Fall 2018


Life Lessons and Learning Curves

Jon M. Chu's rich, crazy education results in his most personal film yet


Director Jon M. Chu on the set of Crazy Rich Asians (Photo: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.)

"I was either going to write my own thing, or find another project," recalls Jon M. Chu. He was in his mid-30s at the time and had directed seven feature films in nine years. "I was trying to feed this other side of me that I hadn't fed before." Although his parents are Chinese immigrants, Chu was born in the U.S. and had never been to Beijing or Shanghai. "So I went. Read a ton of scripts. I met with a lot of people. I got a lot of deal offers. Financing, all kinds of crazy things—but nothing felt personal to me. It all just felt like: 'I don't know what to do with this.' I didn't add anything to those stories— they weren't my stories. I didn't feel compelled. Then my sister emailed me. 'Hey: What about Crazy Rich Asians?' I'd read the novel by Kevin Kwan a couple of years earlier. She knew that and had been keeping after me: 'You should be doing this movie.'"

Listening is a key skill for any film director, as Chu likes to stress. Listening to his sister proved life-altering: Crazy Rich Asians has, under his direction, become one of the outstanding critical and box office successes of 2018. It features an all-Asian cast, in an all-Asian setting. It's in English, the operative language in Singapore, where it takes place. Above all, it touts the all-American flash of a romantic romp yet serves as a funny, fish-out-of-water culture clash and a serious hymn to family and working sacrifice.

Beyond its measurement as the latest watermark for inclusion and diversity in a rapidly changing industry, what the picture represents with greater meaning and urgency to fellow film directors is a creative breakthrough, one Chu has achieved after a decade—mostly under the radar—devoted to painstaking mastery of his craft.

The director's earliest break came as a film school student at USC, where his short, When the Kids Are Away (2002), won the admiration of Steven Spielberg.

"When that happened, the floodgates opened. I was 22 years old," says Chu, who's now 38. The short had built so strongly on singing and dancing—disciplines Chu studied at the behest of his self-described "Tiger Mom"—that his next logical opportunity to direct was Step Up 2: The Streets (2008), the sequel to a hit that two years prior had made a star of Channing Tatum. Chu's feature debut made $150 million worldwide, outperforming its predecessor two-to-one. This launched him as a specialist in sequels. Step Up 3D (2010), G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013) and Now You See Me 2 (2016) all followed, offset by a pair of Justin Bieber concert films, Never Say Never (2011) and Believe (2013), as well as the web series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers.

"My experience was zero going into Step Up 2," he laughs now. The home-grown, handmade work that distinguished him at USC did not prepare him for the vertical learning curve of big-budget production. "I had to learn about coverage. I had to learn how to deal with notes, how to work with writers. I'm hiring dancers who haven't been actors yet. I had to learn how to take a performance and mold it to what I needed it to be, at the same time dealing with a studio, at the same time dealing with crews that have way more experience. G.I. Joe: Retaliation? I'd never done action before. Never worked with someone like Bruce Willis, or the Rock, or Channing Tatum, with all the pyrotechnics. I'd never worked with a second unit before." He also ran a comical gauntlet they don't teach in film school: "I had to learn how to work with a toy company. There's five different giant entities I have to work with on that."

While Chu's films were hugely profitable for the most part, he began to question his role in the bigger picture.

"What am I actually contributing to movies?" he asked himself. "I love doing these sequels—that's fine. I can basically do whatever at this point. What am I actually changing, here? What should I put my energy towards?"

These reflections took him to China—and his sister's suggestion about Crazy Rich Asians. "When you're the only Asian in the room, the last thing you want to talk about is you being Asian. For my whole life, I just didn't want to touch it. My parents moved here when they were 19 or 20 years old. I'm of the first generation born here. Getting something wrong is like your biggest nightmare. You feel like your whole family is going to be shamed from that."

His sister's confidence, his own liking for Kwan's novel, and, ultimately, a world of kindred spirits he discovered on the Internet convinced him there was a worldwide diaspora to be tapped into. He asked his agent about the rights to the novel and, by pure coincidence, received a script that day from producers Nina Jacobson, Brad Simpson and John Penotti.

John Chu and Michelle Yeoh on the set of Crazy Rich Asians, largely set in Singapore. (Photo: Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros.)

