In the Heights Director Interview

The only thing more energetic than the new musical In the Heights is the man who directed it. Jon M. Chu has made a career out of creating high energy movies like Step Up 2: The Streets, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Crazy Rich Asians, but his particular skill set feels so perfectly in line with this latest project. His film adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical about the hopes and dreams of the denizens of Washington Heights in New York City is a big movie: big on romance, big on drama, big on comedy, and even big on running time. But if the film is inexhaustible, that’s because Chu himself is just that.

I spoke with Chu ahead of In the Heights‘ theatrical and streaming debut this week, and he showcased a unique ability to cram 20 minutes of information into a 10-minute interview. We talked about his advice for making a great musical, the big sequence he fought to protect, the agonizing process of killing your darlings, and why you should absolutely see the film in theaters.

I want to start at the beginning. Was your intention here, “I want to make a musical,” or did you say, “I want to make In the Heights”? 

[laughs] I’ve always wanted to make a musical since I was a kid. I grew up on musicals, going to the city, and it was always either opera season, ballet season, or musical season. So it’s always been in my blood. I did student films, all musicals. But it had to be the right one. When I saw In the Heights in New York after making Step Up 2 The Streets, it spoke to me on such a deep level. I didn’t know it would ever come to me, didn’t think I was ever worthy of it, but it spoke to me even though I wasn’t from Washington Heights or Latino. That growing up in a Chinese restaurant in the Bay area on the west coast, I knew who my Abuela Claudia was. I knew the foods, the love languages that my family spoke to each other without words. Lin and I are very similar ages, and he translated that brilliantly – unlike anything I could have ever done.

How do you tap into the energy of a community like that? I feel like watching Crazy Rich Asians as a non-Asian, I understood, “This is specific enough to feel real. I understand that this is a real POV, a real world that I’m getting a chance to inhabit.” What were the conversations like for you on this one to make sure you got that right?

I was lucky to go through the Crazy Rich Asians experience to know how important specificity actually is. Not just on surface authenticity, but actually it is the blade that pierces into people and connects them with the material. Again, Abuela Claudia, I don’t have. But I have an Abuela Claudia. So it was more about process to me. It was less about me forcing anything on anything, and more about me listening and creating space for us to have this conversation. We’re all storytellers. Lin is amazing, one of the best ever. To be able to say, “Hey, can I ask stupid questions sometimes?” and “Hey, can I make suggestions that you might hate and might be totally wrong? Is it OK that we have that kind of dialogue?” And it was, across the board. Same thing with the actors. They’d be like, “You know what? This sauce wouldn’t be on the table. Someone would bring it homemade.” “OK, what bottle?” “Oh, it’d be the old bottle from blah, blah, blah,” and we’d go get it and bring it back. But that takes time. That takes producers being like, “Are you sure you want to wait for this?” And I’m like, “Yeah, we’ve gotta wait for it, bro.” It’s priority, and I think we put the priority in the right spots.

Were there moments when you’re looking at the script and saying, “Man, I love this bit, but it doesn’t fit in the movie”? Were there moments where you realized that you had to kill some darlings from that stage show to make sure it worked as a film?

Oh, we cut like six songs! Every single song was the most painful thing in the world, and I know the fans are going to kill us for it. But I knew that if we delivered a story that felt fulfilling and we got to dive into Usnavi and Vanessa deeper than we ever have before, and that it felt truthful and you still had the exuberance and the love and sense of community that the show has – the same way with Crazy Rich Asians, it’s very different from the book, but you still came away thinking that it sounds exactly like the show that I saw. That was the goal. So it was always from a place of truthfulness. Truthful emotions. These are real characters. This is not a performance musical. Even though we earn our spots to go big. This is about the root of why a musical was even invented for us, because when words aren’t enough, three notes can communicate what a paragraph of dialogue could never communicate. Why is dance in there? Because dance, I work with dancers, I know them. I know that they’re telling stories, and their movement and poetry, even if they’re not trained, is from a necessity of expression. For me to tie those two together as part of the languages of this movie, multi-language actors had to partake and had to swing back and forth between dialogue and music without performing either one. That nuance took skills of the cast and our crew to understand the very gut level of it all before trying to make any kind of spectacle.

