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Steven Spielberg on the joyous filming of ‘West Side Story’

He was a 10-year-old boy growing up in Phoenix when his parents bought the double album of “West Side Story.” “I snuck it up to my room and played it on my little Victrola,” recalled Steven Spielberg on a cool morning in New York City. “That night, I came down to dinner and began to sing to my parents, ‘My father is a bastard. My mother is a SOB.’”

His mother dropped the carrots. His father choked on the chicken.

“Where did you learn those lyrics?” demanded his father, Arnold Spielberg.

Their future Oscar winning son smiled and replied, “You. You bought the record to ‘West Side Story.’”

“They didn’t take the album away from me,” said the 74-year-old director. In a brown suit and little matching specs, he remembered, “At the same time, my parents were very nervous about what I was going to learn from this record and then take to the dinner table.”

It’s no wonder that Spielberg dedicated his re-imagining of “West Side Story,” opening December 10: “For Dad.”

The director known for classics including “Jaws,” “E.T,” the Indiana Jones Series, “Jurassic Park, “The Color Purple” and “Schindler’s List,” brings his vision of 1957 New York City to the big screen now. Staying close to the play and original 1961 film, the new “West Side Story” features turf wars between rival gangs, the Sharks and the Jets. It’s newly immigrated Puerto Ricans teens and poor white “street rats” who just can’t get along. Yet, Tony (Ansel Elgort) falls in love with Maria (Rachel Zegler), which upsets her best friend, Anita (Arian DeBose) and gang member Riff (Mike Faist). Rita Moreno is back but this time as Valentina who owns the corner drug store where Tony works.

Review-Journal: The world recently lost genius Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the original lyrics for “West Side Story.” How involved was he with the new film?

Steven Spielberg: He was deeply involved in the new film. Steve was the first person I met when I sought the rights to make our version of “West Side Story.” We met in New York City with his dogs to talk about it. We had actually met in the past, bumping into each other at the White House when we received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It was me, Steve and Barbara Streisand. Even at that time, I wanted to shout to Steve, “I have this desperate desire to do my version of ‘West Side Story,’ but I just couldn’t get the words out. I finally did, and Steve had great ideas about the script, one draft to the next. He did all the pre-records with the musical artists, seven days a week for eight hours a day. It was a joy for all of us.

You’ve said that the last time you had as great a time making a film was during “E.T.” And did you ever jump up and dance or sing with the cast?

I did jump out of my chair one day and sing off-key and dance like I had three left feet. But, that was only during rehearsals for four months at Lincoln Center. Rita was there, too, and she was dancing with the cast. I felt so compelled to just jump up because there was so much life in the air. When we filmed the movie, I didn’t dance or sing. (He laughs). I was attentive. I was the director. I didn’t even tap a foot. I was too focused on the monitor except for that one day when the kids pushed me around in my office chair. And yes, this was the most delightful family affair I’ve had since “E.T.,” a film that made me want to be a dad. This was the next time I had that feeling. I felt like I was part of a very diverse family. I wasn’t center of the family, but just part of it.

New York is a character in the film. How did you capture the Big Apple of some 70 years ago?

The great thing is the city of that time still exists. If you go to Queens, the Bronx or Brooklyn, you can find it. We also used uptown Harlem. The buildings haven’t really changed. The only digital work we used in the movie was the computer erased the air conditioning units, the satellite dishes and safety bars on the windows.

Didn’t you shoot the dance number for “A-Me-Ri-Ca” on a 104-degree day in Harlem?

We had three days of intolerable heat, but we were only given permission to close the streets for those three days. “A-Me-Ri-Ca” was a long shoot with a lot of takes. The kids were working so hard. They were sweating through their costumes. Again, the magic of digital editing meant I could take the sweat out of their costumes in post-production. At the end of the day, I invited the cast into the tent to see what we filmed. There was this huge cry of joy and they wanted to go out and do the dance again.

Then, you got out your check book.

I knew that tomorrow it was going to be 103. I called the studio and said, “We’re taking Sunday off. I’ll cover the costs.” Luckily the heat broke and by the time we came back it was only 88 degrees.

When the characters speak Spanish in the film there are no subtitles. Was that planned?

Out of respect, we didn’t subtitle the Spanish. It had to exist in equal measure with the English … and we didn’t subtitle the English. My goal was for English- and Spanish-speaking audiences to sit together in movie theaters and hear pockets of different laughter. Above all, we’re a bilingual country and we didn’t need subtitles.

You begin the movie with a wrecking ball because this turf war in “West Side Story” is a moot point. The neighborhood is about to be demolished to build Lincoln Center.

They’re really fighting about race here. Yet, it’s ironic that the territory they’re fighting over is in the shadow of the wrecking ball. This is all going to come down. An equal opportunity urban project is underway to build Lincoln Center, and these people are thrown out of their homes. They’re going to lose their turf anyway. What we eventually have in this film is teenage street kids climbing up piles of rubble. What they’re fighting for is really a dump heap.

Were there any particular scenes where you felt additional pressure to get it right?

I don’t think there was a scene in this that I didn’t feel was crucial to get absolutely perfect.

What is the joy of filmmaking for you now?

It’s about unspooling a story. I still love exploring all of the possibilities. I still ask myself, “What crumbs are we leaving on the table that could be nourishing for an audience?” I believe in leaving nothing on the table.

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