‘West Side Story’ Finds Its Rhythm on Location in New Jersey

Kristie Macosko Krieger, one of the producers for Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” says there was no way they could have pulled off shooting the 20th Century Studios remake without the aesthetic backdrop and financial incentives that the state of New Jersey provided. “We looked all around, and Paterson, N.J. gave a grit and an authenticity to the film that I don’t think we could have gotten anywhere else,” Krieger tells Variety. “They treated us like family, and that felt important since we were making a movie that was special to them and us.”

When it was announced that the two-time Academy Award-winning director of “Schindler’s List” (1993) and “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) would be remaking the classic 1961 best picture winner, the team knew the re-creation of the 1950s Upper West Side neighborhoods, in which the story takes place, couldn’t be done in the Big Apple. So instead, the team behind the musical turned a parking lot in the largest city in Passaic County into the Upper West Side.

Since productions and studios are cutting ties with Georgia following the passing of its laws that prohibit voting rights to Black and brown residents, it can’t be overstated how satisfying it is to see New Jersey becoming one of the premier destinations for film and television productions that only add value to the community, and also to the Hollywood bottom line.

In 1993, my single mother would move her family to Jersey City to get away from gang violence in the South Bronx. Continuing to commute to her job as a postal worker, she gave her children a fighting chance at a better education and an opportunity. We landed in Dixon Mills, an apartment complex that was converted from a pencil factory. It was once the residence for stars such as Omar Epps (“Higher Learning”) and Oscar-nominee Queen Latifah (“Chicago”).

The surrounding areas were also full of diversity, where Black and Latinos owned brownstones and condominiums. As my stomping ground, I was exposed to more areas of the state when I attended Marist High School in Bayonne, the same alma mater as “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin. The school’s population was a mixture of nearby cities such as Newark, East Orange and Union City. However, the state is ridding itself of the reality show images.

In 2009, “Jersey Shore,” the MTV hit reality series, put the state on the map, but not in the way any government official or resident would have hoped. It came at the tail-end of the tenure of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine, who would go on to lose his second term bid to Republican Chris Christie. The aura of “Snookie” and “The Situation” would become synonymous with groans at the mere mention of the northeastern region over the next decade. But in the past few years, that’s fading away.

Shooting in New Jersey is morally inviting to the local communities but also provides an enticing incentive through the robust Film and Digital Media
Tax Credit Program, administered by the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

It wasn’t all about locations and tax breaks. Following Spielberg’s posting of an open casting call via Twitter in January 2018, he found his leading lady Maria in newcomer Rachel Zegler of Clifton, N.J., who was chosen out of more than 30,000 applicants. Spielberg also spent a few years during his childhood in Haddon Township.

“New Jersey offered us the best of everything,” Krieger shares. “I will shoot again in New Jersey. I can guarantee it.”

In addition to “West Side Story,” other movies this year, such as Halle Berry’s directorial debut “Bruised” and Alan Taylor’s Sopranos prequel film, “The Many Saints of Newark,” filmed in the Garden state.

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