‘In the Heights’ is set to release June 17, 2021, and has been a long time coming for Lin-Manuel Miranda. The playwright spoke to Variety with the film’s director Jon M. Chu about the struggles he had pitching the project nearly two decades ago, the obstacles they overcame, and why he initially didn't want to postpone the films release after COVID-19. Read what the “Hamilton” star and “Crazy Rich Asians” director had to say below, per Variety.
The film has very few non-Latino characters and tells the story of Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, a bodega owner that is saving enough money to return home to the Dominican Republic. Along with his childhood friend and female protagonist Nina, played by Leslie Grace and Benny, played by Corey Hawkins, one of the only non-Latino characters. There is also Vanessa, played by Melissa Barrera, Usnavi’s crush, who dreams of becoming a fashion designer. As noted by Variety, just like the stage version, their conflicts are grounded in reality and don’t rely on Hollywood’s stereotypical “drug dealer” or “gangster” portrayals of Latinos. Because of this, it made it hard for Manuel to pitch at the start.
In the film, Nina drops out of Stanford but producers thought she needed to have a more dramatic reason. “I would get pitches from producers who only had ‘West Side Story in their cultural memory,” Miranda explained. “Like, ‘Why isn’t she pregnant? Why isn’t she in a gang? Why isn’t she coming out of an abusive relationship at Stanford?’ Those are all actual things I was pitched… Because the pressure of leaving your neighborhood to go to school is f*cking enough. I promise. And if it’s not dramatic enough, that’s on us to show you the f*cking stakes.”
Miranda refused to let his vision go and created a show based on his memories of growing up in New York, knowing Broadway roles for Latinos were limited. The play went on to open on Broadway in 2008, winning four Tonys and changing Miranda’s career forever. That same year Universal Pictures optioned the property with “High School Musical” director Kenny Ortega. Miranda looked back admitting, “I was so naive. I thought once a studio buys the rights to the movie, the movie’s getting made.” But Universal wasn’t ready to take the risk of making a $37 million musical with unknown names and wanted a Latino star they knew would bring in money like Jennifer Lopez or Shakira. “It very quickly became if you don’t have, *bleep,* you’re not getting the money to make the movie.” It was eventually dropped in 2011.
Five years later, in 2016 “Hamilton” opened on Broadway making Miranda an international star and the movie adaptation of “In the Heights” back into the conversation. The Weinstein Co. boarded “In the Heights” months after but we all remember what happened in 2017 with Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment and abuse scandal. The filmmakers fought to eventually regain control and began shopping it around to studios, eventually making an agreement with Warner Bros. Pictures Group, securing a $55 million production budget. According to Variety, the studio is leaning into the “inclusive spirit” as a major selfing point and partnered with the National Hispanic Media Coalition, to help with outreach and ensure authenticity on-screen.
Miranda encouraged Chu to meet with Anthony Ramos who aside from stage work only had 1 real credit in “A Star Is Born” as Lady Gaga’s Ally. They continued their search for talented actors that had little to no credits with nationwide searches, and Grace, who plays Nina, said the cast would tell each other on set, “We are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”
Once they wrapped and were getting ready for the film‘s release, COVID-19 showed it’s ugly face, closing theaters around the world. The studio decided to postpone its release and Miranda revealed that he thought it was a mistake and wanted it to be released via streaming. “I very publicly was the one person who was really against it,” Miranda explained. “I was like, ‘How can we hang onto this for a year when we know how wonderful it is?’” Chu eventually convinced him, “Jon’s argument to me, which is the correct one, is we can release it now and people would feel good to have it in their homes… Or we can release it with the right push next year, and then we create a lane of Latinx stars so that I never have to sit in a meeting and hear someone say, ‘Do they test international?’”
In the Heights is coming out both in theaters and on the streaming service HBO Max, on June 11.