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Jon Chu talks Hollywood diversity and 'In the Heights'

Chu’s 'Crazy Rich Asians' schooled Hollywood on the value of a diverse cast. Now he is ready to do it again with 'In the Heights'

'In the Heights' is the screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical
'In the Heights' is the screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning musical

Jon Chu’s path to Hollywood eminence began with his biggest failure. Jem and the Holograms, a musical that Chu directed, grossed just $2 million in 2015 and posted one of the 10 worst opening weekends in Hollywood history.

“I remember sitting there feeling very empty,” says Chu, 41. “I cleared my slate and started to look for whatever those next projects were going to be. I told my agents and managers, ‘I’m not going to make money for you for the next five years, so buckle up.’” 

His time in purgatory didn’t last long. In 2016, Chu agreed to make two movies: Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights. Crazy Rich Asians, released in 2018, grossed more than $238 million and turned into a global phenomenon. Chu credits the success, in part, to the months of marketing that typically accompany a release in theaters. The many magazine covers, billboards and talk-show appearances helped to turn the cast members into stars. 

Also read: 'Song Exploder' makes the jump to streaming

Chu hoped In the Heights, his forthcoming adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s award-winning play, would have a similar impact for its largely Latino cast. Then the pandemic intervened, shuttering theaters and forcing the studio to postpone the movie’s release. While Miranda was eager to get the film out into the world, Chu held firm to his belief that it needed a big rollout. Initially, AT&T Inc.’s Warner Bros. seemed to agree.

But then Warner Bros. announced plans to debut the film and 16 others on HBO Max and theaters at the same time, a move that caught Chu off-guard. He found out just 15 minutes before the press release dropped and was one of several filmmakers peeved by the lack of communication. “I dunno, a little heads up would have been great,” he says. “But, you know, they paid for it in the end.”

As the movie’s release date approaches, Chu is starting to feel optimistic again. In the Heights will be one of the few major releases debuting this summer, promising a long run in theaters.

Videochatting from his home in Malibu, California, Chu spoke with Bloomberg News about the making of In the Heights, the impact of Crazy Rich Asians on Hollywood and his relationship with Steven Spielberg.

Some version of this movie has been in development since 2008. What was your vision for adapting it?

I knew the characters. Even though I’m not from Washington Heights — I grew up in a Chinese restaurant on the other side of the country — I recognized my family in that. I recognized my aunts and my uncles who took care of us growing up. I really related to knowing how big your dreams feel when you are imagining it in your bedroom, or in the kitchen of the restaurant.

You shot the whole movie in Washington Heights. How did the neighbors feel about that?

These are Lin’s neighbors. We all did a lot of pre-work meeting with the neighborhood and getting them to know us a bit before we came in.

My mom came and visited, and I said, “Sit right here on the stoop. Don’t move, I’m shooting this thing.” I go shoot, come back and she’s gone. She’s on the second floor, and they are all drinking beers. This family invited her up because they were watching the whole time. It’s that kind of environment. Once you are in, you’re family.

The community was so warm to us that I named my son, who was born during that time, Heights. 

Have you started to get nervous about the film?

If I was younger I would be. I’m really excited that we get to share it. We made something, whether people like it or not, that we’re really proud of. Especially after this year. Having a movie with joy and energy and love and community and family. 

I won the lottery when I got into the business. I made a short film, Steven Spielberg saw it, and I got thrown into the studio world. I didn’t know who I was or what I was.

What happens when Steven Spielberg likes your short?

We met up in DreamWorks, and we had a great, two-hour conversation about musicals. My short was a musical.

He said Oliver Twist was his favorite, so we started singing songs from it. He actually finished a whole song, which was kind of funny. It was very surreal. At the end of it, I said I was working on another musical, an original with my friends. So then I met him on a Thursday. I pitched him — me and my best friend and his eventual wife. It was my first pitch. They loved it. They bought it. It was like a fantasy. 

Then he invited me to come to a set with him. He was shooting The Terminal at the time. I got to sit next to him while he was directing and ask him any question. That was amazing. At the end, he said goodbye, the doors opened and there was a helicopter. And he jumps into his helicopter and flies over me. 

And then I didn’t see him for years.

At the start of your career, you made the two Step Up sequels. You did a G.I. Joe sequel. A lot of your early shorts from college are pretty experimental. Sequels are the opposite of that. Did that cause you any anxiety?

