Alice Brooks interview: ‘tick, tick… Boom!,’ ‘In the Heights’ cinematographer
“When I read the script, I thought these could be scenes from my childhood,” cinematographer Alice Brooks shares about Netflix’s movie musical “tick, tick… Boom!,” which is set in early 1990s Soho in New York City. Brooks’ father was an aspiring playwright and her mother a dancer, so the film about late theatre composer Jonathan Larson feels like “a very personal story” for her. “This period in New York will forever be my New York,” she says, adding, “I grew up in a tenement building just like Jonathan, with a bathtub in my kitchen.” Watch our exclusive video interview above.
Brooks is also cinematographer on Warner Bros’ “In The Heights,” another movie musical about a different neighborhood and period in New York City. “I realized my job was to fall in love with Washington Heights, so I just completely immersed myself there,” Brooks shares about how she prepared to shoot director Jon M. Chu’s “epic” film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical about the community on one block in Washington Heights and bodega owner Usnavi (Anthony Ramos), who dreams of returning to the Dominican Republic.
Both films share not only by Brooks’ cinematography, but also Miranda’s involvement, as he also directed “tick, tick… Boom!.” “Lin brings twenty years of working in the theatre to filmmaking,” Brooks says about his film directorial debut, praising his openness in “exploring and trying new things.” She describes one musical number in particular, “Swimming,” as a “visual representation of a single moment of genius for Jonathan, and in some ways I feel like it was also this moment of genius for Lin.” In the scene, Larson has an epiphany about what the last unwritten song in his musical will be, and Brooks explains how Lin thought, “‘What if Jonathan touches the 30” at the bottom of the swimming pool, “the number he is so scared of turning, and it turns into a treble clef?.’”
One standout scene in “tick, tick… Boom!” features Larson’s homage to Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning musical “Sunday in the Park with George,” which has special resonance for Brooks, too. “My first Broadway show was ‘Into the Woods,’ the original Broadway cast,” she shares, referring to Sondheim’s 1987 musical. “My mom always was singing Sondheim my entire life,” she continues, noting that her family taped the PBS broadcast of “Sunday in the Park” on VHS and would rewatch it often.
While “tick, tick… Boom!” is very intimate, “In The Heights” is a huge ensemble film that runs two and a half hours, has 16 musical numbers, and often utilized hundreds of background actors. “The major challenge for us was the amount of days we had to shoot,” Brooks says of the 49-day production schedule. Director Chu “dreams so big,” she adds, “his dreams are bigger than any human being I’ve ever met.” “I feel what we accomplished was so huge,” Brooks observes about executing his ambitious vision.
Two of those many tremendous accomplishments in “Heights” are musical numbers “96,000” and “Blackout.” The former involved almost the entire principal cast, 75 dancers, and nearly 500 extras performing in and around one of the largest swimming pools in Washington Heights, all shot in three days despite rainy weather. The latter, set in the chaos of the city streets after a power outage, involved “lots of night scouts” and putting lights on rooftops for blocks to get the effects, including fireworks, just right. “Each number felt insurmountable,” Brooks admits, all the more reason why she feels “so proud” of the end result.