Crazy Rich Asians has of course swept in a much-needed new era for actors of Asian descent, given that it’s the first all-Asian cast studio film since The Joy Luck Club 25 years ago. It certainly rocked the box office, but when director Jon M. Chu set out on the project, rather than being crushed by the weight of its cultural significance, he determinedly focused on simply making the best possible film.
Then, by putting together a rip-roaringly entertaining, epic Hollywood studio movie packed with big scenes, amazing costumes, and what he calls a full “technicolor” experience, he perfectly made the point that Asian actors should have been in these central roles forever. As he says, “It was, ‘Let’s show that we could’ve been there during the golden age of movies. We should have been there. We have the ability, we have the highest form of fashion, of style, of taste, of any culture out there, and that those classic Hollywood films…We could have been a part of that if we had been included.’”
And after the huge box office reception, now comes this second wave, with awards season recognition from Critics Choice, SAG, Globes and many more already.
Yes. I’ve never had a movie that has lasted this long in the air to a point where even I’m still getting emails and calls every day from people watching it on the plane and crying. And seeing it multiple times. People used to be like, “I’ve seen the movie three or four times.” Now it’s up to seven or eight times. I’m like, “What is going on?”
And all that re-watching of it speaks to the fact that even without its cultural significance, the movie has so much to it in terms of detail.
Now they’re looking at the details and they’re like, “Oh my gosh Jon, the score is brilliant! It’s beautiful, it’s intricate. Who did it?” And now they’re asking all the details of production design, “How’d you guys get that?” I’m like, “Yeah. We were basically in a basement…And the amount of people and extras we had to dress, and to create a world literally called Crazy Rich Asians with a not crazy rich budget. People don’t even ask about the budget anymore. That has been the most satisfying thing of the last few weeks. Our peers recognize our work.
And the cast are of course incredible.
[With casting] I felt Nick Fury collecting the Asian Avengers being like, “Oh I love this person, do you think they would ever do it?” We got Ronny (Chieng) from The Daily Show, Jimmy (O. Yang) from Silicon Valley, Gemma (Chan), and Constance (Wu), and Michelle (Yeoh), and Awkwafina, and all these different people we were collecting. I just was so amped that we got pick of the litter, and when you’re first, a lot of the time you get that, which is nice, but the fact that everyone else, Asian or not, could see their talent after they’ve all been working for so long, it makes me feel really good. Henry (Golding)’s on the cover of GQ Magazine, Constance has the Time cover, Awkwafina hosted SNL, all these things are so surreal and I’m so proud.
Has it been tough though to have, at least in the first instance, people perhaps overlooking your craft somewhat? I remember Ava DuVernay telling me she wished people would ask her specifically about her directing technique with 13th, but almost no one did.
Yeah, I definitely feel that. I feel like we knew the importance of what we were doing when we started this journey on this movie. Then when we actually were on the ground, starting to build it, we were like, “Oh we can’t even think about that. We have to make a great movie. How do we make it?” We create this world, find these characters, and make an audience care about these characters, Asian or not, doesn’t matter.” We had to make a beautiful story about self-worth while going through our own self-worth journey. Then we finished the movie and went, “Okay.” We hadn’t even thought about the cultural context at that point, again, because we had to put it in the back of our minds. Then you show the movie, and the cultural context is immediately seized upon because it’s the first fresh air for so many people to see themselves on the big screen. They have to breathe and they have to let it all out, and they’re so happy.
How did that feel seeing that first reaction at the time?
That surprised me because I knew the cultural relevance, I didn’t know when I went to the theater that I would see people crying, not necessarily just because of the movie, but also in the lobby afterwards and hanging out for 30 minutes and talking. That was so amazing and then you get caught up in that. Then after a few months of that, your movie is number one and all this stuff. Then we all look at each other like, “Oh, but do they understand also that it doesn’t just happen?” It’s because we did something with care and attention to detail and actually told a great story. Otherwise, it means nothing. It doesn’t do anything. It just is a marker.
And all those little details. Michelle Yeoh’s line after Nick says, “How do I look?” She says, “Perfect.” It’s the most heartbreaking, subtle thing. It means everything. It’s her whole story, she’s doing this because of her love of her son that she can’t let go of. Those kinds of details mean so much. And when they’re writing stories and articles about the Mahjong scene. First of all, it took us so long to design that game and give meaning to what each piece meant and how they would play, let alone the words. Then even the cover of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ song, I never thought that would be a discussion that anyone would talk about, but the fact that my letter got out there, and people have talked about it and other people have done covers, that means the world to me because it means not just what we did, but how we pulled it off, is the story. I’m really proud of that because it wasn’t easy and there was a lot of naysayers and a lot of things where we had to all put our heads down and focus and ignore in order to get it done.
In another interview you said that you feel that East Asian people are often presented as this sort of ancient culture in Hollywood film, from this distant, mysterious time. So you turned that on its head, and made a classic Hollywood Epic, and I feel like that is one of the reasons people keep watching it again and again. It has that scope.