You have such a rich history of directing dance and music in your movies. Even in your non-musicals, it feels so important to your rhythms as a filmmaker. When it comes time for you to make an actual film musical where people are breaking into song, what shortcuts and lessons did something like Step Up teach you that you were able to bring to a movie like this one?

That it is not about spinning on your head and not about breaking. Your camera can step all over that. If you have a roboter and he’s telling a story and moving that one finger, if your camera is zooming in, you’re running all over his storytelling. Get out of the way, filmmaker! Or enhance it. If he wants to do one thing, move a lot before, and then when he does that one thing, stop and let him do it. In order to do that, you have to have conversations with the artists, and you have to understand their language. So I think it was understanding that you had to listen and understand, and I had to assist in these moves in our movie. The shortcut is, sometimes filmmakers get in the way all the time, so know where to get in the way and know where you can contrast it or get on top of it or do whatever you need to do. Just be really aware of what you’re doing.

What I find really striking about the musical numbers here is, to give credit to you in addition to your dancers, you find ways to make the style of your filmmaking really intersect with the dancing. I think of the early scene where Usnavi is looking through the window of his shop and the dancers are reflected in it, and you get this moment that has powerful intimacy because it’s a close-up of our main character and you can see the emotion in his face, but you’re also showing off a wide variety of dancers in a shot where the focus is on them and him simultaneously. So I want to talk about the approach to creating these moments. Moments that are unbound from the stage and are purely cinematic but honor the fact that this is a movie and not just a filmed musical.

Yeah, that moment in particular, I thought about what it feels like to dream, and to feel trapped, but at the same time have vision that is above the trees. Who is there on the other side but your whole community rooting for you and supporting you? To me, that moment was about understanding that this is not a performance. The opening number is a big, eight-nine minute giant thing. But at the end of the day, it’s about a guy in a bodega and his dreams and hopes and struggles are as worthy of a big cinematic event as any character in any big movie. Again, we had to work with Alice, our cinematographer, who is freaking awesome; choreography with Chris and his team to create the dance styles we’re seeing in that; our VFX team; our production designer. I think of Meet Me In St. Louis. Meet Me in St. Louis is a lot about home – it’s all about home. But it’s frames. You go through frames, you come out of frames. I love this moment, a sort of a nod to it: yes, there’s that frame, but extra glass that has to break to get through. But in that glass lays the whole community ready to break it for you.

That’s great. You just mentioned Meet Me In St. Louis. Are there any other musicals where you said to your cast and crew, “This is what we’re going for,” or ones where you said, “Ignore this one entirely”? Did you make a watchlist?

I did not make a watchlist on purpose. I knew things, but I did not want us to be doing those things. Busby Berkeley moments. There was a question of, “Hey, shouldn’t all their clothes change and they should match?” And I’m like, “Absolutely not. I want to see the shapes, the sizes, the skin color differences. I want to see the mismatched shorts and pants. That’s the beauty of our world. That it’s not actually a musical world. That it’s as exuberant and beautiful as any of the old musicals, but any of us could have been there back then and starred in those. That’s what we did in Crazy Rich Asians: any of these stars could have been there if given the opportunity, and we could have given you that same feeling, but we’re going to do it in our own way. So that’s sort of the guiding light in that. To see champagne where it’s them singing live: live vocals, no cuts, for three minutes, in a real apartment building, where we can’t have camera shadows, and lights have to hide, and there are mirrors and reflections? That’s something that everybody has to get on board together and make this amazing musical moment as grounded as possible, but make all the things that work to get there invisible. That’s a level that our cast and crew had to work together on.

