'Crazy Rich Asians' Director Jon M. Chu On Breaking Barriers And Being Proud Of Your Work [Interview]

Crazy Rich Asians is helping to bring a so-so summer moviegoing season to an end with a bang. Director Jon M. Chu has not only made a romantic comedy that's the sort of charming, character-driven studio spectacle we want but rarely see this time of year, but also a movie that's touching a lot of audiences. For Chu, who previously directed two of the finest Step Up films and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the incredible response to his adaptation of  Kevin Kwan's bestselling novel has been emotional and surprising.

Chu has made a romantic comedy oozing with charm, genuine romance, and visual splendor. With star-driven romantic comedies seemingly dying out, the electric chemistry between Candace Wu and Henry Golding is a breath of fresh air and makes for some exceptional escapism. It's a complete and utter joy. Recently, Chu spoke with us about the romance at the center of the story, the response to the film so far, his collaborations with Kevin Kwan and the cast, and some of the movie's standout scenes.

When you first read the book and was considering adapting it, what elements did you know you wanted to stay faithful to and felt cinematic? 

Of course, it's called Crazy Rich Asians, so you want the world ... you know the fans of the book are gonna want that fun and that pop to it. At the same time, it's the part of the book that least spoke to me, in the parts of the book that made ... it was none of that stuff that really grabbed me. It was Rachel Chu's story, who in the book is kind of the most boring character, but in my life was most personal journey of an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time. I knew what that felt like. Anybody going to their homeland, for wherever they come from, for the first time, I think feels this sense of warmth, and, "Oh, that they treat me like their son when I go into this restaurant, or this store." And then feeling, "Oh, but this is not me. They look at me differently here." And then you go back home and you feel like you have to chose between the two.

But Rachel's journey, I was like, I can make that the most truthful, and all the fuss around it, I know how to do that. That's easy, I've done that in almost every movie, I can integrate that. But that's not gonna be my focus. Rachel Chu is my focus. This isn't even about her getting the guy. This is about her finding her self worth. I always call it the dragon that was born within her, that's she's actually more than the sum of her parts. To watch her go through this would, in my mind, what I thought I would journey alone in when I was growing up, was shared by a lot more people, and this generation even more so. I really wanted to convey that and keep that and accentuate that actually from the book, and of course having the fun, almost satirical elements of it.

From what you've said about working with Constance Wu and Michelle Yeoh, actors could have more input than usual and your conversations with them really shaped the story. 

Totally. I think that was the magic to the process of having a presentation behind and in front of the camera. That doesn't mean just Asian people, just people who are sensitive and listening. When we were putting your story up on the screen, especially when you're talking about cultural traditional elements, more I think it's okay to kick the tires on culture and tradition. It's fair to respect those things where you come from, and also kick the tires to make sure that they are right in what you wanna pass forward.

I think that conversations with someone like Michelle ... I'm an all-American boy, I'm all Californian. I don't know all this with cultural rules and all the things. I just know, from my own experiences, what my parents taught me. To have that person, like Michelle, who would say, "Hey, you can't have white lanterns at this party. That means funeral." And then me be like, "Oh yeah, that's good, you gotta change all those lanterns right now," means something. If you don't have Michelle, and if you don't have me, are people comfortable enough to say that out loud? I don't know.

When we had this discussion with Constance, there's a part in the book where she's sort of talking about why she doesn't date Asian men, or hasn't in the past until Nick. It's funny in the book; there's context. But in the movie, it's like a hit and run and has nothing to do with our story. So just saying it, in itself, it reversed what we were doing about Asian men, which was sort of emasculating them and making fun of them. So Constance brought it up. I had never thought of it in that context, because I was still thinking in the book context. But we were able to have a discussion, talk with the writers, talk with the producers, and came to the conclusion, "Let's just not have it". It's too confusing; you could take it a lot of different ways and we're trying to do things different here.

Those conversations are so important to have. Top down, hear people, to wait for people for makeup to be done because they're an important part of the movie, they're not just a side character, to light them in the right way with the color of their skin. To make sure that the traditional cultural elements are right, and accurate, as much as possible. I'm sure we made mistakes somewhere – I don't know yet, but I'm sure someone will say something – but, as much as we can, to do it, one, because I didn't want to embarrass myself in front of my family, and two, we knew respect was gonna mean something people.

Michelle Yeoh didn't want Eleanor to come off as a villain, which she doesn't. Is that how she read in the book, though? How does her performance compare to what's on the page? 

So different. Because in the book, she's pretty over-the-top. She hires that private investigator, you see her planning, you see her talking to everybody, she is evil. And we really wanted to talk about this cultural difference in the family, more than even the book, because we were basing around Rachel's journey. She said specifically, "I have to defend my culture and the way I know it, 'cause I couldn't go home and have people yell at me and think differently that I'm trashing it. I'll defend my side, you defend the American side." And that's the point of the movie, is to have these two side that, can they coexist or not? And this next generation is gonna determine which parts of which that they keep.

