The film version of Crazy Rich Asians – based off Kevin Kwan’s 2013 book – has already become a phenomenon and, as of this writing, hasn’t even hit theaters yet. When you talk to the film’s director, Jon Chu, he seems legitimately shocked by the overwhelming response to the film so far. It’s currently sitting on in the high 90s on Rotten Tomatoes (a first for Chu) and it’s poised to be the breakout film of this late summer. Now, he certainly felt he was doing something special, but he wasn’t expecting this response.
Before Crazy Rich Asians, Chu, almost strangely, found himself doing a lot of sequel-to-studio movies in which he didn’t direct the first film of a franchise. For instance, Chu directed the second and third entries in the Step Up films (which both outperformed the Channing Tatum-starring original), and also found himself at the helm of the part-reboot, part-sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation (to this day Chu doesn’t quite understand how something can be both a reboot and a sequel), and Now You See Me 2. And both of these films grossed similar numbers to their predecessors. The only box office dud on Chu’s filmography is Jem and the Holograms, a film Chu now jokes about – because it’s a lot easier to joke about a misfire when you have a film like Crazy Rich Asians coming.
The path to Crazy Rich Asians has been well-documented over the last couple of weeks. Chu was basically hand-picked to direct this romantic comedy about an economics professor named Rachel (Constance Wu) who travels to Singapore with her boyfriend, Nick (Henry Golding), and discovers he’s from a very wealthy family and that his family is not fond of Rachel’s outsider status. More importantly, it’s the first film with an entirely Asian main cast in almost 30 years. And it’s a very large cast with a lot of characters to service. But Chu learned a lesson from, of all things, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, on what to do and what not to do when it came to making Crazy Rich Asians.
I feel you’ve had a nice couple of weeks. You’re everywhere right now.
It’s been overwhelming. Already the amount of gratitude and emotion I’ve gotten from people, things I didn’t expect, it’s been very overwhelming. I cry every four hours.
That’s actually a lot.
I’ll read something online and it just something that touches me. Like someone who buys tickets for people who can’t afford it. There’s a dumpling house that will give you a free drink if you bring in a ticket stub from Crazy Rich Asians. This isn’t like studio-done stuff, this is people on their own. I went into a Chinese restaurant down the street from me last night and they came up after and they were like, “We are so excited for your movie and we are really rooting for it.” I thought this was a movie where it would be fine and maybe people show up, maybe they don’t, but the emotional aspect has been amazing.
So when you first signed on, there wasn’t an inkling of “my life might change after this one?”
No, I never thought that. I thought that I had to do it and it felt right for me as an artist and I had to make sure I’m still an artist, because I’d been doing a lot of franchise-y stuff – which I love and I won’t ever stop – but I just wanted to know that I had something to contribute to this medium I loved. I didn’t know if I just grew up and lost it or, I don’t know, I just needed to be inspired again. And the book had so much personal connection. Not the “crazy rich” part, but being an Asian-American. It was the Rachel Chu journey that I actually wanted to write myself about my own journey, but didn’t because it was too personal. But I was very prepared emotionally that no one would see this movie.
But coming off something like Now You See Me 2, you had to know you were going to do something special with this one.
Yes. That for sure. I knew we were doing something special. I knew when we cast it if we could get this group together, it is The Avengers for Asian actors – people at the top of their game from across genres. Like Ronnie Chieng from The Daily Show, I love his segments, they are so biting and so great. He did this one piece on Chinatown that was so amazing and said everything we wanted to say and so boldly and uniquely. Jimmy O. Yang of course, Gemma Chan, Constance Wu, and Michelle Yeoh, to have the icon in there. If I could get this group together, people would see what a wide range of Asian actors they are. I think we’ve been so scared of being different, and now get to celebrate being different. And that’s cool. It’s cool to be Asian these last couple weeks. How fun is that?
You’ve been around studio movies a long time now, so I think of you as an insider. So why were studios scared of being different?
