Ever since he started shooting home movies with his family's bulky video camera, Jon M. Chu knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. But after directing several Hollywood blockbuster films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2, Jon felt uninspired by the stories he was bringing to the silver screen.
In 2018, he directed Crazy Rich Asians — the first Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast in 25 years — and in 2021, Lin Manuel Miranda's In the Heights.
An accompanying comic, illustrated by Fred Chao, can be found here.
On what woke him up to issues within Hollywood
I am a result of a lot of people paving the way and a lot of people speaking out and getting my attention and waking me up. I speak about the internet a lot, because it is where I could be shaken up, where people were posting about #OscarsSoWhite or about why are Asian characters this way or that way. And there's a campaign with #StarringJohnCho, where they would take John and put him on posters of big action movies or romantic movies as the lead actor. And it really hit me when I saw those things that you can't unsee that. Why aren't these things happening? That doesn't make any sense to me.
And when I processed that something is very wrong with Hollywood ... then I realized: Oh, I am literally Hollywood. I'm in the position where I can hire whoever I want, and I'm not doing it either. So if I'm not doing it, then why would anyone else do it? I think all of those things really connected for me when going into Crazy Rich Asians.
On using and bending stereotypes in Crazy Rich Asians
I am not in the business of telling artists what they can or cannot be doing or what they should or should not be doing. However, I do believe that I was meant to do this movie. When I read the script at first, which was not written by an Asian person, it was not a funny movie, because it couldn't go to the places that I could. It wasn't funny — it was stereotypical.
So I got to go in the script with [screenwriter] Adele Lim and ... make the rules. Ken Jeong, I could flip it on him and say, "You're not going to have an accent in this, but let's trick the audience. Your first line is going to be in an accent, so you can mess with the audience and check them on that." And Jimmy O. Yang, "you can be as ridiculous and crazy, and guess what? You're allowed to be rude. We're allowed to be anything we want." And I think that freedom on set was really contagious.
In terms of individual actors, I think it did a lot for all of them. Henry Golding, who hadn't acted before in his life ... he's the lead of a big action movie. Constance Wu being nominated for a Golden Globe; Nora [Lum] hosting SNL — that's incredible to me. These things didn't happen because of Crazy Rich Asians, but I'm just proud that we were a big piece of getting them out there and exposing their talents, because they still have a lot more to give.
On directing In The Heights
When I saw In the Heights [on Broadway], I was crying because I saw my immigrant family. I came from a Chinese family, a working-class family that took care of each other, and that's what this show was about. So I always thought that's what I'm bringing to the table. I'm not Latino. I'm not from Washington Heights. I'm a California kid. But the core of those relationships ... I could communicate that.
And I'm so glad I did [In the Heights] after Crazy Rich Asians, because Crazy Rich Asians woke me up. Seeing people see the movie, realizing they're not alone in the Asian identity crisis ... bringing their friends who are Asian, their grandparents who haven't been to the movies in years, then going out to eat afterwards the same food you just saw in the movie. To me, that was so powerful to experience, so going into In the Heights, I only protected those things. I'm not Latino, but you tell me, what are the traditions? What are the sauces I need to have on this table? Where is everyone sitting? To me, Crazy Rich Asians gave me the experience to make room and make time to have these conversations.
On the responsibility he feels as an Asian American filmmaker
When I think of a responsibility as a storyteller, I don't think of it as weight. ... I think the American story is built of many different cultures, different people, languages, music, dance, whatever it may be. But ultimately, there is joy and hope in the world; there are more good people than bad people. That's what I want my stories to tell. I want you to come to the movies and come out of it feeling hopeful. Not naive, but hopeful that if we all do our little piece, that we can meet this moment that is begging us to see each other and empathize with each other ... that our stories can do a little bit of that and move us forward. That makes it more containable for me.
This episode of TED Radio Hour was produced by James Delahoussaye and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. It was adapted for the web by Janet W. Lee.
Our production staff also includes Christina Cala, Matthew Cloutier, Rachel Faulkner, Fiona Geiran, Diba Mohtasham and Katie Monteleone. Our intern is Harrison Vijay Tsui. Jeff Rogers is our executive producer.