In The Heights Director Jon M. Chu On The Epiphany That Changed His Career: I Wanted To Explore My Cultural Identity Crisis

The visceral reaction was almost instant. In 2008, Jon M. Chu was working on his big directorial feature debut Step Up 2: The Streets, when his choreographer Luis Salgado invited him to New York to watch a Broadway musical he was in called In the Heights. “I’d never heard of Lin- Manuel Miranda, but when I saw it, my jaw dropped on the floor,” Chu recalls, “This show spoke so deeply to me, a Chinese from the bay area, not Latino or from Washington Heights, and yet it felt so close to home, because I knew what it was like to be raised by not just your parents, but your aunties, uncles and neighbors.”

A decade later, Chu had the opportunity to pitch Miranda the film adaptation, just as Chu found himself at a crossroads, deciding what kind of storyteller he really wanted to be. Having proven himself as a solid commercial director, the failure of Jem and the Holograms in 2015 made him reassess his choices.

Then he made a little film called Crazy Rich Asians. The 2018 romantic comedy set in the ultra wealthy echelons of Singaporean society not only broke box office records but created stars out of its Asian cast, kicking off countless conversations about the lack of minority-lead storylines represented in Hollywood. The success had studios scrambling to green-light projects with minorities as central characters, and by then, Chu was already attached to In the Heights.

Here, he discusses the pressures he felt as a young filmmaker, the strange evolution of In the Heights, and why, for him, it feels like “a personal sequel” to Crazy Rich Asians.

DEADLINE: It’s been a long road for In the Heightsand now you can finally let it out.

JON M. CHU: I’m so ready. We had a premiere in Washington Heights, and we were so appreciative of everybody’s cheers and applause and laughter. We also had a lot of dancers from the neighborhood itself. That was electric, we really made this for them.

DEADLINE: It’s been over a decade since you first saw In the Heights on Broadway, what made you strongly connect with the show?

CHU: In the show, Usnavi has a strong relationship with his abuela, and I had my own version with my booboo Claudia. She taught me how to make wontons, and she would keep the books for the restaurant [Chef Chu’s] every night. She’d have a bag full of receipts and had her little abacus. And even though the details are different in In the Heights, I felt similar sounds and details. So when the producers [Scott Sanders and Mara Jacobs] asked if I had a take on it, I immediately leapt at the chance. There was something in the combination of what Lin and [the book author] Quiara Alegría Hudes had written, plus what I knew about movies and seeing the universality of this story, that I thought would make a good combination. But then I had to sit down with Lin, and he was gaining his momentum with Hamilton, so I was still nervous to be sitting down with him.

We talked about dreaming as kids, with the same visual touchstones of DuckTales, Animaniacs and of course Disney animated musicals. But the main thing that we connected on is wanting to dream big dreams that we didn’t think nobody who looked like us had, and that we had come out the other end, and what was our responsibility. And that could this framework of Heights communicate the enormity of dreams, and the importance of home when you’re having those dreams. Also the question of, if we can shoot in Washington Heights and bring those dreams to Washington Heights.

DEADLINE: It does feel like all the lessons you learned as a filmmaker throughout your career, from the choreography-heavy Step Up films to big-budget crowd pleasers like Now You See Me 2 to your emotional connection to Crazy Rich Asians, has set you up for this moment with In the Heights.

CHU: I think, and I’m not quite sure I’m out of it yet, how to process it all. But what I’ve observed is it happens very, very slowly, and one step at a time. I look back at when I made my short film at USC that Spielberg saw, that had this hubbub where I was on the cover of the trade mag. And they wrote articles about me reinventing the musical, because my short was a musical, and they were like, “Oh, this guy’s going to come to the movie musical and remix it and add on the new chapter,” and none of that came true.

