In the Heights poster art

Art of the Cut: Behind the Scenes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights”

Today we’re talking with Myron Kerstein, ACE about teaming up with director Jon Chu and producer Lin-Manuel Miranda on the boisterous and exhilarating musical, In the Heights.

Chu and Kerstein last worked together on Crazy Rich Asians, and his previous work as an editor includes the feature films Going in Style and Garden State.

Kerstein’s also been working on the Apple TV+ series, Home Before Dark, and cut much of the hit series Girls. And way back when—let’s just say more than 20 years ago—he started as an assistant editor on the iconic Sex and the City.

Listen while you read…

HULLFISH: How are you?

KERSTEIN: Good, man. So great to hear from you.

HULLFISH: I am excited about this interview. I loved the movie, just loved it. Congratulations. What an accomplishment.

KERSTEIN: Thank you so much. That is a huge statement coming from you because not only do you see every film, but you talk to every editor about it, so you know what it takes.  

HULLFISH: I don’t know what it takes to pull off that accomplishment, but that’s what we’ll talk about.

KERSTEIN: Well, thank you so much. You said you and your wife saw it?

HULLFISH: Yeah, we didn’t watch it in the theater. We watched it at home. It was the fastest way for me to press the button and watch it.

KERSTEIN: Right on. I believe that a big opening at the box office is great, but I also believe that any way somebody can see something is all right by me as well. If that’s the way they’re going to watch it and they love it that way, I’m down.

HULLFISH: Well I see a bunch of movies every single week and if I saw them all in the movie theater, I don’t know if I’d be able to. Just getting to the movie theater and back, let alone paying for them… But I just saw Nobody in the theater.

KERSTEIN: Oh cool.

HULLFISH: That was probably the last thing I saw in the movie theater.

Just to start off on a slightly technical note, I do these interviews out of curiosity, honestly. I’m just really interested in the process. One of the things that struck me with this was that some of those musical numbers are quite long as a scene. They’re eight or ten minutes long, maybe. How do you organize that in a bin to be able to see what you’re looking at and to be able to move onto the next section seamlessly?

KERSTEIN: Well, first of all, I just treat them like big set pieces, obviously, from the get-go. I don’t do anything special as far as organizing them in bins, although if I have multiple setups and multiple cameras, I might have part 1 to part 8 just because there are literally too many clips in a bin. I generally will have the A and B [cameras] grouped together. Then, for numbers like 96,000 or something like The Club, I might have 4 or 5 bins just covering all the different camera angles and setups.

Then, I really painstakingly go through every camera and just start pulling selects. I divide the number into what I call zones, or just beginning, middle, and end, or if it’s a very large number up to a certain lyric. Breaking it down into basically smaller scenes just allows me to organize it in smaller chunks. Then, sometimes I have a miscellaneous selects reel that can go anywhere in the entire number. It could go into a specific section, but also it can go anywhere from beginning, middle of our end.

Breaking it down to smaller units just gives me a fighting chance, unless Jon says, “Hey, I need you to cut this scene or musical number today,” I don’t put too much pressure on myself to flesh out something too quickly. I make sure that we have the coverage to make the scene, and if there’s ever a question of a section that I feel like I need to cut something together to tell production if they need something, I’ll do it. But generally, I spend a lot of time making these selects.

Sometimes I’ll say, “Today I’m going to just pull selects for setups A through Z, and then tomorrow I’ll do AA through DD. Then, I’ll do the same thing with cutting. I’ll say, “I’m just going to cut the first section today, just assemble this first section today, and then the rest of the day I’m going to watch dailies for either the dailies I didn’t finish the day before or for whatever’s new coming in.”

So, it’s this constant rotation of watching dailies, making selects, cutting, and so on and so forth. I just try not to get too overwhelmed by the sheer amount of footage because Jon shoots a lot and the multiple cameras are trying to find a lot of vérité moments specifically in this film and I just wanted to be really thorough. I didn’t want to rely on the multicam function at all even though I had that sometimes. We did these giant supergroup clips and I use those occasionally, but I almost all the time went back to my selects. I never cut really into the multicam. I felt like I was going to miss something. I felt like it was going to be a cheat in some ways and I just really wanted to force myself to be as thorough as possible.

HULLFISH: The very opening number and other places throughout the movie, especially at the beginning, there are great little moments of color where you see people getting ready for their day. A cop is getting ready in front of a mirror. There’s a guy who is mopping a floor. Did you build those out musically and then say, “I think we need some color here,” or did you cut it chronologically?

KERSTEIN: Well, the entire number was shot over almost the entire course of the production. So, it took really long, and, in fact, those details of what we call the “community chorus” wasn’t shot until way into the post-process. So, we had giant gaping holes there that just said “community chorus” on a card.

Then, once we started getting closer to friends and family screenings and test screenings, we actually pulled stock footage of people who were getting ready for their day and a doctor checking someone’s pulse. That was there for the longest time. Jon had to basically go back to the studio and ask for a little bit more money to shoot this stuff because they really just never got it in principal photography, but we always knew it was supposed to be there.

