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With ‘In the Heights,’ Jon M. Chu disrupts the movie musical. Here’s how he did it

A triptych of director Jon M. Chu jumping on stone steps.
Jon M. Chu, photographed at his Calabasas home on May 28, makes his movie musical debut with “In the Heights,” nearly 20 years after he was predicted to transform the genre.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)
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There’s a quieter moment in the opening of “In the Heights” when Usnavi, played by Anthony Ramos, shares his secret dream: He feels stuck to the bodega his parents left him, and longs to return to the Dominican Republic. He reveals this while staring out the store window at a crowd of dancers, visible to the viewer in the window’s reflection.

This shot — combining footage of 75 performers on location in Washington Heights, and Ramos singing through a movie set’s glassless window — is a visual reference to one of Jon M. Chu’s favorite films, “Meet Me in St. Louis,” the 1944 movie in which Judy Garland belts a now-iconic Christmas carol from a window of the home she’s sad to leave.

“In our version, Usnavi is looking out at the block, feeling trapped in this classic ‘Meet Me in St. Louis’ kind of frame, yearning to even breathe the air outside,” the director explains. “What’s reflected in that glass isn’t his community feeling sad for him or even ignoring him. Instead, they’re challenging him. They’re daring him to break through that window and dream bigger.”

A later song sees two characters magically dancing on the side of a building — an ode to Fred Astaire’s ceiling routine in the 1951 movie “Royal Wedding.” And an exuberant set piece, with 90 dancers splashing in sync in the Highbridge Pool, echoes the kaleidoscopic water ballets of 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. Chu’s Warner Bros. release, which officially debuts June 11 in theaters and on HBO Max with early screenings June 10, notably quotes these Golden Age moments with actors and characters of color.

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“In the Heights” is Chu’s first feature-length movie-musical — a four-quadrant live-action genre that, with rare exceptions, has been directed by a handful of white men over the past 20 years. It’s the exact type of project the “Crazy Rich Asians” director dreamed of when he first decided to make movies — and a pursuit on which he’d long given up. “It’s so strange. I never thought this odyssey would end up right back at the musical,” he says.

“But I’m so down. I’ve been waiting a long time for this.”

Anthony Ramos looking out a window in "In the Heights"
(Warner Bros.)

Anthony Ramos leads a terrific ensemble in this vibrant ode to life in a Washington Heights barrio from director Jon M. Chu (‘Crazy Rich Asians’).

It’s a balmy afternoon in May, and Chu, 41, is doing paradiddle tap steps down some stone stairs in his Calabasas backyard. Though he tried out piano, drums, saxophone and violin throughout his childhood, he only took to tap, and continued lessons for 12 years. He brushed up on his moves for his 2017 wedding reception — a surprise for his wife, Kristin Hodge, a graphic designer now pregnant with their third child.

“Be careful, Dada!” shouts his 3-year-old daughter Willow, whose name Hodge still doesn’t believe derives from Ron Howard’s 1988 film. Chu himself got his name from the lead character of the 1980s series “Hart to Hart,” and his professional name follows the format of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, after he saw the movie ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ with his grandfather.

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“I started writing my name as ‘Jon M. Chu’ on my home movies, thinking it’d be so cool to see it on the big screen someday,” he tells me. We’re seated on the patio of the home he and his family moved into six months ago. The nearly 3-acre Calabasas lot will double as his “creative compound,” with ample room for a future editing studio and dance rehearsal space.

Director Jon M. Chu stands in the branches of a large tree.
“Tension needs to be in a musical too,” says director Jon M. Chu, seen here in his Calabasas backyard. “It can’t just be a bunch of songs.”
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The definition of “home” is up for debate throughout “In the Heights.” Aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) feels suffocated by the gentrifying Upper Manhattan neighborhood, while Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace) craves the security of the close-knit community. When Chu saw the Tony-winning stage musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, he immediately identified with Usnavi. The daily rhythm of his bodega paralleled that of his father’s Chinese restaurant in Los Altos, Calif.

Outside the restaurant, Chu unknowingly spent his childhood studying the storytelling power of music. His entire family gathered around the TV to watch classics like “Singin’ in the Rain,” Disney animated movies and even the latest Michael Jackson music video (“which was basically Fosse’s ‘A Snake in the Grass,’” he says). And his parents ritualistically brought him and his four older siblings to ballets, operas and musicals all over the Bay Area.

“There’s a truthfulness of why music and dance exist in these stories in the first place,” says Chu. “It’s not because a melody is catchy but because just saying the words isn’t sufficient to communicate whatever that character wants to express.”

Chu acted in school productions, and even played the Boy in San Jose Civic Light Opera’s “Pacific Overtures” in 1991. “There was one performance where I’m up there in the tree, singing the song, and I skip a verse,” he says. “The conductor is really angry, and the orchestra just keeps playing, but I’ve stopped singing because there’s nothing else for me to sing! An adult comes back onstage and makes up words to a Sondheim song to fill in the time. When I got offstage, I thought, ‘I’m never doing this again.’”

