn’t even stamp my foot. I was just too focused on the monitor, on what we were getting…what images we were capturing. But it was the most delicious family affair I’ve had since ‘ET’. ‘ET’ felt like he was the father of all those children. And certainly, I was not a dad in my real life… my first child was born three years after I made ‘ET
“And that was the next time I had that kind of feeling that I was part of a very diverse family. I wasn’t the center of the family, I was just part of the family,” said said the director.
Spielberg has previously said he enjoyed making his 1982 sci-fi ET the Extra-Terrestrial, popularly known as ET, about the bond between a group of children and an alien.
West Side Story is a beloved classic both as a Broadway production and as a 1961 film adaptation. The 1961 film won ten Oscars, including Best Picture. Rita Moreno, who is also in the new film, became the first Latin actress to win an Oscar for her role as Anita.
The new musical is a childhood dream come true for Spielberg, who has made some of the most successful and iconic films of his career, whether it’s Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, It Must Be. save Private Ryan and Lincoln.
Speaking about recreating and capturing the vision of New York City from 70 years ago for the new version, Spielberg said the team remained authentic even in terms of the look of the film.
He said 1950s New York City can be found alive and well in parts where the crew also shot for the film.
“The only other thing we did was remove air conditioners, satellite dishes and window security bars. Because today New York has security bars above the second floor and we had to remove some of them. Everything else is authentic to the era because New York is still in the character of that period.
For his film, Spielberg said he consciously attempted to have his actors speak in Spanish without giving subtitles.
“The whole story begins with (when) the clearly racist Lt. Schrank says not to use Spanish. This language should exist in equal proportion alongside English,” he said.
Tony Kushner, who wrote the story, said the use of the Spanish language was only an important part of the narrative.
“I felt like there were certain topics and feelings involved in the topics where it would be very natural for someone who was born in Spanish to go to Spanish and not say it in English.”
Spielberg said he would like Spanish and English speakers to sit together in the theater and enjoy the film. The director also fondly remembered the late songwriter Stephen Sondheim, considered someone who reshaped American musical theater in the second half of the 20th century.
Sondheim, who had been associated with Spielberg’s version of West Side Story, died last week at the age of 91. Recalling his first encounter with the legend, the director said he met him at the premiere of his movie adaptation Sweeney Todd starring Johnny Depp and later they both crossed paths at the White House when they received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The director also shared that Sondheim was the first person he met when he applied for the rights to do his version of West Side Story.
Speaking of Sondheim’s association with the film, the director added: “He was very involved, he had ideas and Tony had an open dialogue with him during the process of going from draft to draft. He did all the pre-recordings with all the voice artists. There he was, sitting right next to me in the recording studio.
The West Side Story cast also includes Ariana DeBose as Anita, David Alvarez as Bernardo, and Mike Faist as Riff. Rita Moreno appears in the remake in a new role and served as an executive producer.
The film will debut in Indian theaters on December 10.