Anthony Ramos and Melissa Barrera in “In the Heights.” Photo by Macall Polay

Alice Brooks makes movies for audiences big and small.

The cinematographer, who splits her time between Portland and Hollywood, has a personal goal of making the kind of movies that might inspire and captivate her 6-year-old daughter, June Spencer. But she also wants to make films that do what big-screen movies do best – lift people up, stoke their imaginations and transport them to wondrous places.

Alice Brooks, right, with daughter June Spencer Photo by Winky Lewis

She thinks “In the Heights” is a film that does all those things. The dynamic film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical features rousing numbers and vivid slice-of-life scenes in the largely Dominican neighborhood of Washington Heights, in New York City. The film opened nationwide in theaters and on HBO Max last week.

Brooks, 42, saw “In the Heights” at a special Mother’s Day theater screening in Los Angeles, with an audience, and was reminded of the power of movies and why she loves making them. Especially now, after a year of pandemic, people need the escape of movies maybe more than ever, she said.

“I think this movie came out at the perfect time, when theaters are opening up and more and more people are vaccinated,” said Brooks. “It’s a celebration of all the things we haven’t had for the past year, especially a sense of community.”

Things are opening up in a big way for Brooks right now as well, with three films out this year.  Another film she shot, “Queen Bees,” also came out in theaters and on demand from cable and streaming services this month. It’s a comedy-drama about romance in a senior community, starring Hollywood veterans Ellen Burstyn, James Caan and Ann-Margret, filmed more than two years ago.

Brooks also shot the musical drama  “Tick, Tick…Boom!” which is due out from Netflix sometime later this year. It’s based on the semi-autobiographical musical of the same name by Jonathan Larson, about an aspiring theater composer having a mid-life crisis at 30. It stars Andrew Garfield (“The Amazing Spider-Man”) and Vanessa Hudgens (“High School Musical”) and is directed by Miranda.

Writing about “In the Heights,” film critics have singled out Brooks’ eye and skill. Jazz Tangcay wrote in Variety that Brooks has brought director Jon M. Chu’s vision for the musical to the screen “with aplomb.” He praised her use of crane shots capturing the neighborhood and a “stunning” shot showing the reflection of a crowd of dancers in a bodega window, as a young man peers out of it and dreams of the Dominican Republic. Some of the film’s large-scale dance numbers are being praised for the way they were filmed too, including a show-stopping synchronized swimming sequence in a public pool.

A cinematographer, also known as director of photography, is specifically responsible for the camera work of a film, including what cameras, lenses and filters are used, how the camera moves and how shots are composed. The director is in charge of all aspects of the film and usually has final say on what other professionals on set, including cinematographers, do.

Alice Brooks, foreground, and director Jon M. Chu filming a scene from “In the Heights.” Photo by Macall Polay

Quiara Alegria Hudes, who wrote the book for the stage musical and the screenplay for “In the Heights,” said that among Brooks’ strengths as a cinematographer is her ability to display a strong point of view, whether it’s capturing a tender moment or an ecstatic one.

“There is tenderness which helps for the softer moments. But there is also dynamism and energy which helps with the musical numbers especially,” Hudes said of Brooks’ work, in an email to the Press Herald. “That softness, that tenderness in her lens is special. It would be too easy to approach a city story from just a gritty (point of view). Hers is imbued with a caring that invites the audience in.”

In working with Brooks, Hudes said she was impressed with her diligence and attention to detail. In a scene of people dancing at a family dinner, Brooks put the camera at eye level and also at hip level to capture the intimacy. The use of the camera makes the viewer “feel like you’re inside the dance, participating,” Hudes said.

“You’ve got one shot to get it right, and she was very patient and exacting, took great care to get the lighting and angles that felt most human and original,” Hudes said.

The large cast of “In the Heights” includes starring roles for Mexican-born singer and actress Melissa Barrera, who appeared on the Starz drama series “Vida,” and Anthony Ramos, who played John Laurens and Philip Hamilton in Miranda’s hit Broadway musical “Hamilton.” Other cast members include Stephanie Beatriz from the NBC TV show “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” as well as film and TV veteran Jimmy Smits and Miranda.

