[Interview] Director Jon M. Chu reignites his passion for filmmaking with CRAZY RICH ASIANS
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Jon M. Chu is no stranger to making us fall in love. Whether it be with dance (STEP UP 3), music (JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS), magic (NOW YOU SEE ME), or nostalgia (G.I. JOE: RETALIATION), the talented filmmaker knows exactly how to conjure a heck of a seductive lure. With his latest, CRAZY RICH ASIANS, he’s the one falling head over heels for the culture and swoonworthy romance of an immersive fantasy world – and that passionate drive makes audiences, in turn, fall in love with it too.
In the film, New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) travels to Singapore with her boyfriend of a year, Nick Young (Henry Golding) to meet his family. But what she doesn’t know is, not only is Nick Asia’s most eligible bachelor, his family is insanely wealthy and his formidable mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh) is fiercely protective over her son.
I spoke with the affable filmmaker about everything from the creativity out of challenges, to if he felt pressure bringing a culturally significant feature to life, to how he subtly wove identity into the narrative, to reigniting his passion for filmmaking and resonant storytelling.
Did you always know you wanted to make an unabashed romcom?
That has always been in my brain, for sure. I love romantic comedies. WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING was something I watched all the time. MY BEST FRIEND’S WEDDING I always thought was a musical, even though it wasn’t a musical. Even DEVIL WEARS PRADA was such a perfect movie. I could watch these movies over and over again. But I never knew what I could contribute to that.
I jumped at the opportunity to go and do that, but, much like THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, I wanted to do more than just a romantic comedy. I wanted to to do a culture identity crisis. What Rachel Chu had gone through was something I had gone through my whole life but had ignored and then went through again making this movie, I thought that was more interesting to me.
What themes from the book instantly connected with you that you made sure were fully realized on screen?
It wasn’t about the crazy, rich or Asian part of it – that world of labels flew by, over my head. I don’t really know all those things though I can appreciate those things. It was about Rachel Chu, a girl from Cupertino, which is where my family is from – her journey going to Asia for the first time was something I knew and had experienced. Going to Taiwan for the first time, there’s this sense of it’s your home, but it isn’t at all. And they look at you and see you as a foreigner, but all your friends at home thinking you’ll fit in perfectly there. Then coming home and feeling like you have to choose between these two sides, which is a false narrative of that.
Her journey, first and foremost was how I knew I could focus the book. It’s how I knew what to drop from the book and find which characters were important to her journey or painting her picture. It wasn’t about the guy. This is a romantic comedy about the girl that could leave the guy and be totally okay. In that confrontation with the mahjong, she should be able to walk away and us be like, “Hell yeah! She’s better. She’s stronger. F*ck this family!” That kept me focused.
One thing that hits you instantly is the soundtrack. Was it always the plan to use a soundtrack with primarily Mandarin Chinese songs and singers?
From the get-go it was. I remember looking up songs that had a history of songs in China. Someone sent me this song “Wo Yao Ni De Ai,” when they go to the Night Market and eat food, that was the first time I heard a song in that style in Chinese. It’s like old classic Hollywood musical. I played it for my mom and she freaked out. She knew all the words. She was like, “This is what we used to listen to in China. We used to jitterbug to this.” I was like, “What?! You danced?!” She was like, “How did you find this?” I was like, “There’s a thing called Spotify.” We collected these songs that she knew and she knows all the songs in the movie are songs that she grew up with. To remix that with songs that I knew, put in Chinese, to give it that context of how that feels was really fun. That sort of informed the whole movie.
That’s the world we live in now. How I see the world is because I was born surrounded by Chinese-speaking people, but I was an all-American, all California boy getting into the most American business in the world. I was fascinated with movies. So my instincts are Hollywood movies, but my core instincts are Chinese values. To do all this stuff in the movie, visually and audibly, just gave it a tone – a sense of identity – without talking about identity. I felt that helped bridge the gap.
This looks like it cost a gahjillion bucks. But I’m guessing you didn’t have a gahjillion bucks at your disposal.
Was there an item or a scene you’re most proud of that you got on more of a budget?
The big set piece of the gardens by the bay, which are the giant super trees for the reception. That was a coup because we had to negotiate with the government for eight months. We didn’t know we had that until the week before. It was not just money, but it was politicking to get in there. I knew that we needed something big there. To be able to shoot in Singapore, on the streets of Singapore, was really important, for me, because it’s such a unique place. You can’t fake that place.
The interiors we shot in Malaysia. You can’t find a Tyersall Park in Singapore because there’s not enough room on that small island. So I was really proud we found a Tyersall Park that could convey what Kevin had communicated to us in his upbringing – what was so special about it was that it was on all this land that nobody else had.