Of course, it was helpful to be able to have that time to put together this entire number because there was so many different locations, so many things that we had to try to establish as far as the visual grammar at the beginning of the film, like little touchstones of magical realism, jump cuts, words on the screen, split screens, places where we’re really cutting up the choreography and other places where we were just holding on a shot like that reflection shot of Usnavi or that big crane shot at the end.

So there was VFX there with a little iPad that Usnavi shows the tourists. There were a lot of elements, and then we had this community chorus. It was good to wait to really figure out what we wanted and what we needed, and then we shot that maybe six or seven months after we were done shooting the principal, I think.

HULLFISH: I want to ask about the reflection shot. I don’t know if anybody knows we’re talking about, but there’s a great push-in to one of the principal characters in a shop window and you’re watching the dancers reflected in the street outside. How was that done?

KERSTEIN: Well, the plate is basically Usnavi rapping, and then we have a separate plate of the dancers doing the choreography. Then, it’s just up to me to match up what was supposed to happen musically, and then it was essentially placing in VFX.

It took a long time to try to figure out the tracking of that shot. Alice Brooks, the cinematographer, did a great job lighting both sides of it, so then it was just marrying that shot and making sure that there was nothing messed up on the choreography side, and then obviously picking the best performance for Usnavi and just believing in it.

Funny enough, we also had three or four cameras running on that footage as well. So, if I wanted to, I could cut up that footage; in fact, in my first assembly I did exactly that because I get little input from Jon [Chu] when I’m first assembling. He really likes me to try to find my own way. Every once in a while he’ll say to me, “Do you want my input?” and I’ll say, “No, let me try to get my take on it.” Things like that, I would have never known that that was designed just to hold, but he’s also smart. He covers himself just in case.

HULLFISH: So, there was no green screen or anything like that, it’s literally a plate of a guy in a window and then the reflection was layered in?

KERSTEIN: Yeah, there might’ve been greenscreen on Usnavi’s side. I forget. I think maybe we were close enough that we didn’t need it. 90% of that bodega is actually on a soundstage. So, we did shoot a majority of the film in Washington Heights, but the bodega and nail salon were actually completely built on the soundstage. So, anytime you’re actually inside the bodega and looking out the windows that’s all VFX work.

The bodega’s actual location…

HULLFISH: I know that some of the singing—or a lot of it—was recorded live during the filming, some was pre-recorded, and some was ADR. When you were cutting, how did you deal with the sonic vocal differences between those? Or did you just pick the prerecorded and went with it?

KERSTEIN: Sometimes I mixed and matched, but oftentimes what would happen is that we’d start a song acapella live, or if we went further into the live they’ll have prerecord in an earwig. But generally, my rule was if they were doing it live, try to use it as much as possible.

Obviously, there are places like When You’re Home that is all live at the beginning, or Champagne is completely live. In both of them, that whole one-take Steadicam bungie camera shot is all live. Anytime Usnavi is rapping, like in Carnaval or in certain sections throughout the film, there are just tons of little places where we would place it in.

I try not to worry too much about the sonic differences, to be honest with you. It was helpful because I was cutting in 5.1, so I was able to place all the vocal tracks, whether it was prerecorded or live, in the center channel. So, it gave me the feeling that it was all coming from the same place. It kind of fooled me, and sometimes I would EQ it a little bit just in my assembly process, or if it was something live in the club, I’d give it a little reverb, deverbing, or whatever tools I could use in the Avid, but I tried not to get too much in the weeds on that stuff because I knew it was going to get better later.

I also didn’t know how much live we were going to keep. I think at the beginning of 96,000, those guys walking down the street, that’s all live except for Benny, for example, because Corey’s voice was a bit rough. He had a cold or something that day, so it’s all live except for him. It was just a mix and match and for the most part it worked really well. It was astonishing how great they all were.

HULLFISH: I’m sure you were given a bunch of tracks, more than what most of us normally have to deal with when we’re dealing with production tracks. I say, “Oh my gosh, I got three microphones I have to deal with. This craziness.” What were you dealing with, and how did you manage that number of production tracks in your timelines?

KERSTEIN: I relied a lot on Andrew Pang, my first assistant. He was amazing. I just talked to him and said, “It has to be big enough to be able to cover as many of these music tracks as possible, but not so big where I can’t cut in an efficient way.” I think it was mostly the principal vocal tracks throughout a number, and then the chorus tracks would be on one track and then instrumentals. That’s about as far as I broke it down. I tried not to break down the instrumentals too far unless I really needed it because it was just too much.

HULLFISH: The principal vocals alone could be 4 or 5 people.  

KERSTEIN: Yeah, it was a lot. Something like on 96,000 though it was really helpful because there are so many voices and so many layers that are overlapping each other that being able to isolate somebody at a given moment allowed me to understand what they’re singing about, but also it helped me try to figure out when I wanted to cut to somebody. So, it all was really cumbersome, to be honest with you. It was all very overwhelming at first because I thought, “Holy shit. Am I going to be able to focus and not get so overwhelmed by all the tracks and my timeline?” And that’s just music tracks. It wasn’t the dialogue tracks and all the effects tracks.

