When Oscar-winning production designer Adam Stockhausen first talked to Steven Spielberg about the filmmaker’s remake of “West Side Story,” Spielberg had one key directive: he wanted the film to shoot on location as much as possible. For Stockhausen, that meant not just finding streets in New York City and New Jersey that could best replicate Manhattan’s West Side from the 1950s, but also the perfect indoor venues to stand in for the musical’s iconic settings, like the dance at the high school gym where Maria (Rachel Zegler) first meets Tony (Ansel Elgort).
“I think I drove the locations team kind of crazy because I had a definite image in my head of exactly what I wanted it to be,” Stockhausen tells Gold Derby in a new interview. “And essentially, it was my high school gym. Which I think we all kind of do a little bit.”
The gym Stockhausen envisioned for the key “West Side Story” scene needed a lot of specifics: a stage on one end where the students could perform plays, basketball hoops that cranked up to the ceiling, and bleachers toward the back – so Maria and Tony could have their first clandestine moment together. It also needed to be sizable enough to fit the entire “West Side Story” cast of dancers and performers, but not too large.
“We found one that was gorgeous. But it was gigantic. It was four basketball courts in a very big school and had all the right details and finishes, but the scene would have been lost at sea in the middle of the place,” he says. Stockhausen estimates he and his team looked at more than 100 gyms before landing on the right spot: St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic School in Brooklyn’s Marine Park neighborhood. There was just one problem: the floor was bright green. But Stockhausen and his team had a fix: they put in a new floor by seeking out a company that did reclaimed gymnasium floors.
“They worked with us and they were great and it ended up being great for the dancers because those floors are built naturally, they kind of spring,” he says. “So we had to do a little bit of work on the place, but it did come together. And it was pretty great.”
Stockhausen is one of the most acclaimed production designers of the last decade, best known for his collaborations with Wes Anderson – including last year’s “The French Dispatch” and 2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” for which Stockhausen won his Academy Award. He’s also worked with Spielberg on multiple occasions and was an Oscar nominee in Best Production Design for “Bridge of Spies.”
“It’s just a dream to work with him,” Stockhausen says of Spielberg. “As with anyone, the more you work with a collaborator, the deeper the relationship gets, and so shorthand develops where you can just move very quickly together and that is a really rich and satisfying experience.”
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