Steven Spielberg on directing West Side Story: Most delightful family affair I’ve had since ET

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Filmmaker Steven Spielberg says working on the adaptation of West Side Story was a “delightful family affair” and as enjoyable as the making of his beloved 1982 sci-fi children’s classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.

An adaptation of the famed 1957 Broadway musical of the same title, the movie has premiered to praise for Spielberg’s nuanced take on the period story and its depiction of the love story between Rachel Zegler and Ansel Elgort’s Maria and Tony, whose ill-fated romance fans the bitter rivalry between local New York street gangs the Sharks and the Jets.

The remake has been written by Tony Kushner (Angels in America) and marks Spielberg’s first feature-length musical. Recalling the experience of working on the film, the 74-year-old director said though he had “three left feet”, he would jump out of his chair during rehearsals.

“I did jump out of my chair and I did singing and danced for the cast, singing off-key and dancing like I had three left feet during rehearsals,” Spielberg said during a global press conference, also attended by PTI.

“We did four-and-a-half months of intensive rehearsals, both in the city at Lincoln Center and in Brooklyn in a place called Dumbo there and that’s when I was really able to jump out of my seat. Rita (Moreno) was there too and was dancing with the cast. We were so influenced or compelled to get up on our feet. It was such a life in the air, song and dance,” the director recalled.

Spielberg said while the rehearsals saw everyone dancing and singing, during the filmmaking process, he was just attentive to the actors.

“And I didn’t even tap my foot. I was just too focused on the monitor, on what we were getting… what images we were capturing. But this was the most delightful family affair I’ve had since ‘E.T.’. ‘E.T.’ had felt like I was a dad to all those kids. And certainly, I was not a dad in my real life… my first child was born three years after I directed ‘E.T.

“And this was the next time I had that kind of feeling that I was part of a very diverse family. I was not in the center of the family, I was simply a part of the family,” the director said.

Spielberg had in the past said that he had thoroughly enjoyed making his 1982 science fiction E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, popularly known as E.T, about the bond between a group of children and an extraterrestrial.

West Side Story is a beloved classic both as a Broadway production and a 1961 film adaptation. The 1961 film won ten Academy Awards, 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 directed some of the most successful and iconic films in his career be it Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan and Lincoln.

Talking about recreating and capturing the vision of New York City from 70 years ago for the newer version, Spielberg said the team stayed authentic even in terms of the look of the film.

He said one can find the city of New York of the 1950s alive and well in certain parts, which is where the team also shot for the movie.

“The only other thing we did was we took out air conditioning units, took out satellite dishes and took out safety bars on windows. Because today, New York has safety bars above the second floor and we had to remove some of those. Everything else is authentic to the period because New York still is in character with that period.”

For his film, Spielberg said he has consciously made an attempt to make his actors talk in Spanish without giving subtitles.

“The whole story starts with (when) Lieutenant Schrank, clearly a racist, says don’t use Spanish. That language had to exist in equal proportions alongside the English,” he said.

Tony Kushner, who has written the story, said the use of the Spanish language was nothing but an important part of the narrative.

“It felt like there were certain subjects and feelings involved with the subjects where it would be very natural for somebody who’s born speaking Spanish to go into Spanish and not to say it in English.”

Spielberg said he would want Spanish and English-speaking to sit in the theatre together and enjoy the movie. The director also fondly remembered the late songwriter Stephen Sondheim, regarded as someone who reshaped the American musical theatre 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 meeting with the legend, the director said he met him during the premiere of his film Sweeney Todd adaptation with Johnny Depp and later they both bumped into each other at the White House when the two received the presidential medal of freedom.

The director also shared that Sondheim was the first person he met when he sought the rights to make 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 one draft to the next. He did all the pre-recorded with all the vocal artists. He was there sitting right next to me at the recording studio.”

The cast of West Side Story 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 theatres on December 10.

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