Game Changers is a Yahoo Entertainment video interview series highlighting the diverse creators disrupting Hollywood — and the pioneers who paved the way.
Jon M. Chu calls his entry into Hollywood “lucky.”
While a student at the University of Southern California, the aspiring filmmaker directed a short called When the Kids Are Away, which found a fan in Steven Spielberg. With the industry titan as his champion, Chu was then “thrown into the studio movie world,” offered gigs for adaptations of Bye Bye Birdie and The Great Gatsby that never happened; instead he directed movies like Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), Step Up 3D (2010), the Justin Bieber concert doc Never Say Never (2011), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) and Now You See Me 2 (2016).
However, the 41-year-old Palo Alto, Calif., native admits he shied away from telling distinctly Asian American stories. That changed with his barrier-breaking 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians, which Chu signed on to direct around the same time as he agreed to take on his upcoming release, the highly anticipated film adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway smash In the Heights.
“I didn’t want to be seen as the Asian American director, I just wanted to be seen as a director, so that choice alone took me 10 years to be OK and confident enough to do that,” Chu tells Yahoo Entertainment in our latest episode of Game Changers (watch above).
“I was at a moment where I didn’t know who I was as a filmmaker. I had spent 10 years making movies but not exactly knowing what I wanted to say with this. So I took my time and found two things that I love so much.”
Crazy Rich Asians is the story of a Chinese American New York University professor (Constance Wu) who travels with her boyfriend (Henry Golding) to Singapore where she meets his wealthy family. It was the first major studio film with a predominantly Asian cast in a present-day setting since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club. Its $174 million gross — and the loud buzz that surrounded the film — announced loud and clear to Hollywood that the industry had far too long neglected an audience eager to see itself represented on screen.
“When I saw the reaction from a whole community of people, the pride, the power of pride, that is contagious,” Chu says, noting the confident performances of cast members like Wu, Golding, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Jimmy O. Yang and Ronny Chieng. “That is something you feed off of when you see yourself up there and you aspire to be like that person, Asian or non.”
Chu says he thinks of In the Heights, the story of an uptown New York bodega owner (Anthony Ramos) who dreams of opening a beachside bar in his ancestral Dominican Republic and a film that has a predominantly Latinx cast, as a sequel to Crazy Rich Asians.
“Coming into In the Heights, I knew the responsibility or the power that we had in our hands,” he says.
He also related deeply to the material. “Even though I’m not from Washington Heights, even though I’m not Latino, I grew up in a Chinese restaurant in Northern California, I knew what it felt like to be raised by aunties and uncles. … I was first generation born here. I knew who my Abuela Claudia [a matriarch character in the play and film played by Olga Merediz] was … who we made wontons on the kitchen table with. So it just spoke to me.”
Like Crazy Rich Asians, In the Heights is already drawing rapturous early reactions (see a video Chu posted from a New York screening above) and is primed to be both a major hit and major awards contender.
It has also continued to help Chu find his identity as a filmmaker.
“I’m no longer scared of being called an Asian American director,” he says. “I’m like, ‘Hell yeah. I am an Asian American director so let’s go!’ What does that mean? We’re going to define what that means now.”
In the Heights opens June 11.
— Video produced by Jon San and edited by Jimmie Rhee
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