Home » Framing the Magic of ‘West Side Story’ with Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński – Exclusive Interview

Framing the Magic of ‘West Side Story’ with Cinematographer Janusz Kamiński – Exclusive Interview

by Chris St Lawrence
A black and white collage from the visuals of WEST SIDE STORY featuring cinematographer Janusz Kamiński as he measures the light of a close up shot on set.

“There’s a place for us,” presumably were the words said when director Steven Spielberg approached long-time collaborator Janusz Kamiński to shoot the latest adaptation of West Side Story. Having shot every one of Spielberg’s films since 1993’s Schindler’s List, the Polish cinematographer has built a strong working relationship with the revered director, but West Side Story, with its nearly 50-year history, was a beast like none other.

A beloved classic of the stage and screen, West Side Story is the musical tale of rival gangs and star-crossed lovers in 1950s New York City. The first film adaptation of West Side Story from directors Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins was released in 1961 and swept that year’s Academy Awards. Of its 11 nominations, the film won a staggering 10 statues at the ceremony, including that for Best Picture – and Best Cinematography.

Daniel L. Fapp’s award-winning camera work on the 1961 film was filled with wide masters and tracking shots marked by distinct, stylistic flourishes, such as the vignette-like blur effect during Maria and Tony’s meet-cute at the school dance. Fapp’s camera centers itself on Robbins’s expressive choreography, often dedicating itself to showcasing the cast’s agile movements from a distance.

To this day, such an approach remains the standard for most movie musicals; shoot simple, wide masters, and go in for inserts and close-ups. If it’s not broken, why fix it? 

Many people asked the same question when it came to 2021’s West Side Story; the 1961 film, with its 10 Academy Awards, was critically and commercially well-received, so why remake it? For Spielberg, a timely message and passionate love for the source material were reason enough, but it was still up to him and Kamiński to visually reinvent the tale. With 7 total nominations – including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best CinematographyWest Side Story is a serious contender at the 2022 Oscars and stands as some of Spielberg’s “best and brightest work to date.”

An aperture collage of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński's vibrant colors seen in WEST SIDE STORY, including the now iconic shots of Maria on the balcony and Bernardo and Anita kissing around colorful fabrics in the sunlight.
‘West Side Story’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

West Side Story started with [the 1957 Broadway production], so we were trying to think of that rather than the 1961 movie,” stated Janusz Kamiński in our exclusive interview. “We wanted to make a movie that’s as great as that one without really focusing too much on that particular film.” In every aspect, Spielberg and his collaborators worked to make this version of West Side Story their own; screenwriter Tony Kushner brought in new contexts and angles for his screenplay, original lyricist Stephen Sondheim updated his songs for modern audiences, and Kamiński set his eyes on capturing the locales of West Side Story in a new way. 

Guiding Philosophy

So what does it look like to be up inside a Hollywood version of a Broadway musical? For Janusz Kamiński and company, it meant a sense of uniform beauty. When asked about his guiding philosophy for the film’s look, the cinematographer recalled that he told himself to “make it as gorgeous as you can.”

Drawing from the romance between lead characters Tony and Maria, a pervasive beauty seeps into every frame of the film. Rather than explain this further, Kamiński prompted us to consider the alternative. “What would it be like if I made this movie gritty? Without the backlights, without glamorizing lights?” To him, this would be the “completely wrong approach,” and lose big pieces of the story’s charm. “[West Side Story] should be [full of] beautiful, enticing, glamorous, frivolous storytelling, with very strong, dramatic moments and tragedy.” Every element of its visuals, from the abundant lens flares to the smallest backlight, is meant to enrich the viewing experience. “When those kids are dead, you’re devastated by it. Devastated by the story, but you’re entertained, enticed, and taken in by [everything else].” 

That’s not to say the film never temporarily leaves the glam for grit. Kamiński pointed to the musical number “Cool,” which took place in a “dilapidated environment on the pier that’s halfway decayed.” In this moment of heated confrontation and those like it, Kamiński found himself leaning hard into texture and harsh lighting “because there was not much glamor there.” Starting at the pier and in the film’s opening moments, the sun was another important piece to this puzzle of dramaturgy. “You get sun, you get shadows. That’s already a good storyteller… people moving from the shadows and the sunlight.” These motifs of sun and shadow extend throughout West Side Story, bearing down at the film’s lowest points.

Like that of any good cinematographer, the main goal for Janusz Kamiński was “not just doing shots for the sake of shots” but to “embrace [the story] and enhance it through lighting, through camera moves, through composition.” West Side Story, however, is a big-budget musical: there were a lot more pieces at play than just the script.

