[Interview] Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner Redefine ‘WEST SIDE STORY’

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

It’s almost impossible to top perfection when it comes to remakes. And yet that’s precisely what director Steven Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner have done with WEST SIDE STORY. The pair deliver a breathtaking, show-stopping musical of the highest caliber – one centered on the Romeo and Juliet-inspired tale of two star-crossed lovers caught in a world full of division. It elegantly refurbishes the material’s long-standing legacy, modernizing it by  highlighting its stirring sentiments and paying homage to the 1957 Broadway show and 1961 cinematic adaptation.

At the film’s recent virtual press conference, I asked Spielberg and Kushner if their reverence of the original material led to any self-pressure to get a specific scene perfect. Spielberg began, stating,

“I don’t think there was a scene in this film that Tony and I didn’t feel we had to get absolutely perfect, because a scene is simply a progression toward making a point, or reaching the end of the story. We both felt that if the scene did not contribute to the overall story, or it didn’t contribute to the growth, or the arc of these characters, that scene should not, would not, find no place in WEST SIDE STORY.”

He continued,

“Every scene has an essential role to play in basically unspooling the story in celebration of being alive, and in tragedy, because conversation wasn’t able to be had before tragedy occurred. And the message, that conversation must always be attempted before anything else is attempted. All of these are all little building blocks. It’s like a string of pearls.”

The creative pair were also open to collaboration with their cast and crew. Spielberg elaborates,

“I don’t think there was any scene that we didn’t pay surgical attention to. Especially Tony, who is obsessed with research, which is why I think we got it right in very many different ways. Tony was very, very much open to new ideas from the cast, new ideas that the actors might have, but at the same time, very open to, ‘Is there another way to tell – eh – to do the scene?’”

That said, Spielberg was reluctant to specify what scene they were laser-focused on.

“There was one scene in particular, I’m not gonna say what the scene was, that there were 32 rewrites on that scene. The last rewrite happened 24 hours before we actually shot the scene. There’s no reason to [say which scene] because I don’t want people watching for it.”

Kushner explains that their re-writing process usually functions this way.

“I’ll tell you about [that]. We’ve made four movies together – one that we just finished.  And, in every one, there’s one scene that we rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I don’t know why that is, but there’s one scene where, and it’s not, and it doesn’t feel like pressure to get it right. It’s just, we start to really have fun doing it. I think that’s true of this scene – exploring it.”

Spielberg quickly jumps in.

“…Exploring, ‘What are we leaving on the table? What crumbs are we leaving on the table that could be very nourishing for an audience? Let’s not leave anything on the table.’ And sometimes that just means rethinking the entire scene.”

One such example of re-designing a scene to put more emphasis certain aspects, specifically Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, was when it came to their version of “Officer Krupke.” Kushner says,

“This is one place where the rights holders were so generous. The original version of ‘Krupke’ starts with this kind of poke of this like, ‘bum, bum, bum,’ which sort of announces that it’s a comedy number. It makes it hard before you hear the first word to hear the seriousness of what Sondheim describes. It’s this terrible machine that exists not to cure juvenile delinquency, but to perpetuate it. So, we asked for permission to take away the first ‘oom-pa-pa’ section. And then Jeanine Tesori, who was our musical supervisor, we were at the piano, and she just tried it, I said, ‘Why don’t we slow it down a little bit?’ So, you just hear the first verse a little slower and then acapella. And then after that it takes off, and it’s at an even greater speed than its usual. But you’re caught up in the dissection of child abuse.”

The song held personal significance for Spielberg, who dedicates the movie to his father.

“When my mom and dad brought this album home when I was 10 years old in 1957, they brought the album home to Phoenix, Arizona. They had not seen the play, but they bought the record, went to record store, and got the West Side Story: The Original Broadway Cast Album. I took it to my room. I had a little Victrola in my room that I played it on, and I was 10 years old, and I get to the table.

We’d have the family dinners, I’d be at the table and I would be singing in front my mom and dad, “My father is a bastard….my mom’s an SOB…my sister’s always plastered…”  My mom and dad would say, “You can’t say bastard at the dinner table. Where did you learn to say SOB?” And I said, “You bought the record. You gave this to me to listen to.” “That’s not on the record.” I said, “Well, come and I’ll prove it to you.” And I had to play ‘em ‘Krupke.’ They didn’t take the record away from me, but they were really nervous about what else I was gonna learn from that record and take it to the dinner table.”

WEST SIDE STORY opens in theaters on December 10.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, CCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.