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‘In the Heights’ Director Jon M. Chu on Film’s In-Person LALIFF Screening: ‘Like I’m Waking Up From Some Crazy Dream’

Director John M. Chu, Stephanie Beatriz,
Michael Buckner for PMC

“It’s going to be Washington Heights that is going to show the world how to get up again,” declared director Jon M. Chu as he addressed the audience ahead of the special preview screening of Warner Bros.’ “In the Heights.” “Because it showed me how to get up again.”

Chu’s sentiments reflected the overall atmosphere of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival (LALIFF), held Friday night at the TCL Chinese Theater in Hollywood. At times, the screening felt like being transported back to a pre-COVID-19 past, or more hopefully, toward a post-pandemic near future. All attendees were required to present either a vaccination card dated more than two weeks prior to the event or negative test results from within 24 hours upon entry, but once inside, the crowded venue was bustling with activity.

Though audience members outside of their immediate parties were spaced one seat away from each other, the 932-person capacity auditorium was at least half full. Once the lights dimmed and the screening began, the crowd clapped and cheered following each of the film’s exuberant and elaborately staged musical numbers.

Based on the Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name by Lin-Manuel Miranda from a book by Quiara Alegría Hudes, “In the Heights” centers on the lively, mostly-Latino neighborhood of Washington Heights in upper Manhattan. Anthony Ramos stars as Usnavi, a bodega owner who dreams of opening a bar in his home country, the Dominican Republic. Produced by Miranda and Hudes, it was initially set to be released last year but was postponed due to the pandemic. A film adaptation of the musical has been in the works since 2008.

Melissa Barrera, who plays Usnavi’s love interest and aspiring fashion designer, Vanessa, expressed her excitement over the film’s in-person premiere. “I can’t believe that the day is finally here and that we get to see it on a big screen with an audience,” she told Variety. ”I’ve been waiting for what feels like my entire life. I can’t wait to be in the darkness with the loud sound and the giant screen. There’s nothing like it, and this movie really calls to be seen on the largest screen possible.”

Unlike the few in-person events held over the past year, the screening hosted a large red carpet with media outlets socially distanced behind the velvet rope. Though the press wore masks, many of the cast walked the carpet maskless and mingled ahead of the premiere.

Chu said, “Honestly, it’s like I’m waking up from some crazy dream and that this didn’t ever happen because other than your masks, I don’t know how we are even on a red carpet again and back at the Chinese theater.”

“In the Heights” also stars Leslie Grace, in her acting debut, as Nina Rosario, a young woman from Washington Heights who returns from a year at Stanford University and feels pressure from the community to act as a role model. Grace said that she saw some of herself in Nina.

“I can’t tell you enough and with enough of the right words how much this experience validated me,” she told Variety. “To walk on set and feel like I didn’t have to change who I was in order to fit in. And that’s big, because I had never been in a movie so I thought this was going to be like my Stanford, like Nina, where she feels out of place. I definitely had my doubts, and we all had our doubts at some points, but we were surrounded by people that felt like family and we really created that community.”

Grace explained that she is excited for people to see the film since she believes it will create a greater understanding of the dreams and struggles of the Latino community. “I think that the best parts of social change can come from art, because art can create a world in which audiences realize that they have not only sympathy but empathy for people that are not like them.”

Stephanie Beatriz, who plays local hairdresser Carla, told Variety that she was particularly thrilled for Latino youth to see the film. “Representation is everything. It has the power to inspire and tell kids that they can achieve anything.”

“I grew up without seeing that and I know that it can have a deep impact on the possibilities that you can dream of,” Beatriz said. “So the fact that kids are going to have this as a reference point and claim it and dream bigger is the best thing ever.”

As for talks of a sequel, Chu and the cast agreed that they would be on board. Grace said, “One thing is for sure. We’re all signed up for that. We are ready and waiting in line, even if it takes 20 more years like it took for the first one.”