Then, I had the idiotic gumption to decide to cut in 5.1, which I had never done before. Wyatt Smith was in the edit room that I took over right before I left, and he had cut Into the Woods. So, I went up to him and I said, “I think I’m going to keep the 5.1 setup you have in your room. Can you teach me?” He basically sat down with me for an hour and said, “This is how you do it.” Then, I just knew that Jon Chu would really benefit by hearing the theatrical approximation of what it would sound like in the theater in my edit rooms, so I thought, “I’m going to go for it,” and I did it.

HULLFISH: It’s some work, isn’t it? I have not used 5.1 in a feature film. So, he gave you an hour-long lesson, can you give me a 5-minute lesson?

KERSTEIN: Well, at the end of the day, it’s like your audio mixing tool except you now have dimensions.

HULLFISH: You have a little square graph, right?

KERSTEIN: Yeah, and you could basically put the sound into any corner of that graph. So if you put it into the dead center, it will feel like it’s dead center in the room, literally in your room because you have your 3 speakers upfront and then you have your 2 in the back. So, it will literally sound like it’s in the middle of the room.

If you pan it to one side a little bit more, you’ll feel it more to one side or upfront or back. Then, you could do tricky things—which I didn’t really do— you could actually start it in one place and it could end in another. Say there was a car passing by and I wanted to start it upfront to the left and I wanted it to end to the right and back of me, you could do that. I think it’s very similar to how you mix Atmos in a very basic way. Basically, you’re setting your audio digitally into the space.

HULLFISH: Did you mostly put dialogue and singing tracks upfront in the middle. That was just like the default, right?

KERSTEIN: Yeah, the default was always center. Sometimes if it was community chorus I would put it more into the room just because it would feel bigger and I’d want it to spread around me. I generally would put the musical stems in the room as well, and then effects, traditionally, just upfront. Some were spinning around me. It just depended.

HULLFISH: I have to ask you: was the hold music on the Stanford call scripted?

KERSTEIN: No, and in fact, for the longest time it was Careless Whisper in there, which made everyone laugh as well. It was actually Lin’s suggestion to do the Hamilton easter egg in there. I was worried that people weren’t going to be able to tell what it was quick enough, but people seem to be getting it.

I was trying to really treat musical numbers like scenes and not recordings of people singing songs.

HULLFISH: I got it for sure. One of the things which I loved about your editing of this was that there’s so much music, but nothing really felt like a music video, apart from maybe 96,000. It did not feel music video-y, and it could have gone that way. Did you do something specific or intentional not to make it look like a music video?

KERSTEIN: Well, first of all, I just kept telling myself, “Don’t make it like a music video.”

HULLFISH: Did you have a post-it note at the bottom of your screen?

KERSTEIN: I practically had that on a mirror waking up every morning: “Don’t make this thing feel like a music video.” But what does that mean? At the end of the day, I even say 96,000 isn’t a music video, but it’s the closest version of a music video.

I was trying to really treat musical numbers like scenes and not recordings of people singing songs. I just tried to keep it grounded, cinematic, and to make it feel like the storytelling doesn’t end just because you’re singing. So, I treated the vocals like dialogue, and any other scene I treated the music like an action sequence in Star Wars. It’s not laser beams shooting, it’s literally a drum beat. That was my beginning philosophy was to try to treat this like a scene, not people singing songs that you’re watching. The difference is so intangible, but that was really my mantra.

Then, specifically, I try not to edit things just for edit’s sake. I didn’t want to just make an edit just to make things more exciting. I would do it either to heighten the drama of a scene, heighten the choreography, or show somebody expressing themselves with the choreography or the way they would sing something. Obviously, we did some things to protect the actors or the dancers like you do on every scene, but, at the end of the day, I just wanted to keep it grounded. I didn’t want it to turn into just a two-and-a-half-hour music video.

I take a lot of pride in all the musical numbers. Everything from It Won’t Be Long Now, where we start and stop on the dime on the music. We can have a whole scene between Usnavi and Vanessa in the bodega and then we can start up the song again. I just love those moments and we were able to do those pretty seamlessly, but that wasn’t always easy. Also, I take a lot of pride in sections of the film like The Club all the way through Alabanza, which is one giant set piece of energy, of chaos, of Paciencia y Fé and emotion.

With Alabanza literally, the light levels were so low that I had to cut it by candlelight. I had to turn off all the lights it’s in my room, dim my monitors as much as possible, and light a candle. My assistants were thinking, “What are you doing?” It looked like a seance going on in the edit room, and I was just literally crying while cutting Alabanza.

The whole night of the blackout was just one of the proudest things I could ever cut in my lifetime because there are so many different aspects of cutting. Whether it’s cutting the high intensity, high volume, sweaty, hotness of The Club to just the chaos of the streets during the blackout, to the vérité moments with the family playing bingo, and then Abuela with Paciencia y Fé and her death, and then Alabanza, it was probably the hardest part of the film to figure out. There was so much material.

