Jon M. Chu: Why Does Representation On Screen Matter?

May 14, 2021
Originally published on May 25, 2021 5:56 am

Part 2 of TED Radio Hour episode The Artist's Voice

With his film Crazy Rich Asians, director Jon M. Chu made his mark on Hollywood — opening doors for Asian American representation on screen. He reflects on how his heritage informs his cinematic work.

About Jon M. Chu

Jon M. Chu is a filmmaker, best known for directing the 2018 hit movie Crazy Rich Asians and the upcoming screen adaptation of In The Heights, starring Lin-Manuel Miranda.

He previously directed multiple projects with musical elements, including Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, and the live concert films Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and Justin Bieber's Believe. He also directed episodes of Home Before Dark and Good Trouble for television.

Chu received his bachelors degree from the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by James Delahoussaye and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour and Rachel Faulkner. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MANOUSH ZOMORODI, HOST:

It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And on today's show, The Artist's Voice.

Hey, Jon.

JON CHU: Hey.

ZOMORODI: Nice to meet you - online, that is.

CHU: Do I - how do I sound? How do I sound?

ZOMORODI: You sound good to me.

CHU: Well, this is a new house, so it's a little empty, so it's a little echo-y (ph). That's my only concern, but I might bring pillow over here.

ZOMORODI: This is Hollywood director Jon Chu.

CHU: Let me get this on the little teeny desk that I have here.

ZOMORODI: OK, great. Congrats on the new house.

CHU: Thank you.

ZOMORODI: That's a big deal to move, yeah.

CHU: New house, new baby, new movie - it's a lot.

ZOMORODI: Jon's new movie is "In The Heights." It's adapted from Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical with the same name. Before that, he directed "Crazy Rich Asians."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

AWKWAFINA: (As Peik Lin Goh) Damn, Rachel. He's like the Asian Bachelor.

ZOMORODI: You know, the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the 2010s - a majority-Asian cast that dominated the box office.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

CONSTANCE WU: (As Rachel Chu) You really should've told me that you're like the Prince William of Asia.

HENRY GOLDING: (As Nick Young) That's ridiculous. I'm much more of a Harry.

ZOMORODI: But way before "Crazy Rich Asians," way before Jon was making big hit movies, Jon was growing up in California as the youngest of five kids to two immigrant parents.

CHU: Yeah, my parents came from overseas. My mom's from Taiwan. My dad's from mainland China. And they came to the Bay Area of all places and started a restaurant called Chef Chu's in Los Altos in 1969. And it's still there till this day.

ZOMORODI: When Jon's parents first arrived, they didn't speak much English, but they wanted to fit into American culture.

CHU: My mom really pushed us to fit in and to assimilate so that we weren't looked at as strange or foreigners. And she saw herself as Jackie Onassis and us as those kids.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: I mean, she would call me Jon-Jon. They put us in dance classes, in etiquette classes to know how to, like, drink tea and ballroom dance. I took tap for 12 years.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

CHU: Piano, drums, saxophone, violin - it was - tennis. There was a lot of classes.

ZOMORODI: And did I get this right - that when you weren't taking etiquette classes or tap dancing, you were watching a lot of TV, right?

CHU: Yes. TV and audio and music and movies were a big part of my life, especially because with five kids, I think you need distractions to keep everyone busy. And so TV was on all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER FOR "CHILD'S PLAY" FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: Someone's moved in with the Barclay family...

CHU: And there was no filter.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAILER FOR "CHILD'S PLAY" FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR: ...As terror.

CHU: "Child Play" (ph), Freddy Krueger. We were watching "Airplane!," which was kind of on constant rotation.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "AIRPLANE!")

ROBERT HAYS: (As Ted Striker) Surely you can't be serious.

LESLIE NIELSEN: (As Dr. Rumack) I am serious. And don't call me Shirley.

CHU: Yeah, the fact that me and my sister are named after Jennifer and Jonathan Hart from "Hart To Hart"...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HART TO HART")

LIONEL STANDER: (As Max) This is my boss Jonathan Hart.