I won the lottery, but once I had won, it was like, “Well, how do I do this again? Oh, I don’t even know how to make a movie. I need to learn how to make a movie first.” Then you start making movies. “Oh, what’s coverage? Oh, that’s what I have to do? Oh, that’s what a review is. Oh, this is what the audience wants. I spent two, three movies, figuring that out, while also learning that I had to work with a studio and get resources from them. And you learn, you make mistakes. So then in another two movies, I got to work with actors who bring together that whole thing. The whole time, you just don’t know, you’re just trying to stay afloat. By the end of it, when I was working with Morgan Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, and Michael Caine, I was like, I can hang with the best of the best right now, so what am I doing sequels for? What do I have to say now? All the logistics stuff over the years sort of went away, and it wasn’t conscious. It was like, instead of me asking permission to make a movie from a studio now, I was like, “Oh, I’ve made you guys a lot of money. You owe me a couple. So I think I’m going to do something.” And I wasn’t begging for anything from them. So then I had to beg from myself, who am I? What are you going to say? And it went right back to the place that I left off in film school. I thought, there’s something about music and movies and dance, and being able to communicate the things that words can’t. I grew up in the Silicon Valley in a mixed media environment in the dawn of technology, where I was inundated with a lot of information very quickly at a very young age, before a lot of kids probably were. And so now I am in a leadership position and a power position to be able to really use that, to process the world in that way.

And that’s where I found this thing that I wanted to do, which was to explore my cultural identity crisis, while at the same time, making it fun and entertaining. Crazy Rich Asians came along, and In The Heights came along at the same time to do those things.

DEADLINE: Before making In the Heights, you had a really transformative experience with Crazy Rich Asians, right?

CHU: Both Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights were in the same space of ideas that I wanted to do, the things that I’ve been holding back, been too fearful to just go do. And I knew I could execute these things. But for Crazy Rich Asians, I understood pride intellectually, but until I made that movie, I really didn’t. I honestly didn’t think people were going to go see it, I just thought I just needed to do it for myself.

By the end of it, by watching people watch it, I felt some of the things through them. I got to witness them looking up and feeling proud of these people on the screen and saying, “Yeah, I can be cool, I can be handsome, I can be charming, I can be evil. I can be all those things.” And it filled me. I realized that movies are a very powerful mechanism.

Something that has been waning over the years has been the question of, are movies dead? Do people just want to watch it on their phone, or at their house while they cook? For me, seeing the audience reactions was like, this medium is a necessity for our culture. We actually need to have this stop-gap. We need to have the space to challenge ourselves. We have to have the space to turn off the noise. We have to have the space to pay attention, to commit to something for an hour-and-a-half with strangers that we’re not algorithm-ed to be next to, and then have serendipitous interactions to walk out of a dark theater after dreaming together. But we need to rewrite the story of who gets to be here. And so In the Heights fit that bill, in a way, I saw it as a personal sequel to Crazy Rich Asians.

DEADLINE: I appreciate that you’re redefining what Hollywood films look like in the process.

CHU: This was my next step to that idea, which was to extend ourselves to go further into the Hollywood genres of what classic Hollywood is, which is a musical. Let’s go into what I was taught was American. The reason why I put the M in my name, Jon M. Chu, is because I saw Yankee Doodle Dandy as a kid, a musical that is about George M. Cohan, who wrote all these patriotic songs. And I was very patriotic kid. So because George M goes by George M, I was like, “I’m going to call myself Jon M.” So it’s embedded in me, this idea of the greatness of America, and that dreams can come true. It’s just as you get older, you realize America is not what you were taught. It was an ideal that my parents bought into, but we all have our responsibility to inch forward, and actually make it better. So looking at In the Heights, it had all those things in it, an Americana flavor, but you could dust it off and you can show that even in the cracks, there’s beauty because it survived. And Lin showed me that, in these communities where there is a family commitment to each other, this is where American stories start. For me it was in Northern California, at a Chinese restaurant where my American story started. And so I was just honored to be able to take that on and use the things that I learned over the last decade to help bring that to life.

DEADLINE: What was it like for you to be collaborating with creators Lin and Quiara Alegría Hudes? You suggested some interesting changes from the original show.