The beach was also a device in which I could keep things on more like films like All That Jazz, which I didn’t really understand as a kid but I was just scared shitless by the use of perspectives in that film, and I just wanted to play with that a little bit as well. I’m just glad it all came together in this really strange, wonderful gestalt of it all.

HULLFISH: I think you succeeded. So, the post-it note worked.

KERSTEIN: Sometimes you do have to set those rules for yourself and just remind yourself what you’re doing. To spend that time just selecting things, watching the dailies, and just doing a lot of thinking about what I was going to do—like a number like Carnaval, I would be stalling for weeks to cut it because I was just thinking so much about how I wanted to structure things and how I wanted to cut things—I think that sometimes when you use the multicam function and just slap it together, things just become a little bit more random, I guess. Not to say that’s what music videos are at all, but I do feel like they’re just a little bit more about making a bigger splash in a shorter amount of time.

HULLFISH: And that’s their job.

KERSTEIN: Yeah, a hundred percent, and my job was to be a storyteller and try to get people invested, let it be an emotional experience for people. I just had to be really mindful. Every one of those numbers was done specifically in certain ways and they all required certain cutting styles and moments where I would have to pull back and let them do their thing. Other times, I could go in there and really construct something that was also exciting.

HULLFISH: You had some tough choices to make in the big musical numbers. Between the great choreography, you probably could have just stayed on the dancers for the whole movie and you would have had a great visual movie. You had great choreography with big crowds of dancers and you still had to pick your moments to be with the stars.

How did you make that decision? I’m thinking of that number When You’re Home. You’ve got these beautiful actors and actresses, I’m sure you have great performances from them in close-ups, and yet you’ve also got fantastic choreography. What do you do?

KERSTEIN: I know, it’s funny. Both of them, When You’re Home, or something like No Me Diga. You’re literally having the best dancers in the world do this amazing number with their nails in the nail salon. I wanted to cut the whole number just on these nails because the choreography just in the nails alone was outstanding.

It was tough because at any given moment I could cut to somebody doing the best dancing and choreography. Something like When You’re Home, in fact, some of the dancing at the end of that number specifically is incredible, but we intentionally really stayed on Corey [Hawkins] and Leslie [Grace] to heighten them and then punctuate moments with the dancing versus letting the dancing just totally taking over.

Or you have all those break dancers, incredible breakdancers, just literally propelling themselves off benches and stuff, and you’re thinking, “I still need to try to focus on them somehow.” It took a lot of experimentation, to be honest with you, and sometimes I would lean towards the choreography because it’s where your eye goes to, the shiny, bright pizazz of it all, but then you realize, “I’m losing sight of our stars and telling their story.” So, it was just a balance and a lot of experimentation. Also, knowing that I had 12 other numbers that could cut to choreography down the line. So, I just had to be mindful of the big picture.

HULLFISH: Talk to me about what the screeners did for you in this movie.

KERSTEIN: Most of the screening process was pre-pandemic. So, we had tons of screenings in the edit room and giant screenings for friends and families in New York City. It was really helpful to try to figure out what the balance of this film was going to be. There were a lot more scenes dramatically that ended up on the cutting room floor. There was a lot more of the beach storytelling device with Usnavi at the beach that was in the film. There was a lot of debate about whether or not Benny’s Dispatch should be in the film, and When You’re Home and Paciencia y Fé was on the bubble about maybe being cut out of the film.

All those screenings really helped us to not be afraid of failing and trying big swings at things and letting people get mad at us.

HULLFISH: I definitely want to hear about the decisions about those couple of scenes. The dispatch scene is a great scene, and that was on the bubble, huh?

KERSTEIN: Yeah, basically at the end of the day, all those screenings really helped us to not be afraid of failing and trying big swings at things and letting people get mad at us. Then, we could just hone and get closer and closer.

In fact, we even did a double preview screening in Pasadena where one version was 30 minutes shorter than the other. We did some really big swings, big restructuring, and those two films scored exactly the same which basically told us we could either have a shorter movie or a longer movie, but we think that the longer version is okay and we could take some of the shorter elements from the shorter version and apply it to the longer version, et cetera… So, all these screenings were really helpful to understand what the limitations were with the film. Obviously, for things like the basic storytelling and performance, it was just really helpful to get people’s feedback on.

When we first screened the movie for Lin, we screened it without Benny and the dispatch in because we really struggled with length in general. The length was a real problem. Once you get into a song, it was really hard to cut down. We were able to do it at a few places, but it was difficult. There were only so many scenes we can cut out of the movie without the whole movie just feeling like a wall-to-wall music number. It was already in danger of doing that in the first place.

