The stars and director Jon M. Chu break down filming the intimate "Champagne" scene in a real apartment and singing the duet live.

By Ruth Kinane
June 12, 2021 at 11:00 AM EDT
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Pop the champagne: In the Heights is finally in theaters and on HBO Max.

It's fitting that the biggest movie of the summer, and one which is such an authentic celebration of a place and a community, should include a song titled "Champagne." The romantic duet between bodega owner Usnavi (played by Anthony Ramos) and aspiring fashion designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) comes towards the end of the big-screen adaptation of  Lin-Manuel Miranda's first Tony-winning Broadway musical. In the scene, Vanessa visits Usnavi the day before before he's supposed to jet off to the Dominican Republic, to bring him a long-awaited bottle of cold champagne - a callback to her joking earlier in the film that he'd owe her a bottle to celebrate once she moves downtown.

What begins as Vanessa thanking Usnavi for his part in helping her secure the new apartment, soon escalates into an almost-fight. Exasperated at their timing, Vanessa's true feelings about Usnavi's imminent departure bubble over. "I'm just too late," she laments, while Usnavi, flustered as usual by her presence, struggles to open her gift. ("How do you get this gold s--- off?")

As the music crescendos, Vanessa shoots her shot and swoops in and kisses Usnavi, before walking out, leaving him a little bewildered by the events of the last few minutes - and still holding the unopened fizz. "That's a special one," says Ramos of the romantic duet. "But f---, it wasn't easy. I can tell you that."

Even before they got to filming the number, Barrera was a little on edge. "We weren't even supposed to do 'Champagne' that day," she says. "We were supposed to shoot something else, and it was raining. [Director Jon M. Chu] said, 'We're going to have to do 'Champagne' and I was like, 'I'm not emotionally ready, Jon.' He was like, 'We've got to make it work.'"

In the Heights
Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in 'In the Heights.'
| Credit: Warner Bros.

And make it work they did, but not without jumping through some hoops first. "Champagne" might not be as gargantuan a production number as the public pool-set "96,000" or the full-cast celebration that is "Carnaval del Barrio," but the intimate moment brought its own set of challenges, including the fact that the scene is one continuous take. "That's live singing and we do not cut away," says Chu (Crazy Rich Asians). "We did it 17 times. They knew they had to get it all right for me to use it in the movie." As Ramos and Barrera move from the living space to the kitchen and back again, the camera follows them closely (at times mere inches from their faces), meaning the actors had to hit every mark precisely, while a pianist on the street below accompanied them via earpieces. "It was figuring out the choreography with the camera and the timing of everything," says Barrera. "The moments that you see, who's singing in what moment, and how we can find the camera - it was a very complicated number to nail."

Like "Champagne," the argument between Usnavi and Vanessa after they leave the club during the blackout was also filmed in one take, with the cast singing live. "It was just cool to be present and connect. [Usnavi and Vanessa] complement each other so well. They're tied together and Jon really wanted to show that on camera," explains Barrera of the director's artistic choice in those moments. "They're one."

Shooting the main Usnavi/Vanessa showdown was particularly tricky though, especially since they were filming in a real apartment in Washington Heights, not on a set. Indeed, there was so little room, Chu had to sit in a closet, watching each take on a monitor they set up in there. "He would yell cut, come out, and he'd be crying," remembers Barrera. The close proximity and the continuous movement of the scene meant all the lights had to be hidden and the steady camera operator had to be on top of his game. "That was a feat that we were so proud of," says Chu. "All that development had to be in place and I think that that defines how close we all got." Agrees Ramos, "Everybody was just in sync with one another. Everybody was just so f---ing locked in. It was a team effort, man. Everybody's heart was open. Everybody was doing their best to set each other up for success, asking 'How can we work together to make this the best it can be?'"

As the bubbles simmer in the unopened bottle, the scene grows towards its lip-locking climax. Yet another moment that - when being filmed as part of a continuous take - can present some challenges. "Getting that kiss so that they're not slobbering over each other, so that no one's leaning in weird, so that her hair isn't in her eye during the kiss, there's no camera shadows...everything had to go right," recalls Chu. Admits Barrera, "Yeah...I didn't get it right every take."

But in the end, after 17 takes (Ramos contends it was the sixth run-through that made it into the movie), the cast and crew wrapped on "Champagne" and what better way to celebrate than cracking open a bottle themselves. Miranda, who'd been on set that day, popped a bottle of champagne from 2008 - the year the show opened on Broadway. "We all signed the empty bottle and we gave it to our camera operator because he nailed that day," says Barrera, whose "Champagne" experience was made even more special by the presence of her family on set while they filmed it. "But I kept the cork."

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