Yeah, definitely. And by the way, Kevin Kwan is the biggest film buff, a bigger film buff than myself, so we took everything we love about cinema, the grand world, the costumes, the romance, the danger, the melodrama, every department, and we chose to tell a story of classic Hollywood cinema on the biggest level. I love romantic comedies, I love musicals, I love all those classic things. That’s what I grew up on. Even the Disney animated musicals were parts of inspiration. So we always wanted to create this modern fairy tale, for the next generation, for people to see us in all the classic ways.
We’ve seen the guy chasing the girl on the plane, but not in coach and crawling over people. We get the big kiss and we get to stay on the kiss, not cut away or cut out of it. We get the moment where Nick Young comes out of the house in a crisp white linen suit, and looks like a prince. We get the moment where she gets to walk into that Mahjong scene like a boss. We get the montage fun makeover scenes – all these things that we understood were tropes, but also iconic visuals that we’ve always wanted to see ourselves in, and we thought maybe, “Are we not good enough to be in those scenes? Will people not feel the same things?” I call bullshit. It was so fun to do that.
All the way down to score. You know, when Warner’s first budgeted that, it was like, “Oh no this is a small little thoughtful movie. Your score will come in and out, it will be fine.” We’re like, “No, no. We want a big band and a big orchestra. This has to feel like a technicolor movie.” And credit to Warner’s and everybody for getting on board with this idea. With the twist of adding both classic Chinese songs from the fifties and sixties, and also adding our own Mandarin versions of contemporary American songs.
Michelle Yeoh also talked to me about how the Asian experience encompasses so many different cultures. I’m wondering if it’s been tough for you to hear Asian culture talked about as though it’s one thing?
Yeah, I’ve definitely had moments of frustration of people grouping our movie as a representation of all Asian culture or expecting it to be able to do that. It’s just not true. That’s the whole problem, but at the same time, our movie is an example of that in terms of how Rachel Chu represents an American going to Asia for the first time. Then, not just having Asians that have Asian accents, but having accents from all around the world and speaking different languages from all around the world, it just shows the amount of layers and textures to Asian culture from all around the world, not just one place.
I just trained myself to ignore the constant misconceptions, because we’ve had to ignore it for so long. In making this movie, we put all those frustrations to the side and just focused on the future. What I get excited about is that our cast are all in such different mediums and such different stuff. When I think of what Awkwafina’s going to do on Comedy Central, and what she did on SNL; what Constance is going to do in her feature career and her television career, whatever she wants to pursue, in her directing career; what Ronny Chieng will create, Jimmy Yang, such a dynamic actor, he can do anything, Henry, Gemma, everyone is so different from each other. We have a such a deep bench, they’re all going to create great stuff. Just by the nature of who they are and what they’re going to create, is going to change the one-dimensional look of Asians I think, and what we expect.
I think it’s also on the future story tellers, the writers working right now getting these things set up, they’ve got to continue to tell different stories and not get caught in a box, and tell stories from all sorts of perspectives, from all sorts of genres, and let’s fill this thing out. Let’s start to paint the three dimensional picture because right now it’s just not.
The follow-up film China Rich Girlfriend is obviously in the works. Will it be even bigger and bolder? What’s your sense of it at this point?
I think it won’t just be China Rich Girlfriend. I think there are things that we left out of Crazy Rich Asians that we would love to explore as well. We have such a deep bench of characters, as I mentioned before, and I didn’t get to use a lot of them in Crazy Rich Asians.
Like Harry Shum Jr. as Charlie Wu for example?
Yeah, like Harry, like Ronny, like Jimmy, like Gemma. Like so many of them. Even Awkwafina. I mean she’s in it, obviously she does a lot, but you could do a whole story about the Goh family. I really am focused on having the ability to play to everyone’s strengths now and really lean into them. So, we’ll see. Of course, it’s going to be fun and insane, but at the same time we want to find a real message to say, that it’s not just fodder. Our movie was never just a romantic comedy, it was never, ever about her getting the man, it was about something bigger. It was about self-worth and what we thought of ourselves. Not just Rachel Chu, but we as people, as Americans, as Asian Americans, wherever you are, what is our worth to ourselves, to our parents, to our family, to our friends, to our lovers. That’s where we start, at least when I start a movie, I start there. What do we want to say and what are we trying to do? That message is going to be the powerful thing, and that’s what we’re exploring right now.
And you’re shooting In the Heights with Lin-Manuel Miranda this summer?
Yeah, we’re in the middle of casting right now and we shoot this summer in Washington Heights. I’ve been spending a lot of time with Lin and Quiara (Alegría Hudes) who wrote the original book and wrote the script, and Warner Bros. of course, and a lot of the same Crazy Rich Asians team, to have a whole Latinx cast and do a big, big, really fun musical wth a message of joy and community, and in this day in age especially, it’s really important.
And you have a project in the works about the Thai cave rescue – any news on that?
Not right now. We’re still in the listening phase, if that makes sense. We’re absorbing it, meeting with people, the different players, and figuring it all out now. It’s early days.
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