What Nelson Coates did as the production designer – never taking “no” as an answer and getting it done even with our little budget where we had to use creativity to overcome. That was always our motto: Creativity could overcome financial roadblocks for us. Also, our team could make choices that would benefit the movie the most.
Does that help reignite your passion for filmmaking?
Oh, for sure. That’s how I grew up making movies on your own in film school. Even my little movies, those were really fun. That’s where you’re a real filmmaker, to me. That’s where you gotta find solutions using the tools of filmmaking, not just paying it off. Also, working on the big movies taught me a lot too. You learn you don’t need all this stuff. Some of the hard lessons I had to learn was saying “No” to some of the big things that were being offered. You don’t need the giant score, or giant pyrotechnics. You just need to focus on the characters.
For instance, our wedding was stressing me out because we didn’t have the big, glamorous money to make that crazy. But we could use creativity of using water coming down the aisle to make it special – and ultimately, it’s about the bride and groom. We then really focused on Nick and Rachel. We really saved a lot of time and energy knowing what story we were telling, what character we’re following and what we’re trying to say.
Was it more stressful planning this wedding than your own?
[laughs] Oh, for sure. One, my wife was able to do a lot of that planning, which was helpful. I always said, let’s do the wedding in Singapore, because I know a lot of wedding people there now, but that didn’t fly.
How did you know you found the perfect person for their part and did any character’s voices change once you found those perfect people?
I had been clocking a lot of people all along the way – just because they’re interesting. Ronnie Chieng, when he did this report on THE DAILY SHOW about Chinatown during the election was so kick-ass. He did it in such a funny way. Jimmy O. Yang, from PATRIOT’S DAY and SILICON VALLEY, I saw the range in him and clocked him. Gemma Chan is like an alien from outer space in how perfect she is. When I’m reading the book, I was like, “Only Gemma can play Astrid.” Constance Wu, this strong force of nature, hadn’t done a movie before.
In a weird way, because we were the first, I got pick of the litter. It was all this unused talent that we could lift up and show the world they’ve been there and have been working. That was fun to adjust each character. They made each character truthful and come from an honest place – even though they’re over the top. It allowed me to shift the tone back and forth. The cast is the whole reason this movie works. They’re bridging that gap, allowing the audience in. I learned that lesson on this – that casting is so important for any project, but specific for this one. They brought the fire.
Do you feel the weight of the world on your shoulders when making a movie as monumental as this every step of the way – or at all? It still surprises me it’s been 25 years since JOY LUCK CLUB. Why has it been that long?! It’s outrageous.
I don’t know the answer to why, but I know that’s what we were. I know that part of the reason why is because people like me, who are in the business, didn’t push it. Maybe I wasn’t confident enough, maybe I wasn’t ready in my career yet to make it happen. I think technology changed those things. Technology allowed people to speak back and talk to the conglomerates and studios, to say, “We demand better movies.” We demand movies that speak to the unspoken, to tell us stories we haven’t heard before. We love superhero movies, but cinema has always been known for their rebels and troublemakers telling stories that aren’t told in any other medium – that are ballsy.
To me, that reinvigorated me – the audience that told me, “Why aren’t you doing this?” I’m getting older and have been in the business ten-twelve years and I was having a baby. I felt like “What am I contributing to cinema beyond continuing franchises?” I wanted to explore this side of me I was too scared to explore. By having a group, a team, not just the crew, but a cast, producers and a studio that understood what we were trying to say, that we were all together on this took the weight off my shoulders and put it on all of our shoulders with all of us carrying a little bit of that weight.
Ultimately, Kevin Kwan told me, “Hey. Let go of it all.” He told me when he wrote this book seven years ago, he was in a dark place. He wrote “Joy” on a post-it note and put it on his iMac and every day he wrote this story, he looked at that post-it note. The amount of joy this story has brought people, and himself, brought him out of the darkness and into the light, that’s what [he said] I needed to do in my movie. So we put post-it notes all around that set that said, “Joy.”
We just really focused on making a good movie. People will get behind it, but they won’t really get behind it if it’s not great. You’ve got to make a great movie on the highest level possible.
I think it would be crazy if y’all haven’t had the discussions about how to adapt the book sequels.
Did the book sequels have any effect on what approach you’d take to the narrative?
Yeah. We had to be aware of where the story was headed. We had a cast of characters that could carry on. Whether they had one line or no lines, if, or when, we do the sequels that they could carry that note further, we had those discussions with the actors and they were game. Of course, that’s the intention. Of course, we’d love to do it. But it is the movie business and the audience speaks. It’s up to the audience to decide whether or not we’re allowed to make another or not. If so, we will come and tell it with all the energy and emotion and innovate in new ways. Until then, we’re holding our breath.
CRAZY RICH ASIANS opens on August 15. Read our review here.