With an all-star, below-the-line crew that included costume designer Paul Tazewell (Hamilton) and choreographer Justin Peck (Carousel revival), Kamiński’s work aimed to highlight as many elements of the film as possible. “You have these costumes that are so provoking, so colorful, so you want to light them so the audience has a sense of that rather than keeping it gray and desaturated and void of color.” Beyond the need to show off costumes, the deep depth of field needed to keep large groups of dancers in crisp focus, demanding even more light for a proper exposure.

But for Janusz Kamiński, the challenge was all worth it. “To me, being able to photograph this world that is so great and so beautiful – meaning the sets, the wardrobe, the actors, the props on the streets of New York – was a great pleasure.” He likened the experience of creating the film to watching a Broadway musical, hoping audiences would be “mesmerized by the spectacle: the moving lights, the production value, people dancing, the world of the drama.”

Despite all the talk of story-oriented immersion, Kamiński did admit to throwing a bit of spice in there for the fun of it. “We did some shots to razzle and dazzle – it is Hollywood in the end, so you want to impress them.” He pointed to some moments with the gun during “Cool” as emblematic of that little bit of show-offishness. “You want to bring some of that razzle-dazzle into a Hollywood movie.”

In the end, “[the film is] very beautiful to look at – just like it should be.” What you see on screen is never meant to be a realistic 1-for-1 recreation of life, but a stylized visual interpretation of the story. “That comes down to what we do as cinematographers,” Kamiński explained. “We create worlds of believability on the screen using all these things based on our experience, based on our aesthetics, based on our understanding of particular periods.” 

Director Steven Spielberg, cinematographer Janusz Kamiński, and crew set up a shot on a New York alleyway on the set of WEST SIDE STORY.
Steven Spielberg & Janusz Kamiński on the set of ‘West Side Story’
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

A Dancing Camera

In the Hollywood that birthed West Side Story 1961, cameras were still relatively restricted in their movements; the fast-moving, high-tech techno cranes and adept camera rigs of today were in their infancy. Since then, however, directors and cinematographers have seen many new gadgets added to their arsenal. “The nice thing about making a movie with modern equipment is that you can now have pieces of equipment where you travel with actors,” Janusz Kamiński said. With operator Mitch Dubin behind the camera, this has long been a staple of Kamiński’s 25-year-long collaboration with Spielberg; from the jittery D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan to some rear-view mirror wizardry in Munich, the team has brought to life many of cinema’s most impressive examples of a dynamic camera.

For West Side Story, in particular, this meant a kind of never-before-seen perspective that brings the audience into the world of a movie musical. Kamiński expressed great excitement for what this meant in a translation from stage to screen; “you’ve got to maintain and show the beauty of movement… with modern equipment, you can go from wide shots to tight shots, and not just be part of the dance but see the emotional involvement of the dancers as they’re singing and performing.” 

A now-viral example of this practice, Spielberg’s iteration of the social mixer dance in the gym opens with a mind-boggling oner. The shot begins in the hallway, following Bernardo and Anita as they make their way into the gym. Once they open the doors, the camera moves between them, onto the dance floor and climbs above the crowd of Jets. Their extravagant choreography drives the camera towards the center of the gym, spinning over Riff and his partner. The camera then seamlessly comes down low to the floor and starts to follow Anybodys making their way through the group before ending on Bernardo and the Sharks. It’s a shot with dozens – if not hundreds – of choreographed actors, each hitting their marks to a T. 

“Steve and I – and the operator on a few occasions – we both attended the dance rehearsals,” Kamiński explained, describing how he went about tackling scenes like this. Production included over four and a half months of intensive rehearsals which led to a cast that moved and danced like a well-oiled machine. “It was very clear that all the dancers were precisely rehearsed, and the movement was precise [from] the space they traveled, to the positions they came to during or at the end of the dance. So we knew that if we learned those positions, we could be part of the dance.” 

From there, it was a matter of creative trial and error with Spielberg at the forefront. “Steven is a master of blocking scenes through the camera,” said Kamiński when praising his long-time partner. “[Steve, Mitch, and I] are creating the shots, but really the person that is the nucleus of this is Steven… he’s always blocking his scenes with the camera, which is always a very important storyteller in his movies.” 

