Adam Stockhausen could win his first Oscar with Spielberg for his gritty authenticity and danceable production design work.
For a brief period, while working on Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch”, designing a range of handcrafted 1950s and 60s sets in Angoulême, France, set designer Adam Stockhausen was also preparing his “West Side”, Oscar nominee. Story.” Stockhausen performed multiple tasks while preparing Steven Spielberg’s reimagining of the iconic Leonard Bernstein-Stephen Sondheim musical about the delicate dance between love and hate and the difficult immigrant experience.
“Steven had me do this early design phase where we locked down a lot of places and we did the basic bones…and a proof of concept at the start,” said Stockhausen (“The Grand Budapest Hotel”), winner of an Oscar. “And then I left to do ‘French Dispatch,’ and every Sunday I would go to my office, put on the Broadway cast album of ‘West Side Story,’ and get to work with my scout and my scenic illustrator and we would have him work away.”
The first conversation Stockhausen had with Spielberg about “West Side Story” was about getting out in the street, getting serious, and shooting on location as much as possible. “And then in the next breath, ‘Can we do it in New York in the late ’50s?'” he said. “We were up and running in five minutes, in a way, because you can’t just drive down West 68th Street and expect everything to be there because the city has changed so much.”
The production’s biggest design change was an idea by screenwriter Tony Kushner: to turn the Caucasus Jets gang’s San Juan Hill neighborhood on the Upper West Side into a Hiroshima-style bomb rubble setting for construction. scheduled from Lincoln Center.
“It’s a marginal but very lively neighborhood where the Puerto Rican community lives, but the territory of the Jets is already destroyed,” Stockhausen continued. “This is where we open the film. But the trick was to find that. We did it in two ways: on the one hand, street locations. There’s some in Patterson, New Jersey, and then there’s some all over New York in Harlem, Washington Heights, the Bronx, Brooklyn, and Manhattan. We put it together like a puzzle to look like one continuous neighborhood.
“The other half is the Jets area where the destruction is going on,” Stockhausen continued. “And for that, we briefly talked about a backlot build. But, again, following Steven’s first impulse, we built it in the middle of the city and got an urban environment that can add incredible depth to the sets. We settled on these parking lots in Patterson that had an adjacent street and buildings that became the background where we didn’t have to add a blue screen. There was light and depth apart from the decor. But then what we did in this area was a full construction site in the background.
Meanwhile, interior sets were constructed at Steiner Studios in Brooklyn, using an old factory building separate from the new stages but part of the original Brooklyn Navy Yard structure. This provided a working height of well over 50 feet, which is much taller than the specially designed steps.
“We knew we wanted this because of the relief balcony scene,” Stockhausen said, “and we knew we wanted to make Bernardo [David Alvarez] and Anita’s [Oscar-nominated Ariana DeBose] apartment up in the air so we can have a real exit from the high fire escape and Tony [Ansel Elgort] walking to Maria [Rachel Zegler] as a continuous action.
This became the heart of the stage work, and the art department built everything else around it, using the construction mill, the scenic painting and sign painting areas, and the sculpting area, where they sculpted rubble and destroyed buildings. “Steven was very tolerant of me having a whole construction operation going on where he was filming, and we did our best to stay quiet,” Stockhausen said.
Yet because this was Spielberg’s first musical, adapting the dance choreography and camera movement around that of Oscar-nominated cinematographer Janusz Kamiński became central to the process. production design. For Stockhausen, who began his career in the theater, it was a total joy. “Steven was so excited and so energized by it,” he said. “It was electric to be there…this organic process. There was a long period of rehearsals and we would all go watch them. But we would also watch Steven with his iPhone thinking about filming the dances as they happened. come together and figure out how he was thinking. That really explained how it all came together. We were figuring out where the pieces of the set would have to break and open to be able to fit the crane arms from the right way.
For the famous gym dance sequence where Tony and Maria first meet, Stockhausen chose an actual location: the gymnasium of St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Marine Park. “It complicated the camera work, but, on my end, it was complicated because the location had to be right visually and stylistically, so we were looking for the right details,” he said. “We needed a gymnasium that has the stage at one end, where the basketball hoops move out of the way. But since there is a fixed number of dancers and Steven wanted to show the whole space, we couldn’t cheat.
The cheerful “America” dance number spanned Queens and Patterson, with many vintage storefronts and signs depicting Puerto Rico’s colorful neighborhood, and culminating in a Pachanga-influenced block party shot in the intersection of Broadway and 68th Street in Washington Heights. “‘America’ took the most effort,” Stockhausen said, “because it expands and keeps moving through neighborhoods as the story of this song develops.”
The rumble was also visually unique, with Spielberg and Kushner wanting to film in a storage facility adjacent to the West Side Freeway where street salt was kept. “There is something important about these two gangs being separated by the community going to this extreme place,” Stockhausen added. “Physically, we were in a warehouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard complex which was once an old fish processing plant. [plant]. But what was remarkable was this great architecture. It was big enough for us to work on and fill it with salt. But there was also a large window. Steven wanted the West Side Freeway to be always present and the traffic lights to pass by and be seen all the time as a beat for the whole thing. Both gangs are isolated but still within reach of the community at large.