By Melissa Hung
In October, Warner Bros. picked up the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s hit novel “Crazy Rich Asians” — with director Jon M. Chu attached — and vowed to feature an all-Asian cast. In the midst of location scouting and casting now, Chu says he plans to start filming in spring of 2017.
The son of immigrants — his mother immigrated from Taiwan, and his father from Hong Kong — Chu grew up in Palo Alto, CA where his parents started a restaurant, Chef Chu’s, in a mini mall storefront. Today, his parents still run the restaurant, which has expanded to the whole block, and Chu is a Hollywood director, known for the films “Now You See Me 2,” “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never,” and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation.”
We talked to Chu over the phone about his upbringing, how he felt fated to direct “Crazy Rich Asians,” and whether protests make a difference in how Hollywood approaches diversity.
Were your immigrant parents supportive of you going into filmmaking?
I’m the youngest of five. We’re a big family. They never let us work at the restaurant growing up. They wanted us to enjoy and experience things. I took tap for 12 years. Drums, saxophone, violin, guitar, piano — I’m not good at any of them, but I took them. Every weekend, we’d go to a show in San Francisco, whether it was opera, ballet, musicals. I had amazing classes, art classes. We always had to go to classes but we got to choose what we wanted to do. They were supportive in allowing us to do what we wanted to do which was very different, especially in the ’80s.
It sounds like you had a lot of exposure to the arts.
That doesn’t mean they didn’t have a little bit of hesitance with me deciding to do film. I realized I wanted to do film when I was in fourth or third grade. When we went on vacation I was in charge of the camera. It was a giant VHS camera. I convinced my dad to get me this little mixer from Sharper Image and it was $200 and could take all VHS players and sync them together with the stereo. So I made a video and showed it to them and they cried while watching it. I knew then, “Oh, I want to do this.” It’s amazing what Céline Dion and a little black and white footage can do to your parents.
I looked up the best schools and realized USC was the place to go. I had my sights set on that place when I was a kid even though my brothers and sisters all went to UCLA. The point of shift for my parents and me was one night in early high school. I had convinced all my teachers one by one to let me do videos instead of write papers. So I’d do these 15-minute videos on the “Great Gatsby” or “Romeo and Juliet” with my friends. It was fun and got me out of writing papers. I’d be up all night editing and I remember one night, my mom came into the room at like three or four in the morning. She’s like, “What are you doing? You do this every night! You have to get sleep. You have to start studying. I’m calling the school and telling them you cannot be doing this. You’ve conned them.”
She unplugged the computer and went to bed. And in the middle of the night I woke up and I was bawling. I needed her to know how much this meant to me. I went to her and said, “You guys always tell us to do what we love, and this is what I love. I’m just doing what you told me.”
The next day she came to school and picked me up and had a pile of filmmaking books. She said, “If you’re going to do this, you have to study and work hard like any other subject. It’s not playtime. You have to study.” From then on, they were 200 percent behind me. It was a pivotal moment of them getting on board.
And then having a restaurant was really helpful. I was so lucky to be in Palo Alto during that time in the ’80s when digital video was just starting. Customers would come talk to my dad all day long. They were like, “Oh your son is into filmmaking? Well we have this video card that digitizes videos. So if we have beta products, we’ll give it to him.”
I would get new computers every few months with video cards and editing software from Adobe and Sun Microsystems and I used them for weddings and bar mitzvahs, whatever I could get my hands on. This was before it was accessible to consumers. And they didn’t come with manuals. I had to figure it out on my own. By the time I went to USC, USC hadn’t gone digital yet. So I was ahead of the curve. I feel like the Bay Area raised me to be a digital filmmaker.
Who knew a restaurant would lead to that?
It all makes sense. A restaurant is the center of a city, especially in a city like Palo Alto. It’s the hub of conversation, of family, of community. And it was really that to my family and community, so I was very blessed.
There are not many directors in Hollywood who are Asian American who get the chance to direct an all-Asian cast. What is it about “Crazy Rich Asians” that attracted you to the project?
Another thing that my parents taught me was: America is the greatest place. Any dream that you want can come true if you work hard and love what you do. If you feel anyone is treating you poorly, or making judgments on who you are or who they think you are, don’t let that upset you. Just be better than them. Make them need you. Don’t let negative energy take energy away from your focus.