I think people were scared about how much money we’d have to spend on a movie called Crazy Rich Asians versus who is the market. They’d just keep saying, “The Asian market is fractured and do they actually come together to go see a movie? We’ve never really seen that the way we’ve seen African Americans come out for a movie. Where is that group?” They couldn’t quite place their finger on where that group was. Even myself, I didn’t know the impact until I see it on the big screen and halfway through the movie you’re like, shit, we’ve never seen it like this. Where it’s a movie for everyone and you’re watching this romance go through them and there are funny parts and there are dramatic parts. And they are kissing on screen, and that’s what we are saying is beautiful and we aspire to be that. That says a lot and we’ve never heard that before.
So how did you convince the bean counters that this would work when you couldn’t place a finger on it either?
Two things. One is the audience talked back. The audience actually has a voice from what they want and what they don’t want. They’ve been told what they want and what they desire for all these years. But now the audience says, “no more, you don’t get to do that anymore. Here’s what we want. If you deliver this, we’ll come.” So the last two years is Hollywood’s response to this message. And things like Black Panther and Get Out, all these things these filmmakers, are getting opportunities to tell the stories that have formerly maybe been buried.
The second thing is having people on the inside that understand that. Warner Bros. has been a great partner in this discussion because no one wants to commemorate a big studio. But, it’s good to have a leader like Kevin Tsujihara – it’s not lost on me that he’s championing these stories.
It’s been noted that the decision was between Warner Bros. and Netflix, but with Warner Bros. it included the theatrical experience. Though that Netflix offer seemed really great…
Exactly. And that’s why I love Netflix. They are ahead of the game.
They have eyeballs immediately all around the world. You don’t have to wait for a release date. You don’t have to do all of the old-fashioned stuff. But the fact of the matter is this movie, at this time, the big studios had not given the okay to do this kind of movie yet and we knew we wanted to take on that fight. We knew we were destined to be here. All of us didn’t need this money. We wanted this to exist. But we had no guarantee from Warner Bros. We had no guarantee how many theaters they were going to release this in. There was no marketing dollar number in this contract. None of that. We had zero guarantees. But we knew the goal we had to shoot for.
Is that the kind of decision that causes an ulcer?
[Laughs] For sure. The whole weekend Kevin Kwan and I are calling each other being like, “What the fuck did we just do?” Oh my God, the whole weekend I was sitting with my wife, “We could have gotten the backyard redone. I’m sorry.” But then you quadruple down emotionally. And now are all looking at each other, “well then, we better fucking make this awesome.”
You mentioned The Avengers, you really are juggling a ton of characters.
But if there’s anything I learned from Now You See Me 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, I learned a lot of lessons from there, you’re trying to balance so many characters and it gets overwhelming and you start to lose focus. On this one I was very specific that this is Rachel’s movie. This isn’t Rachel and Nick’s movie. This is Rachel’s movie.
Okay, so what specifically did you learn during G.I. Joe: Retaliation that helped you make Crazy Rich Asians. That’s a quote I hadn’t seen before…
Well, we had so many characters! I had to serve so many characters from the last movie. It was like, “this is a reboot but it’s also a sequel.” And I’m like what does that freaking mean? We want to redo this whole tone, but yet you’re giving me 18 characters I have to serve. And then we are bouncing around the world and I have to keep up with them. And we were in it and it was so hard to focus on somebody’s journey that we could root for. I mean, I love the movie, I just learned a lot about juggling multiple storylines in there and how to put your foot down when it becomes too much. So, you learn those lessons by the mistakes you make and you have to get better.
So the lesson was, when in doubt, it’s Rachel.
Honestly, that was my only mantra the whole time. What is Rachel thinking? What is she looking at? And who is looking at her?
Well, the movie finally comes out this week. If there are people who didn’t know you, they are going to know you now…
One of my friends always says to me, “Jon, you have the best life because you’re like ‘ish.’ You’re like famous-ish. Nobody really knows you. You can walk around. Your movies are popular-ish. They make a lot of money for people and everyone is happy, but you’re not J.J. Abrams. You’re very ish.” I was like, “I think that’s a really insulting thing you’re saying to me!” And it really stuck into my head. And I think that’s also me being like, what the fuck? I don’t want to be “ish”! I want to be “it”! So, hopefully, this is less “ish” than before.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.