Jon Chu on the importance of putting Crazy Rich Asians on big screen
Crazy Rich Asians director Jon Chu on rejecting major deal with Netflix to tell a personal story and showcase Asian culture through his movie
Who turns down a seven-figure Netflix pay cheque to get a mainstream theatrical release for their little movie?
Writer Kevin Kwan and director Jon Chu, that's who.
This was despite promises of complete artistic freedom, a green-lighted trilogy and big money, if they had chosen to go with the streaming giant.
American filmmaker Chu, 38, said at our interview at the Beverly Wilshire hotel in Beverly Hills: "I love Netflix. I watch it all the time. But for this movie in particular at this time, what we really wanted to do was to prop up Asian leads, romantic leads, that said we can be in movie theatres, we are worth your time to leave your house, struggle with parking, stand in line for food, sit in the dark with your friends and family, and say tell me a story.
"I think that's the power of cinema. That's why I fell in love with movies.
"And so, for this movie to be on that scale, that a Hollywood studio (Warner Bros.) is willing to risk millions and millions of dollars to convince everybody around the world that this is worth their time and energy, says a lot more than just the movie itself."
The movie is, of course, Crazy Rich Asians, with an all-Asian cast based on Singapore-born American author Kwan's bestselling 2013 novel of the same name.
Opening here on Aug 22, it is also the first Hollywood studio movie to feature an entirely Asian-American and Asian ensemble in 25 years, after The Joy Luck Club in 1993.
But this is no immigrant story of Asians struggling to fit in in the US.
This is a contemporary romantic comedy about middle-class Chinese-American economics professor Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) who travels to Singapore to meet the family of her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding), and not only finds out that they are immensely wealthy, but that she doesn't measure up to their expectations, especially those of the matriarch (Michelle Yeoh).
About the serendipity that led him to the job, Chu - best known for the two Justin Bieber concert films and sequels like G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Now You See Me 2 and a few Step Up flicks - said: "There are a lot of weird things that happened to get me onto this movie and for me to meet Kevin. He knows my cousin, I'm in the book, there's all these weird coincidences.
"I knew those were signs that said I had to make this movie, even if I didn't know how it was going to end up, even though I knew there was a chance that Warner wasn't going to put any marketing dollars into this and no one was ever going to see this movie and maybe my career would be stalled for a second there."
But the gamble was worth taking.
He added: "There was something in the universe telling us we had to make this, win or lose. And we just trusted that. So it's really amazing and kind of emotional to see in the last week when people start to care all of a sudden.We don't have the biggest stars and the book is now number one on New York Times' bestseller list. I'm taking a deep breath from it now."
Chu's father, Lawrence Chu, is a well-known chef and his parents own Chef Chu's, a popular restaurant in Los Altos, California.
Chu gave a lot of thought to how he wanted to direct Crazy Rich Asians, drawing on his own experiences.
"I wanted to make it really personal. Even before I knew what movie it would become, I was looking for a movie that spoke to my dual cultural identity.
"I grew up in a Chinese restaurant. My mum and dad came over from China when they were 19, 20 years old. I'm an all-American kid but I always felt like I had to choose between one or the other," he said.
That feeling was particularly brought home when he travelled to China for the first time.
He said: "Going back to some place that your family is from or where you have roots, this idea of, oh it feels different here, then you realise, oh you don't belong there either.
"And so, what I really attached myself to was Rachel Chu, this Asian-American's journey into Asia for the first time. We really based all the stuff that we put into the screenplay about that journey in particular. I added a lot of personal stuff - the dumpling scene, the mahjong scene - which isn't in the book but comes from discussions and debates that I've had with my own family.
"What I realised is that other people have had those exact same debates and we weren't alone in our struggle that we felt so trapped in."
While Warner Bros. was quite hands-off with the production, there was a lot of internal discussion about how best to showcase Asian culture with the cast and writers.
He said: "There was a point in the book where Rachel Chu's character talks about why she doesn't date Asian men, and it's a really funny rant. We put it in the script, it's a pretty popular part of the book.
"And then as we're about to shoot it, Constance came to me and said 'Hey, this doesn't feel right, this feels like from the past. We're trying to lift up Asian men and here we are cutting them down'. We looked at it and she was right, there was something odd about it and we took it out."
The oligarch-type money displayed by the characters is jaw-dropping and part of the fun of the movie - the designer clothes and jewels, the helicopter flight to a bachelor party, the casual shopping expedition for a pair of million-dollar earrings (at cost, mind you!) and the lavish houses.
But Chu countered: "Our goal, even though it's called Crazy Rich Asians, was not to make a movie about just rich people. This is actually about Rachel Chu, who's not rich at all. She's going into this world and it's almost Alice in Wonderland. She's not one of those characters in Wonderland but she becomes a different person going through it, and that was the real point."
There are actually many different nationalities among the Asians in the cast, as Chu tried to show "a variety, a menagerie of characters" from Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and Korea.
He said: "So just welcome to Singapore and see that Asians of all types can be funny, sexy, stylish, evil, all at the same time."
He added: "I love Singapore because it's rarely shot, especially for a Hollywood movie, so we got the pick of the locations. It's tough because there are a lot of rules but everywhere you turn that camera, it's gorgeous. It's like the city of the future."