"When things like that happen, I'm not sure how superstitious I am," laughs Chu, but he had to conclude: "This is a sign. This is the movie I've been looking for." Peter Chiarelli's adaptation skewed to traditional romantic comedy. Chu pitched a fresh take with writer Adele Lim (TV's Reign, Lethal Weapon), "a Malaysian American who could bring the specificity that I needed, and the female side that I didn't have at all."

How does one "direct" a writer? What did directing all those sequels, with their prefab characters and franchise expectations, teach him about staying off a writer's toes yet getting what he needed out of them?

"One, I love working with people who are smarter than me, like Adele," explains Chu. "Two, I trust the process. Working with a writer is freeing. I can have more of a thousand-foot view of the thing, while they bring stuff, the way an actor brings stuff to the table. I love the struggle. The debates? I've learned to embrace that, more than dread it—they get you to do things you couldn't do alone."

His training in dance had an impact on the content of his first films. "It's movement/poetry," he explains. "You see so much in the way John Wayne walks out onto a porch or leans against something. You see so much in the way the Rock [Dwayne Johnson, star of G.I. Joe: Retaliation] holds a gun or runs. Movement—and not just dance—communicates what a piece of dialogue could never communicate."

In Crazy Rich Asians, Michelle Yeoh—star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among countless other films—plays Eleanor, the all-powerful nemesis of the heroine, Rachel. By way of making her authentic, Chu thought of his father, the renowned owner/operator of a Bay Area eatery, at his restaurant. "I wanted her to be captain of her pirate ship," explains Chu. "That's how I see my dad. He just—walks. Everybody knows, if he's watching, you better be doing your best. I wanted Michelle, as Eleanor, in the messiness of that immense kitchen of her mansion, the wetness of the floor, in her most elegant outfit—not even sweating. When she sees Rachel—her prey—you should feel the power and presence of this woman, in her walk. She doesn't even move an eyelash."

He proposed Eleanor walk up to Rachel and "get in her face." But Yeoh had a better idea. "Jon," she said. "People in power don't go to people. People come to them." Lesson learned: "That is the power of knowing who your dancer is—who your actor is," says Chu. "They will help you find their performance." Yeoh's point inspired Chu to give fresh business to Constance Wu, as Rachel. "I thought: 'Let Rachel come and hug her.' Because that is what I would do—and then—have Eleanor not even move. Little details—I'm sure dance really helped."

In terms of the leap from handmade student films to handling massive productions, what has been Chu's most demanding, and rewarding, discovery?

"When a studio gives you $150 million to go make a movie," he says, "the hardest part is when to restrain your ability to make that giant explosion happen—make the giant score orchestration happen. By saying no to some of these things you're actually carving out who you are in the story."

One must also resist the shared enthusiasm of one's collaborators. The sheer kinetic joy of making things happen can be so heady: "Everybody wants to do their best when they have big resources," Chu explains. "When you have a war scene and you're trying to get the guy from A to B, your explosion guy will be: 'Yeah—a hundred explosions!' And your music guys will be like, 'Yeah—we'll crank a huge orchestration.' And then your sound effects guy is like: 'Yes—it's going to go crazy, and we'll take it all the way.' Everybody is telling you that their thing is the best? Okay: great, great, great, great, great—but actually? As a filmmaker, your job is to say: 'No explosions. I just want one violin playing one tone, the whole time.' Or, 'We can have all those explosions over here, but I want them to clear out so that we have space [to] really hit them at the end.' That is actually storytelling. That took a while for me to learn."

Having established himself as both a dependable journeyman and a successfully personal filmmaker, what's next?

"A question I get a lot is: 'What is the ultimate movie for you? What is the movie you want to make?' I never have an answer, because that's not what my relationship with movies is. I made my little film when I was in fifth grade and I showed my parents. They cried when they watched it. That was the first time, with five kids—seven people in our family—that I felt heard. I thought: 'I've taken all these dance lessons, all these music lessons. I'm not good at any of them. I draw—and I like drawing—but I'm not the best in my class.' But with this! I can do all the little things that I know. And I can feel it's my voice. This is something that they're listening to. So it is breathing to me. I make movies because I have to breathe. Whether they're going to pay for me to do it or not, I'm always going to do it."

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