Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ remake to film in N.J., so get ready to rumble (2023)

He just met a girl named Maria. Now, he’s about to settle down in New Jersey to make her a star.

Steven Spielberg was so enchanted by Clifton teen Rachel Zegler that she was chosen from thousands of actors to make her film debut as Maria in his upcoming remake of “West Side Story."

And if the lauded director’s pick of filming locations is any measure, he’s also fallen in love with her fair state.

The adaptation of the “Romeo and Juliet”-inspired 1957 musical from Arthur Laurents, Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein is set to film in Paterson this summer. Their story of star-crossed lovers and clashing gangs was first adapted for film in 1961, winning 10 Oscars, including best picture.

Spielberg’s new take on the ’50s-set movie musical, which opens in theaters on Dec. 18, 2020, is scripted by Pulitzer Prize winner Tony Kushner (“Angels in America,” “Munich”), with music conducted by the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s Gustavo Dudamel and musical numbers choreographed by Justin Peck (“Carousel”).

*to the tune of ‘maria’* I’LL NEVER STOP POSTING THIS PHOTOOOOOOOOOOO pic.twitter.com/Yh0Mn4W30K

— rachel zegler (@rachelzegler) June 17, 2019

In the original story, Maria’s brother, Bernardo, is a member of the Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang. In the updated movie, Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”), 25, plays her love interest, Tony. He’s a former member of the Jets, a rival white gang.

EGOT winner Rita Moreno, who received an Oscar for playing Anita in the first movie, returns as Valentina, an adaptation of the Doc character who owns the store where Tony works. She also serves as a producer of the remake.

Marcia Sotorrio, Paterson’s cultural affairs director, says city officials have been working with a location manager on the film. Silk City will stand in for the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the mid-1950s.

“Just the fact that we have Spielberg here, it’s amazing," Sotorrio says, calling the Oscar-winning director’s interest in the city “heaven-sent.” He “fell in love with the location," she says.

A meeting with filmmakers is needed to outline more details, she says, but over the past few weeks, the production has been prepping the set at parking lots next to Center City Mall between Market and Smith streets. Dance scenes and musical numbers will also be filmed on Ellison and Washington streets, Sotorrio says.

“When you’re looking at Center City, (on the) far right is a building that the bricks are half down," she says. "They like that feeling to it.”

i just realized i’m like..... a high school graduate with a job pic.twitter.com/bM0gNoOQq4

— rachel zegler (@rachelzegler) June 11, 2019

Sotorrio says prep work for the production has brought heavy equipment, dirt and bricks into the area.

“I see a little more movement now than before," she says. Sotorrio says that she’s been told to expect the film shoot to last 13 to 14 days.

“Supposedly they’ll finish at the end of August,” she says. “The development of the parking lot is going to be interesting."

In director Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise’s 1961 film version of “West Side Story," apart from Rita Moreno’s turn as Anita, white actors played Puerto Rican characters. Natalie Wood portrayed Maria and George Chakiris was Bernardo.

Rachel Zegler, who graduated this month from Lodi’s Immaculate Conception High School, is of Colombian American heritage. She previously played Maria in a BergenPAC Performing Arts School production of “West Side Story” in 2017.

“'West Side Story’ was the first musical I encountered with a Latina lead character,” Zegler said in a statement in January, when she was announced as the lead actress after a yearlong search. "As a Colombian American, I am humbled by the opportunity to play a role that means so much to the Hispanic community.”

Momento en el que Isel Rodriguez le preguntó a Steven Spielberg y Tony Kushner cómo serían representados los puertorriqueños en su versión de West Side Story para evitar los estereotipos del musical original.

Posted by Mario Alegre Femenías on Friday, December 14, 2018

The first cast photo for the movie was released this week, showing Zegler’s Maria holding hands with and gazing adoringly at Elgort’s Tony as the rival gangs walk beside them.

Zegler been vocal about her excitement for the film. The actress and singer has a devoted social media following and a YouTube channel where her collection of videos — performances of songs including “Shallow” from “A Star is Born” and Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody" — have drawn millions of views.

Zegler addressed the problematic casting of the ’60s film in a comment on Instagram after posting the cast photo.

“Hi everyone — thank you for being so kind in these comments,” she said. “We are working so hard to bring you the best of the best. correcting wrongs. making them right. a rainbow group of people. i am thankful this morning and every morning. xo.”

‘Sopranos’ movie ‘The Many Saints of Newark’ films at Holsten’s in Bloomfield and ‘Satriale’s’ in Paterson

The production set up camp in Essex and Passaic counties. Fans spotted Michael Gandolfini and David Chase.

