Director Jon M. Chu brings the vibrant world of “Crazy Rich Asians” to life with all the style and glamour of a big-budget Hollywood movie — but early on in the project he had a big choice to make, joining author Kevin Kwan in turning down a massive Netflix payday to ensure the groundbreaking project would make its impact on the big screen.
The Palo Alto-born USC graduate had spent the last decade becoming one of Hollywood’s fastest-rising studio directors with credits including “Step Up 2 the Streets,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and the “Now You See Me” films.
But Chu, who will direct an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” in 2019 and is developing a film based on the Thai cave rescue, realized the time had come to focus his message — and put his money where his mouth was.
In your own words: What’s your Hollywood story?
My mom’s from Taiwan. My dad’s from mainland China. They came over when they were 19, 20 years old. I’m the youngest of five kids from the Silicon Valley — Los Altos Hills, California, to be specific.
They started a restaurant called Chef Chu’s. Fifty years, next year. My dad works every day, and they always taught us that America’s the greatest place in the world: If you work hard and focus on what you do, you can be the best and you can do anything you want.
I went to USC film school, made a bunch of shorts there. Luckily, I got discovered off of my musical short “When the Kids Are Away,” and I started making movies. It’s kind of an insane Cinderella story.
I got a call from Steven Spielberg on a Friday night and got my catapult into the business. I’ve done a bunch of movies, but it wasn’t until a couple years ago where I really questioned what kind of movies I wanted to make. I found “Crazy Rich Asians” and I feel like this is the beginning of my Chapter Two.
What made you feel that you had to be a part of bringing “Crazy Rich Asians” to the big screen?
I wanted to find something that was more personal, and the most personal thing was tackling my own cultural identity — something I was too scared to deal with before… Hopefully through this movie you realize everyone’s trying to find their place. Everyone’s trying to find their role in this life, and you’re not alone in your struggle.
“Crazy Rich Asians” is the first movie of its kind in 25 years. What does it mean to you to be part of this moment?
I remember growing up as a kid and not seeing a lot of people on the big screen, or even behind the screen, that looked like me. So the fact that we get to show romantic leads in a contemporary movie, showing this experience of an Asian American going out into the world and discovering Asia, that we’re not just one blob of Asian people, means so much.
I think about my young self. I think about my daughter who was just born a year ago, and the world I want her to live in. I want her to live in a world where she’s seeing Constance Wu, Michelle Yeoh and Lisa Lu be these strong independent people that don’t need a man in their life to be fulfilled, and that love themselves and know that they’re worth every inch of their existence, and can be anything and do whatever they want.
When you were young, who inspired you?
I remember making my first project. I was making videos with my family and I got this Sharper Image mixer. I used all the VHS tapes to cut it together and I showed my parents in the living room and they cried when they watched it, and I felt heard for the first time. Being one of five kids, to be heard is a big deal! I knew I was going to do this for the rest of my life whether I was going to be paid for it or not.
Growing up I remember seeing people like Rufio [played by Dante Basco] in “Hook” and being like, “That guy’s so cool.” I got to play him every time I was playing with my friends. Even though it was just a little small thing, I know how much that can mean to a kid. So as we make this, I hope it gives inspiration to others — not just that they can be these characters, but that other writers and directors with other stories … don’t have to depend on one story with one set of characters.
These other stories we can hear that we don’t even know exist right now — that’s why I’m really excited for the future. Where there are cracks is where the light can come in.