Crazy Rich Asians
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Director Jon M. Chu arriving at the premiere of Crazy Rich Asians at the TCL Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo: AP

Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu on doing Thai cave rescue film and Lin-Manuel Miranda musical In the Heights adaptation

With his new film soaring at the box office, Chu talks about his upcoming projects including pursuing the rights to the story of the rescue of 16 boys and their teacher from a flooded Thai cave – or at least making sure that no one ruins it

Two weeks ago, before his watershed romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians went well beyond expectations to a US$34 million five-day opening, director Jon Chu was already feeling the electricity of what would become a historic moment in Hollywood.

“I want to say 50 theatres have been bought out already. People email me, ‘What can we do?’ Anyone can support in any way … both Asian and not!” he said at the time, during an interview for a special LA Times series on the release, that showed his hopes for a groundswell of support from within and outside the Asian American community.

Crazy Rich Asians is just like Hong Kong in the 80s, Michelle Yeoh says

Many more theatres were subsequently bought out across the country, by celebrities and non-celebs alike. Tech and digital influencers boosted the hashtag #GoldOpen and a cascade of social media support – from Ava DuVernay, Dwayne Johnson, Chris Pratt, Justin Bieber, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lena Waithe, Olivia Munn and many others – poured in throughout opening weekend.

Now the little film with a modest US$30 million budget, in a genre many thought was dead (the glossy romcom), stands to send a message to the entire industry: diversity sells.

“There were no guarantees when we started this,” Chu said earlier this month. “And to see it pop, even beyond our own community, has been really incredible.”

The best looks from the Crazy Rich Asians Singapore red carpet

According to a study of the top 100 films of 2017 by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, only 4.8 per cent featured a character of Asian descent with a speaking role. But the “Crazy Rich Asians” effect is real, according to industry workers. At a post-screening Q&A last week hosted by the Los Angeles chapter of the Asian American Journalists Association, co-screenwriter Adele Lim relayed a recent meeting she had had in which an executive noted they were waiting to see how Crazy Rich Asians performed before greenlighting similarly diverse projects.

A still from Crazy Rich Asians.

On Twitter, Sleepy Hollow executive producer Albert Kim revealed that the wheels of progress are already in motion. “In the last week, two network pilots were sold that feature all-Asian casts. I also know of three cable projects, all in active development, that mostly feature Asian and Asian American characters. It’s going to happen, the momentum is there.”

Other distributors with rare Asian American-led projects synced up around the Crazy Rich Asians release.

Sony’s Screen Gems studio will open director Aneesh Chaganty’s Sundance-prize-winning thriller Searching, starring John Cho as a Silicon Valley father frantically searching for his missing daughter, in limited release on Friday ahead of a nationwide US release for the Labour Day weekend the following week.

A still from Crazy Rich Asians. Photo: AP

Meanwhile, streaming giant Netflix continued its “Summer of Love” over the weekend by releasing the young-adult romcom adaptation To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which centres on an Asian American teen heroine played by actress Lana Condor. The release instantly set social media buzzing.

For Chu, a Palo Alto-born film school graduate from the University of Southern California who had a successful career directing studio franchise films G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2, taking the helm of a culturally specific story was an intensely personal choice.

When I saw other people getting in on [the Thai cave rescue] story from the outside … I just wanted to put out more of a warning to anybody thinking of making this – that we’re watching, and they need to do their due diligence
Jon M. Chu

It is one he intends to continue by directing the big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning Broadway musical In the Heights next year. Set in the predominantly Hispanic American neighbourhood of New York’s Washington Heights, the play by Miranda and Pulitzer-winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes struck familiar and vital chords with Chu.

“I’m growing up, and when you grow up your tastes change,” he said. “What you feel is important changes; your priorities change. I remember choosing Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights around the same time, knowing they had similar ideas to them. The immigrant story was under attack, and I wanted to tell an immigrant story that wasn’t political, wasn’t heavy, but was joyful and about a community.”

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Chu and Miranda have already spent time in Washington Heights in preparation for filming. And, as Chu did with Crazy Rich Asians, they have scoured the internet and the globe for the international ensemble, with the director preparing to cast a wide net for talent.

“We are in it,” smiled Chu, who launched his career directing the dynamic Step Up 2: The Streets, one of its sequels, two Justin Bieber documentaries and the dance-driven web series The LXD. “We’re designing the dance numbers now and redoing the music. We’re looking at everyone.”

Chu is directing the big-screen adaptation of In the Heights, co-written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, pictured here (left) in the upcoming film Mary Poppins Returns. Photo: Alamy

First, he will direct Brooklynn Prince, the eight-year-old breakout star of last year’s acclaimed indie film The Florida Project, in a 10-episode mystery drama for Apple. The drama is based on the true story of child investigative reporter Hilde Lysiak, who made headlines reporting a local murder in her Pennsylvania hometown through her own self-published newspaper.

Come to me! Talk to me! We’ll share our findings with you
Chu on talking to other filmmakers on the wealth of Asian acting talent

Chu is also developing a film about the Thai cave rescue, based on the true story that dominated world news earlier this summer. It was no coincidence that the July announcement of his project, produced by Crazy Rich Asians producer John Penotti of Ivanhoe Pictures, came a day after Pure Flix CEO Michael Scott announced that his company, which was behind God’s Not Dead, was pursuing rights to the same story.

“With the Thai cave story, I felt enraptured by the story like everyone else,” Chu said. “But when I saw other people getting in on that story from the outside, who I’m sure have good intentions, I just wanted to put out more of a warning to anybody thinking of making this – that we’re watching, and they need to do their due diligence when telling this story. And I knew I was in a position to make that public, and to make sure everybody understood that.”

The trapped Thai boys with Navy Seals inside the cave in Mae Sai, northern Thailand. Chu has his sights set on being involved in the film of the rescue. Photo: AP

While he says it’s too early to divulge plans for the film, Chu, who is not of Thai descent, also says he won’t necessarily be the one to direct it. “Maybe we find the right Thai director or writer. Maybe we find other ways to tell it. Maybe I’m just a steward to help block out the things that can ruin something like this,” he offered.

“Every artist has the right to do whatever they want, and I respect that more than anything. But this story is so important and so global that I want to at least have an option for the families and for the people to come to – and to know that I want to help watch whatever comes out of the telling of the story, for history.”

Whether telling the story himself or facilitating the next wave of voices, Chu is hopeful for post-Crazy Rich Asians Hollywood. In casting the adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel of the same name, Chu led an exhaustive global talent search looking at just about every Asian and Asian American actor there is, he joked.

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And while he couldn’t cast them all, he happily volunteers his findings to any executive or creator coming up against the age-old misconception that diverse and inclusive talent simply isn’t there – because it is, Chu said.

“I’ve seen them with my own eyes! Many of whom I could not put in the movie because they didn’t fit a specific character. But I know that they are stars,” he said. “Come to me! Talk to me! We’ll share our findings with you.”