CHU: I can’t imagine being in their position. I mean, I think it’s a lot harder for them than for me. I’m a little bit nervous, but also, it’s not my baby. Heights came out of a necessity of expression for Lin. This came out of a decade of working with Quiara. But at first, Lin was a little bit distracted with Hamilton. So I had to work a lot with Quiara at first, and he trusts Quiara immensely. The good thing is that Lin loves movies. He’s a cinephile. So he understood that movies were a very different medium. So he was also less precious than probably someone else who didn’t know movies or loved movies.

DEADLINE: How did it work when it came to the music and rewrites for some of the songs?

CHU: It was very collaborative. We would all get together with [music director] Alex Lacamoire at Lin’s apartment, which is an incredible thing to witness by the way, I wish I had my cell phone on but I was too scared to record it. And they’re just on the piano trying things and singing. I’m watching this in real time, and then Quiara’s speaking up asking, “Jon, what do you think?” and I’m like, “Oh, I’m a part of this. Oh yeah. OK. This is great. Yeah. Let’s maybe add another verse to that thing?” They’re like, “No, that’s not great Jon.” I’m like, “OK. I’ll just keep throwing out ideas, safe space, safe space.” [laughs] What I love about Lin and Quiara and the whole team is they love making things. They’re kids making things at a very high level, but they are just playing. It really was the most amazing experience of my life.

DEADLINE: Timing has been on your side in a serendipitous way. Even though you had delivered a cut of this film back in 2019, everything was put on hold until this summer because of the pandemic. But it feels like releasing In the Heights now fits perfectly with the emotional hopes and dreams we had to put on hold.

CHU: When I joined, Lin and Quiara had already gone through a decade-long journey, and they said to me, “We created this story, but the story has its spirit of its own. It has its own timing.” There’s a lot of weird things that happen around it. So they’re like, just hang on because in the end it always knows where it’s place is, and will always come through. And so I took that as, “yeah, that’s funny.”

When we were shooting it, we were like, “This is amazing. We’re shooting this in the streets of Washington Heights. We’re getting amazing stuff. Look at this cast, we’re getting at them at the right moment. This is happening exactly as the story has presented itself to be.” And then we were finishing up and we screened the movie and we’re getting amazing feedback. We finally did it. We made it. The movie is finally coming out.

And then the pandemic hits and we’re like, “Oh yeah, it has its own life.” And we look at each other like, maybe the lesson was that it’s supposed to disappear. And we’re just supposed to know our focus should be on the art, the craft, and say, “We make something and whatever happens after it doesn’t matter.” That’s what I thought maybe the lesson would be. And now the pandemic is starting to close, and theaters are starting to open, and people are needing joy and love and celebration, and knowing how to get back up again. And what is better than the story of Washington Heights that tells you how to get up. I surrendered to the universe a long time ago on this movie, and a lot of things in life. So I’ll accept what it gives. And I’m just very happy that it gave the best gift it could give to the story, which is the world’s ear and eyes.

DEADLINE: What do you think this creative journey of yours is telling you to do next?

CHU: You know, I’ve trusted the universe in guiding me to the stories that I want to tell by what’s happening at the moment. I do believe movies should meet the moment. It’s a running record of where we’re at emotionally. I’m working on Wicked right now, and I think it has some very resonant things of what it means to have a place of innocence like Oz. What happens when you realize it isn’t as innocent as you thought, and that a real change needs to happen instead. Real change isn’t easy, real change is messy, and means you need to feel anger, fear and sadness. You need to go all through those things before you can come out differently. And I think that musicals do it in the most entertaining way and fun way.

I just feel privileged that I get to be the recipient of people speaking out and waking me up and saying, “Is anybody on the other side to help do these things?” And I’m like, “I’m either part of the problem or I’m listening.” I’m not perfect, and I don’t know exactly what I’m doing, but I am reacting, and I’m doing the best I can to use the things that I know to express the frustrations that I’m learning and feel deeply about. So we’ll see. I’ve been around this business long enough to know it comes in waves, but I will accept what’s happening now and I’ll just continue to do the work.

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