When Jon M. Chu jumped on the phone to discuss his new movie “Crazy Rich Asians” last week the director was admittedly breathing a bit easier than he was a few weeks before. The highly-anticipated adaptation of Kevin Kwan‘s bestseller was getting fantastic responses from early audience screenings, a huge relief after months of pre-release hype. Days later the first reviews would come in and we’ll assume Chu was even happier. At publication the Warner Bros. release has a very good 77 grade on Metacritic and 97% on Rotten Tomatoes off 39 reviews. But despite the critical acclaim, Chu believes that moviegoers won’t be waiting another 25 years for a Hollywood film with an all-Asian cast.
READ MORE: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ turned down gigantic Netflix payday for theatrical release
“That this is part of a growing trend that if it works will continue to move the dial,” Chu says. “And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean it stops. I mean, it’s kind of inevitable any way, but it will just not be as fast.”
A rare romantic comedy in 2018, “Crazy Rich Asians” follows Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she travels to Singapore to attend a wedding and meet the family of her boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding). A boyfriend that turns out to be one of the heirs of a wealthy Asian construction company. In so doing she comes into conflict with Nick’s mother, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh), who despite the fact Rachel is a professor at NYU thinks she’s somehow beneath dating her only son. Along the way she gets advice from her former college buddy who now lives in Singapore, Goh Peik Lin (another scene stealing role for Awkwafina) and faces all sorts of jealous skepticism of Singapore’s old money establishment.
Chu, who is best known for the “Step Up” movies, “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and “Now You See Me 2,” weighed on the pressure of helming the first all-Asian studio release since “The Joy Luck Club,” how he fought for the role and that impressive showdown between Wu and Yeoh toward the end of the film.
Please note: There are minor spoilers ahead.
The Playlist: Congratulations on the movie!
Jon Chu: Thank you so much.
I’ve read about you had to do a presentation to win this gig. Can you talk about that process and had you read the book beforehand?
Yeah, I had. I was working on another movie, and my sister emailed me saying, “Hey, you gotta read this book. It’s hilarious.” So, I read it, but I was literally shooting so I didn’t do anything about it. But I loved it and it was maybe a year later that I was looking for something more personal. Something that I could really push myself for and it was my cultural identity. Something that I had never dealt with in any of my films, except one little student film that I never showed anybody, ’cause it was just too hard to show. So, my sister emailed me again being like, “Why aren’t you doing this movie again?” And it totally reminded me of it and I remembered loving it. So I called my agent. He said that Nina [Jacobson] and Brad [Simpson] were producers on it which I knew was a good sign, ’cause I knew [they would protect the material]. And then I basically forced them to let me direct the movie. I made a big presentation showing all the pictures of my family. I loved the book, it’s called, “Crazy Rich Asians”, but it wasn’t the crazy rich asian part that attracted me to it. I barely know labels, and fashion things It was Rachel Chu’s journey, an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time fascinated me, because that’s what I went through when I went to Taiwan. The sense of home, but also the sense of not at all home and then coming back and feeling like you have to choose. Growing up I always thought that nobody ever felt that except for me. I was in this weird position. But the exact opposite happened. There was a whole generation of us who felt all these things. So, to me, it was a great way to dive into my story without doing my exact story and told in a really fun, fluffy way so I could have both sides of that. And so that’s what I did in my presentation. I really zeroed in on what I thought the story should be. This was not a story about a couple. This was a story about Rachel Chu [Constance Wu] and finding her self worth and coming out stronger when she could embrace both of her sides. That it wasn’t a choice she had to make and knowing that sacrifice and happiness can come together. Those are the things that really I think, pushed the pitch. I showed personal pictures of my family. And walked them through the imagery that they hadn’t seen about Asia. The contemporary Asia that I knew, the old money, the new money of the stylish Asia that I knew, that I experienced, and seen through my own family, through my own discovery. And even the music. Playing stuff they hadn’t heard. Even my parents freaked out saying, “Oh my gosh, we used to dance to this music in China. We used to do the jitterbug to this.” And I’d never seen them light up before like that. So, I knew that there was something to share with the world that a big part of the world knew, but a large part of the world that I lived in did not understand.
It seems like stylistically, at least for the first two thirds of the movie, you’re going in this very sort of old Hollywood style with the music and aesthetic. Is that a correct assumption?
Yeah, I mean I think that there’s a lot of hints of those things from movies from the past showing that we have stars that could have started any of those things. They’re just stars, just as high trash and just as suave as any class Hollywood movie could have been. And I just love that style. Those are movies that I grew up on too so and we’re playing in sort of the old rich, the new rich money. I also was inspired by those songs that existed before the cultural revolution that actually had this very interesting style that I just hadn’t seen [in Hollywood movies]. And Singapore itself has this colonial, tropical, deco feel that was very unique. And when you go there you go to the black and white houses and you go to the restaurants. It felt like an old Hollywood move in the things that we saw there.
You got to film in at least two major architectural landmarks in Singapore. How hard was it to secure them? I won’t give away the context, but that building with the final shot of the movie is fantastic. Was that tougher to confirm than it might seem or were people just excited that you guys were there?
They were very difficult to get. And not just a lot of money because you had to have government O.K.s. We’re flying a drone around. We had synchronized swimmers. We had a marching band. We had 500 extras up there. It was massive to rent out the whole top was pretty amazing. We were up there at three in the morning, sun coming up. It was a lot of things that had to align for us to get it. We didn’t even get guarantees we were getting it until a week before and we had been planing for it for eight months. So, the amount of red tape to get it was pretty epic.
