Mitchell Travers Wants You to Feel the 'In The Heights' Fantasy

Mitchell Travers Wants You to Feel the 'In The Heights' Fantasy

by Evan Ross Katz

The film In The Heights is well over a decade in the making. The movie adaptation of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical was first announced in 2008 with a release date set for 2011. Eight years later, in 2019, filming finally commenced. Production wrapped that same year and the film was finally set for release again in 2020 — until COVID happened.

Now, after a thirteen-year wait, In The Heights is finally hitting the big screen. It's directed by Jon M. Chu with Anthony Ramos starring as the role composer Lin-Manuel Miranda originated on Broadway (Miranda appears in a small part in the film).

The film, shot on location in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City, comprises an ensemble of over 500 dancers. Tasked with outfitting them in addition to the film's dozen-plus characters proved a formidable undertaking for costume designer Mitchell Travers. Formidable, but hardly impossible.

Below, Travers talks about waiting a year for the film to finally hit theaters, crafting costumes for an ensemble of hundreds, his work on Hustlers and his highly anticipated new film The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

First things first, how was the premiere last week?

Evan, it is so funny. I thought of you immediately when I saw Gayle King on the carpet wearing her Christopher John Rogers dress! I was waiting for her to say 'Oh by the way, Evan says hi!' But the premiere itself was really amazing. It was kind of surreal to be back on a carpet with a bunch of people and in a movie theater. It's my first glimpse of how real life can be back if you're vaccinated and safe.

It is and it will be. This film was shot in 2019. It's common for a film to take a long time to come out and for the creatives involved with it to have to wait and see their work, but this is an extremely rare circumstance in that not only was the film delayed due to COVID, but it was delayed an entire year. What was it like for you to have to wait all of this time to see a project like this?

I'm going to be honest with you. I had just come out of this project, so I was still riding the high of that feeling that we had created on set. So when we got this call that it was being delayed an entire year it was a major blow. It was one of the first movies whose release was being pushed an entire year, like that was still during the time that people were saying they were going to push a few months, not a whole year. So I just couldn't believe that we were going to have to wait this long to get to see it and talk about it and release it into the world.

At the time, we were under a different political climate, and I really thought the movie was just so much a response to that, but I didn't realize how hard it would hit after a pandemic. It's incredible that the movie is about community, and I don't think any of us really understood the world until we didn't have one for a year. So I think the lessons that it teaches us in this movie, just about what it means to be a part of a group, I don't know about you, but I missed that so much. I missed being part of something bigger, so just to get to be on the other side of this, and realize how much more significant that is on this side of things, it's just so powerful to me.

I think one of the many joys of this film — and believe me, there are so many — is you get this sense, as a viewer, that everyone involved is having fun. Can you describe what the atmosphere was like on set?

It was always joyous. I mean, movie making is challenging by nature, so there's always going to be hurdles you have to overcome, but some projects can feel really separate, like everyone is trying to do their own thing. But for this one, it was always about doing it together, it was never really an option that you would do something independently, everything was always in reaction to somebody else, or in support of another, and I think that shows up on screen.

There are deep bonds between the cast and the crew, the dancers, etc. I mean, friendships were made in areas that you just never really have time to make in other films. We shot this really quickly so I don't know how we had time to get as close as we did with everybody, but it's really like being around a supportive group of friends who just want to give you your flowers and cheer for you and show up however they can when it's your turn.

How familiar were you with the musical before getting involved with the film?

I had seen it twice on Broadway. I had to go back because the first time I was so stunned; I had never seen a contemporary musical in this way. I love theater, it's where I started my career, but every time I would go to the theater it was like a different time period or a fantasy or some musical that didn't really seem like it had a connection to the real world. I lived in Washington Heights for seven years, so to go there and see that neighborhood on stage knocked me out. I had to go back to actually listen to the music and not just feel it, I wanted to go back and understand more of the stories because I was just sitting there with my mouth open the first time. So I had always known of it, and then once I learned there was a movie happening, and the combination of Jon [Chu] and Lin [-Manuel Miranda], I was just like, 'I have to find a way to get involved.' I was like, 'I'll do the returns for the costumes.'

One of the things that I think you did so deftly in this film is that the costumes feel incredibly real, while also feeling hyper-stylized. It's a difficult balance that I think you did so well in making them feel elevated, but also you don't want to elevate them to the point where they don't feel of the world of Washington Heights. What sort of work did you do in the pre-production to sort of create this world? And when I say create this world, it's a world that already exists, so again it's that balance.

I lived there as I mentioned, so I knew what it looked and felt like, but I did a tremendous amount of research where I would go and take tons of photos of people on the street. I remember waiting to cross an intersection and there was a girl in front of me in a leopard crop top, leopard leggings, leopard sneakers, and leopard earrings. So it's just those weird little real life looks that every costume designer would say 'that's not real life,' and I was sitting there looking at it saying 'yes it is, it just hadn't been given the movie treatment yet.' I was also aware that this movie is going to last, and so to isolate it into a moment where you knew exactly what the year meant felt like I would be doing it a disservice in terms of it becoming a classic. I want it to still feel current in ten years. So, for me, that means finding things that feel trendy in a timeless way. I know that's a weird pretentious answer, but it's like finding things that don't date it, but also keep it fun and interesting for a while.

Another notable aspect of this film is the scope of the production. There are two numbers in particular that I want to point out which are the opening number and then "96,000." I remember when I watched the credits roll at the end and saw the dancer's names start to cascade down the screen... it was just jaw-dropping. I imagine that that had to present quite a unique task for you, as the costume designer, to be given not just production numbers, but production numbers featuring hundreds of dancers.