We were struggling with the balance between Benny and Nina and Vanessa and Usnavi and the rest of the ensemble as well. We just didn’t know how much movie the audience could take. That was a first effort of cutting it out, and we screened it for Lin and he said, “Amazing movie. We’ve got a movie. Where’s Benny and the dispatch? When are you going to put Benny and the dispatch back in?” I said, “Oh yeah, we’re just trying a couple of things. Don’t worry.”

HULLFISH: That’s an interesting point though because you were first cutting this with your own take on it. Then, the director comes in and it’s the two of you, and it’s Lin’s musical. It’s something he wrote and something he cares about, yet you guys were putting your own stamp on it and doing things like cutting out the dispatch scene. So, it’s very interesting to me to hear what his take was on it saying, “Wait, where’s that scene?”

KERSTEIN: To credit Lin, he’d left us alone most of the time to just do our thing, to explore the film as artists and see what we’re going to come up with. We don’t invite that process in until six or seven weeks into post. We really hunkered down together and most of the internal screenings are with our assistants and a few select people and then we slowly open it up more.

In fact, the first couple of weeks of post, we did nothing but restructure the entire movie. We literally had our beautiful scene cards that our PA assistants put up on the wall, and then within days, they were all torn apart, all on the floor. I’m sure there’s a great picture of Jon just staring at all the cards thinking, “We have to figure out the right structure of this movie.”

Something like It Won’t Be Long Now came after 96,000, and so we thought, “Let’s bring that introduction before 96,000. Let’s introduce as much of our characters as possible.” But anyway, long story short, the friends and family screenings were really helpful for the process of restructuring. As far as Paciencia y Fé, it was scripted earlier in the movie.

HULLFISH: That’s the number with the grandmother’s memories?

KERSTEIN: Yeah, in the memories of the train cars. It was scripted in the first act of the film, and it really did not work there. By the way, that was similar to the original stage production, but there were things in the original stage production that were not the same to our musical, so it was already sort of separated from its intent in the first place.

They thought, ‘This is genius. It’s so beautiful.’ Then, they would watch it in the movie and say, ‘Oh my God, this is horrible.’

I think in the original stage production at the end of that number you realized she has a lottery ticket, I believe. Anyways, long story short, it was not working. People were freaking out because they thought, “This is genius. It’s so beautiful.” Then, they would watch it in the movie and say, “Oh my God, this is horrible.”

HULLFISH: You’re right, it’s a gorgeous scene, but that early in the movie I would think it just grinds it to a halt.

KERSTEIN: The biggest thing we kept saying to ourselves was, “We got to get to 96,000 as quickly as possible. We have to introduce these characters and get to our big set piece,” because, at the end of the day, there wasn’t really enough conflict in the first half of the film in order to keep us going for too long. So, we had to introduce our characters, get to know them, fall in love with them, then we could have something like 96,000, and then soon after we could start introducing the conflict, and so on. Then, we can go into Blackout.

So, I had mentioned to Jon within weeks of beginning the director’s cut that I thought that this number could go as Abuela’s deathbed song, and Jon said, “I don’t know if we could do that, man,” and he just kind of put a pin in it. Then, after one screening which went really well but that number was still not working, I think we were having brunch with our producers and we said, “What are we going to do about Paciencia y Fé?” Jon sits there and says, “We could move it later as a deathbed song. In fairness, this was Myron’s idea.” I’m looking at him thinking, “First of all, what the hell? And second of all, I don’t know if it’s actually gonna work.”

It’s one thing to have it in your head. Editors think of crazy ideas in their head all the time about moving something or trying to save a scene, but it’s another thing to actually do it. I knew I could move it as a scene. It’s easy enough. It takes three clicks to just insert something, but I didn’t know if I could organically make it feel intentional.

So, as soon as we left that meeting, we literally went straight into the cutting room and started working on it. Within about a day, we realized, “Oh my God, it actually works.” Strangely enough—I didn’t even know this at the time—but Quiara [Alegría Hudes], the original writer of the book for the original stage production, had told Lin when they were shooting that scene, that it feels like her deathbed song, but I never knew that. I never knew that she had said the same thing off to the side. So, in some weird way, it was just meant to be there. We just didn’t know it until we did it.

HULLFISH: I did not know that scene was supposed to be earlier. It feels like that’s where it belongs. Wow. That’s an incredible reconstruction.

KERSTEIN: I jokingly said I think you only get one of those in your career where you get that lucky.

HULLFISH: I bet you’ve got more of those in you, I’m guessing. That’s incredible because, like you said, there’s something about the fact of how that plays into the emotion of the moment that makes it feel like it belongs there.

KERSTEIN: I think originally it was intended to help Abuela decide whether or not she was going to go to the DR [Dominican Republic] with Usnavi. She’s been struggling so much in her life she’s thinking, “Why should I struggle anymore? I should go to the DR and be happy,” but it wasn’t feeling that way. It felt like there was so much sadness in it. Anyways, Abuela’s death was working pretty well, regardless of the number, but the number wasn’t working without the context.

HULLFISH: One of the things that you mentioned was those quieter moments that you didn’t want it to just be wall-to-wall music, and the easiest thing to do is just say cut all that stuff where they’re just talking, but I love that. It just gives you this dynamic of quiet and peace before the next big musical number. So, talk to me about protecting those moments.

