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‘Talking About My Ethnicity Scared the Shit Out of Me’

Jon M. Chu, the Los Altos–raised director of Crazy Rich Asians, on blowing up at the box office and fixing Hollywood’s diversity problem.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Jon M. Chu
Occupation: Filmmaker
Age: 38
Residence: West Hollywood

San Francisco: Your new film, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestseller Crazy Rich Asians, is the first major studio film in 25 years with Asian American leads. Does that already make it a success?
Jon M. Chu: Definitely not. Personally, to be able to get it made at a big studio and get a big studio to believe in an all-Asian cast with Asian romantic leads and Asian American main characters—that was a huge accomplishment, and I’m very proud of that. But the real job to be done is at the box office. If the box office works, then I guarantee two, three, four movies will be green-lit in the following month. If it doesn’t, we’ll wait another 25 years. It doesn’t stop everything in its tracks, but it delays it. A lot.

That’s quite a burden.
There’s so much pressure on this one story because it’s the only one. Which is a shame and shouldn’t be the way it is, but the fact is, Hollywood reacts to numbers. So you need to deliver. To actually make this not just about a movie but about a movement, we’ve got to back it up.

Especially in the wake of Black Panther, it seems like audiences are now demanding a higher level of representation in film—you saw the response to Scarlett Johansson playing a trans character, right?
We’re so used to ignoring things. And saying, “Oh, we’ll get the next one.” Now we have angry people, and they’re not going to wait any longer. And that puts the establishment on notice.... So does that pressure work? Absolutely. Did the failures of other movies that have had representation issues have an influence? Absolutely. Are the voices loud enough that they spoke to someone like me who was asleep at the wheel and got woken by it? Absolutely.

You said really forcefully that if there was a movie made about the recent Thai cave rescue, you’d want to make it; that you wouldn’t want to let it become another whitewashed story. Why did you feel it was important for you to put that out there?
It’s an extraordinary story. Humans helping humans from all around the world. It was a weird emotional thing. I felt protective of the family and the team. I didn’t want them to think that there was only one choice—if the movie was going to get made, that there was only going to be one player in town. I have the power to send the signal to say, hey, there are other choices, and if anyone else is going to make this story, know that you’re on watch. We’re not just going to let a story be told whatever way.

You previously directed Step Up 2: The Streets, two Justin Bieber documentaries, Now You See Me 2, a G.I. Joe movie—and you even did the Virgin America safety video that everyone loves. Is there any common thread between your projects?
They’re all fairy tales. Each one has true heroes and villains. And they all use another form of language than talking. Step Up is through dance. The Justin Bieber documentaries are through his music. With G.I. Joe, it’s action, it’s movement. In Now You See Me, it’s magic. With Crazy Rich Asians, it’s fashion.

So what made you want to tell the Crazy Rich Asians story now?
The studios were coming to me and saying, “What have you got?” That question, two years ago, is what really hit me. What am I contributing? What am I actually saying? Talking about my ethnicity or cultural identity scared the shit out of me. I don’t want to talk about being Asian; I want to talk about film. I knew that the moment you do that, people look at you and they label you. But at that point, I had enough confidence in my professional life that I didn’t feel just lucky to be here anymore. It was almost like a power switch turning on.

The film is about an Asian American woman going to Singapore. What do you remember from your first trip to Asia?
I remember feeling, “Oh, the person at the store treats you like their son; the person at the restaurant treats you like a nephew.” They all reminded me of my family.... And then they call you gweilo [foreigner] and you realize you’re not a part of this. Now I feel a little differently because I don’t feel that warmth. So you get caught in the middle, and you try to find your way.... I can tell that story; I know that story. Asia is beautiful. It’s layered, it’s multicultural, it’s elegant, it has history. It’s super contemporary and futuristic. It’s all these things that don’t get communicated even to a Chinese American boy in California, and it’s something I feel is important to express.

What screen characters do you remember looking up to as a young Asian American kid growing up in Los Altos?
Every time you’d see an [Asian character], it was so cool. Like Rufio in Hook. That was my guy. I was like, I can play him on the playground. The Joy Luck Club, I remember us all getting in the van to see it. And I remember talking at dim sum afterward for four hours and quoting it because what we saw on the screen was so much of our family, too. We thought it was so funny and so great. We didn’t feel like, oh, we’re weird. And I loved that.

Perhaps Crazy Rich Asians can do that for the next generation.
I hope they take it all for granted one day. I hope they see it and are like, yeah, of course that’s the way it should be. And they continue to make stuff and don’t have any of the fear of being judged for what they have to say or why they want to say it. I want to normalize people, to see them as layered, complicated human beings.

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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