Adding the little layers of even Amah, that backstory, was all Michelle's idea, us sitting around talking about what she needed to perform this, and it gave the audience a way in to her brain. It's so surgical, it's like one or two lines of, "Amah," and we get it that this is a complicated family.

Also, the dumpling-making scene, that was not in the book, but the family always felt like the villainess that they were just attacking her just because she's American, which is fine intellectually but mostly you don't understand that. We needed to show the family, that they loved each other, that this was all based in love. They had history together. They fought together, stayed together. And so Eleanor's position comes from a place in defense of this nest. She is the eagle in this nest. And it's out of love. So that if we could, one, it gets the audience to be on her side as well. So that we take them on this journey, it's not so black and white.

crazy rich asians trackingThat dumpling scene's great, and Michelle Yeoh reveals so much in that scene. How did that scene evolve on the day once you were filming her and everybody? 

I love playing with her because you just keep giving her less and less and then she gets more and more powerful. That scene in particular, we had so many, one, just how to make the dumplings, how to do it properly. Everybody does it a little differently, so we had to get her on the same page as that. But it's really her look -I just had to catch em. I just had to be right there and actually I would tell Rachel different things, because when Rachel does different things Michelle does different things. Even though Rachel would be off-camera, we'd have her be playing, so that we could see all, where the line could be for. And Michelle could express how far she would go. So it was really a masterclass of acting to watch her go.

It was more interesting in the Mahjong scene because both had very strong opinions of what they wanted to say. We had like six different versions of the script, and Michelle would say, "I'm not gonna let this little girl tell me like this. I would slap her if she said it like this. So I need to say this and shut her down." And then, Constance was like, "Well, I wouldn't let her run me over. I want that, the monologue from the second draft." So basically we were like, OK, both of you get the parts of the draft that you want, lets just see what happens. So, its like these two Mac trucks coming towards each other and they're not moving. They're just literally, they're playing chicken, and no one's moving. To watch that happen was just so fun. It was easiest for me, I just sat there. I just put the camera there and just let them do it. But you can see it all in their eyes.

Kevin gave us the freedom to do those. It's not all authors would be like, OK, we're just making up a scene, okay. But we knew, in parts of the book what the old draft of the script used to be about handing over the business, there was a dinner where they gave him the business that night. She was like, "What, you're staying?" It was all plotty. It had nothing to do with... Now that we had Michelle Yeoh, and Constance Wu, in that scene together, we were like, let's double down on that, not some business, who gives a shit about ... I don't even know what the Youngs do. Let's make it emotional, about family. So we always kept rounding it out, and that would help the movie.

Kevin sold the rights for a cheap price just to have more involvement. This was your first experience collaborating with an author, right? How was it?

Yes, but I've worked with like creators, like we had for G.I. Joe, and for Justin Bieber, I consider that, Step Up, and they all had people who were sort of the stewards of the brand, I guess. In this particular case, he absolutely understands the difference between a book and a movie. Because of that, he was like, "You're a movie guy, you make the movie. I'm here, whatever you need. I'll offer you actors that I think would be great. I'll offer you costume references. I'll give you all the research I did on this movie, on the book. I'll send you pictures from my family, so you understand it. I'll even tell you what language they should be speaking and where." He's like, everything else you could do, and of course I'm here if you need me. The actors reached out to him, which is really nice to have that kind of relationship to get more backstory on the real people. So it was very much a collaboration, but he really trusted us. I didn't know how it was going to go, but it was totally great.

I have to ask you about the world of the super rich the movie depicts. During your research, what was some info you learned that made you go, "This has to be in the movie"? 

There was plenty of research that was insane to see, like they have a giant building with luxury cars, an ATM for those cars, exotic cars in Singapore, which is insane. I think in Singapore there's the only personal Starbucks franchise in someone's house. I didn't put these things in the movie, but what I realized as we were looking for big houses, big things, what I discovered in Singapore is it's a small island. So actually, $25 million, like Hong Kong, a small apartment's like $25 million, so size does not reflect wealth necessarily in this movie. So it was really hard to find that balance, like how do we show wealth? What we found with the Starbucks and this car ATM, was it's not what you can buy, it's how creative you can be with what you can buy. So instead of just a yacht in Macau, for the bachelor party, let's use a cargo ship, and make the party there, and create Vegas on the ship, which no one else can do. Let's make a wedding, instead of having diamonds everywhere, let's make it creative and have water come down the aisle.

