Director Jon M. Chu on “Crazy Rich Asians”: “You feel the confidence coming off of the screen”

Constance Wu in "Crazy Rich Asians"
"Crazy Rich Asians," based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, is the first major Hollywood studio project in 25 years to feature an ensemble cast of actors of predominantly East Asian descent set in the present day.

In early August, director Jon M. Chu came home to the San Francisco Bay Area—and to his parents’ Chinese restaurant, Chef Chu’s, in Los Altos, California. He had grown up in the two-story restaurant, celebrating birthdays, soccer games, and even his engagement there. This time the tables were set—with red tablecloths, matching napkins, and ornate gold tone flatware—for an event he never imagined growing up. Chu brought actors Constance Wu and Henry Golding with him to promote their film Crazy Rich Asians, which opens nationally in theaters on August 15.

Standing in front of a wall adorned with gold dragons, Chu addressed a room full of press, telling them about the many times his parents had told him that he should make a film about the Chinese experience. He had made his name on films like the dance dramas Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3DJustin Bieber: Never Say Never, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Now You See Me 2. His response to his parents back then had been: “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever.” As he grew older, though, and began reflecting on family, he realized that he wanted to tell a story about his Asian American identity.

Though by no means an ordinary story—NYU economics professor Rachel Chu (Wu) accompanies her boyfriend Nick Young (Golding) to Singapore for the first time and learns that he’s the scion of one of Asia’s wealthiest families—it centers on Rachel, the daughter of an immigrant single mother. While there have been films that starred Asian Americans—Better Luck Tomorrow, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, and The Namesake, to name just a few—Crazy Rich Asians, based on the best-selling novel by Kevin Kwan, is the first major Hollywood studio project in 25 years to feature an ensemble cast of actors of predominantly East Asian descent set in the present day. (The cast has a mix of Asian, Asia American, Asian British, and Asian Australian actors including Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ronny Chieng, Chris Pang, and Ken Jeong.) The last time that happened was Wayne Wang’s The Joy Luck Club. Rarer yet: it is a romantic comedy with Westernized Asians in lead roles.

This fact has generated buzz and giddy anticipation, especially among many Asian Americans weary of the indignities of being left out of media and pop culture, or worse, portrayed in mortifying ways.

I chatted with Jon M. Chu nearly two years ago when the film was in development and caught up with the director again just on the brink of the film’s theatrical release. He talked about the unique way they cast the film, working with actors from the Asian diaspora, and his hopes for Asian American representation in cinema. The fact of the matter, he said, was that studios were waiting to see how Crazy Rich Asians did before green-lighting other Asian American-led projects.

“Hopefully this opens the door for many other stories that need to be told,” Chu said.

– Melissa Hung 

Jon M. Chu at CAAMFest 36. Photo by Lucy Saephan

Melissa Hung: The last time we talked, you were location scouting and casting. You were about to go over to Malaysia. I wonder how that process went because I’m thinking about it in terms of other industries, like business, tech, even journalism. When you tell those industries, “Hey, we need more diversity,” they come back and say, “Oh, it’s really hard. No one applied.”

Jon M. Chu: (laughs)

Or, “We can’t find anyone.” Which is bullshit, right?

Yeah, exactly.

So I’m wondering if you had to push up against anything during casting, if it was hard.

It was interesting because we approached it in a different way. We knew that if we did it in a studio from day one, we would be up against the wall. We would not have the power to fight their insecurities—cause it’s all insecurities. They haven’t done it so they don’t know how, so they make up facts about it. So, we developed outside the studio system on our own, brought in Adele [Lim] to write the last draft of the script and get all the things that we wanted in there. And it was the best thing we could have done because we got to push it the way we wanted to. We never had to compromise on anything. We get to just do the vision.

Once we were done, then we budgeted, scouted, put it all together, and then we went to studios and said, “You’re either in or you’re out and you can’t tell us what to do.” So we had cut the option of them using their insecurity to mold how we wanted to cast this movie. And we also said upfront, “The way casting is set up does not give us the amount of people that we know are out there. So you’re going to have to spend more money, have more casting directors on more parts of the continent, and it’s going to take more time. So, that’s just what you’re doing when you start with this movie.” The infrastructure hasn’t been there, but that doesn’t mean [the actors] are not there. It means the infrastructure is not built for that because you get the same 10 people on that list every time.

So, we had casting directors in Vancouver, in Hong Kong, in the UK, and Australia and Malaysia and Singapore and Beijing. And we did a thorough search, finding people who weren’t even in the business. We did a YouTube open call, so people who were businessmen and lawyers and doctors and other artists submitted stuff. When you’re starting from the ground up, sometimes you have to think a little outside the box to find the people who should be in the business, but may just not have had the opportunity because there were no parts for that.

So you built your own system.

We built our own system and then said, “Are you in or are you out?” And what’s great is that the pressure from the outside world—Twitter, Instagram, whatever it may be—on the studios to find stories told in new points of view than just the regular ones, especially in a romantic comedy [was so great that] by the time we walked into that room they were like, “What do we do?” And we’re like, “We have the solution. Let us show you how to do it.” That’s the importance of representation—not just in front of the camera, but behind the camera and also on the studio side, some executive on the inside to support you on that side. And that’s what we’ve really felt throughout this whole process. It’s clearly our time to do this.

I was wondering about the crew too, did you push for representation there as well?

