Crazy Rich Asians: 10 things we learned about the buzzy new film
Director Jon M. Chu talks about life in between, great expectations, and 15-minute decisions
When The Joy Luck Club opened in theatres in 1993, it was the first major Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian cast in leading roles — and for the next quarter century, it would remain the only one. But that's about to change.
Crazy Rich Asians, the film adaptation of the successful novel by author Kevin Kwan, is the first Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club to bring a large cast of Asian characters front and centre.
In the film, Chinese-American professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) travels with her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding) to his native country, Singapore — not realizing that his family is "richer than God," and not exactly welcoming of people outside their financial class.
Best known for several of the wildly successful films in the Step Up dance series, as well as Justin Bieber concert films, director Jon M. Chu knows there's a lot riding on this romantic comedy: he has to please the fans of the popular novel, and he has to prove to Hollywood that a film with an all-Asian cast is viable at the box office.
As the film builds buzz around the globe, Chu was our guest on q, and he talked about life in between, about great expectations, and about what it's like to have 15 minutes to make one of the most important decisions of your life. Here are 10 things we learned:
The film The Joy Luck Club had a huge influence on him
The first time Chu saw someone who looked like him on the big screen was when his dad took the family to see The Joy Luck Club, the 1993 Hollywood film that features an almost entirely Asian cast.
"I remember for The Joy Luck Club specifically, my dad dragged us all — I'm the youngest of five kids — into the minivan on a Sunday morning for the earliest showing, 10:00 a.m., because it was the cheapest, and forced us to watch this movie. We had no idea what we're going to go watch. And we loved it," he says.
"It was amazing to see our family dynamic on the big screen. And afterwards we went to dim sum for like three or four hours quoting the movie, laughing about the movie, celebrating. I don't even know exactly how old I was but it was moving, and I'll never forget that — how much it connected with our family."
The Stephen Spielberg film Hook was also a big influence — not because of its star-studded cast which included Robin Williams, Julia Roberts, Dustin Hoffman and others, or because of Peter Pan's inspiring bent. It was because it gave Chu some serious cred on the playground.
"Rufio [played by actor Dante Basco] was Asian. And it was so cool to have a cool dude be the Asian guy, because then, when I was playing with my friends, I would be that guy," says Chu. "And I was honoured to be that."
Chu wanted a project that dealt with the thing that scared him the most – his cultural identity
Chu says he never consciously avoided dealing with his cultural identity in his films — although he thinks that subconsciously he found it frightening.
"It's always tricky to talk about those things when you're the only Asian in the room. In the business, the last thing you want to talk about is you being Asian. You just want to be seen as a filmmaker. I remember even in college I decided to tackle it in a short film, and I never showed anybody that short film because it was just too sensitive. I hadn't fully dealt with it myself.
I turned to the only thing that scared me the most which was my own cultural identity, and I went looking for a project that dealt with that.- Crazy Rich Asians director Jon M. Chu
"And about two years ago I was working on Now You See Me 2 with some big actors — Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Morgan Freeman — and I felt a need to dig deeper, to find something even more personal. I loved working on that movie but there was something I was missing in my own journey as an artist, what I was contributing to cinema, a medium that I loved so dearly," he explains.
"So I turned to the only thing that scared me the most which was my own cultural identity, and I went looking for a project that dealt with that."
The film features big money and luxury brands, but really it's about life in between
The film features so many luxury brands and jewellery that the costumes reportedly needed their own security. Chu, however, says that's not a facet of the original book that particularly interested him. Rather, he wanted to tell the story of an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time, and finally feeling like they fit in — then making the difficult realization that they don't really fit there, either.
"[There's] a warmth that you feel when you see everyone around you looks like you, and they treat you like their son when you go to a restaurant, or treat you like a cousin when you go into a store. And then they call you something like 'gweilo' which is 'white devil' and you realize, 'Oh, I'm not a part of this either.' And so you go home and you feel like you have to choose between both sides."
Returning from a trip to Taiwan where his mother was raised, Chu remembers thinking he was the only person in the world who didn't understand the American way, which was all about pursuing your own goals and making yourself happy, versus the Chinese way, which was all about putting family first and sacrificing everything for your loved ones.
"What I realized as I got older was I wasn't the only one. There was a whole generation of people in America that was feeling that same anxiety and kit still goes on today. So I thought that with this story we could really show people that you're not alone in that. And not just Asian — anybody whose family comes from somewhere has had to deal with this dilemma."
The casting was challenging because so few Asian actors have made the big leagues
Chu says that they couldn't rely on typical casting channels to find actors for the film because so few Asian actors have "made it" in Hollywood.
"And that's not because they're not there; they're not in the system because there aren't the roles to support that," says Chu, who had to push casting directors to consider new approaches.
"We had to push everybody, and we had to sit down and even tell Warner Brothers, who credit to them understood this, that we had to spend more time and more money to dig up the great talent because the system has failed and not given the opportunity to some of these people," he says.
"And there are great actors out there. They just may not be in the business right now, or they may be buried under a pile of other actors."
