×

‘In the Heights’ Production Designer on How Cultural Accuracy Informs the Film’s Look

In service to the director’s vision on a project, production designer Nelson Coates is an artistic pied piper. “You want to [construct] a visual arc and take people on that journey,” he says.

Having scoured locations in Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand for Jon M. Chu’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” the two reunite for “In the Heights.” This time the job was to find areas in Washington Heights that represented the area’s diversity. “You’re trying to do a deep dive into a specific culture, food, furniture, art — the things that are held so dear [locally] that they’re just as important to the storytelling process,” Coates says. The neighborhood includes a mix of Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban influences. “So,” the designer continues, “helping delineate those cultures and also making them germane to what you see in Washington Heights was very important to the story.” 

Exploration was key. Coates combed every street of the Heights, examining Bronx architecture. Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the stage musical and grew up in the neighborhood, pointed out that Broadway ran through the area. Jewish, Russian and Irish immigrants were on the West Side, and Puerto Rican, Dominican and Cuban immigrants resided on the East Side. With that in mind, Coates looked for differences and commonalities — and what distinguished a midtown deli from a local one — while trying not to do anything too stereotypical. 

Popular on Variety

Miranda’s tale of immigration and gentrification, first performed in 2005, arrived on Broadway in 2008, and was nominated for 13 Tony Awards, winning four, including best musical. The story, adapted for the film by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Marc Klein, is just as relevant in 2020 if not more so, given the political climate and considering that gentrification is forcing people out of the area. 

Locations encompassed Audubon Ave, St. Nicholas Ave, Dyckman Ave, Amsterdam Ave and the 170s – 180s. But Coates and his team found some of the actual buildings referenced in the script were too small to accommodate a shoot. Instead, they created facades and built the interiors at Marcy Armory in Brooklyn. “The salon was a big build-on; it only had about 10 feet of the inside,” Coates says. “It’s about getting the details correct — the color, the flavors and making it feel authentic to whatever constituency you’re working with. If I can make it better until the camera rolls, I want to make it better.”

Representation and diversity are important to Coates, who’s also president of the Art Directors Guild. He takes pride in his record leading the union in those areas. “I started the first women’s and first diversity committee for our guild before the Oscars started turning its head to that,” he says. “That was one of the things that I really wanted to push.”

As a production designer, he has worked with film directors including Mimi Leder (“On the Basis of Sex”), Denise Di Novi (“Unforgettable”), Anne Fletcher (“The Guilt Trip”) and Anjelica Huston (“Bastard out of Carolina”). “I like to work with teams that are balanced culturally, ethnically and in gender,” he explains. “To me, that’s a better worldview and makes for a stronger story.” 

Coates adds that a film like “Crazy Rich Asians” has resonance that exceeds the boundaries of entertainment: “Seeing what [that film] does for an entire community and beyond with representation makes you realize how people are presented in media really does affect how they’re treated in real life.” 

More Film

  • Halelluja

    Berlin Fest Screens Rare Prints of King Vidor Classics in Retrospective Sidebar

    American director-producer-screenwriter King Vidor (1894-1982), whose long and notable career parallels the history of Hollywood filmmaking, is the subject of a 35-film retrospective at the Berlinale, curated by Rainer Rother, artistic director of the Deutsche Kinematek and head of the Retrospective program. The films, chosen from five decades, will be screened in the best extant [...]

  • Beasts Clawing at Straws Review

    'Beasts Clawing at Straws': Film Review

    Cheap gangsters, duplicitous dragon ladies, a mute tattooed assassin, get-rich-quick schlubs looking to score and a comical detective: “Beasts Clawing at Straws” could just as well be called “Beasts Toying with Clichés” if it weren’t such an amusing, echt Korean romp. Debuting director Kim Yong-hoon acknowledges a certain “Fargo” influence, but there’s also a hint [...]

  • Dev Patel Toronto International Film Festival

    Film News Roundup: Dev Patel to Star in 'Flash Crash' Financial Thriller

    In today’s film news roundup, Dev Patel will portray a market whiz in a “Flash Crash” movie, the late Marty Sklar is honored at UCLA, “The Conversation” is getting a re-release and Ellen Page’s documentary gets a trailer. PROJECT LAUNCH Dev Patel will star in the adaptation of “Flash Crash: A Trading Savant, a Global [...]

  • Police guard the scenery in front

    Mass Shooting in Germany Raises Security Concerns for Berlin Film Festival

    A mass shooting in the West German city of Hanau has raised security concerns for the Berlin Film Festival, which kicks off on Thursday. Local media reports late Wednesday indicate that several people are dead following a shooting. Eight people are believed to have been killed while five others are injured. An unknown assailant is [...]

  • Foto: ©2019 TOM TRAMBOWProjekt: „Lassie Come

    Global Screen Sells 'Lassie Come Home' to More Than 44 Countries (EXCLUSIVE)

    Munich-based world sales company Global Screen has pre-sold the new adaptation of Eric Knight novel’s “Lassie Come Home,” whose canine character was first brought to the big screen more than 75 years ago, to more than 44 countries. Territories include Italy (Lucky Red), France (Mediawan Rights), Scandinavia (Angel Scandinavia), Israel (Film House), CIS (Volga Film), [...]

  • Paramount Players

    Paramount Players Loses Executives Matt Dines, Ali Bell

    Paramount Players has lost two of its executives, with Matt Dines and Ali Bell leaving their posts as executive vice presidents of development and production. A spokesman for Paramount told Variety that there are no plans to shutter the three-year-old division in the wake of the departures. Wyck Godfrey, Paramount’s motion pictures group president, remains [...]

  • Anya Taylor Joy Emma Premiere

    Anya Taylor-Joy on Playing Jane Austen's Clever, Callous Protagonist in 'Emma'

    It was an evening of elegance at the Los Angeles premiere of Focus Features’ “Emma” on Tuesday night. The red carpet was lined with pastel floral arrangements at the DGA Theater, priming visitors to be transported to the ornate pageantry of Georgian-era England, as depicted in this new adaptation of Jane Austen’s classic tale. Anya [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content