Wait, what were you going to do if you didn’t get it?
We had some backup plans. We had other really bad locations that weren’t gonna work. And maybe on purpose so it would force everyone to keep focus that we had to get this thing. But it ultimately came down to the government and money. We were willing to pay, it was just there’s a lot of complicated things. Singapore has a lot of risks, so we had to get through all of that. But it’s so worth it. When you see the last shot, the reception at Gardens by the Bay, it was so worth that.
I know that the film was independently financed before Warner Brother’s came in. Ivanhoe pictures, I think, paid for most of it, correct?
They paid for the development.
Because of that process did you feel as though you were making a traditional studio movie or did you feel like you had more independence than other studio projects you worked on?
When you develop outside the studio you get all the freedom in the world. So we could develop the script, and that was done on purpose, before I ever got there. Ivanhoe paid for the writers to write, which means you don’t have to listen to any studio head. You don’t have to listen to the marketing department. And that was a really freeing thing I think for this movie. So credit to Brad, Nina, and Jon Penotti who came up with that plan. But the time I got on it, the script was there but not fully there for me. I brought in Adele Lim, who is a female Malaysian writer who I just worked with, and she did an amazing, amazing job bringing the specificity and the emotion to it. And then when we were ready we said, “O.K. let’s go to the studios.” And we said, “We’re making this movie, are you guys gonna make it for us instead?” Warner Brother’s stepped up to the plate, which was great. And so, when you develop it outside and then go in, there is a sense of them saying, “O.K. we don’t have to worry about the creative, you guys already did it so just keep going. We’re paying for it and we’re gonna market and get this out.” And so, that was very freeing. I think that was a key part to our making this movie for sure. And I think it opened the door for them to understand that you could do this and not drive it into the ground with development notes.
Which is always nice.
That’s something that we even did with “In The Heights,” Lin-Manuel Miranda‘s musical I’m doing next. It’s an all-Latino cast and we developed that part at Weinstein. And when the Weinstein thing went down we went out to studios and got it set up at Warner Brother’s. It’s kind of the way studios are going. A lot of them don’t want to develop anymore and as a filmmaker I [love it] that way.
There’s been a lot of talk about how this is the first all-Asian cast movie that Hollywood has made in 25 years. What sort of responsibility did that put on your shoulders?
Going into the making of the movie, I was definitely aware. Once we started working on the script and once we started doing our casting it was like it doesn’t matter. We better make a good movie. I think there will be a core audience that will be rooting for this, but if we don’t make a good movie, they also [won’t be happy about it in] private. So our focus literally took the weight off of it and said, “Let’s make sure we care about telling the story of an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time. She doesn’t meet the boy at the end of the movie, it’s about her own journey.” That freed up a lot. Once we got our cast together and had that emotional sort of letting it all out with each other I think the reality of making a great movie when we’re shooting scene by scene by scene sort of gets in the way. We have to do the work. You have to be craftsmen at that time. It’s only probably now when the movie’s done and we’ve been getting some really great reactions, very supportive love from a lot of different places that I can breathe a little bit more about the movie itself. And then stress that I hope people show up because I’m not sure people understand the impact that if it does well and what it can, how it can jump start these new perspectives. And not just in the Asian-American community, all communities and underrepresented people in movies. That this is part of a growing trend that if it works, will continue to move the dial. And if it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean it stops. I mean, it’s kind of inevitable any way, but it will just not be as fast and it’s very rare that you get the all eyes of the world looking at you and we can make a big statement here. So, that’s what I get more worried about right now. Although, in the last week, I’ve felt this sort of rise in energy that has been really encouraging and beautiful actually.
You have some great actresses in this film. There’s Constance Wu, who I don’t think people realize is such a powerhouse, dramatic actress because of her role on “Fresh Off The Boat.” But there is one particular moment with her and Michelle Yeoh towards the end of the film that is crazy impressive. Can you just talk about that particular scene?
We knew that was the most powerful scene in the movie. We knew that these two powerhouses sitting across each other at a mahjong table, two different generations, two different class levels, two different philosophies, cultural philosophies’ face to face [was a key moment]. Two amazing actors staring each other down, not walking around, not getting in each other’s face. It was two trains colliding, and we knew how important that was. So we wrote five different versions of that scene and what we found was that Michelle said, “Oh, I would as a character never let this little girl say these things to me. So I wanna say these parts, this script here.” And then Constance would say, “Oh, I would not let this mom say this to me. At this point in this movie, I’m leaving, and I’m okay with leaving. So I need to say this thing.” So it was very interesting that both wanted to say, wanted to one up the other in the scene itself. We were like, “All right, let’s go.” And it was an amazing thing to watch. I think on the day, they didn’t even talk to each other, they just sort of played the scene, and it was electric. We could feel it in the room. I mean I had an easy day, the camera sat in one place. I just let them play and the only thing I was worried about was the mahjong, making sure it made sense. We had to know that [at] that end of that movie, walks away from there we should be satisfied. And that it wasn’t about getting the guy it was about knowing her own self worth. And also the look from her mom [Tan Kheng Hua] to Eleanore. That killed me because this is a timeless fight that has happened for so long between generations and class. And that this generation has the opportunity to bridge that and that we are in a new phase in this world. So, it was a master class in how two actors can own their scenes in two different ways and let the audience in on that.
“Crazy Rich Asians” opens nationwide Wednesday.