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Spielberg on the importance of putting a modern spin on West Side Story

Six decades on from West Side Story’s big screen debut and the world’s cultural divisions appear to have only deepened – or so says Hollywood director Steven Spielberg. “We’re probably listening both more and less than we’ve ever listened in our collective histories,” says the 74-year-old filmmaker earnestly.

It is an observation the three-time Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List director says has served to “really inform” his latest project – a reincarnation of the hit 1957 play and subsequent 1961 film for 21st century cinema audiences.

“Times are different now,” says Spielberg of the world’s cultural discourse. “There are different sensibilities. This film is probably the most daunting of my career … It’s very intimidating to take a masterpiece and make it through different eyes and different sensibilities without compromising the integrity of what is generally considered the greatest music ever written for the theatre.” 

A tale that sees a blossoming romance bridge a rivalrous cultural gap, West Side Story depicts the Sharks – a gang representing New Jersey’s Puerto Rican community – face off against the Jets – a gang consisting of the working class descendants of European immigrants.

Baby Driver star Ansel Elgort features as former Jets gang member Tony, the working-class New Yorker who finds himself falling for Maria – a Puerto Rican immigrant played by Rachel Zegler, whose brother Bernardo leads the Sharks.

“Tony Krishna, who wrote the screenplay, was able to really keep this in the period of ’50s but make it a complete reflection of the complexities of today in relationships between groups,” says Spielberg.

Going on to describe his reimagining of the film as “much more complicated” than the original, the Hollywood icon says that despite staying true to the original time period, current cultural conversations have increased the need for far “deeper” characters.

Steven Spielberg and his daughter, Destry Allyn Spielberg.
Steven Spielberg and his daughter, Destry Allyn Spielberg.

It is a point Hamilton and Prom actress Ariana DeBose, who plays Anita (the girlfriend of Maria’s brother, Bernardo) elaborates on.

Describing the development of her outspoken character by the film’s scriptwriter Tony Kushner as “important”, DeBose says added embellishments – such as pinpointing her character’s drive and underlying desires – will help modern-day audiences more easily relate.

“I loved how much agency and self-respect she had, but in this adaptation I also really loved how Tony Kushner allowed the character to really clarify why she believes so fervently in assimilation – because she wants to create a better life for her and the people that she loves. She wants to be a business owner, she has ambitions.” 

Describing how the 1961 film depicts her character’s somewhat traditional desires – “she does still want a family,” confirms DeBose – the 30-year-old goes on to describe Anita’s more contemporary aspirations as “valid hopes and dreams”.

A film that scooped ten Academy Awards during the 1962 awards season – including those for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actor – Spielberg says West Side Story’s themes are in fact “more relevant to today’s audiences than they were in 1957”.

Initially slated for release in 2020 before the pandemic took hold, he says the film’s modern-day backdrop shows the way in which divisions in the US have “obviously widened – almost impossibly so, beyond any place I would have imagined growing up in this country”.

“The xenophobia, everything that created the tools for violence in 1957 between white immigrant street gangs and Puerto Rican migrant groups, it’s just gotten more exacerbated over time.” 

A film that features extended sections of Spanish dialogue with the notable omission of English subtitles, Spielberg says the decision was made “out of a deep respect for the second language of this country”.

Denouncing subtitles as “disrespectful” to Spanish-speaking communities in this instance, the director says any decision to include them would simply be leaning on “a crutch provided by those English-speaking creators that first told the story”.

“It was my mandate when I first came on this project that every single Shark boy and girl needed to come from Latinx countries,” says Spielberg.

Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story. 
Rachel Zegler as Maria in West Side Story. 

Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise, the original 1961 cinematic release broke all previous award records for a musical by scooping ten gongs – including those for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor in a Supporting Role.

A silent and respectful nod to its predecessor, Spielberg’s incarnation sees the return of original West Side Story cast member Rita Moreno, 89, who received an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Anita.

Stepping into the shoes of Valentina, the owner of the corner store in which Tony works, this time around, Moreno is one of only three artists to have ever received an Academy, Emmy, Grammy, Tony and Peabody Award.

“She sort of said, ‘you don’t need me, you’ve got this; lean into everything that makes you unique’,” says DeBose of the advice bestowed by Moreno.

“I think there’s always pressure around working with your predecessor – especially when she is an Academy Award winner and beloved by not only the entertainment industry, but the Latino community at large. So, I just focused on doing a really good job because, at the end of the day, I’d like to think that I made her proud in some small way.”

  •  West Side Story arrives in cinemas Friday, December 10



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