KERSTEIN: If anything, I was the most protective of the beach and these little scenes, whether it was with Marc Anthony and Usnavi or the Gapo scene where he’s talking to his uncle about taking Sonny to the DR. Those scenes were extremely important because I knew that if I didn’t have them, there wouldn’t be any dynamics.

The film was already feeling episodic and vignette-y to some degree, and I knew I needed some other things to have breaks, just different textures and pacing in order to feel more balanced. That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t cut down a dialogue scene. Like I said before, there were plenty of dialogue scenes that were cut out of the movie. I just knew that I needed something in-between.

I also wanted that plot device of the beach. It was very important to me to keep that plot device because, at the end of the day, this is about a meditation on what home is, where is home, how did it get to the beach, or is he at the beach?

Also, the children for me demonstrated him passing on stories down to the next generation. So, it’s the idea of what Abuella says to Nina telling the stories about her grandmother making these napkins. It’s the little details. The whole film is about the little details. Every expression, every dance move, everything in this entire film is about the little details.

So, if you didn’t have this device of the beach, I think you’d still get it, but there was something even deeper about that idea to me. So, it wasn’t really about tricking the audience with the ending. That was just a little fun, clever, Usual Suspects thing at the end. At the end of the day, it was about these bigger ideas of who do we tell our stories to? Or why do we tell our stories to the next generation?

HULLFISH: I’m trying to remember, does the beach start the film?

KERSTEIN: It does.

HULLFISH: Did it always start the film?

KERSTEIN: Yeah, it did. We literally had stock footage with a big wave crashing down and we were trying to figure out sonically how to paint the city. So, we literally created this little montage with sound design in the edit room of hearing the New York radio on a little subway, and then that would build-up to the beat, to “what does a sueñito mean?”, then the big crash on the beach, and then we go to the city.

HULLFISH: There’s a big cast of characters. You’ve got a lot of people that you’re trying to track, at least couples. Talk to me about how you might think, “Oh my gosh, we haven’t seen Usnavi for five minutes. We need to get him back.”

KERSTEIN: Yeah, that was a lot of our restructuring process where we just thought, “We’ve got to get Usnavi to the beach.” That’s a real thread if there was any.

I think we ended up watching the movie maybe a dozen times in two weeks, just playing with the structure of his storyline. My assistants would say, “They’re watching the film again. They’re not doing any work, they’re just watching the film.” But no, we were playing a lot with trying to figure out the big picture in our heads, and of course, Vanessa came with that. So, sometimes we asked, “Now is it too much Vanessa and Usnavi?” and that’s when we actually took almost all of Vanessa and Usnavi out and it was just Nina and Benny. It was really a lot of experimentation with just how to hold an ensemble together.

What really occurred to us over time was that they were all dominoes holding each other up. At the end of the day, it was about community. So, we just had to find the right balance of our community, whether it was the couples, Abuela’s storyline, Sonny’s storyline, or the salon ladies, we had to realize that they’re all holding each other up. We just had to try to figure out the right balance and make sure that one didn’t really overwhelm the other.

We actually didn’t finish the entire movie before the pandemic and the post-process, and we came back and we actually took out more scenes with Usnavi and Vanessa deep into the pandemic six months after we’d finished post initially, still trying to figure out that balance. It was all about the balance.

HULLFISH: I remember I wanted to do this interview with you last year.

KERSTEIN: I know. Can you believe that?

HULLFISH: I was thinking, “Oh, this’ll be in 2020. I can’t wait for this movie to come out. I got to talk to Myron.” So, even at that point, the movie was ready to come out, and then you did more work?

KERSTEIN: Correct.

HULLFISH: Wow.

KERSTEIN: What happened is we had finished editing and we started mixing the movie and then, long story short, I had gone to another job while they were mixing, my job got shut down, then the mixing got shut down, and then I didn’t work for six months and nor did anyone else. Then, I moved back to LA and Jon moved back to LA, and he gave me a call and said, “Hey, I’ve been thinking about a few things. Would you mind opening up the edit room again?” I said, “No, of course not. Let’s do it.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the movie is better because of the pandemic.

Both of us didn’t really know what that meant, to be honest with you. We had time away from the movie and we just started talking again and said, “If we’re going to trim the movie, these are things that we could try.” So, we started taking another stab at it. Meanwhile, even though the music department was mixing six months before they were really behind because the music is obviously so complicated. So, that gave them time to do stuff.

Then, I got to work with my music editors to intricately slip every shot in the entire movie to make sure the lip sync matched. That took time. I said to Jon, “I really think there’s no doubt in my mind that the movie is better because of the pandemic.” The silver lining of it all.

HULLFISH: It’s so interesting that out of 300 interviews, maybe 5 or 6 different movies, for some reason or another, had a break. Tom Cruise breaks his ankle, Harrison Ford breaks his leg, something happens and it gives you this time to say, “Hey, we’ve got six months. What do we do with it?” In every single one of those instances, it always has a huge impact to make the movie better.

