PLAYBACK is a Variety / iHeartRadio podcast bringing you conversations with the talents behind many of today’s hottest films. New episodes air every Thursday.
Warner Bros. is set to release “Crazy Rich Asians,” based on Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel, on Aug. 15. It’s a significant event, the first Hollywood release in a quarter-century to be centered on the Asian-American experience with a cast of Asian-American actors. Even at a time when underrepresented voices are smashing these kinds of statistics left and right, that one is particularly staggering. For director Jon M. Chu, the film isn’t a film at all. It’s a movement.
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“It’s nuts. It’s crazy to think in 2018 that we’re still here, but, here we are. So we’ve got to change things,” Chu says. “Who knows the reasons? I’ve been around for 10 years so I’m part of the problem. I realized that if anything was going to change, we had to do it on the ground. I was getting older and I realized, ‘What else am I contributing to cinema? What am I actually bringing new to this world?'”
In numerous pre-release screenings dating back to the spring, the film has ignited passion in a demographic that has clearly been hungry for representation in the cinema. The excitement at these screenings is palpable, reminiscent of the energy that surrounded Marvel’s blockbuster film “Black Panther” earlier this year (which went on to net a staggering $700 million in domestic box office receipts, well above the Marvel bar). There must come a moment when the suits of the industry wake up to the fact that serving the underserved is simply good business.
“That’s what we’re trying to prove,” Chu says. “‘Black Panther’ proved there is a huge business for this. And cinema depends on this, new perspectives. You can only tell the same story from the same perspective so many times. Movies were always meant to be a place to see stories you couldn’t experience in any other way, to sit in a dark room and say, ‘Tell us a story.’ With the access to people editing, to filmmakers, writers who are telling their stories in their own ways, to be able to bring that to cinema and refresh cinema is vital for this business. I think studios are waking up to that idea.”
Following promotion for “Crazy Rich Asians” and his own recent nuptials (he’s been married a week when we speak), Chu isn’t slowing down. He’s plowing ahead on development for an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage sensation “In the Heights” as well as a series for Apple. But in July, he planted a flag on one of the most harrowing real-life tales of 2018, the Tham Luang cave rescue. He says he’s still in his “listening phase” on that, looking for the right way to tell a story. But more importantly, he wanted to make it clear that it’s an important story that demands a perspective the Hollywood apparatus might not be immediately inclined to include.
“Maybe it’s not me directing. Maybe it’s not me having anything to do with it, I don’t know,” Chu says. “I wanted to send a message to anyone who is thinking about making this movie with an agenda, that they better do it right, that this is important history. Every artist has the right to do whatever perspective they want. However, I just want them to know we’re here now and we want to make sure if you’re telling the story, you’re telling it fairly. If I’m just a steward to help connect the right dots between Thai filmmakers and Thai writers and the story, then so be it. I was very defensive, in a way, about these families that might be signing up for a Hollywood thing that wasn’t really a Hollywood thing, and after doing ‘Crazy Rich Asians,’ I realized the power and responsibility we as artists in Hollywood have, that we can make a statement and have an impact.”
For more, including thoughts on innovating in the concert film space (he’s collaborated twice with Justin Bieber in that realm) and Chu’s cinema awakening at the hands of event movies like Tim Burton’s “Batman,” listen to the latest episode of “Playback” via the streaming link above.