Jon M. Chu 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.

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