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Interview With Alice Brooks, Cinematographer of In the Heights and tick, tick...Boom!

Meet Alice Brooks, the cinematographer who shot In the Heights and the movie, tick, tick … Boom! Lin Manuel Miranda’s feature directing debut. He met Alice via In the Heights and smartly hired her. Her dad was a playwright and her mom was a dancer. Tick, Tick … Boom! has real personal resonance to her. The film is based on the musical play that Jonathan Larson wrote which detailed his journey towards becoming a musical theater success in NY — which he did, ultimately, with Rent. He died right before Rent opened, a tragic loss for all of us. Alice says that her parents could have been Jonathan and his girlfriend Susan and they lived in a small tenement apartment just like the one depicted in the film.

The lookbook she presented to Lin to detail her visual ideas contained several family photographs. Many of her visual references came from Nan Goldin, who photographed NY in the throes of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s/early 1990s where this movie takes place. Shooting all around NYC, including the exterior of Larson’s old apartment and the swimming pool he frequented. That was a bit of serendipity — they liked that pool for many reasons, one of which was the lanes and their markers looked like a musical staff. They only found out it was Jonathan’s pool after they had chosen the location.

Alice also really cracked the code in terms of presenting people breaking out into song as if that is a normal thing. She adjusted her camera moves to reflect the various realities of Jonathan Larson — his actual reality, the theatrical reality, and his imagination that fed into all of it.

We got an exclusive interview with Alice.

What inspired you to become a cinematographer?

I grew up a child actress in New York City and later Los Angeles. I did about 40 national commercials between the ages of 5 and 10. I grew up on film sets and I fell in love with the camera and lighting people. I thought they were magicians. When I was 15 I told my mom that I wanted to be a cinematographer.

What was the experience like for you working on tick, tick…BOOM!?

When I read the script for tick, tick…BOOM! I thought these could be scenes from my childhood. I grew up in New York City. Just like Jonathan Larson, my father was a playwright trying to get his plays produced. My family even lived in a tenement apartment with the bathtub in the kitchen, also like Jonathan’s apartment. I was 10 years old in 1990 when this movie begins. My family left New York to move to Los Angeles right around this time. So this New York is my forever New York — etched in the memory of a 10-year-old where color and light and emotions are heightened. The story is very personal to me on so many levels. It made me extremely passionate about being part of this movie.

What was it like working with Lin-Manuel Miranda?

Making tick, tick…BOOM! was unlike any other filmmaking experience I have ever had. I believe that is because Lin has spent the last twenty years in the theater. He brought a special kind of collaboration from the theater to our process of creating the movie — similar to a workshopping a stage show. You usually workshop a play or musical for many years before you ever have a public performance. Things evolve and change over time. For Lin, he didn’t need to have all the answers right away. It was a beautiful process of discovery where we got to explore and uncover things. It made the making of tick, tick…BOOM! an exciting adventure.

What are some other memorable moments in your career so far?

Making In The Heights was a dream come true. I got to make the movie with director Jon M. Chu who I have known for twenty years. We went to USC film school together and I shot his senior thesis film which launched him. It is always wonderful to do projects with Jon because we are good friends and we trust each other’s instincts.

What projects are you currently working on?

My next movie is the film adaptation of the musical Wicked. Jon is the director.

What advice would you have for aspiring women filmmakers?

A line from In The Heights comes to mind and puts into words an idea I have used too often in my career — “Ignore anyone who doubts you…

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