The scope is pretty challenging. People don't just show up like this. We have to really work to take it to a place where the color palette feels exciting, and then also I tried to shift the colors throughout the film because I think if I just gave you the same visuals for every number you wouldn't really go on the same emotional journey. I tried to be really calculating about what colors we used when and how. And then of course, the pool for "96000," now you're dealing with wet clothing, with swimwear, you're dealing with people's perceptions of their own body and some of the baggage that can come with that.

I'm a real champion of body diversity, I feel like we need it on camera, that's how we are going to make people feel like they are just fine the way they are. I feel like a lot of times we get shown a human body, whether it's through Instagram or a film, it's a really unattainable shape for the majority of people, so I was really excited to show arms, thighs, tummies, hips, all of that stuff was really exciting to me because I'm happy that people don't look the exact same way. I am really encouraged and excited by difference of shape, so I was always trying to get people as comfortable as they would let me in order to have them show up on camera and take up space, and let people watch them dance and be a part of this big group in a really celebratory way, almost like an invitation saying 'you belong here too.'

I'm just curious if you have a favorite moment of the film, perhaps one that hit different when you actually watched it up on the screen? Can I just say mine real quick? It had to be "Paciencia Y Fe."

I think I would agree with you. The experience of creating that number is going to stay with me forever. We hovered around a few different ideas for it. It was one of those things that we knew had to be significant, so we workshopped it, we tried a bunch of different things, and I feel like, ultimately, where we got with it is that we needed it to be a departure. It needed to be something else, our "Dream Ballet" in a way. I was saying to Jon, at a certain point the eye is going to be so overwhelmed of colors, I think this is our opportunity to erase it and allow the color to just be these muted pastels that we've already seen her in, and then if we just surround her with almost the absence of color, it going to be such a... almost a relief for the audience to exist in this dream-like space.

Speaking of memories. Tell me, is there a particular memory of yours from an experience on set that you really hold near and dear to your heart?

I do. It was truly the hottest day that we had shot, which, ironically, was not the pool, which was freezing. But we were shooting "Carnaval Del Barrio" in this back alley and there was just something about the energy that day that made me know something was in the air. And Anthony [Ramos] had a way of rallying everybody. He used to scream before we would start that we needed to do it for the culture, or he would say to people sometimes, 'Do it for your dance teachers, do it for your coaches,' and he got everybody into a frenzy that day. One of our dancers was doing some last minute tweaks on her earrings and she started getting teary so I checked in with her. I was like, 'talk to me, what's up?' And she said she was just so used to being the only one, like 'We're usually the ones that are in the audition fighting for that one spot, we get to be the one Latina' and it really stuck with me.

And I certainly think what you are describing comes through the screen in the final product. Shifting gears a bit, let me ask you about two other projects of yours. You worked on Hustlers, a very important film, a film that deserved a little bit more recognition than it got. What was your experience like working on that film? In particular, being on a set that was so filled with female creatives?

I really loved what it had to say, what it has to say, about the treatment of women. I was really excited to do it with a female filmmaker, Lorene Scafaria, who I have a ton of respect for. I was really excited to shine some light on sex work because I think that there is still so much conversation that we need to have about that. I think movies can do that in a way that other art forms struggle with. Movies put it in front of you and it allows you to empathize with characters and humanize people you might not meet or engage with otherwise, I think it just pulls some of the wall down in a way that makes it really accessible for people, so I was excited to be a part of that conversation for sure.

What was your reaction to seeing all of the fodder online about the fur coat? I feel like Gay Twitter really allowed what could have been a simple costume to really take on a life of its own.

Gay Twitter continually has my back. I am grateful for that for sure. But I'm also engaged in the conversation, I know what I'm doing with stuff like that. I think you're really good at stuff like this, Evan. I think you're in on it. Some of my work allows me to be in on it too, and I'm aware like, 'oh, they're gonna gag for this,' and so I like the participation because I get to be part of it, and then also enjoy it a few months after the fact. I know us, I know our culture, I know what buttons to push.

My last question and my most pressing question, I love the timing of this interview because just a few days ago a very important trailer dropped on the Internet for "The Eyes of Tammy Faye." That trailer felt invigorating, to say the least. I'm pretty gobsmacked by the trailer alone, so I don't even know if I have a specific question so much as like, is there anything you can tell me about this film to further whet the appetite?

We love Tammy. There is no teasing, no mocking. People treated her very badly in her life and she deserves a fair amount of criticism, but she was also there for gay people early. She brought a community's attention to us before anyone else, before anyone asked her to, before it was interesting, before people learned how to speak about us. She was doing it because she felt like it was right and she felt like it was a part of her faith. So for Jess[ica] Chastain and I, it was always about loving her and coming from a place of understanding her in a way. She got made fun of a lot for her appearance and the way that she dressed herself, but she was masking a lot of insecurity. She just really wanted to be a part of something. She got caught up in things, but the movie is called The Eyes of Tammy Faye. The perspective we tried to take with it was, how would Tammy have remembered everything? I could talk to you about this for a while.

Okay actually, one more "last question." The In The Heights soundtrack is finally on Spotify as of today, thank God. And I'm just curious, I know you've known this music for a long time, even before working on the film, and then obviously you've had years to get acquainted with the film soundtrack. What song from the film is still on rotation for you, if you had to choose one?

Oh God, that's a really difficult question. I think my head goes to the opening number. No, I'm wrong. It's "96,000." It's for sure "96,000." I had met with Jon and Lin to hopefully get this movie. And you're always in that waiting period, and then Jon called me really early in the morning one day and he goes, 'Hi, I'm trying to reach the costume designer for In The Heights.' I tried to play it cool on the phone, but as soon as I got off the phone I just blasted "96,000" on my drive that morning. So I think for me it's always going to hold that special place of 'what would you do if you got it?'

Photos courtesy of In the Heights