I never thought of myself — and of course I know that I’m an Asian American filmmaker — but I never categorize myself as that. Coming into Hollywood, I was just like, “I’m a filmmaker. I want to be compared to other filmmakers. That’s that.” I never really did subject matters on my ethnicity or that part of my life. It was not on purpose. I had other interests to think about.
About a year and a half ago, I was working on “Now You See Me 2.” I was reading articles and seeing things. I was debating in my head, ”Should I be thinking about this more? Is this mentality OK?” I realized the only reason I was able to succeed is because others had made it an issue before me and had cracked those doors open for me. And now that I’m a lot older as well — I’m 37 years old this year — it really weighs heavily on me. As an artist you grow and want to explore new parts of your soul and how you want to tell your stories. This side of me that’s so strong — because my family, I’m really close to them — I never explored. So I went on this tour to find if there were other stories I should be telling. I went to Beijing a couple times. Maybe I should do a Chinese language film and then throw myself into something and figure out how to work there. It could be kind of fun. But none of the stories I found really connected. I could have forced it, but it didn’t feel organic, so I put them on the side.
Then my sister actually called me — it was only about eight months ago. It was a Sunday night. And she’s like, “Why aren’t you doing ‘Crazy Rich Asians?‘ That’s the perfect movie.”
So I called my agent: “What’s going on with this book? Who’s attached?” He said, “There’s no director, but Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson are the producers.” And I love Nina and Brad. I wanted to work with them for years and I really respect they have great taste and they have a moral center. I knew they would do something like this right. … And he was like, “How did you know they sent the script to you?” I was like, “ What are you talking about?” He said, “They requested you and sent it on Friday. I was reading over the weekend to vet it.”
I had no idea. It was a serendipitous moment that I was meant to do this movie. This is the movie I’ve been waiting for, actually. In a lot of ways other movies have trained me to learn the skill sets and how to work with a studio to a point where I can push something like this through to the top levels of a studio system. I know them. They trust me. So for me, it’s something — and I’m not necessarily a huge believer in all those things — but sometimes things are placed in front of you and you know you’re supposed to do it.
I went in there and pitched and got it and knew that I was meant to tell the stories. When I talked to Kevin Kwan, I found out he’s really good friends with my cousin Vivian Chu in New York, which I didn’t know. She would tell him stories about the West Coast Chus that she would come visit every Christmas and how close we are. And so he was like, “I wrote a lot of Rachel’s story in Cupertino about those stories.” And there’s one part in the book where [Rachel’s boyfriend] Nick is defending Rachel’s family to [Nick’s mother] Eleanor because Eleanor thinks that because they work, they’re low class. In the book it says, “No, they do really well for themselves. They even have a cousin who directs movies in Hollywood.” Kevin said, “I’m referring to you!”
I’m like, “What?!” This is too crazy. This is the time. And win or lose, I’m supposed to do this movie. I have a strong bond, in a weird strange way, with this property.
There was a sigh of relief from Asian Americans who were afraid this movie was going to be whitewashed. Do you think Asian Americans protesting and being outspoken have had any effect on casting?
Absolutely. One hundred, two hundred percent. That’s one of the things I wish all these people out there who are speaking out knew. It wasn’t just a passive protest. This movement absolutely changed every meeting I’ve gone to. Every meeting that I went to before, it was an unsaid thing. Now when I bring it up, they have to address it. They are forced to, and especially in a movie like this. When we went to all the studios — we developed a script with Adele Lim who’s from Malaysia and a great writer; she gave it such a great voice — we went out with that script to all the studios and I would say most of the studios made a bid for it. It was a bidding war for an all-Asian cast with romantic leads. I don’t think without that movement we would of had that kind of fervor. Of course it’s a popular book. So we would have had some interest. But it became a mandate — not just making the movie, but making the movie right became a mandate.
I was just at a meeting last night with 25 Warner Bros. executives, a cultural sensitivity meeting. That was a victory in itself, to be so important that we have to get all the top Warner Bros. people in a room — called by Warner Bros. by the way — that we could talk about the elephant in the room and say, “How do we approach it? In casting? In how we portray? Of course there’s satirical elements to the movie because of the story, so how far do we go? How sensitive do we need to be?” And it wasn’t about how sensitive do you need to be to get this movie into China; that’s a totally different conversation. This was, “How would we serve the purpose of this movie, which of course is a fun romantic comedy for anybody. But we’re going to be looked at as the example of how to do a movie like this correctly. How to cast it correctly. How to do it in the way we’re supposed to do it. So what are all those things?” We laid it on the table, and we had debate.