He didn’t realize his fondness for the form until he started film school at USC in the early aughts. “For a screenwriting class, I started writing something called ‘The Last Great American Musical,’ about a high school that was putting on a show, so it was a musical of a musical,” he recalls passionately. “My teacher was like, ‘Musicals are dead — you’re supposed to write something you can actually sell once you graduate.’”

Instead, Chu doubled down with the tap-centric “Silent Beats” and the barbershop-quartet short “Gwai Lo” — two music-driven pieces about racial and cultural identity. “‘Gwai Lo’ means ‘white devil,’ it’s what they called me when I went to Hong Kong for the first time,” Chu says solemnly. “My class liked the film, but I was so self-conscious because I didn’t know how to define what an Asian American is. I didn’t submit it to festivals, I never really shared it with anybody. I buried it.”

For his final project, Chu pivoted to whimsy with “When the Kids Are Away,” a jubilant, humorous and diversely cast 18-minute musical about housewives’ weekday routines. It kicks off with a burst of color akin to Dorothy’s “Wizard of Oz” arrival, and follows the busy women as they take genre-hopping dance breaks.

An "In the Heights" scene with 90 dancers splashing in sync in the Highbridge Pool.
One exuberant “In the Heights” set piece features 90 dancers splashing in sync in the Highbridge Pool.
(Warner Bros.)

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The roots of “In the Heights” in this short are undeniable, says cinematographer Alice Brooks, who shot both projects: “When we were filming the [“Heights”] opening with all the dancers in the middle of 175th Street, it immediately reminded me of this finale, when I sat on top of a crane to get 30 dancers dancing in the middle of that street in South Pasadena.”

The piece got the attention of Hollywood, which, thanks to the success of “Moulin Rouge” and “Chicago,” had deemed the movie musical undead. With the sudden support of Steven Spielberg, Chu quickly sold the “Romeo and Juliet” revamp “Moxie” and a contemporary “Bye Bye Birdie”: Instead of getting drafted to war, superstar Birdie could go to jail, but not before pulling off a buzzy publicity stunt of cohabiting with a devout fan.

“The idea of fame was changing then — reality shows were just hitting, and everything was [all about celebrities like] Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan,” he says of what he called a “remixed musical” at the time. “We could’ve made it super comedic and fun, with everyone trying to find their true selves in this fallacy of a reality series slash PR campaign for this star.”

Neither project materialized, and others fell apart. Though he finished film school with impressive attention, Chu didn’t direct anything for five years. “Then this script for a straight-to-DVD dance sequel arrives and you’re like, ‘Is this what I’ve come to?’” he says, shaking his head.

“But it turned out to be the best thing that could’ve happened. It was some sort of intersection of destiny that started everything.”

Director Jon M. Chu leans on a bookshelf in his Calabasas home.
“Just saying the words isn’t sufficient to communicate whatever that character wants to express,” Jon M. Chu, seen inside his Calabasas home, says of stories driven by music and dance.
(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes explain the reasons behind the musical’s biggest tweaks from the stage to the screen.

“Step Up 2: The Streets” ended up being a surprise hit, but the real win was the bond Chu forged with the movie’s dancers.

“Jon genuinely loves dance, which, in this industry, that’s rare,” says “Step Up 2" dancer and “In the Heights” choreographer Christopher Scott. “Even if you do love dance, Jon wants to understand every part of it: ‘Why don’t they want to be called break dancers? Oh, they’re breakers, B-girls — got it.’ He immediately gave that respect to the dancers, who went, ‘You’re one of us now.’” (It was “Step Up 2" choreographer Luis Salgado, also an original “In the Heights” cast member, who got Chu to first check out the stage show.)

Though Chu himself is admittedly “terrible” at hip-hop dance, he regularly tagged along with the performers to their clubs and competitions. “When they danced, people stopped what they were doing and paid attention to them,” he says. “But they weren’t spinning on their heads to perform for you. They’re spinning on their heads so you could believe in magical things that you didn’t believe someone could do before they did it. They’re telling you a story about themselves and how beautiful the world can be.”

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Following the viral success of dance battle videos with Miley Cyrus, Adam Sandler, Amanda Bynes and Diana Ross, Chu teamed with choreographer Scott and cinematographer Brooks on the dance narrative series “The LXD.” The trio began fine-tuning their formula for capturing the discipline on camera.

“The thing that the three of us love is telling a story through dance, and not just filming a big dance number for no reason,” says Brooks. “During rehearsal, we each shoot the dancers in different ways — moving around with a Steadicam, standing on a ladder for high-angle shots, laying on the ground for low-angle shots. Jon quickly edits some of the videos together and we go over what works, what we can frame better and how we can better showcase the characters’ expressions, because we never want to distract from that.”

Miranda, who saw “Step Up 2" in theaters on opening weekend and followed “The LXD,” first met with Chu about “In the Heights” in 2016. (Chu praised “Hamilton” to Miranda, even though he hadn’t yet seen it, and kept up that lie for a year.) Miranda ultimately believed Chu to be right for “In the Heights” because “honestly, of all the directors we talked to, Latino and non-Latino, he had the lived experience that was closest to our characters.”

