WEST SIDE STORY
March 17th, 2022 by Karen Burg & Gene Cane
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.
Rena DeAngelo SDSA
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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!
SHOW MORE PHOTOS
Gimbel’s Department Store... Adding the element of María as a working woman, a late-night cleaning woman in the famed department store. Shot at a practical location, a huge former bank, Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA fully dressed the area with specialty vignettes and shelving and vitrines of women’s wear, a full bridal salon and cosmetics department, using draperies to close off other areas while still creating depth of the store. Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Gimbel’s Department Store...María’s iconic “I Feel Pretty” is now set in the elegant department store where she and cohorts do the night-cleaning...and end up dancing through the innumerable displays Rena and teams created. Rachel Zegler as María. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Dance at the Gym, Showdown...The Jets and Sharks, and their women, face each other in their turf war at the dance. Here we see the use of color in defining the two groups, greys and blues for the Jets while the Sharks are portrayed with warmer, more tropical colors of reds, yellows and orange. The color scheme runs through the costumes and sets. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
Dance at the Gym, longshot...The practical location had the retractable basketball hoops and stage, wall dressing, streamers, bunting, drapery and bandstands had to be brought in, and oh, so did the wood floor! Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
“Cool”...For many of the creators of WEST SIDE STORY, this would be their first musical. Working together in prep to bring together all elements of a production number: direction, choreography, cinematography, production design, set decoration...Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA brought in periphery items, including the huge turbine...but through rehearsals on the built stage, improvisation moved the rusted-out items into frame for the final sequence. Not intended! Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
21st Precinct...The Jets are taken to the precinct, but left alone when an emergency comes up. In the production number “Gee, Officer Krupke”, the entire set is utilized. Swinging doors, desktops, benches and paperwork all worked into the choreography. The metal trestle benches became jail cell bars in more rehearsal improvisation. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
21st Precinct...There seems to be a new Jet in town. Filmed at the Grace Reformed Church in the Brooklyn borough’s Flatbush neighborhood. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
21st Precinct... Pre-dance number, the precinct set shows an amazing amount of period detail. Around the institution-green walls are period vending machine, water fountain, trash cans, & radiators, while vintage phones and electric boxes hang on wall, along with police accommodations and honor rolls. On the linoleum floor, another designed by Rena, we see the custom benches now with jail bar trestles she had made as well. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Spielberg says, “‘America’ is a joyful, funny and sexy song, but at its heart it’s a debate between two groups of Puerto Ricans: those who, like Anita, feel that they’ve found in New York a great place to realize their dreams, and those like Bernardo, who are disillusioned by the racism and barriers to economic advancement they encounter every day. The creators of ‘West Side Story’ were obviously aware of and sympathetic to this fierce division—as the children and grandchildren of Jewish immigrants, they certainly recognized a tormented relationship with both the old country and the new world.” Ariana DeBose, David Alvarez. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
“America”... The exciting “America” number was actually shot on four different real street locations. Rena’s teams dressed each block top-to-bottom, from storefronts, awnings, signage blinds and drapery. Amazing editing then brought together a seamless dance sequence to wow the audience. Ariana DeBose as Anita. Photo by Niko Tavernise ©2021 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved.
W68th...View of the street, a real neighborhood, transformed to the period, dressing each storefront and apartment window. Note the corner restaurant Las Delicias was in the background of the previous photo. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
W68th...Another view of the street, period cars and costumed extras add to the scenery, which includes aged awnings and rusty gates, showing the old neighborhood in peril, surrounded by the debris of construction to erect Lincoln Center. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
W68th, street traffic...Mangos and chayote for sale in the very Latinized neighborhood. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Jets prowling the neighborhood streets...With the ongoing destruction of the neighborhood and territories shrinking, the Jets’ frustration grows. Note the windows of the McMahon Building dressed from broken to air conditioning units, signs, window seal knickknacks, shades and drapery. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Docs’ corner...The Jets, up to no good no doubt, walk by Doc’s and the rubble-strewn lot next to it. Spielberg points out, “Our Jets are really street rats—dropouts, unemployed, scavengers—as Lieutenant Schrank identifies them. They’re the grandchildren of European immigrants who mostly moved up and moved out—except for the parents of the Jets. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Streets...Far shot of the Jets standing between Doc’s and the rubble of the construction meant to beautify the city but bringing only problems to the gang. Dilapidated buildings were created for the film in empty lots, detailed down to the wallpaper and fixtures inside the destroyed properties. Note the white X tape on the oriel window on the Doc’s building, likely a replacement pane broken during the demolition of the adjacent building. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Crumbling buildings...In the true art of filmmaking, these demolished brownstones were created completely for the film. Rickety fire escape clings to the façade, shredded fabrics and boards cover the windows, and remnants of life strewn about the ground amongst the crushed bricks are sad testament to feeling of displacement and losing ground felt by the Jets. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Amongst the rubble...A depressing but beautiful shot, Diesel [Kevin Csolak] and A-Rab [Jess LeProtto] sit in a collapsing home among the rubble of a family’s life. Beadboard wainscoting, wallpaper, dangling sconces and left-behind furniture, the boys are much like the discard of the neighborhood. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.
Discard...Heaps of rubble and apartment built-in plumbing and cabinetry, which are real, were located from many sources, with extra care taken for safety. In a nice 2022 360 turn, rather than mounds of street discard, Rena recycled much of the set dressing to prophouses, salvage yards and other local productions. She also found vendors who would deliver, then pick up afterwards, including rubble and the huge mounds of salt that were required for the Rumble scene salt shed, so no waste!
Tony’s Last Stance...In the film’s climax, Tony confronts Chino in the streets. The wide shot here shows the amazing elements of the film created by Production Designer Adam Stockhausen and Set Decorator Rena DeAngelo SDSA. The streets have become characters to the film-viewing audience. Image courtesy of 20th Century Studios ©2021. All Rights Reserved.