KERSTEIN: I feel like the film never really finishes, to some degree, but to have that extra time to be able to reflect and to sit there and watch it in your living room, or even unfortunately on your own iPad, you just think, “Oh, I could tweak that.” Every editor and director combination are some level of a perfectionist. So, you just keep at it. There was even a scene that we had cut out in early stages of the movie that suddenly found its way back in, and it hadn’t been there for almost every screening we had ever done.

HULLFISH: What scene was that?

KERSTEIN: It’s a tiny little scene with Vanessa basically being harassed by two guys on the street. And this was right at the beginning of It Won’t Be Long Now. The reason why I put it back in was that we had just finished No Me Diga just a second before, and I said, “Jon, we need the breath between songs. We need something. Can we try putting that exterior beat back in?” He said, “All right. Let’s do it.”

In. In the meantime, we cut out a really big scene with Usnavi and Vanessa. They used to go upstairs to her apartment and she showed him her fashion designs, and this was right after the scene downstairs where they’re sitting on the steps and she essentially says, “I just do nails,” and he says, “No, you’re an artist that I always basically looked up to.”

They used to go up to her apartment and she said, “Look at what I made. Isn’t it amazing?” but we didn’t want her to have success too early in the movie. We wanted her to still have a bit of a motor, a place to go as a character, but we didn’t know that for about 6 months because it was also a great scene. They’re both amazing. Melissa in particular was incredible in it. If anything, it made her an even more vulnerable character, but we just felt like it was too soon. We wanted the pain of what had just happened to Abuela to sit longer. We didn’t want any success yet.

HULLFISH: Tell me about the apartment scene with the champagne. Is that a true oner?

KERSTEIN: It’s a true oner.

HULLFISH: Great editing [laughs].

KERSTEIN: I jokingly say it’s my best editing. I’ve told that joke a few times though.

HULLFISH: Did you do any shaping inside of that oner either visually or with audio?

KERSTEIN: The biggest thing is that there’s VFX of the cameraman in the mirrors and stuff. So, we had to take that stuff out, but it was literally about picking the right take. It’s all live, so the cam work just had to crush it. Once you pick the take, it was more about just enjoying the breath, to be honest with you. You get to have the musical numbers so we keep up that component to the movie, but it allowed me to get more energetic and stylized cutting for, say, the finale or Carnaval. So, just having the breaths before and after certain musical numbers was just really helpful to have.

HULLFISH: Was that a practical location?

KERSTEIN: It was.

HULLFISH: Wow.

KERSTEIN: I know. Busy Street was in Washington Heights. It’s really a feat. Alice Brooks is new to the scene and not new to the scene, but I think everyone’s going to know who she is now after this movie. I think that when I first saw it I thought, “I can’t believe that you pulled this off. How did you pull this off?” Even things like when the sun goes down, there are moments where I just think, “I don’t even quite understand how you guys did it, and I cut it.” I cut it in green screen, and I cut it with all the VFX and I still don’t quite understand what I’m looking at.

HULLFISH: I’m always intrigued by intercutting and there’s some intercutting between Usnavi leaving his apartment for the last time and the scenes in the DR, correct?

KERSTEIN: Yep, again, in an effort to keep the beach alive. It’s almost like the beach is calling out to him saying, “Come here. You’re almost here. I’m telling the end of the story and I’m drawing Usnavi from the past to me.”

Anthony [Ramos] did an incredible amount of work throughout the whole film. He did every voice of the entire opening number, and I was told that he did it to stay in rhythm, but it gave me the option to cut to the beach basically anytime I wanted to. The same with the ending and with Alabanza. I did that a bit where he’s rapping on the beach and then we finish a line in the apartment.

I love intercutting in general. I love doing it, but specifically I really just love these two moments. It’s two universes. The multiverse of Usnavi is basically, which path is he going to lead? Where is he going? Is he finishing his story on the beach, or is he being drawn into Washington Heights? This is the reality. I just love that play a little bit of, “I don’t know which place I’m going yet.”

There’s a great moment when he’s staring at a reflection before he starts rapping on the street, right at the beginning of the finale where he’s looking out at Washington Heights and you see the reflection of the beach in there. It’s just a fun way of playing with which perspective are we going with?

HULLFISH: Yeah, all the beach is spent remembering Washington Heights, and then being in Washington Heights is all about fantasizing about being at the beach in the DR. That’s a great metaphor for life.

KERSTEIN: Well, everyone has that with their zoom backgrounds. They’ll have a beach wallpaper behind them of this place they wish they were. I think, “No, this is home right here right in front of you. You’re sitting in it, but you’re thinking of the beach.” Especially—not to go down too much of the rabbit hole—but after this pandemic where it really taught us about home as this really safe place, we get to be with our loved ones, and despite how hard it is there are some silver linings to all that.

HULLFISH: Neither one of us have a beach background.

KERSTEIN: Just for your listeners to know. I wish I was staring at a beach right now. No, I’m very happy.