Spielberg saw my short in 2002, and then for five years I didn’t make a movie. I was in the business. I was working. I was developing. I was attached to, like, six different projects. None of them got made. 

I got the script for Step Up 2, and it was a direct-to-DVD dance-movie sequel, and I was like, “F--- no. I got discovered by Spielberg. I don’t need to do this yet.” And then my mom was like, “What are you talking about? You haven’t done anything. Stop being a snob. If you’re a storyteller, you can tell a story in anything. You can tell it over a campfire. You can do it in a commercial. Are you a storyteller or not?”

I really took that to heart.

You have worked a lot with relatively unknown actors in 'In the Heights' and 'Crazy Rich Asians'. Is that intentional?

It’s about a lack of opportunity. I know that I’m going to be paying special attention to showing off Ronny Chieng, Jimmy O. Yang, Henry Golding, Awkwafina, Gemma [Chan]. I know what they do. Maybe other people didn’t know. I knew exactly what they were going to do because they are unapologetic about who they are. 

And then, this cast is so freaking talented. It’s unbelievable that they can sing. They can dance. They can be funny. They can do drama. They can do big. They’re athletic. They can do it all. I’m just so excited that we get to introduce them to the world.

What has been the impact of “Crazy Rich Asians” on the entertainment business?

There is a before Crazy Rich Asians and there’s an after. But that doesn’t mean that Crazy Rich Asians caused it. Crazy Rich Asians is a result of a lot of things bubbling up to a point where it manifested itself. 

It was drilled into my head on the internet by #OscarsSoWhite and #StarringJohnCho and these movements that I’ve been in the business for a long time, and I’m part of the problem. I believed the things that I was being told: “This person can’t lead a movie. It doesn’t sell internationally.” Reading these things from the outside, people yelling and screaming about what the problems were, woke me up.

We made a fun movie, and people connected with it. Precedent is the biggest change agent in this town. The real thing about the movie wasn’t that it was some brilliant movie that changed things. It gave a pathway to show that there was going to be support, and the actors absolutely became stars and paved new paths for others behind them. 

The stars now are heading up Marvel movies, hosting SNL, winning Golden Globes. That is its biggest impact. 

That’s why we persisted with In the Heights. We needed the machinery of AT&T and Warner Bros. We needed the investment of millions to tell the world that these people are beautiful. They’re worth your time. They’re worth your money. They’re worth your commitment. So come, let us tell you a story.

Did you have any trepidation about directing a film that is about Latin culture and a diaspora to which you don’t belong?

When I signed up for it, I didn’t because I felt so attached to it. It was only after Crazy Rich Asians that I was like, “Should I be directing this movie?” And I remember sitting, talking to my producers and Lin, and being like, “I just want to make sure we’re making the right decision here.” They always stood by my side. 

It sounds like Lin was a very active producer.

Lin is a cinephile and understands the role of a director in a movie and gave us all the room we wanted. And the secret weapon was Quiara [Alégria Hudes]. Quiara balances both worlds. Lin trusted her implicitly, and he was distracted with Hamilton for the first couple of years of developing this with me. He trusts her so much that he allowed us to rip this show apart, put it back together and rip it apart.

So this movie was supposed to be released last year, then it got postponed. Now it’s part of this whole HBO Max experiment. 

Part of the reason you went with Warner Bros. for 'Crazy Rich Asians' was that you wanted it to be in theatres. You wanted the same treatment for 'In the Heights'. Now, that’s not exactly what will happen.

It wasn’t the fact of what it was. It was that they didn’t tell us, and we have a creative relationship with each other. You just wish things were handled a different way. But we’re all good. The advantage that this gives us is that they can throw down the marketing dollars right now. I think that’s why we’re getting some sort of traction here because we have a date, and we’re not moving it. 

During the pandemic, did you find that you were gravitating towards certain projects?

I was pretty focused on In the Heights. But what was heavy on my mind was that my next thing has to meet the moment. Our generation is now in control, and so this is now our moment to tell all the stories we want to tell. 

My main focus is to tell my children what world we live in. Our America is going to look very different than it does today in 20 years, when the Latino community and the Asian community are the fastest-growing minority communities. Is the world ready to look at each other and recognize your neighbor and have empathy?

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