‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Filmmakers See Breakthrough for Asian Films: ‘People Are Getting It Now’

Jon M. Chu

After years of being pushed to the sidelines or into marginal roles, the filmmakers behind “Crazy Rich Asians” said the movie represents increasing opportunities for Asians and Asian-Americans in film.

Speaking at the U.S.-China Film Summit Tuesday, producer John Penotti, described how the project, featuring an all-Asian cast, became the subject of a bidding war among Hollywood studios. Warner Brothers emerged late last month with the worldwide rights to the project.

“You don’t have to explain over and over again, people are getting it now,” said Penotti. “The place has been earned.”

Director Jon M. Chu — previously maker of the “Step Up” and “Now You See Me” films, before “Crazy Rich Asians” — said the sense of opportunity extends to many Asian directors, writers and actors.

“It’s not like we are saying, ‘We’re just happy to be here,’ None of that shit anymore,” said Chu. “The next voices that are coming up are so incredible and they are not waiting for anyone.”

Raised in a Chinese American family in Northern California and educated at the USC film school, Chu said he always considered himself a filmmaker first and has been drawn to Asian themes more as he grew older.

He said that the campaigning for more diversity in Hollywood has had an impact on the studios. “All of it doesn’t just float off into the Twittersphere,” Chu said of the “Oscars So White” and related protests. “It does have a real effect. It has an on-the-ground effect.”

Based on the novel by Kevin Kwan, “Crazy Rich Asians” tells the story of three wealthy Chinese families preparing for a big wedding in Singapore. The story spans London, Hong Kong and other locations, but is set mostly in Singapore. Kwan’s characters are pan-Asian — Chinese, Korean, Singaporean and amalgams of those nationalities.

Chu said he feels pressure now in casting the film — trying to hew as closely as possible to the ethnicities Kwan portrayed in his book, but also looking for the best possible actors. “We are looking at all these actors and [wonder] are we allowed to cast a Korean actor for a Chinese role? Are we allowed to hire a half-Chinese person for this other role?”

After demanding Hollywood to be more respectful to Asians and Asian Americans, Chu said he now feels a burden to make the most authentic film possible, while also looking for the most talented actors. “There are no rules written” for how to do that, he said.

Chu and his producers said they found that many Asian actors do not have talent representation. So they are making a tour, with open castings around the world, to cast the film. “That’s a lot different than most big studio films,” Penotti said.