Some answers were not so black and white. Others absolutely are and require more money, more time, more effort ¾ which at any other time without this protest, I think a public company would have a lot more difficulty saying, “Yes, go spend more money to go deeper.” Because there’s a systematic issue with finding romantic male Asian leads. A lot of those actors don’t necessarily have access or have the ability to have representation. “Yes, go spend extra dollars to go dig it up and correct this wrong.” And of course I think we’re in the beginning stages of correcting that.
It sounds like there’s actually some momentum for Asian Americans in Hollywood.
It’s hard to say things are fixed, but the conversation has sparked. The fire is stirring and going and now we’ve got to do our jobs right. Mulan’s got to do their job right, both Mulan movies. Other movies from Netflix to other studios have got to do their job right.
One thing I find interesting about your story is that you jumped right into Hollywood whereas a lot of other Asian American filmmakers came up through the independent film festival circuit. Have you gone to a lot of film festivals?
When I was younger I went to more, to be honest. I had more time. When I was in USC specifically, I had a couple of short films that did the rounds in film festivals: Slamdance, Tribeca, things like that. And they were great experiences. I met a lot of great people and saw amazing stuff. I was actually at Sundance when Justin Lin showed “Better Luck Tomorrow,” when Ebert was debating with this other dude. I was so inspired that a movie could spark this kind of passion. Even when they kicked us out, we all went into the hallway and watched this debate. I felt lucky to be there to witness that.
In the film industry, is there a movement of people around this issue of diversity? Are you involved in any efforts?
Yeah, we’re cooking some things up. There’s always been some Asian American Hollywood groups. We have dinner and talk. But because of everyone speaking out, there’s this movement now — these organizations and groups have to actually execute. And people are in the places in their lives — executives and creatives — to actually make a difference. There’s a lot of different conversations going on now and I’m involved in several of those. Even just crewing up for our movie, those have been really helpful. And there will be some announcements in the future too. I can feel this movement.
Even when I go to CAPE [the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment] — I love CAPE; they’ve been so great to me — they had their 25th anniversary gala and you look around and, “Oh shit! These are people who are actually known in the world.” Like to have Constance [Wu], and the kids from “Fresh Off the Boat,” and Steven Yuen, and the digital influencers like Wong Fu. There’s a lot. And everyone’s working and everyone’s doing stuff. And this is the first time you can feel it, when we’re all together. We’re just sort of looking at each other going, “Shit! Alright, let’s get to work!” I think that was a great reminder that even though it doesn’t feel like things are happening, everyone is doing their thing and this new voice, this younger voice is comingvand they’re fierce.
What is your advice to filmmakers, especially filmmakers of color trying to break into the mainstream?
I would say, “Don’t be afraid to be different.” I think that’s the hardest thing, the scariest thing. Because you watch movies your whole life and you’re like, “I want to be that. I want to be like him, or I want to be like her.” And ultimately, there’s already a her and a him. People of color, creatives of color — we have unique perspectives. The first generation that’s born here, we have a specific perspective of America, of community, of family. We’ve been taught two different ways of living life, which is what I love about “Crazy Rich Asians,” because we get to deal with the collision of culture and ideas which both have their benefits and their faults.
And dig deep in those places. That’s the only way you stand out, bringing your unique spin on how you see the world. People want to see the world through your eyes. That’s why they pay $20 to sit in the dark and say, “Take me somewhere, take me into your eyes.” I haven’t mastered it. I don’t want to be preachy. I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m on a journey and figuring it out along the way. But what I’ve found is every time I’m more genuine to myself and my journey, the more people respond. That specificity has a universality to it. We’re all human beings. We all feel out of place no matter what ethnicity you are. We all try to find our place in the world. We’re all looking for community or family or something. And that’s what makes us united — that we all share that struggle throughout our lives, ups and downs. And movies tell us it’s OK.
Melissa Hung is a writer and journalist in San Francisco. She is the founding editor of Hyphen magazine.