Using iPhones to record test footage at rehearsals helped the team to find the right angles and moments. “[The dancers] were very precise, so the camera could be precise – almost to the point where we sometimes almost leave the action because we know where they’re going, so we could proceed them.” One such moment exists in the opening shot of the gym dance scene where a pair of twirling dancers bend perfectly into the moving frame. It’s the kind of detail that many would overlook but is key to immersing the audience in this world. 

Director Steven Spielberg lays on the gym floor as he sets up a shot during the large high school dance scene between the Sharks and the Jets on the set of WEST SIDE STORY.
Steven Spielberg on the set of ‘West Side Story’
Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

Though, as Kamiński told us, there’s a lot more behind these camera movements than showing off some flashy dance moves. “It’s not just the dance. They are bonafide great actors.” Kamiński complimented the cast for “a great sense of comedy and a great sense of drama,” referencing their seemingly effortless dramatic performances, even while dancing. With a modern moving camera, Spielberg was able to feature these close-up performances in the same shots as their flawlessly choreographed movements, helping to mesh the pieces of fantasy and drama together. This, of course, contrasts the 1961 film that was mostly forced to cut between its wider dance shots and close-ups for dramatic effect. 

This ability to move around the characters was also a strength that Spielberg’s West Side Story had over any of its Broadway relatives. “We have a chance to see [the actors] up close, where the Broadway audience would not always be able to appreciate the nuances of a particular performance.”

Lighting a Musical

The swirling camera and powerful performances aren’t the only things awe-inspiring about these big dance numbers, though. With the help of gaffer Steve Ramsey and key grip Mitch Lillian, Janusz Kamiński was able to bathe these scenes in flattering, beautiful light. 

“[Lighting those scenes] is very difficult and I have no idea how I do it,” the cinematographer proclaimed. “You have enough time and equipment to put enough lights into that ceiling and start lighting, and then you quickly realize your lights cannot be just from the top because you’re not getting into people’s faces.” On top of that, actors are never staying in one place for very long – this is a song and dance musical. “It’s a very, very difficult, nerve-wracking job.”

When it came to getting every piece just right, Kamiński once again pointed to the gym dance scene. Hidden on all sides of the frame, the lighting here serves both narrative and aesthetic functions. “They have to look glamorous, and you have to create conflict between the two groups… when it is a duel between two groups, that has to be reflected through the lighting and through camera moves.” 

This simultaneous attention to aesthetics and narrative is present throughout the film and helps shape the audience’s perception of characters within the story. Kamiński approached lighting the cast with the belief that “every person needs to look gorgeous, and romantic when you meet them.” 

A diagonal collage of cinematographer Janusz Kamiński's many dramatic close-up shots in WEST SIDE STORY, featuring characters Riff, Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Valentina.
‘West Side Story’ courtesy of 20th Century Studios

This approach can be seen in each major character’s first scene. “When you see Anita for the first time, you should have, in your stomach, this little nervousness at how gorgeous she is. Same with Maria; when she’s standing for the first time in the pool of light… you feel the beauty of this girl – that youthfulness, the innocence.” Finding a way to light and frame the actors in a way that emphasizes their character and heightens the romanticism of the story was a big task. “You’ve just got to give [the whole cast] that special treatment and make them look great – whatever that means in my interpretation of beauty.” 

In many ways, the challenge of West Side Story was the cumulative product of Janusz Kamiński’s entire career. “I wouldn’t be able to do this 10 years ago,” he admitted. Years of practice, experience, and knowledge in his craft made the final product possible. “You might know how to paint a good horse, then you practice for 10 years and you cannot paint a better horse, but more realistic ones. Now you can paint the horse faster, you know?” 

The Future

In spite of all this, with Spielberg by his side, Janusz Kamiński isn’t slowing down yet. The duo’s next collaboration The Fabelmans began filming in July 2021 and is currently set to come out this Thanksgiving. “It’s a very emotional movie that tells the story of Spielberg from the age of seven to eighteen,” Kamiński revealed, who is returning as cinematographer. “It deals with his family, with his parents, conundrums with his sisters, but primarily deals with his passion for movie-making.”

He continued to tease the film saying that it would explore how Spielberg’s passion for cinema evolved and developed and how “it helped him go through that difficult period of being a teenager.” Furthermore, The Fabelmans will explore elements of the director’s relatively conservative, Jewish upbringing and exposure to anti-Semitism in his early life. It will also touch on young love, parental divorce, and early formative relationships. “It’s a very beautiful, beautiful personal movie. It’s very revealing about Steven’s life and who he is as a filmmaker.”

West Side Story is now streaming on HBO Max and Disney+

Follow writer Chris St. Lawrence on Twitter: @ey2studios

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