Jon M. Chu is the first to admit he’s taken a different path than most to becoming a working director in Hollywood.
He was immediately thrust into the studio system when his short film at USC, When the Kids Are Away, caught the eye of Steven Spielberg. With that blessing, he quickly got jobs making Hollywood titles like Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, and Jem and the Holograms.
But then in the last few years, Chu came across online protests like #WhitewashedOut and #StarringJohnCho that put a spotlight on the lack of Asian representation in US movies, and realised he had to stop trying to just survive in the industry, and get behind the cause.
“I realised that I was actually part of the problem, not by contributing in some crazy way, but the fact that I hadn't done anything to help shift that,” Chu told Business Insider.
Unbeknownst to Chu, redemption was coming in the form of the script adaptation of the book Crazy Rich Asians.
The national best-seller written by Kevin Kwan follows the funny gossip and scheming that occurs when “ABC” (American-born Chinese) Rachel Chu, played by Constance Wu, spends the summer in Singapore with her boyfriend Nicholas Young (Henry Golding) as they attend a wedding. What Rachel quickly realises is that Nicholas’ family is one of the wealthiest in Asia, and the wedding is the social event of the year.
Chu realised this was what he was looking for and in convincing producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson he was right for the project, made a presentation that was filled with personal insights about his background and family in the hopes of convincing them that he was the right person to direct.
Chu would learn after getting the job that being Chinese-American wasn’t his only connection to the material. He and his family are actually in the book.
“I had no idea my cousin is best friends with Kevin and he wrote my family in the book,” Chu said. “I had no idea that I was literally ‘the cousin who makes movies’ in the book. When I met Kevin I was like, ‘What the hell is happening here?’”
According to Chu, he was extremely confident on how to adapt the book so whether you were Asian or not in the audience, you could relate to the story. But it wasn’t just the need to tackle a project that looked into his own cultural identity that drove Chu, he also wanted to prove that he was more than a filmmaker who made second-tier Hollywood movies, many of which weren’t hailed critically or at the box office.
“I had to see if I’m a real filmmaker,” Chu said. “I mean, I have proven myself in movies and franchises, but am I an artist? Can I contribute something to a medium that I love so much?”
Chu said if he got anything out of making movies that found the ire of critics — 2015’s Jem and the Holograms was the low point, with a 19 per cent Rotten Tomatoes score and Universal yanking it from over 2,000 screens in just its second week in theatres – it’s to have a thick skin and not get gun shy. And Chu often had to remind himself that on the set of Crazy Rich Asians.
“The fear of doing [Jem] again was definitely present,” he said. “I always told myself after Jem, I don’t want fear to change my choices. Fear is a destruction of creativity. Any time I had a fear about this movie I would go to that idea, don’t let Jem determine your choices here. You were destined to be here and do this movie.”
And though he felt he was on the right path during production – with encouragement from the producers, and even a flashy presentation at this year’s CinemaCon, where the movie’s studio, Warner Bros., showcased to theatre owners why the first Hollywood-produced movie with an all-Asian cast in 25 years would work – behind the scenes Chu wouldn’t get too excited.
“Our test screenings were hard to recruit,” he said. “It was 20-1 saying yes to see a free screening of Crazy Rich Asians back in November and December. It was so hard to convince Caucasian people that this movie was for them. And Asian people, if they didn’t know the book, they thought the title was offensive. So it was always an uphill battle.”
Chu said it was the “just see the movie” marketing approach by Warner Bros. that convinced him audiences would want to see his rom-com with a family backbone. It wasn’t a blitz of internet and TV ads. It was just finally showing audiences early screenings of the movie that led to a word-of-mouth buzz that is powering the movie – which opened on Wednesday – to have a big opening weekend.
For Chu, it’s confirmation of the abilities that caught Spielberg’s eye all those years ago. Crazy Rich Asians is the first “fresh” score Chu has even gotten on Rotten Tomatoes and it’s led to bigger projects. He’s going to direct the screen adaptation of the Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway musical In the Heights and he’s signed on for one of the Thai cave rescue movies. But Asians is also a landmark moment in the movement to end whitewashing in Hollywood.
“That’s the one party we haven’t been invited too,” Chu said, referring to advances in Asian casting in TV and streaming. At one time, Crazy Rich Asians could have been a Netflix release, but Chu knew that wouldn’t have been right in proving Asians can carry a movie.
“The big screen is the big show,” Chu continued, “and that means [a studio] has to spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing and tell the world that this is worth your time and energy, so we felt that was the important message that needed to be told. I fully believe this whole fervour that’s going on would not have happened if we were on Netflix. For this movement, we needed a parade.”
This article originally appeared on Business Insider.