We shot in Malaysia, and they love locals cause you don’t have to pay for them to live there. So in that way, it’s the most global crew I’ve ever worked with. We have the local Malaysians and the local Singaporeans. We had people from Croatia, people from the UK. We had people from Australia and some people from the US—and this is just behind the camera. So it was a very global. And what’s interesting is the local crews are really not used to big Hollywood movies. So there had to be a little bit of education. But they’re such fast learners; [they] clearly had the eye but again, [are] not necessary trained in the Hollywood way of how to light things. A lot of them are used to TV dramas. So you have to help guide. But it was a great. They picked up pretty quickly and we found some other gems in there that were really amazing. My script supervisor was like, “Yeah I, um, figured out how to be a script super by looking it up on the internet. I train all the script supervisors here because they don’t have enough movies here done in the American system to even know what to do. So I looked it up, figured it out online.” And she was great! She was fantastic! (laughs)

Michelle Yeoh in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

What was it like being on set with all these Asians from the diaspora?

Honestly, going there I was a stupid American. In my mind, I was like, “Oh yeah, they’re from the UK. OK, they’re from Australia. Like, whatever. We’re all like Asian Americans, right?” But when you get there you realize, “Oh there [are] cultural differences.” They’ve gone through their own struggle in the UK and Australia and in Malaysia and Singapore. It’s very different types of things. I think it was a great sharing experience between everybody. Even Michelle Yeoh was like, “Oh I didn’t understand the plight of the Asian American.” And [then] she really understood that. And we really understood her point of view—of her strength and where her confidence comes from.

Also, we hired people who do what they do really, really well, which means they’re super confident in what they do. And when you watch the movie, you feel the confidence coming off of the screen. Awkwafina doesn’t care. She is who she is. Ronnie Chieng is who he is. Jimmy Yang is who he is. Gemma [Chan] is such a force. Constance [Wu] is a force, even though in the movie she plays someone who’s finding her way. I think what I love most about the movie is that no one’s apologizing to be who they are. I didn’t understand that that’s what I was missing when I watched Asians on the big screen who are in contemporary settings—that kind of confidence that doesn’t have to try to be anything else other than who they are in wherever they may be. And yeah, maybe one has an English accent and people may not be used to that. And some have other accents. And some other people are crisscrossing Cantonese and Mandarin. And there’s no explanation. It just is because that’s what actually happens. So I think that was the lesson for me, just being OK with all that and being, “Yeah, that’s the way it should feel.”

We actually got—when we did a test screening—we had some guy of friends and family who said, “I’m really surprised that English is the first language. You guys need to explain why.”

Explain why it’s the first language spoken in the film?

Well, just that they speak English so well. English seems to be their first language. And we’re like, “Cause it’s Singapore. And that’s what Singapore is.” And so there was a big discussion. Are people are going to have that question? You know, Americans that may not know this stuff—do we need to explain that? And I was really resistant on explaining, “Oh, well they went to British schools and this person went to this school. That’s why they speak English here.” Why do we have to explain that? When an audience goes to see the movie, I want the stupid guy to say that to his friends, and his friends rip him for saying that. Then they will never forget that for the rest of their life. If we give fake excuses for why they speak English, then [they] will think that’s the only reason why they speak English. And then nobody will have that discussion. And I think that would be a missed opportunity for us. So, we don’t explain. We don’t ever give some sort of reason. It just is because that’s what it is. I don’t know how else to explain it to people.

We have such a strong box that we put Asians in here, even myself before. And so to kick the tires on all the things that have infiltrated our brains from culture growing up here is very enlightening and surprising.

Henry Golding and Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

One thing I was thinking about was how Crazy Rich Asians is such a global cast. But Asian America is also very small, like I can think of how many degrees I am separated from you. So, how does it feel to you personally to make this film when you know so many people in the community here?

The network has been insane. I guess I didn’t understand how close everyone really is, especially apparently to my father and my mother (laughs) who have a restaurant here for 50 years. And people are like, “Oh, my mom plays golf with your mom,” or “Oh, we’ve eaten at your restaurant.” Those things are bizarre.

When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s [as an] Asian American, you think you’re completely alone in this experience. Why are we the only family that feels like we’re going through this? I feel fully 100 percent American and yet I’m not looked at like that. And yet, I also know—because I basically live in a Chinese restaurant—that there’s this other side. But that’s my family. I’m torn between these two words. Why am I the only one that is torn between? And what I realized years later is so many people were going through this exact same experience in their own towns.

I think the younger generation—and who knows, I think with the internet and the world getting smaller in that way—maybe they don’t feel as much like that. And that is the crack that the light is coming in on, and that’s why we’re able to change this perception. Also, this first generation of Asian Americans is coming into places of power where I can actually decide to make a movie like this. And there happens to be an executive, an Asian American executive [Kevin Tsujihara], in that power position to help me make that. And there are journalists who are also Asian Americans who want to write about it. And there are audience members who have been looking for a movie like this. I think it’s like a flower blooming. Unfortunately it took a while, but the time was now to bring the experience up to the world.

Awkwafina and Constance Wu in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

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The interview is made possible by Comcast, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Melissa Hung is a writer whose essays and reported stories about culture, race, and immigration, have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Pacific Standard, and Shondaland.

Jon M. Chu was featured in a special in-person conversation at CAAMFest 2018 in May.

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