Jon M. Chu On Why ‘In The Heights’ Is ‘The Vaccine For The Soul’

Little did Jon M. Chu realize when he was making In the Heights – based on the 2008 Broadway smash by Quiara Alegría Hudes and Lin-Manuel Miranda – what this movie would truly mean. Of course there was always going to be meaning in what it means to the communities who live in Washington Heights (for those not familiar with New York City, that would refer to a neighborhood in the upper west corner of Manhattan), but there’s been, let’s say, an expansion of meaning.

After over a year of countless declarations that New York City was dead (and, look, I speak from experience, there were some pretty dicey moments) here comes In the Heights, a movie that is so full of life, featuring countless people dancing in the streets, that I do believe it could single-handedly bring New York City back all on its own. Hyperbole aside, there is something to be said about this movie coming out at this time. At the very least, as vaccination rates increase and infection rates plummet, it does look like a prelude to what this summer has in store for us all.

Oh course, Chu didn’t know he was making that kind of movie. Nor would he wanted to have known that, but ahead, he explains how this once Broadway hit about a “slice of life,” up in the heights, is now poised to make us all feel like dancing in the streets. Or, as he puts it: a vaccine for the soul. And Chu, who directed G.I. Joe: Retaliation, tells us what he said to Henry Golding after Chu’s Crazy Rich Asians star was cast as Snake-Eyes, and what that means in the big picture.

There’s no way you could’ve known while you were making it, but now In the Heights feels like a movie that’s welcoming back this city that went through a pretty tough year, if that makes sense.

It makes total sense. We went in there to make a movie about surviving, and healing, and moving forward. To try to communicate what it feels like to have grown up there, like Lin and Quiara. To understand what it feels like to feel powerless. And who you turn to but your community and your family? Cut to the pandemic and it feels like the world caught up with Washington Heights – what it feels like to feel powerless. Who do you turn to when God unplugs the electricity? You turn to your closest people and you take care of each other.

But at the same time, how do you get back up? This movie, it’s the vaccine for the soul, as we say. But I think healing, now, doesn’t just resonate as a way to communicate a specific neighborhood, but it communicates to us all that this was all essential human feelings that we could have all felt in any situation. We just all had to go through it in a pandemic.

It’s interesting what you just said about community, because back in March of 2020, when things were starting to go downhill really quickly in New York, we decided to stay here to at least support local places. And it probably didn’t have much impact that just two people stayed, but that really hit me with this movie…

Totally. And in a way Usnavi says it to Vanessa when everything’s shut down, “With all the things that have been going down, I’ve been thinking about the people that I care about the most, and I thought about you.” I think we all just went through that.

What was your feeling when it got delayed? Were you thinking it might only be a couple of months?

Yeah, well, we knew it was a summer movie. You’ve got to watch this, be outdoors, and be with your friends, and strangers, and all that stuff. When it got pushed, we were like, well, where did we push it? Do we do a streaming? Do we not? Here’s where I thought a lot about this, and I banged my head against the wall a lot. But at the end of the day, I remember in Crazy Rich Asians, by releasing in the movie theater, what it meant. It meant there was a whole bunch of money that a giant corporation was spending to market these actors. To market this community and say they’re worth your time and your money. Yes, you have to pay for it. Yes, you have to go find parking. Yes, you have to go sit in the dark with strangers. But guess what: You’re going to appreciate the people, you’re going to love these people, you’re going to root for them, you’re going to want that food, you’re going to listen to that music.

We saw what happened with the actors of Crazy Rich Asians, that they then starred in other movies and became bigger stars, because they had lanes to go in. To me, the big impact of making movie stars, it wasn’t just about a movie. That’s what I would have missed in this. But by pushing it a year, we didn’t know where it was going to end up, so we knew, we just threw the dice, we’d get that opportunity. Who knows if it’s actually going to happen? But I know that the actors are ready, they are stars, they are going to lead on whole new lanes.

You mentioned your actors becoming stars. Well Henry Golding is now going the G.I. Joe route with Snake Eyes, a franchise you have much experience with. Have you talked to him about that?

