For more than a decade and a half, screenwriter Adele Lim had worked her way up through an impressive résumé in television, writing on shows including “One Tree Hill,” “Life Unexpected,” “Reign” and “Star-Crossed.” But she never imagined she’d get to write a movie for Asian talent in Hollywood, where leads of color, sadly, remain rare.
Then Lim got a call from Jon M. Chu. As the co-writer of “Crazy Rich Asians” (she shares screenplay credit with Peter Chiarelli) she found a joyful story filled with insights from across the global Asian diaspora — and a family dynamic that felt familiar to her own background as a Malaysian native of Chinese descent.
You’d been writing for television when Jon M. Chu called you to work on “Crazy Rich Asians.” In your own words: What’s your Hollywood story?
I’m Chinese. I grew up in Malaysia, born and raised there. I never worked in features before, but I worked with Jon Chu — he and I sold a pilot to Fox together before, which didn’t go. Then he called me out of the blue. I was working full time on a different TV show and he said, “Read this book, I want to talk to you about adapting it.”
When I read the book I was blown away. I called him and said, “I am in 100%.” Because what Jon didn’t know is I grew up in Southeast Asia. I’m from those strict Chinese families. I like to say my family isn’t rich but they’re crazy. … Everything in [the story] — the languages, the dialects, the food, the crazy family dynamics, how your family feels like they completely own you, it was just everything that I grew up with.
I had a long career in TV before that and I never had a chance to write about my people before. I remember thinking, “I don’t have the time for it, I don’t even know what the money is, but I’m going to do it because I never thought in a million years I’d get a chance to write for my people for a major Hollywood movie.”
“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?
It’s funny — with things like this I try to not think too much about the messaging. I’m aware of it, but what I loved about Kevin Kwan’s book, and he talks about it when he was writing, is that it comes from a place of joy.
There are so many amazing works of literature from Asian Americans out there dealing with important stories that need to be told, but this one for me was one of the first that was just purely joyous and showing us in all these facets that the world hasn’t really seen us in before.
This was a new story. It was a new insight into not just our culture, but the diaspora and the culture of overseas Asians everywhere.
Why was it important to have creators of Asian descent telling this story?
There was already a great script written by Peter Chiarelli when I came on. But Jon, to his credit, knew that he had a female protagonist and he wanted a female point of view. When I came on we basically talked about how I grew up in this culture. There are so many tiny nuances in the book. For Jon and I to be able to go into our collective childhood histories and find that common ground between our experiences growing up and the character’s experiences in that book. …
Important doesn’t begin to describe it when you’re talking about describing a culture and a family that the world — that America — hasn’t seen before. You want it to come from an authentic perspective.