Steven Spielberg on making West Facet Story with Stephen Sondheim: ‘I known as him SS1!’ | Steven Spielberg

It’s a winter afternoon and also you’re about to start a video name with Steven Spielberg. The proper alternative, then, to make a fast brew in your Gremlins mug (Spielberg produced that devilish 1984 horror-comedy) then brandish it in entrance of the webcam for the director’s profit. “Oh, I like that, thanks,” he says, chuckling softly. Then he wags a cautionary finger: “Don’t drink it after midnight!”

Probably the most well-known and broadly cherished film-maker in historical past is all twinkling eyes and gee-whiz allure as we speak. He’s about to show 75 however first there may be the discharge of his muscular new tackle West Facet Story, which marks his third collaboration with the playwright Tony Kushner, who additionally scripted Munich and Lincoln. Spielberg is at pains to level out that this not a remake of the Oscar-laden film however a reimagining of the unique stage musical. “I by no means would have dared go close to it had it solely been a movie,” he says. “However, as a result of it’s continually being carried out throughout the globe, I didn’t really feel I used to be claim-jumping on my pal Robert Smart’s 1961 film.”

Spielberg and West Facet Story return additional than that. He was 10 when he grew to become obsessive about the Broadway forged album, which his father introduced residence in 1957. He even acquired in hassle for belting out the present’s comedy quantity Gee, Officer Krupke. “With my dad proper throughout from me and my mom subsequent to me, I sang, ‘My father is a bastard / My ma’s an SOB … ’ Oh my God, they acquired so mad. ‘You’ll be able to’t say “bastard” on the dinner desk! The place did you study that?’ I stated, ‘It’s in your file!’”

‘I’ve quite a lot of left toes’ … Spielberg on set. {Photograph}: Album/Alamy

It was Jerome Robbins who had the concept of transposing Romeo and Juliet to New York’s Higher West Facet. Leonard Bernstein offered the rating, Arthur Laurents the script and a younger greenhorn named Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics. Tony and Maria, performed in Spielberg’s model by Ansel Elgort and Rachel Zegler, had been the star-cross’d lovers, whereas two warring gangs, the Jets and the Sharks, stood in for the Montagues and Capulets. Which gang did the younger film-maker run with throughout his adolescence in Arizona and California? “Me in a gang?” he splutters. “Yeah, proper! No, I used to be within the Boy Scouts of America. And a film membership. My mates and I made motion pictures on 8mm after we had been 12 or 13 so I used to be simply a part of that nerdy, geeky little membership.”

He did, nevertheless, come to be recognized within the Seventies as one of many Film Brats, so-called as a result of they had been the primary technology of US film-makers to have absorbed a lot of their training from the display screen and went on to affect and rework Hollywood. Of that quintet – Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, George Lucas and Martin Scorsese had been the others – Spielberg was the one one who hadn’t made a leap into musicals. “Francis did it with Finian’s Rainbow, Brian with Phantom of the Paradise, Marty with New York, New York. I do suppose it’s a must to take into account American Graffiti to be George’s musical. Which implies all of the Film Brats have carried out it now, and I used to be the final. I’m proud to be the caboose.”

He had some wholesome anxiousness beforehand. “I work higher that method,” he explains. “Worry is my gas and confidence is my enemy. If I’m on my heels, I get higher concepts than, let’s say, coming in to do the sequel to Jurassic Park. It’s quite a bit higher for me not to make the sequel to Jurassic Park.”

Musical numbers, such because the dance contest in Spielberg’s wartime comedy 1941 or the dazzling Busby Berkeley homage initially of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, have cropped up in his movies with out him ever fairly placing greater than a toe within the water – or moderately, on to the dancefloor. His 1991 fantasy Hook, starring Robin Williams as a grown-up Peter Pan, even started life as a musical.

‘Tony’s script brings out the realities of what it was like for those communities’ … Rachel Zegler as Maria.
‘Tony’s script brings out the realities of what it was like for these communities’ … Rachel Zegler as Maria. {Photograph}: Niko Tavernise/AP

“I chickened out after the primary week of capturing and took all of the songs out,” he recollects. “It was the most important paradigm shift I’ve ever had whereas directing a film. It simply didn’t appear proper for some unusual cause. Perhaps I didn’t really feel able to do a musical. I used to be OK doing these little numbers in 1941 or Temple of Doom, and later there was a form of zero-gravity dance to the Bee Gees in Prepared Participant One. I had a few false begins, too, with scripts that I started growing into unique musicals. In some unspecified time in the future, I made a decision I needed to have the braveness of my convictions.”