Those little things, it was fun because we could just chose to be creative rather than luxurious to the Nth degree, which means nothing because we see it all the time on Instagram now, and reality shows, so it doesn't really have that effect on us. But how we use it, that makes you wake up and pay attention.

The wedding scene is visually stunning, and just delivers on that moment the movie's been building towards. What can you tell me about planning and shooting that sequence? 

I drew it out on my iPad. I knew doing a scene about a wedding where the bride and groom are not the actual focus was gonna be difficult. Then we had to montage it through the wedding 'cause nobody wants to watch a full wedding. And that song, "Can't Help Falling in Love," is actually my parents' wedding son. So, I found inspiration from that in listening to that over and over again. Kina Grannis, I'm a huge fan of hers, she was a YouTuber, she tours now everywhere. Her voice is both beautiful and stunning and romantic, but at the same time, melancholy. I knew that this was gonna be a convergence of many different love stories at this wedding, things that were falling apart, ones that were starting, and ones that discovered that they were meant for each other for the rest of their lives. This sort of ambiguous, middle-ground, was very helpful with that music. We decided to have this break in it, to have the silence, and this time shift. We knew these things would break up the wedding.

I used to shoot weddings, so I know how weddings go, but I knew if we could shake it up, because we've seen so many weddings in movies, this would also help people pay attention more to it. And then the grass that we had in there was a pain in the butt 'cause all these grids. You can't move cameras when you have grass everywhere unless you destroy the grass. We had to move em, when you're sitting in on the pew in between the grass you're stuck. You could not move, so we had actors just sitting there for six hours. It was hot, humid, there was a lot of stuff going on. But ultimately, it was just about Nick and Rachel, and that's what we tried to focus on.

You touched on this and said before with Crazy Rich Asians you wanted to finally tackle your cultural identity with a film. For you, what finally made it feel like the time to do that? 

I think it was finishing up Now You See Me 2, and honestly the Jem experience, which was, you know, you learn a lot about yourself, why you do this and what you need to get past the box office. Like, why am I doing this, what makes me happy, it shouldn't be about box office. So, I sort of re-centered myself and then I kept questioning what am I here for? What am I bringing to this medium that I fell in love with, and that in college, I was pushing the boundaries of those things. What am I actually doing as a professional in life pushing anything?

I was reading all this stuff online about oscarssowhite, whitewashed out, and I dove deep into that, I was reading, I was learning, and I was suddenly thinking about those things which I'd never thought about, I was too scared to think about. I realized that I actually was to blame for a lot of it. I'm here, I'm in Hollywood. When you talk about Hollywood having issues, that's me, this is my only life. I thought, if there was anyone who could do it, who built the relationship, I could do it, and has a emotional connection to this, I should do this. But it was scary to tackle your cultural identity when you haven't done it your whole life, 'cause you know you're gonna do things wrong, you know when you step in to that, there's a lot. Especially with social media.

But I had thick skin from the experience from the project before, so I was ready. And then I found this story, that spoke to me more than any of them, because I knew I could plug in my personal journey into that, into this sort of sugar-coated world. So that's sort of what drove me to do it. I wanted to know that I was still an artist, that I could take risks that had no guarantee and come out the other end. It's still not resolved, for people to see it, hopefully they respond, but the emotional response of people has been extremely fulfilling, and emotional for sure.

Like you said, you wanted to know that you were still an artist. How do you feel as an artist now after making Crazy Rich Asians

I feel like ... I don't know, I don't see it as an artist thing. I feel as a viewer of it, I feel so proud. I feel so proud for our crew, I feel so proud for our cast, that they get to show off. I feel so proud to want to show them off. There are some movies that I don't show people, I can't watch it over and over again. But this movie, I want to show it to everyone at any moment I get. I want to show, look how funny they are! Look how beautiful they are! Look how cool they are! Look how strong they are! I've never felt that about anything, really, to have that pride. The true meaning of pride, that's what I've come out of this with. And maybe that means being an artist, I don't know. But I know that by trying something that was this personal, and this out there for me and scary for me, I actually realized that there's other people that feel the same way.

What's been most rewarding about the response to the movie so far?

It's so surprising to see all the emotional resonance of it from partly of the movie, and partly just the discussion of the movie and seeing...I had Tasty Noodle House on Sawtelle put up a sign that says, with our poster, if you bring a ticket stub from the movie you get a free drink. That's not something from our marketing, that's just what they did. People online offering to buy tickets for people if they can't afford it, and doing it via Venmo. It's insane to me, having these written compositions by people, by just regular movie-goers, saying what it meant to watch it and how they cried in the first ten minutes or how their parents cried when they heard a certain song that they used to listen to. All these things have been overwhelming, I'd say. Last week, I think I said I've cried, I cry every four hours after reading something.


Crazy Rich Asians is now in theaters.