Director of photography Alice Brooks and director Jon M. Chu on the set of “In the Heights.” Photo by Macall Polay

FROM FRONT TO BACK

Brooks grew up in Los Angeles and New York, spending a decade as a child actress doing TV commercials and other projects. Brooks’ father, Stephen Levi, was a published playwright, and her mother, Candace Coulston, had worked as an actress on stage. Her mother began bringing her to auditions around age 5, and she seemed to be a natural. At some point in her teens, after seeing how film crews worked, she decided that she’d rather be behind a camera instead of in front of one.

So she went film school at the University of Southern California, where she met Chu, who directed the 2018 megahit “Crazy Rich Asians.” Starting around 2002, Brooks began working behind the camera as cinematographer for short films, and later TV shows and feature films. Her first major studio film as director of photography was also directed by Chu, “Jem and the Holograms” in 2015. It was a live-action version of a trippy 1980s animated TV series about a young woman leading a glam-rock band. Recent projects for Brooks, besides the three big movies she has out this year, include the TV series “Home Before Dark” for Apple TV and “The Walking Dead: Red Machete” for AMC.

Growing up, Brooks had spent summers in South Bristol, on the midcoast. Later, her mother moved to Maine full-time and Brooks spent more time here. About nine years ago, she decided to make Maine one of her home bases, living in Biddeford but spending time working in Los Angeles.

While in Biddeford, she became interested in the redevelopment of the former mill buildings and met her now husband, Sam Spencer, chief executive officer of CEI-Boulos Capital Management, which invests in commercial real estate projects with social and environmental impact, like affordable housing, Brooks said. The couple has a home in Portland, with their daughter June, but the family also maintains a home in Los Angeles. When in Maine, Brooks loves taking her daughter to the beach in Biddeford, boating on Casco Bay or biking the carriage trails in Acadia National Park.

Corey Hawkins and Leslie Grace in a scene from “In the Heights.” Alice Brooks, who has a home in Portland, was the film’s director of photography. Photo by Macall Polay

Brooks is a longtime fan of musicals of all kinds. While living in New York City as a child, she went to plays and Broadway shows, but also watched classic Hollywood musicals on TV with her mother, including “My Fair Lady” and anything with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. So when got the chance to shoot “In the Heights,” winner of four Tony Awards including best musical, she was excited.

“In the Heights” was shot in Washington Heights in 2019. Miranda grew up in Washington Heights, so Brooks wanted to make sure her cameras captured the densely populated, vibrant and diverse neighborhood authentically.

“The neighborhood really is a character in the film. Our challenge was how can we make sure we honor this community without making it into some Hollywood version of Washington Heights,” Brooks said.

During the filming, entire streets were shut down, so cranes and cars with cameras affixed to them could track characters, including from above, in group scenes and dance shots.

Brooks worked on “Queen Bees” before “In the Heights.” It was shot in Atlanta and focuses on Burstyn’s character moving into a senior living facility, where she encounters bullying and romance. The cast also includes Jane Curtin and Christopher Lloyd. It was directed by Michael Lembeck, known for hit comedies like “The Santa Clause” movies and “Baby Daddy.” He also worked on some big TV sitcoms in the 1990s, including “Friends” and “Mad About You.”

“I loved working with Michael on a romantic comedy. Ellen Burstyn and James Caan were just great to work with too,” said Brooks.

She said she couldn’t say anything yet about her experience on “Tick, Tick…Boom!” because no release date has been announced.

Brooks says her passion for her job is fueled by how much work everyone on a film has to put into it and how all the various parts come together. For her, a very hard part of the job is spending time away from her daughter. She says she couldn’t do it without the support of “an amazing husband.”

“I love to be on a sound stage very early, when it’s quiet and the electricians are just turning on the lights,” said Brooks. “I love what a collaborative effort it is. And when everything works, the outcome is amazing.”


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