That meant returning to the musical that had earned him a scolding on the dinner desk. “It has by no means left my life,” he says. “I’ve performed the forged album to my youngsters. They memorised the songs rising up. I’ve acquired movies the place I’m working across the place enjoying Officer Krupke and all of the Jets. These movies show how West Facet Story has permeated my complete life and the lives of my youngsters and grandkids. It’s loopy!” Is he a lot of a dancer? “I’m faller,” he smiles. “I’ve quite a lot of left toes. I’ve been tripping over cables alone units since I used to be a tv director at 22. It’s tougher now at nearly 75. You don’t need to be doing that as a lot.”

His emotions for West Facet Story are indeniable, however love alone shouldn’t be cause sufficient to make a brand new model of present materials. That a lot was proved by the detrimental response to At all times, his 1989 replace of Victor Fleming’s 1943 romantic fantasy A Man Named Joe. “It was a terrific love story that basically touched me and I’d by no means made a love story earlier than,” he says. “I used to indicate the 1943 movie to girlfriends once I was courting, and in the event that they didn’t prefer it I wouldn’t exit with them once more. The 2 that had been litmus assessments for whether or not there was going to be one other date was A Man Named Joe and Stanley Donen’s Two for the Highway. In the event that they didn’t like these movies, that was it!”

Thankfully, his West Facet Story has urgency in addition to affection behind it, introducing a racial and socioeconomic specificity that earlier variations had been poorly positioned to offer. “What isn’t within the play or the 1961 film is San Juan Hill being razed by the wrecking ball,” he says, referring to the redevelopment that demolished complete blocks in Manhattan, predominantly displacing low-income households of color.

As Zegler tells me later: “Tony’s script brings out the realities of what it was like for these communities. Lieutenant Schrank says it within the first scene, ‘You’re in the best way.’” A number of dance numbers now happen amongst torn steel and piles of rubble, or on splintered piers. “The Jets climb to the highest of a garbage heap,” Spielberg says. “It’s like, ‘That’s what they’re combating for?’”

There’s additionally a brand new weight and dignity afforded West Facet Story’s Latinx characters, whose tradition – and the racism they face – is extra sharply drawn. Once I converse to Ariana DeBose, who performs Maria’s pal Anita, she confesses to combined emotions in regards to the 1961 movie. “It’s a product of its time,” she says. “You realise, ‘Oh, they’re in brown-face.’ That’s not my favorite factor in regards to the movie. However I do nonetheless suppose it’s a basic.”

She made it clear when she auditioned for Spielberg and Kushner that her ethnicity would have to be addressed if she had been employed. “I stated to them, ‘Should you’re not occupied with exploring the truth that I’m Afro-Latina, that I’m a black lady, then I don’t suppose you must take into account me.’ They usually had been very a lot not afraid of that. My presence on this movie shouldn’t be stunt casting. It has allowed us to start out a dialog round colourism and the way it impacts Latinx tradition.”

Younger audiences who might by no means have heard of West Facet Story, not to mention the shortcomings of any earlier model, would count on nothing much less. It’s for them that the brand new image primarily exists. “Nearly all of younger individuals don’t know what West Facet Story is,” says Spielberg. “This will probably be their introduction.” He additionally made it for – and devoted it to – his father, who died final 12 months aged 103. “I didn’t have it completed in time for him to see it. However whereas I used to be on set in New York, my assistant was working round with FaceTime on the iPad, and my dad can be sitting at residence in LA watching us shoot lots of the film, so he felt a part of our firm.”

One other absent determine is Sondheim, who died final month at 91. On set, he was often called “SS1” whereas Spielberg was “SS2”, a rating stipulated by the film-maker. They’d recognized one another because the mid-Nineteen Eighties. In addition to being current for a few of the filming, which was accomplished earlier than the pandemic, the composer attended each recording session. “Then, throughout Covid, I found he was as a lot of a cineaste as Scorsese or myself, and that he had seen essentially the most obscure motion pictures. So we started this super back-and-forth on electronic mail for nearly 18 months and he grew to become an excellent pal. We’d suggest movies to one another, then we’d watch them and get on the telephone or electronic mail about them.”

Did Sondheim cross the Man Named Joe/Two for the Highway check? “No, he didn’t,” he laughs. “He didn’t like both of these motion pictures in any respect.” Alas, no second date. Only a stunning friendship.

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