CHU: And I, luckily, you know, had my parents' camera. And it was one of those big, large ones you put on your shoulders. And so they gave it to the youngest one to haul everywhere. And I decided to make my own little movies with it. And I didn't know how to put them together. But I - one day, I saw in The Sharper Image, there's this mixer board that you could put, like, VCRs together and cut it together. So I convinced my dad to get me one. And in a house full of kids, we have a bunch of VCRs in people's rooms. And so I stole them all and connected it all and made a video of, like - I think it was a trip to Boston or something.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHU: So I brought them into the living room one night. It's probably 1991, somewhere around there.

ZOMORODI: Here's Jon Chu on the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHU: And I sit them down in the living room. And I was - my heart was pounding. My breaths were deep, sort of like right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF INSERTING TAPE INTO VCR)

CHU: And I press play and something extraordinary happened, actually. They cried and cried, not because it was the most amazing home video edit ever - although it was pretty good...

(LAUGHTER)

CHU: ...But because they saw our family as a normal family that fit in and belonged on the screen in front of them, just like the movies that they worshipped and the TV shows that they named us after. And I remember as the youngest of these five kids feeling heard for the first time. There's is a place where all these things in my head could go into the great electric somewhere out there and exist and escape. And I knew from this moment on, I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

I remember my mom giving me a pile of filmmaking books one day in high school and being like, if you're going to do this for real, it's not going to be a joke, then you have to study it like a real craft, like a real subject in school. And I took that very seriously. And the best place to go, of course, they want - what's the Harvard of film schools? And that is USC.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHU: So I went to USC School of Cinematic Arts and started to go there. And my mom and dad would always call me randomly and remind me that I've got to do movies about my Chinese heritage, that China was going to be a huge market for movies one day. I was like, yeah, right. Yeah, right, guys.

(LAUGHTER)

CHU: Always listen to your parents. And...

(LAUGHTER)

CHU: I wanted to be Zemeckis, Lucas and Spielberg. The last thing I wanted to talk about was my own cultural identity, my ethnicity. And honestly, I had no one else to talk - there was no one at school that I could really open up to. And even if I did, like, what would I say? So I ignored it, and I moved on with my life.

The prototype for me was "Batman," when Tim Burton did that. I was - the fact that it was an event. So you got the toys, and you played with more adventures in your backyard. Then you listened to the soundtrack before you went to sleep. You danced in your living room to it. To me, that was, like, the ultimate form of entertainment.

ZOMORODI: And that's what Jon made right out of college. Steven Spielberg saw one of his student films, helped him get an agent. And five years later, Jon put out his first feature film.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "STEP UP 2: THE STREETS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Are you ready to step up?

CHU: My first movie was "Step Up 2: The Streets," a dance movie.

ZOMORODI: Then there was "Step Up 3D," a sequel to the sequel. And then...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "JUSTIN BIEBER: NEVER SAY NEVER")

JUSTIN BIEBER: (Singing) Never say never.

CHU: "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never."

ZOMORODI: ...A documentary about Justin Bieber.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "G.I. JOE: RETALIATION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You with me?

ZOMORODI: Then a "G.I. Joe" sequel.

(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)

ZOMORODI: Then another Justin Bieber doc and a cartoon-turned-movie, "Jem And The Holograms."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOW YOU SEE ME 2")

DAVE FRANCO: (As Jack Wilder) It's all in the wrist.

CHU: And then I did "Now You See Me 2"...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOW YOU SEE ME 2")

WOODY HARRELSON: (As Merritt McKinney) Now, you want to see a thing of beauty?

CHU: ...Sort of magic heist movie.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "NOW YOU SEE ME 2")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) You thought that they had disappeared...

ZOMORODI: Seven years, seven movies - Jon was on a roll and making Hollywood studios a lot of money.

So Jon, just go with me here. If we were making the movie about you, I mean, clearly somebody very famous would play you. But...

CHU: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...It's kind of like fairy tale - right? Like, parents come from hardship. They open a restaurant that everyone loves. You go to the most amazing schools. You're making these movies that are just, like, big time. But then you - like, in the movie of you, there's a moment - right? - where you're like, wait a - (imitating record scratch) - hold on. Something happens where you're like...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...I need to make a change.

CHU: Yeah. I felt a little bit creatively empty. I had been doing movies for about 10 years at that point and a lot of sequels, a lot of franchise stuff, been making a lot of money for people. But I didn't know why I was doing it anymore. What am I actually saying? What do I want to say, and what am I supposed to be saying? What needs to be said? I'd never talked about my own cultural identity crisis being Asian American.

