March 17th, 2022 by Karen Burg & Gene Cane

Main Photo
Doc’s drugstore...A poignant moment with the widowed Valentina [Rita Moreno], sole proprietor of Doc’s since her dear husband died several years before. Note the neighborhood being decimated around her “for progress”. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA

Production Designer Adam Stockhausen

20th Century Studios

“What is so wonderful about this story is that, no matter how much the world around us changes, the lessons and insights it offers us do not. It’s a story that has captivated audiences for decades because it is not just a love story but also a culturally significant work with a central premise—that love transcends prejudice and intolerance—that hasn’t lost its relevance over time.” – Steven Spielberg
Spielberg, along with his go-to team Production Designer Adam Stockhausen and Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA, and Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, brilliantly re-envisions the now classic Bernstein & Sondheim American musical tragedy, garnering Oscar nominations for each of them along the way! 
We have incredible photos and images, plus lots of behind-the-scenes details from Rena. See the galleries above and below!
But, in recognition of the small moments and small spaces, which require equal depth of commitment and collaboration, we asked Rena to give us a little perspective behind the apartment set and collaborating with Adam and Steven to share so much story within a few walls.
We know you will enjoy!
Thanks Rena, and thanks Gene Cane for the captioning!

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María’s alley...This key set, with fire escapes serving as ‘Juliet’ balconies, was filmed in an alley in Harlem for the day shots, then built and filmed in a multistory stage set for the night scenes. Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA confesses to being extremely particular about which pieces of laundry were hung and where, “I wanted the colors to be right, and the shapes to be right...and appropriate to that time period and to the way the people lived.” The lines of laundry ended up being both artistic and realistic, no surprise! Inset: Ansel Elgort, Rachel Zegler. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Excerpts from a chat with Academy Award nominated Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA...

“We used a lot of representational color throughout the film. You could see we had the blues and greens and the grays for the Jets, and the pinks and the oranges in the hotter colors, like the islands, for the Sharks.

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María’s room...María is new to the country, living with older brother Bernardo and his dynamic girlfriend Anita. Rena reveals a subtle clue she added to this set, “María’s room is pink with green, but the pink bedspread is actually on Anita’s bed. María has a blue one on hers because she’s hooking up with a Jet.” Blue signifying Jets, Red the Sharks. Rachel Zegler as María. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“We wanted this apartment to look functional, not decorated, but full of life. Anita & Bernardo are, at most, in their early 20s, Maria even younger, and they didn’t come to the states with much at all, so everything in the house had to be something that they had bought used. It's mis-matched, but soulful.

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María’s room... Items such as family photos, prayer cards, jade glass, make-up and celluloid accessories personalize the desk/vanity as Anita adjusts María’s new dress for her first dance in America! Note the clever design of the set, offering different sightlines and depth. Ariana DeBose, Rachel Zegler. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“There is an element of worn-in dirt from age that you can’t really paint over completely...it seeps through...and there’s a constant film of dust from outside and from the piece-sewing Anita does...the apartment is also her work room... but they do their best to keep it clean. There's a pride of place.”

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Apartment Kitchen...Bernardo, María, Anita and Chino discuss the upcoming dance in the small kitchen. Off the kitchen is Anita’s seamstress workroom with bolts of fabric, current project and industrial sewing machine showing the tight live-and-work space in the home. David Alvarez, Rachel Zegler, Ariana DeBose, Josh Andrés Rivera. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

"They're fighting to live there because they came to this country to have a life, and they're fighting for their home that they take pride in, whereas the Jets are fighting over rubble.”

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Apartment hallway...Freestanding cabinets provide additional storage. An electric fan sits among the items atop a painted cabinet. Fans are a recurring theme in the apartment to combat the searing summer heat. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

A side note: “The linoleum I found in a Sears catalog from the 1930s. I was able to get a picture of the pattern and gave it to our graphics artist, Eddie Loffreda, who had it printed. Frankly, I thought it might turn out to be a disaster because it was just on vinyl, but we aged it and it actually wound up being great! And it just kept getting a little bit better every time somebody would walk in there.”

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Apartment workroom/bedroom...María’s bedroom is a pass-through room connecting with the workroom. Lace curtains drape the French doors separating the room while details such as aged roller shades and tape repaired electrical cords among the tools of the seamstress Anita. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

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Apartment workroom...Industrial sewing machine sits center among the bolts of fabric, spools of thread, boxes and jars of buttons and trims. The project board with patterns, designs and fabric swatches hangs on a water damaged wall. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

“For the space, Adam wanted to give long views, places for people to go even with this small tenement apartment. You can see how rooms open up into each other, and Steven likes to have a lot of angles in a room. I make certain the set is completely full, because he's going see every square inch and then use it beautifully.”

Photo 10
Doc’s, a longtime neighborhood drug store, sits on the edge of the changing city, with debris from tear-down construction adding to stress of the neighborhood youths. A real storefront, the signage awning and neon were all created and aged for the depth of authenticity. Even the trash cans were battered and aged. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

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Doc’s interior...For this updated version, the Doc character has been replaced with Valentina [Rita Moreno] as his widow and the store owner, dealing with local toughs like Riff [Mike Faist]. A studio set, Rena brought in multiple store fixtures, then filled them with vintage products and ephemera from years of operating the store. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

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Doc’s, another view...A view from the soda fountain shows the wall of shelves filled with pharmacy items, all sourced for Rena by Robert Gerwig. Spigots for syrups stand at attention on the 1930s soda fountain, a fabulous find by Ron Fennick per Rena’s request. Plus the malted soda machine! The window corner wall holds canned goods and a vintage Coke cooler. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

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Doc’s, front of Store...The entry to Doc’s had tables and banquets. The place is not just a store & soda fountain, but a hangout with vintage jukebox and pinball machine. Director Steven Spielberg had the character Valentina written for Rita Moreno, who won an Academy Award in the 1961 film, playing Anita at that time. Here the two discuss an upcoming poignant scene. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.

“Steven surrounds himself with the best people who know what they're doing. And he trusts us. So, Adam shows him the renderings at the beginning, and we talk about everything. There's a long process in getting everything approved, but once it's approved, and he knows what he's getting, he just lets us do our thing. If there’s something he wants to change later, he knows we’ll make it happen. It’s a very respectful, comfortable and inspiring relationship. And I am incredibly proud of this film and everyone’s work on it.”

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Doc’s basement...Given a second chance at Doc’s after having served time, Tony [Ansel Egort] works for Valentina [Rita Moreno] while living in the basement. They have developed a deeply caring relationship. Light filtering through the glass brick highlights astronomical photos tacked to walls, symbolizing Tony’s dream of “Tonight”. Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.

Editor's note: Click on SHOW MORE PHOTOS below!