Cuban Canadian actor David Alvarez, 25, who won a Tony for “Billy Elliot the Musical,” plays Maria’s brother Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks gang. Ariana DeBose, 28, who is of Afro-Puerto Rican heritage and was nominated for a Tony for “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” plays Anita, the character portrayed by Chita Rivera in the musical and Rita Moreno in the first film. Josh Andrés Rivera, an actor of Puerto Rican heritage who performed as part of the national tour of “Hamilton,” plays Chino, one of the Sharks.

In December, Spielberg and Kushner, who wrote the script, made an appearance at the University of Puerto Rico in San Juan for a town hall with professors, students and film critics about the film project, according to the Hollywood Reporter (see video above).

Spielberg, 72, told those gathered that the production was hiring Puerto Rican actors, singers and dancers, and that authenticity was important to him, from proper accents and slang to period signage and props.

Spielberg’s ‘West Side Story’ remake to film in N.J., so get ready to rumble (2)

The director called Kushner’s script “much different” than the musical and 1961 film.

Spielberg said that “West Side Story,” while “Romeo and Juliet” at its core, “also speaks a lot to what’s happening today — it’s very relevant in terms of what’s happening on the borders, and very relevant today to essentially the rejection of anyone who isn’t white, and that’s a big part of our story.”

Still, some remain skeptical of the decision to revive the story, especially when stereotypes thrive in the original material.

Offending lines include when Anita sings about Puerto Rico, then says “let it sink back in the ocean." Lyrics of the song “America" refer to the island as “ugly” and filled with disease, crying babies and flying bullets.

“West Side Story” joins a growing list of movies and TV series that have filmed in Paterson in the past few months and years. State film officials across the region have noted a significant upswing in local activity.

It hasn’t hurt that in 2018, the state restored its film tax credit program. Gov. Phil Murphy has even courted film and TV studios to drum up interest in New Jersey as a filming destination, talking about the state’s key role in the early days of the motion picture industry.

“We’re very film friendly," Sotorrio says, recalling scenes filmed in Paterson for “The Hunt," an upcoming Amazon series that stars Al Pacino as a Nazi hunter in ’70s New York.

See Newark go back to the 1940s for ‘The Plot Against America’ HBO series based on the Philip Roth novel

The series from David Simon, creator of 'The Wire,' stars Winona Ryder, John Turturro, Anthony Boyle, Zoe Kazan and more.

“It kind of started turning when ‘The Irishman’ came in," she says of the Paterson film boom. The forthcoming Martin Scorsese film, due out on Netflix this fall, stars Pacino and Robert De Niro as Teamster union leader Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino) and Frank “The Irishman” Sheeran (De Niro), the man who claimed to be responsible for Hoffa’s death.

Even before that, in 2016, there was “Paterson,” director Jim Jarmusch’s love letter to the city, starring Adam Driver as a bus driver named Paterson who walks and drives the city streets and sits down to write poetry at the Great Falls.

“I mean, it’s a beautiful city," Sotorrio says.

Paterson may not be the only “West Side Story” filming location in the works for New Jersey, says Kenneth Gifford, director of the Newark Office of Film and Television. He says Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment has reached out to express interest in filming in Newark but hasn’t applied for permits yet.

Another prestige production has called North Jersey home over the past few months.

'Paterson' director delivers love letter to N.J. city in poet's hometown

Director Jim Jarmusch attended a special advance screening of 'Paterson' in Rutherford, home to William Carlos Williams, a poet referenced often in the film

In April and May, the HBO miniseries “The Plot Against America,” an adaptation of the 2004 Philip Roth book, took Newark, Paterson and Jersey City back to the 1940s with classic cars and smartly dressed people in vintage coats and hats. David Simon (“The Wire”) is a showrunner for the series, which stars actors such as Winona Ryder, John Turturro and Zoe Kazan in a story that imagines a United States in which Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh won the presidency.

Another story set decades in the past that filmed in both Newark and Paterson is “The Many Saints of Newark," the “Sopranos” prequel movie. Filmmakers channeled scenes from the 1967 Newark riots for the project. The film stars another young New Jersey talent: Michael Gandolfini, 19, takes a walk in his late father James Gandolfini’s shoes as a young Tony Soprano.

In May, “The Many Saints of Newark," from “Sopranos” creator David Chase, director Alan Taylor and New Line Cinema, filmed on Newark’s Branford Place, near Hobby’s Deli, as well as Market Street in Paterson and Holsten’s Brookdale Confectionery in Bloomfield. The ice cream parlor was the last place viewers saw Tony Soprano in the 2007 series finale, munching on some onion rings before the show cut to black.

The prequel movie recently wrapped filming and is due out in theaters about three months before “West Side Story,” on Sept. 25, 2020.

Have a tip? Amy Kuperinsky may be reached at akuperinsky@njadvancemedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @AmyKup or on Facebook.

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