Music Producer Matthew Rush Sullivan on Updating West Side Story

Steven Spielberg’s terrific adaptation of West Side Story is currently playing in theaters. To learn more about the film, ComingSoon sat down with three-time Grammy-nominated Music Supervisor and Executive Music Producer Matthew Rush Sullivan, who discussed his role on the production and the difficulties inherent in adapting the classic tale.

Jeff Ames: How did you land this gig for West Side Story?

Matthew Rush Sullivan: I chased it down like a dog chasing a firetruck. As soon as I heard, this was about five years ago, somebody said they were doing West Side Story. I was like, “Oh, wow! Who?” And they said Steven Spielberg. I was immediately intrigued. Any meeting I had at Fox I would always go to Danielle Diego, who’s the head of music at Fox, and just every conversation — I took her to dinner — tried to figure out how I could get a meeting? “I’ve been doing musicals for films for twenty years; I know I’m the guy who can work with Steven. Just put me in the room with him!” For like a year I made phone calls, Fox got bought by Disney, I spoke with Disney, and was eventually able to set up a meeting with Steven in New York and I got the job.

What did that meeting entail, or how were you able to convince Spielberg you were the right guy for the position?

The way I approach my job, I started 20 years ago on the film Chicago, and I learned pretty quickly through the course of doing musicals for film and I expanded my job; and I just know that I’m the guy. I become your encyclopedia. I become that so you don’t have to worry about music — I said this to Steven — you don’t have to worry about how to shoot the musical. I’m the guy who will get it done. I’m going to work with the crew, work with camera, work with sound. Even production design, knowing where shots are taking place and how long they need to be and whether or not we have enough set to cover that area for specific shots. I really just approached it with Steven that I’m your reference guide on set. That’s the way you should treat me.

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What did Spielberg bring to the table in terms of the musical, because this is something he’s wanted to do for a while?

Yeah, a long time. Since, I would say, 1958. It’s Steven’s passion. Every director I’ve worked with has a unique passion for the project. Either they developed it or else they have a love for it from stage or they’re kind of curating new, original music. Steven’s passion was there right from the very beginning. He’ll say, “Oh, I’m not a musician,” but he really is. He’s someone who thinks not just in imagery, but also in music. As soon as I met him and he talked about his passion for this film and the music and his vision of when he sat home and listened to the 1957 cast record and the way he saw the songs in his head, you just knew he was the right guy and this was the perfect way for him to do his first musical.

What challenges does updating an older musical for modern audiences present?

Well, pulling apart the music into two different categories: the music itself and also the singing and performances of the actors. The music itself, no matter what age you are, whenever you’re exposed to the music, it’s thrilling and exciting. It’s hard to tear apart because of the way that Leonard Bernstein created this music. So, it’s deep but also really accessible to people. So, we didn’t want to update or change the music for younger audiences. We just knew that when younger audiences listened to it, they would really go with it and really enjoy it. It’s one of the biggest thrills of my career, introducing this music to a younger generation.

Now, on the vocal side, that’s where you’re going to get a lot of the changes from what has been done before in 1957. The young actors’ performances from the cast Steven assembled brings a lot of exuberance and passion. Every one of these performers loved the music and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. They’re excitement and passion for this project brings the music to a new level.

What was the main challenge you faced when tackling this project?

Compared to a lot of musicals I’ve worked on, a lot of them are big numbers and you can set up a lot of cameras and shoot them very broad and figure them out in the editing room. Steven’s approach to this is not unique, but the story is very story and dialogue-driven. Steven had very specific shots in mind for the songs. So, we didn’t have massive amounts of setups. Once you shoot, say, the opening verse of “Maria,” and Tony’s walking from one mark to the next mark and we have to be able to go to a new location and make him sing the next line and make it feel seamless, that was a huge job on set. Not only working with the performance of the actor, I call it performance coaching when we were singing on set, it’s really just creating this linear storytelling with each individual shot.

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I read you created animated sketch-ups which Spielberg used for production and the final edit. Can you elaborate on this process? Is this akin to storyboards or animatics?

Yeah, animatics. You know, really for me, when David Newman, who was our arranger and adapter of the 1957 score, when we were meeting with Steven we were always meeting together. And Steven had these very specific shots in mind and the way my mind works is, you can sit there and say, “This is the shot on the storyboard, then we go to this shot.” I was like, “You know what, in order for us to create this, the shot, so when I’m on set I can get there and say to the camera operators and even the grips and the crane operators, you know, when do we start pulling back? When do we want the crane to go up in the air and capture the whole set all in time with the music?

It was really for the prologue, which is the first six minutes of the movie, all action, very little singing or dialogue. We’re telling the story through all action between the Jets and the Sharks. That had to be really — we couldn’t shoot all the sequence and then set it to music. For every shot we had playback, we knew how long the shots were according to music. In my first meeting with Steven, he said, “Well, what’s the big difference between shooting a musical and a regular action movie?” And I said, “Well, with action you can shoot as long as you want and figure it out in the editing room. Music is math. Every bar of music is a certain amount of seconds. So, if you want to have this shot happen in eight bars of music, you have this amount of time and this number of seconds to get that shot. We have to time everything out to music.” That’s just the nature of working with music that already exists. So, the storyboards really helped us to know when we were on set, I had my iPad with the animatic of every song and I was able to sit down with the camera guys and say, “Ok, this is where you come in.” A lot of times I would walk in the path of what the actor was doing, and I would walk it with the music playing and show people on set what the shot was going to be with Steven. It was really helpful.

What makes this new take on West Side Story so special?

For me, the heart and soul of the film is the cast. Steven assembled this incredible cast, many in the high 90s percentage who have never been on film. There’s something about the excitement of people who have never shot a movie before, many of whom came from the stage, doing a piece that is so iconic. They bring this excitement and passion that’s infectious — not to mention being lucky enough to have Stephen Sondheim in the recording booth with us and in rehearsals and coming to set sometimes. If you watch this and didn’t know some of these individuals were first time film actors, you wouldn’t believe it because they’re absolutely incredible.

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