When Jon Chu’s musical In the Heights began screening for long-lead press back in the spring, audiences burst out of the screening rooms a-buzz about the film’s energy, color, and audaciously reimagined adaptation of the Broadway musical. Chu and crew managed the near-impossible: to capture the thrill of the stage show while making the film stand on its own as a unique piece of art. That was particularly evident from a single shot of the film – some 10 seconds of footage – as captured by cinematographer Alice Brooks.
This viral moment offers main character Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) holed up in his bodega gazing out the window at a street full of the dancing inhabitants of Washington Heights. Films don’t often see single shots go viral on Twitter as this one did.
No one was more surprised than Brooks.
“That shot is what the whole movie is about. It is about a dreamer, someone who has these dreams and is stuck inside the confines of his store. That is the heart of In the Heights. That is what the movie is about. It’s like, ‘How do we achieve our dreams no matter how big or small they are?’ ” Brooks explained. “That was my dream. So, the fact that that one moment, that one frame, represents what the entire movie of In the Heights is about, it felt very surreal that people responded so strongly to that one shot.”
But Brooks’s work behind the camera this year doesn’t stop with Chu’s In the Heights. She also lensed Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut Tick, Tick… Boom! She’s also preparing to take on one of the most talked-about films of the last five years, the long-delayed adaptation of the Broadway smash Wicked, again directed by Chu.
So, you could say musical theater is kind of in her blood.
Born to a playwright father and singer/dancer mother, Brooks was raised on the classics of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as well as Rogers and Hammerstein. After meeting Jon Chu at USC, Brooks fell into a musical-loving group of film students. They worked on student films and a web series until arriving at their “pinch-me” moment with In the Heights.
“I feel so fortunate that I’ve done two musicals in a row, and I’m about to do a third. It’s just a complete dream come true,” Brooks gushed.
Based on Jonathan Larson’s autobiographical stage musical, Tick, Tick… Boom! stars Andrew Garfield as Larson on the cusp of turning 30 and failing to achieve any of his long-gestating dreams. This film would mark a significant departure from In the Heights as much of it takes place from the viewpoint of a dreamer given to several musical flights of fancy. Brooks and Miranda needed to find ways to visualize Larson’s creative process that worked within the context of a film musical.
Given their theatrical backgrounds, Brooks and Miranda collaborated with the cast and crew in workshops where much discovery and exploration shaped the finished product. As much of the film takes place in tight interiors or rehearsal spaces, Brooks needed to put aside the typical cinematographer requirements of finding that perfect light or setting up a gorgeously rendered shot. Here, on Tick, Tick… Boom!, Brooks and team needed to find the spirit of Jonathan Larson within the piece.
To find Larson, Brooks captured as much of the boundless energy Garfield offers through his brilliant performance. It became, for Brooks, an exercise in letting go, deferring moments of wide-angles and brilliant light to a pivotal scene in the film’s Moondance diner set.
“I love all the imperfections and the claustrophobic quality of of Tick, Tick… Boom! Jonathan is so struggling. These are dark moments for him, and [in the Sunday sequence] when the Moondance wall comes down, suddenly you have this huge release when he steps out into the brightest part of the movie,” Brooks explained. “He is now suddenly on a stage on Sixth Avenue in New York, and the sun is shining in the middle of January. I think you only earn that feeling of relief by being so claustrophobic and in these dark spaces with him earlier as he’s struggling as an artist.”
Another brilliant moment comes toward the end of the film where Larson has a breakthrough on the final song for his pending musical read-through. He sees the number 30 at the bottom of a pool while swimming, and that triggers what would become the song Come To Your Senses. It’s a moment that sees Larson finally facing what he’s dreaded the most – turning 30 without a sense of accomplishment – and funneling that into his art.
Should either film put Brooks into contention at the 2022 Oscars, it would only be the second time a woman received an Oscar nomination for cinematography following Mudbound’s Rachel Morrison. Brooks is one of several female cinematographers dazzling audiences with their creative visions in wildly different projects.
“We’re at this incredible, encouraging moment in history for women and film,” Brooks enthused. “The fact that there are so many women in the conversation this year who have shot so many beautiful, inspiring movies gives me hope that that things have turned. I couldn’t be more excited for what the future holds.”
Dare we say they’re defying gravity?
In the Heights is available to stream on VOD or through HBOMax. Tick, Tick…Boom! is exclusively available on Netflix.