What I love is that there are so many scenes where it feels like the camera has wandered into a real place instead of a stage, and it feels genuinely like the music is an extension of a reality as opposed to an invasion of it. But there are moments like the dance number on the side of the building where things get outwardly fantastic and you lean into full fantasy. What were your rules for that? Was it something like, “When it’s something that’s truly romantic beyond day-to-day, we can go fantasy”? 

We knew we had to earn that moment in particular. But I knew from the beginning when he says “the streets were made of music” that we had a lot of permission to do a lot of stuff. The manhole cover spinning was one of the first things to just say, “Hey, we might go there, so hang with us. We’re not going to go there right now, but we’ll give you a little hint. But we’re going to get there, and when it gets there it’s going to feel like you are the character because you’re going to know them so well. And each person is going to interpret their emotions in movement and in song in their own way.” They might all be different. There’s not one consistent rule of how we express themselves. The only rule is: when words aren’t enough, you can go anywhere. So leaving that complicated idea of saying goodbye to someone that you might never see again or you might get married to, either way it’s sort of a bittersweet, what it feels like to be in love. I felt like all the rules of the world could go away, and you imagine what it would be like if there is no gravity. That’s what we really wanted to express in going there. But I think that’s the fun part: we had this incredible tool to use, and we use it in our most precise ways. But in order to show the breadth of how far you can use this since you have access to this tool, why not go there where other movies can’t? We just knew we had to earn it. And one scene later, we’re live vocals in a room by ourselves.

I want to talk about my favorite scene in the movie, “Paciencia y Fe.” It is a perfect scene, an amazing short story that the movie has the grace to pause for and focus on this character and her story.

I would say that we knew it was a very, very special [scene]. We protected it with our lives. Because it’s the first scene that people could think you could get rid of. It’s the first scene that, when you’re budgeting your movie and it’s over budget, that they go after. It’s the part that, in a way, we did it for all our abuelas. I say “My parents came over from China,” and it’s like, what? You just skipped over that fact? Do you know what it took for them to look at a place and be like, “Nope, not for us!” Leave everything behind and start a new life on the other side of the world? That is fucking rock star. That is a story. And we never get to show that. It’s always like, “Oh, here comes the old lady number. Fast forward.” We believed, and we said this all the time, that she deserved the amount of attention and spectacle as any character in this movie, and we were going to give it to her and give her the room. That number is five and a half minutes. Every meeting we had was, “But can the number be two minutes?” Sure, it can be two minutes. But come on. We’ve got the room. Let’s do this. We had to fight every inch of that. “Oh, wait, they’re in period costumes? You have to get all these new costumes and all these dancers? Do you know how much that costs?” The amount of times we had to put our bodies on the rails was a lot, but when Olga sings it, when she came into that room and sang it for the first time, and everyone’s in tears after, everyone said, “This is the movie. This is why you’re making the movie.” And it’s true.

Unfortunately, I had to watch this at home on a screener. But I feel like this is an audience movie, a communal movie. I want to give you a moment to explain to /Film readership why, if they feel safe doing it, this is definitely a movie they should go to theaters to see. Because I feel like I need to go back and see it that way.

I know it’s a hard time. And I know that some people don’t feel comfortable. So I’m glad that if you don’t, you have an option to see it. However, you better sit close to that screen and turn that fucking volume up. But two, get vaccinated! Go to the theater! This community deserves your time, deserves your money, and deserves your attention. At this moment, they will guide you out of the darkness. Because they’ve been feeling powerless and are able to survive and get past things because of each other and the community, and you will see that. You will see it in your own life, with your community. You will realize, after a year of isolation, how much we need that community back. It will heal you. I promise you. You will feel joy. I know it’s hard to feel joy these days. But I know we’re feeling inklings of positivity. This will invite you back, and in the biggest way possible, bring you back to your childhood. And your kids will be reminded about why we go to the movies. I think this is a moment we have to experience in person and see it with people.

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In the Heights hits theaters and HBO Max this Friday, June 11, 2021.

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