Of course, I have a Snake-Eyes skateboard. As soon as he got it, I was like, “Bro, it’s yours now, and don’t mess it up.” How amazing is that? That he’s doing that. And, by the way, Anthony Ramos is now the lead of a Transformers movie. Lorenzo di Bonaventura has taken all my stars! But I love that. That’s the whole goal, is you make a star. Kim Kardashian, she defined the different type of beauty that changed a whole landscape. So, someone who looks like Kim Kardashian at a high school looks like that. You’re like, “Wow, she’s a star.” Same thing with Leo DiCaprio, not the traditional beauty but a lot of people look like that. So, media defines what beauty is. And so Henry Golding, someone who looks like Henry is like, “Wow, that guy’s a stud.” And someone like Anthony Ramos. That’s so powerful, and maybe not change the world, but maybe it changes a couple of people. Maybe it changes a little bit of the language that we’re able to do in a movie.

I’m trying to imagine a scenario where someone told you, while you were making In the Heights, “Hey, this will be one of the first big things after the worst experience earth has gone through in a while. Good luck.”

Yeah, I think that’s a benefit of shooting the moon. We already built a rocket ship, so they’re just trying to get somewhere. You got some engine to take you somewhere, it’s been… Yeah, I’m glad, thank God I didn’t know before. In the end, we were just telling this little story with truthful, big dreams and hopes. That’s timeless, that could be done now, that could be done in ten years and feel relevant.

Did you see In the Heights on Broadway?

I saw it when I went off to do my first movie, Step Up 2, I took a trip over there.

I saw it in previews in March of 2008. I looked at an old email from a friend who saw it off-Broadway who asked if it was “big enough” to make the leap. And now it’s a movie. But I feel you had to make some changes to make this leap.

Yeah, I mean, it’s very different than the Broadway version, but has the same spirit. I hope people don’t fully realize the big changes. Although, I’m sure some will.

Yeah, I’m sure there will be an article or two about that from somebody.

Of course. It’s a different medium, we can get two inches from your face in cinema and see when you’re telling a lie, even though it seems like they’re telling the truth. You recognize that moment. And then you can also go 10,000 feet away and show a giant pool scene, and in a view that you could’ve never seen otherwise. So yeah, we changed a lot of it. But that’s the experience of going to the movie. Credit to Lin, who is a cinephile, who understood that and gave us a lot of room to play in.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but the thing that I noticed you expanded more of Usnavi’s motivations.

Well, the show was definitely more slice of life. I know that for a movie – it’s not the rule for movies – but for me, I like to hook into a character more. Even though we are still a slice of life, we don’t have a villain, we don’t have guns or knives, there’s no big looming threats to everybody. It’s an internal thing. I knew that this was going to be Usnavi’s story ultimately. Usnavi and Vanessa, and what came out of that. So, I had to gear a little bit more towards him – he wasn’t just a storyteller that was guiding us through the neighborhood. He was somebody who had to have real struggles, who had to have a real issues. We had to build all this stuff, these details in. And at the same time show that his dreams are so big, that everybody’s dreams were bigger than the walls can contain.

I had to correct people over and over again. Even our producers had times where they said, “Well, it’s a street musical. Yeah, we can save money. It’s like we’re just doing a musical on the street.” I’m like, this is not a “musical on the street,” stop saying that. This is a musical of the biggest proportion, we’re taking them so far. We’re staying here because you dream in the things that you know. So, I was growing up and dreaming of things happening, but only with advertisements that my parents would show me. And movies, of course. So, that fact, I think changed a lot that I had to… We all had to keep reminding ourselves, this needs more room. Give us more room.

I know this isn’t a question, and I’ve read your reasoning why, having another child, but I wish you were still doing Willow.

Me, too. The team was so great. Sometimes in your life there are choices. In a way it ties to In the Heights, because that whole movie came together for me when I had my daughter after doing Crazy Rich Asians. And realizing the greatest story that I have to tell is the world that I paint for my daughter. What is that world that she’s coming into? And how do I want her to see it? Do I want her to be naive to the problems that we have? Or do I want her to face it head on and understand that the hopes and dreams can live there, but it’s going to be hard work to get there?

It really, in a way, informed how we wanted to tell the story. This idea that Usnavi keeps saying the best days of my life are from his past. But in the end, no, the best days are his future. Tag, the next generation’s it, go see things that we can’t see. When Jimmy Smits says, “This is the moment, this is where you see things I can’t see,” that says everything about every generation, and what we’re intended to do, and build. That uncomfortable idea of having different views of the future is natural, and okay.

‘In The Heights’ opens in theaters and streams via HBO Max on June 10th. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.