The lead actor was not actually an actor
After a worldwide search for the perfect leading man that included deploying casting directors in Vancouver, Beijing, Shanghai, Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, the UK and Australia, they ended up hiring Henry Golding who was recommended by their accountant — and had never acted before.
"Our accountant in Malaysia, Lisa Kim, said to us, 'Hey, there's this guy. Five years ago he presented an award at this film festival and all my assistants and myself are obsessed with him," remembers Chu with a laugh.
"So I cyberstalked him on Instagram and saw his travel show that he does and he's so charming he's so effortlessly cool. He had the perfect British accent, which is what the character required, and he was everything. He was Nick Young. He could be an aristocrat on one side and then all of a sudden the adventurer on the other. That combination is very rare — in any race."
They were offered a contract with Netflix — and had just 15 minutes to decide
Netflix reportedly offered Crazy Rich Asians a contract that gave them artistic freedom, sequels and more — and they had just 15 minutes to decide.
"We were we were told by the lawyers that we would have 15 minutes to decide or the offer would be pulled. So they were definitely putting the pressure on us," says Chu. The team's producers, lawyers, managers and agents were all on the call, but ultimately the decision belonged to him and collaborator Kevin Kwan who authored the original book.
We didn't need the money. We could take that risk and do something that that many people couldn't do — not because they didn't want to but because they literally couldn't. So we took the leap. We took the leap together and then we were all in.- Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians
"Kevin and I had talked the night before about the importance of this movie and what if it came down to money. The hard part of this offer was there was no guarantee from Warner Brothers about how many theatres we would be at, how many marketing dollars they would spend. So it was really open-ended," remembers Chu.
"We knew the people there and we trusted them. But how far could you trust a studio at that point that you hadn't worked with?
Ultimately the big screen won out
For Chu and Kwan, being on the big screen was important because it would send a message not only about their film, but about future films as well.
"For a big studio to say 'Go to the theatre, spend money, fight the traffic, sit in the dark and say 'Tell me a story for two hours,' and our time and your time and your energy is worth it spreads [a message] through all pop culture, through all media, and that's the importance of cinema.
"I love Netflix. Don't get me wrong, they are doing it. They are ahead of the game," he says. "But we knew our purpose, and we're probably some of the only people who could push this all the way through. We didn't need the money. We could take that risk and do something that that many people couldn't do — not because they didn't want to but because they literally couldn't. So we took the leap. We took the leap together and then we were all in."
He knew the film had to be great — but the pressure didn't come until later
When you're one of a tiny handful of directors given the opportunity to make a big time Hollywood film featuring an Asian cast, there's no doubt big time pressure — but Chu encouraged everyone to set that aside and focus on making the best film they could.
"On the first day we put all that stuff aside. We said, 'If we don't make a great movie, this is all for nothing. We'll have some base support but this movie has to be great. It has to prove that we can play with the big boys — of any filmmaker, of any actors, we have to deliver.' So that's what we were focused on: making a great, entertaining event movie where we could root for the main characters.
It's been amazing to watch the emotional reaction of people here and all around the world — and not just because it's about the rich. It's actually the opposite. It's because it's about the everyday people who get thrown into this crazy insane world and maybe get seduced by it and then have to find their way out.- Jon M. Chu, director of Crazy Rich Asians
Chu adds that he's actually feeling more of the pressure now that the film is being released. "This movie is a catalyst and may help crack the doors open, but all the industry, all the world is watching our movie right now and looking at the numbers, and we want to prove that this is good business."
It's not about being rich
While the film is titled Crazy Rich Asians, Chu says it's not really about the lifestyles of the rich and famous; rather, to him, it's about a woman's journey to find herself, independent of her relationship with a man.
"By the end the audience should feel satisfied that she's stronger, has more of a sense of self-worth than she ever has, and by embracing both identities she's stronger and better than she could have ever imagined herself to be," he says.
"It's been amazing to watch the emotional reaction of people here and all around the world — and not just because it's about the rich. It's actually the opposite. It's because it's about the everyday people who get thrown into this crazy insane world and maybe get seduced by it and then have to find their way out of that.
"It's sort of a Cinderella- or Alice in Wonderland-type journey," he says. "You have to go through this journey to come out a stronger person."
The film marks a shift in the stories Hollywood tells
Chu says the film is part of a push toward new perspectives and stories being reflected in the movies.
"We can do franchise movies and superhero movies all we want, but cinema has always been about rebels and troublemakers telling stories that aren't told in any other medium," he says.
"That perspective to me is the new cinematic universe. Let's get people whose stories have not been told and put it to the big screen. This is what's going to drive people to the theatre these days rather than just sitting home and clicking on their computer," he says.
"This is what has always been cinema's strength and we can continue that, if we open our doors, open our eyes and let that in."
Listen to the full conversation with director Jon M. Chu near the top of this page. Crazy Rich Asians opens in theatres tonight, Wednesday, August 15.
On September 28, Tom will be moderating an In-Conversation with Crazy Rich Asians star Ken Jeong as part of JFL42 festival's ComedyCon in Toronto. It is open to the public. Passes and tickets are available at JFL42.com.
Interview with Jon M. Chu produced by Stuart Berman.