HULLFISH: What was your project that got stopped in the middle of the pandemic? Did that start up again? Are you going to be able to do that movie?

KERSTEIN: It was actually a TV show called Home Before Dark. It was on Apple TV+, and I was actually directing an episode. So, I got to do that after I finished In the Heights. So, I directed an episode and then I cut three episodes and helped oversee the rest of the second season which, by the way, just premiered as well this past week. So, I had In the Heights and Home Before Dark Season Two premiere in the same week. Now, I took over for Andy Weisblum on Lin’s directorial debut, tick, tick…Boom!. So, I’m cutting that now as we speak. I’ve been trying to stay busy.

HULLFISH: Are you doing that in 5.1 again?

KERSTEIN: No, Andy started the project in basically stereo, so I decided to not create a mess by converting the show. It’s a bit different because it’s a more intimate sort of meta biopic. The requirements weren’t as prescriptive, I guess, to need to do that. Again, I didn’t want to create a big mess just because I liked playing with the toys.

HULLFISH: How does your editing inform your directing and how does your directing inform your editing?

KERSTEIN: Well, I guess I would just say that I knew the more pieces I gave the editor, the better as far as performance, as far as telling the story. Especially in TV, there’s just no patience at all for anything to take too long even on a streaming platform, which generally gives you more time because you’re not cutting the commercials, et cetera. I just knew I had to give them as many pieces, and I knew that if I tried to give a variation of performances without it being too schizophrenic that I’d be able to also give the editor and the showrunner options in that department as well.

That being said, easier said than done. Directing my first time was like trench warfare. It was really hard. I was working with kids and adults and, like I said, the first few days was my first time just with anybody, and then I got to do it again, thank God, but then I was doing it with COVID restrictions. So, the good news was I didn’t know anything different. I wasn’t set in my ways one way or another because I hadn’t done any of it.

Literally, the moment the camera is ready, the AD is saying to me, ‘When are you going to be done with this scene?’

I had a lot of empathy for directors before, but now I have tons of empathy for directors. I would be so critical of directors, thinking, “Why didn’t you get that? That was so easy, right?” Then, I’m there and realize, “Oh my God, they have no time to do anything ever.” Literally, the moment the camera is ready, the AD is saying to me, “When are you going to be done with this scene?” That’s how crazy directing TV is. So, to be an artist in that world was really difficult, but I survived. I think the episode turned out pretty well and I hope I get to do it more.

Ironically enough, between doing In the Heights and then cutting the second season of this Apple show, I fell in love with editing even more deeply than I’d ever had in my life. Maybe that has something to do with also directing, but I’ve just become so in love with the process. By the way, the pandemic kind of helps with that as well, just not taking things for granted, but I just feel really excited about what we can do in the edit room and inspiring other people. I’ve always been so thankful to have mentors like Jim Lyons who cut Todd Haynes’ films, or some of my friends like Tom Cross or Tatiana Riegel; I’m just so thankful to have great peers in my life all inspiring each other. Directing was part of that, I think.

HULLFISH: How did you get that opportunity to direct?

KERSTEIN: Luck [laughs]. I think that I made an impression on the showrunner and we became very close. Jon Chu directed the pilot and the second episode of the first season of the show, and then he went to go prep In the Heights and he said, “While I’m prepping In the Heights, why don’t you stay here and finish?” I said, “Good, because I need a job and I liked the show.” It was great. I really helped shepherd the first season into completion, and that’s the benefit of when you become very close to the showrunner as an editor. Like a film, it could be basically just your baby, just something that you feel a lot of pride and ownership as an artist.

Then, flash forward to us basically finishing the first round of our picture lock on In the Heights, the showrunners said, “I need you back. Please come.” I said, “I don’t know if I can literally afford to come back after working on a feature. I have kids,” and blah, blah, blah. They said, “Well, let me sweeten the deal for you. Also, by the way, I would love to have you on as a producer or somebody that helps shepherd the second season. Also, why don’t we give you a director shot.” It was something that I’ve always wanted to do, but I was working with Jon Chu, I was working with some amazing directors, obviously, I didn’t want to—and I still don’t want to—hurt that side of my career, but I got a shot, so I took it.

HULLFISH: Thanks so much for going on that little side journey with us. I love the film and I hope everybody gets a chance to see it. Congratulations.

KERSTEIN: Man, you’re the best. I hope you get a lot of credit for how many people you inspire monthly with your conversations. I hope we get to talk again down the line and I really appreciate you even taking a second on this one. So, thank you so much.

Steve Hullfish

Stephen Hullfish is an internationally respected producer and editor, and has written six books about the professional scene in Hollywood. He has edited seven feature films, including "Courageous" and "War Room", as well as "The Oprah Winfrey Show". Steve has also worked with industry leaders like Avid, Adobe, Blackmagic, Fujifilm, and Tektronix on technical and creative projects, and produces bespoke training for companies like the NHL, MLS, NBCSports, and Turner Networks.

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