Plus, “Jon knew how to shoot the s— out of a dance number.”

Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on a film shoot.
“Of all the directors we talked to, Latino and non-Latino, he had the lived experience that was closest to our characters,” says “In the Heights” composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, right, of the film’s director, Jon M. Chu.
(Warner Bros.)

Still, “In the Heights” — Chu’s feature movie musical debut, nearly 20 years after he was predicted to disrupt the genre — might not have happened if it weren’t for Chu’s circuitous journey. Even the highly technical choreography of the mountain fight in “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” and the building excitement of the hidden-card sequence of “Now You See Me 2" were constructive to the already critically acclaimed adaptation.

“Those big action movies are basically giant spectacles, performances,” says Chu. “They work because there’s a piece of danger that allows you to just go with it, no matter how unrealistic it is. That tension needs to be in a musical too; it can’t just be a bunch of songs.”

Chu intercuts the movie’s more fantastical sequences with seconds-long vignettes of life in Washington Heights, featuring a group of actors known as the movie’s “community chorus.” In the opening, for example, they sing along with Usnavi while they’re cooking breakfast, heading to work or getting their kids ready for school. It’s Chu’s way of saying that these residents, who live on this corner you may have never noticed, have their own dreams too.

At first, these snippets were too expensive to film. “But I knew if we didn’t have these shots, the section wouldn’t be complete,” says Chu. An initial cut of the sequence with stock footage tested well but didn’t exactly click, which convinced the studio to expand the budget for these specific shots. “The people here work hard for their families and their community — they’re the magic of this place,” says Chu.

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Audiences first saw Chu’s cultural reverence in “Crazy Rich Asians,” the first studio film of its kind in 25 years. “He is no stranger to enormous cinematic pressure, especially when it comes to representation,” the film’s Ken Jeong says of Chu. “There’s an empathetic spirit to his visuals — every frame is warm and full of compassion, as well as stunning.”

Coincidentally, Upper Manhattan is also the backdrop for “West Side Story,” Spielberg’s anticipated remake that was filmed during the same summer. “They had a catering truck in our shot — that’s how close we were,” Chu recalls with a laugh. (He invited Spielberg to visit his set; he never came, or reciprocated the invitation.)

Nevertheless, Chu loves the fact that both “In the Heights” and “West Side Story,” two movie musicals with Latino characters, are being released in the same year. “The rivalry thing is fun — not that there’s a rivalry, he’s Steven Spielberg! — but it evokes the conversation of, why does there only have to be one? Why do you think there has to be a competition?”

Hopeful residents of Washington Heights
Throughout “In the Heights,” Jon M. Chu intercuts more fantastical sequences with vignettes of neighborhood life. A bodega scene, top, with Corey Hawkins, left, Gregory Diaz IV and Anthony Ramos, as well as a salon interlude, with Melissa Barrera, left, Stephanie Beatriz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Leslie Grace and Dascha Polanco, are just two examples.
(Macall Polay / Warner Bros.)

Now that he’s pulled off “In the Heights,” he’s breaking through and dreaming bigger: a screen adaptation of the hit musical “Wicked,” which has been in development since just after its Broadway opening in 2003. “I have sessions every day with [composer-lyricist] Stephen Schwartz and [book writer] Winnie Holzman as we’re breaking the script again,” Chu says, “going through every line, every word, to find our way in cinematically.”

While he plans to highlight “Wicked’s” dominant themes of “being othered” and “female friendship, specifically,” he also sees the long-gestating project as an opportunity to meet the moment. “Right now, our definitions of history are changing — we’re in a very important moment about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Chu explains.

“‘Wicked’ is all about that: [Elphaba] revisiting the innocence of what we think the world is, and discovering that it’s more complicated than that. And what does living in a bubble mean for Glinda? People don’t just build a bubble for no reason, you build a bubble because you don’t want to deal with something.

“Now that bubble is bursting all around us, which can be seen as a scary, scary thing,” he continues. “You can feel sorrow for the things that are going away, you can feel anger for the things that have happened, you can feel vengeance for the things you want justice for. Sometimes violence occurs — good or bad, it happens.

“I think this movie has an opportunity to show the world that change — real, true change — is OK,” he says. “And getting through it with grace and forgiveness can make all the difference.”

Regardless of what he’s working on, “In the Heights” will always be with him. The director’s newfound love for the New York neighborhood spurred Chu to ask Miranda and Hudes a big question. “I want to be able to say the word ‘heights’ every day of my life, and I want my son to hear that word every day of his life,” he told them. “Is it OK if I name him Heights?”

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They both cried with Chu and gave him their blessing. Jonathan Heights Chu was born in the middle of the movie’s shoot.

“I love the way the people take care of each other,” Chu explains of the name. “And I love how they dream — they look out their windows and see past the horizon — and I want those same things for my son.”

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