“In The Heights” Supervising Sound Editor On Capturing a Musical City’s Magic

In The Heights is, in all ways, an epic collaboration. Director Jon M. Chu‘s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical, written by original playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes, summoned musicians, choreographers, and a vast team of filmmakers to pull off. It’s never easy to adapt something that was already massively successful in its original form, nor is it easy to make a compelling, modern musical. Throw a pandemic into the middle of it and you’ve cranked up your difficulty setting to eleven. Yet what In The Heights required most of all, however, was respect for the Washington Heights neighborhood that gives the film its title. Whether it was cinematographer Alice Brooks learning about the northern Manhattan neighborhood’s unique, dazzling light (due, in part, to its relative narrowness that brings the Hudson and East River close-ish together), or the film’s Los Angeles native choreographer, Christopher Scott, basing the film’s many moves on Washington Height’s unique architecture, the creative team behind In The Heights was committed to getting the specifics of a vibrant, largely Latinx community right.

The same was true for the sound team. Executive music producer Bill Sherman had his work cut out for him (and a melange of musical genres and musical geniuses to help him sort them all out), and so, too, did supervising sound editor and re-recording mixer Lewis Goldstein. A veteran of some iconic films of the past (The Big Lebowski) and some iconic films of the near-present (Hereditary), Goldstein says that In The Heights was of an entirely different scope and scale. We spoke to him about getting In The Heights up to snuff, sonically, from a distant car horn to a thunderous solo vocal performance, and every beep, breath, and barking dog in between. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Part of me wants to do a side interview about Hereditary and The Big Lebowski. 

Everybody always picks up on Hereditary and The Big Lebowski.

If we had an hour, I’d do it. 

I was just the sound effects editor on The Big Lebowski back in the day, but that was a lot of fun. It was funny because when we working on it, I’m not sure all of us got it right away, but after a certain period of time, we all started realizing we were talking to each other using Dude-isms.

I think I still do that.

That’s very Dude, dude.

Walk me through your workday on In The Heights.

It started from day one in trying to see how to integrate a musical and the songs into the real-world lives of our characters and trying to keep it so it wasn’t a music video, but a movie. We have characters and actors that are basically singing their dialogue. So we had recordings of actors singing, and studio recordings, then there’s the music, the background, and all dialogue, which interweaves with the songs and singing, so my ultimate job was managing all of the material.

This sounds exceedingly complicated. You had multiple jobs on this film, can you break those down?

I basically wore two hats; I was a supervising sound editor, which is handling all the different sound departments, from dialogue to effects to backgrounds to foley. I was interfacing with the music editors and the picture department to make sure when got to the point of mixing the sound for the film, the material was there and manageable. Then as a re-recording mixer, it was my responsibility to put it all together like a giant jigsaw puzzle and balance it to the liking of the director and producers and Lin-Manuel Miranda and Myron [Kerstein], the editor.

How much of the sound that we hear in the film was actually captured during production, versus the sound that was recorded and deployed after the fact?

The actors are phenomenal singers, and a large component of the vocal performances are live, but all of the ambiances were all enhanced. Microphones on set are really designed to pick up the dialogue, but the recording on this was quite good. We had ADR [automated dialogue replacement], but not a significant amount. Most of the dialogue was captured during production, and the vocal performances are a big combination of live capture and several different studio recordings. One of my main tasks was trying to make all of that sound consistent, and not sound like they were from different days of shooting or from different studio recordings. You have to remember they do multiple takes, so even when they’re singing live there are multiple versions. We’re building performances from different angles and takes, then it’s cut together to tell the story in the picture editing. Our job is to take to those different vocal performances, both dialogue and singing, and make them consistent.

Was there a particular sequence you found most challenging?

I’d say all of it. It’s pretty much constant singing and music and performance from top to bottom, so it was difficult all the way through. There are certain scenes, like “96,000” that are very big, with lots of voices and lots of people singing, and then throughout the film, there is this ensemble of background vocals that are just tremendous, and managing those as well as our lead character vocals was a lot of work.

How naive would it be to assume your work on In The Heights is vastly more difficult than what you did on something like Hereditary?

They’re both difficult in their own ways from a mechanical point of view and creative point of view, but this film is just a whole different scope and scale. It’s a long movie, with a tremendous amount of material.

How do you know when you’re done? 

You know, I don’t think I’ve ever felt done. It’s always, ‘Give me one more day.’ I don’t know if I’ve ever felt completely finished. Pretty close. But then I go back and watch later on and I’m pretty happy. Sometimes you’re just so close to for it so long that it’s hard seeing the trees for the forest, or the forest for the trees? One of those.

What was your experience when you finally got to watch it, not as a sound editor or mixer, but as a viewer?

I think I’ve seen this movie from top to bottom more than any other movie I’ve ever worked on, and I enjoy it every single time. For the number of times I’ve seen this movie and still enjoy it every single time, it’s kind of nuts. It was a very enjoyable process, Jon M. Chu was phenomenal and a wonderful person. If you’re going to be in a pandemic and locked in a studio with someone, he’s the guy to do it with. And the other mixer I was working with in LA, John Marquis, was great.

In The Heights is in theaters and on HBO Max now.

Featured image: Caption: (Left Center-Right Center) ANTHONY RAMOS as Usnavi and MELISSA BARRERA as Vanessa in Warner Bros. Pictures’ “IN THE HEIGHTS,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo Credit: Macall Polay


Bryan Abrams

Bryan Abrams is the Editor-in-chief of The Credits. He's run the site since its launch in 2012. He lives in New York.