ZOMORODI: Wait, what do you mean? You just referred to it as an Asian American crisis. That's the first time I've heard you use that word. Where was the crisis part?

CHU: I think it was when you don't acknowledge how important the Asian part of your identity is and how many others out there are like you in terms of balancing these different cultures. And so you just bury it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHU: If someone says something to you on the street, if someone says something to you in a meeting, you bury it. Like, don't spend the energy on fighting it because your vengeance is when you make the thing, when you succeed on the other side. Just do better than them.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: My sister reminded me the other day. She was like, do you remember when we crossed - when we were, like, 7 or 8 and we went across the street to the Tower Records and that car pulled over and said, go back to your country, chinks, to us kids - three kids. She was like, that - I've never forgotten that moment. And I was like, that's crazy to me because it just was a blip. And then I realized how lucky I actually was that I was so young and naive that I - and maybe my parents purposely protected us from that so we didn't have to deal with it. But at some point, there was a reckoning. At a certain point I'm like, no, now they need to see me.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHU: I got a sign. I heard from voices from the sky - or more it was like, birds. OK, fine, it was Twitter. And in Twitter...

(LAUGHTER)

CHU: It was Constance Wu on Twitter, it was Daniel Dae Kim, it was Alan Yang - all of these people who were writing their frustrations with representation in Hollywood. And it really hit me. I had thought these things but never really registered - I was really focused on - and I felt lucky to be working. And so then I realized - yeah, what is wrong with Hollywood? Why aren't they doing this? And then I looked at myself in the mirror and realized I am Hollywood. I literally - I popped my collar before I came out here, that's how Hollywood I am.

(LAUGHTER)

CHU: Is it still up? Is it still up? OK, good.

(APPLAUSE, LAUGHTER)

CHU: For all these years, I felt just - I had been given so much. And what was I giving back to the film business that I loved? I earned the right to be here not just to have a voice but to say something and say something important. And I had, actually, the power - the superpower to change things if I really, really wanted to. And so I found Kevin Kwan's amazing novel "Crazy Rich Asians," and we went to work.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZOMORODI: Jon thought "Crazy Rich Asians" was his chance to tell an Asian American story with a multi-ethnic Asian cast using Hollywood money.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

GOLDING: (As Nick Young) Singapore for spring break.

ZOMORODI: If you haven't seen the movie, it's got the classic rom-com trappings. A college professor is in love with a handsome guy from Singapore...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

GOLDING: (As Nick Young) We've been dating for over a year now, and I think it's about time people met my beautiful girlfriend.

ZOMORODI: ...Who invites her there to visit his family, but fails to mention that they are incredibly wealthy. One could even say crazy rich.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

GOLDING: (As Nick Young) We're comfortable.

WU: (As Rachel Chu) That is exactly what a super rich person would say.

ZOMORODI: You might remember just how big the movie was when it came out in 2018. But when Jon first pitched the idea, Hollywood execs thought it was really risky. And there wasn't much to compare it to because the most recent Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast and director - it was "The Joy Luck Club" from 1993.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CHU: It was not a guarantee at all. Every time we did surveys and stuff, the audiences weren't going to show up. In fact, even in our test screenings where you give free tickets to people to watch your movie, we had a one to 25 ratio, meaning after 25 asks, only one person said yes, which is super low for these types of things. So we were pretty screwed. But then the electric somewhere struck again, and this army of Asian American writers, reporters, bloggers went to work, unbeknownst to me. They sort of post stuff on social media, write stuff about us in articles. It was like this grassroots uprising of making ourselves news.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CHU: I'll never forget going opening weekend, and I went into the theater and it's all - not just Asians - all types of people. And I go and I sit down. And people laughed. People cried. And when I went to the lobby, people stayed. It was like they didn't want to leave. It was the same thing that my parents felt when they watched our family videos in that living room that day. Seeing us on the screen has a power to it. And the only way I can describe this is pride.

ZOMORODI: "Crazy Rich Asians" did really well at the box office. But it also generated a lot of conversation about who and what moviegoers want to see on the screen.

To be clear, like, the movie is not all relatable, right? I mean, these are, like, some of the most...

CHU: No.

ZOMORODI: ...Wealthy, ridiculous, over-the-top people. I mean, there are also a lot of stereotypes, like the tiger mom Chinese mother and some thick accents. Do you think that anyone else could have made this movie? Did it need to be an Asian American director?

CHU: Yeah, yeah. Listen. I am not in the business of telling artists what they can or cannot be doing. I think that's the point of art, is to shake things up so we can fight about it and debate about it. However, I do believe that I was meant to do this movie. I do believe when I read the script at first, which was not written by an Asian person, that it was not a funny movie because they couldn't go to the places that I could. I could make fun of my mom. I could make fun of my grandma.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: And the best part of that is that we get to make the rules. Like, it was us in control of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

KEN JEONG: (As Goh Wye Mun) We are so grateful for...

CHU: Ken Jeong - I could flip it on him and say, you're not going to have any accent in this, but let's trick the audience. Your first line is going to be in an accent.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

JEONG: (As Goh Wye Mun) Nice to meet you, too, Chu. Poo-poo (ph). (Laughter). Nah, I'm just kidding. I don't have an accent.

CHU: So you can mess with the audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CRAZY RICH ASIANS")

JEONG: (As Goh Wye Mun) No, no, I studied in the States, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

ANTHONY RAMOS: (As Usnavi, rapping) Lights up on Washington Heights, up at the break of day...

ZOMORODI: So your next project - the one that's just about to come out actually - is "In The Heights."

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: It's the movie version of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about a bodega owner in Washington Heights in New York City.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) In the Heights, I flip the lights and start my day.

ZOMORODI: So this is another huge film that features all actors of color. Is that why you wanted to do this film, in part, at least?

CHU: It's true. I saw it back in 2010, 2011, somewhere in there. I didn't have that sense of purpose yet. But I was crying during that show in Broadway because I saw my immigrant family. I came from a Chinese family, working family that took care of each other. And that's what this show was about, this idea that every generation can see a little bit further that the generation before can't, which is kind of what creates the discrepancy between the two. I love that nuance between that. I felt that. The family dinners that I would have - they had these family dinners in this Broadway show. And it was about dreams. We were taught to dream really big when we were young. So I always thought that that's what I'm bringing, is - I understand I'm not Latino. I'm not from Washington Heights. I'm all California kid. But that core - I got it, and I could communicate that.

And what I learned - I'm so glad I did it after "Crazy Rich Asians" because "Crazy Rich Asians" woke me up just to seeing people see the movie, realizing they're not alone in that struggle and that identity - Asian identity crisis, and then going out to eat afterwards the same food you just saw in the movie. Like, if you could eat together, if you could listen to the great music that you hadn't heard before in another language and share that together and watch a movie and share that together, imagine what you could do when you understand each other and see each other. To me, that was so powerful to experience.

So going into "In The Heights," I only protected those things more this time. Like, all right, you tell me, what are the traditions? What are the sauces I need to have on this table? Where is everyone sitting? "Crazy Rich Asians" allowed - gave me the experience to know, make room, make room, make room and make time to have those conversations.

ZOMORODI: And is that the way forward then, putting people on screen who are underrepresented? I mean, especially - perhaps it's even more urgent considering the discrimination against Asian Americans, the real divisiveness here in the United States?

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Is that your responsibility, to use pop culture, art that is accessible to everyone, to try and make people understand each other better?

CHU: My dad always said, like, when I would see someone treat him poorly out there and he would treat them nice right back at the restaurant, feeding them food. I would be like, Dad, they can't talk to you like that. And, you know - and my dad would say, like, you're representing - we represent - that's probably the first time they know a Chinese family intimately. And my responsibility is to treat them kindly and fill their stomachs, so next time they see another Chinese family, they won't treat them like that.

ZOMORODI: Wow.

CHU: My mom and my dad made - did what they could to give us safety, to give us confidence, to give us things they didn't have, to build the America that maybe wasn't, but what they really wanted it to be, what it had to be for them to survive. America is the idea of what we're making. It's not what we are. It's what we all want it to be. Every generation has to keep getting us closer. 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 meet. That makes it more containable for me.

ZOMORODI: That's director Jon Chu. His film "In The Heights" is out in June. You can hear his full talk at ted.com. On the show today, The Artist's Voice. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.