‘In the Heights’ director Jon M. Chu: ‘The American dream is not a given’

Written by Stephy Chung, CNN

Contributors Video by Frank Fenimore

This feature is part of CNN Style’s new series Hyphenated, which explores the complex issue of identity among minorities in the United States.

In this summer’s highly-anticipated “In the Heights,” cast members sing and dance on the streets of Manhattan to tell the tale of a bodega owner who dreams of one day returning to the Dominican Republic to open a bar.

Hitting theaters in June, the movie also portrays the aspirations of other residents in New York’s tight-knit Washington Heights neighborhood. And in doing so, the joyful adaption of the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical is inadvertently capturing the mood in America: a cultural renaissance bursting with infectious energy after more than a year stifled by the coronavirus pandemic. “In the Heights” is produced by Warner Bros., which is owned by CNN’s parent company WarnerMedia.

A still from the forthcoming movie "In the Heights," adapted from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical of the same name.

A still from the forthcoming movie “In the Heights,” adapted from the Lin-Manuel Miranda musical of the same name. Credit: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The film’s superstar billing brings together the stage show’s creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame, and the Chinese American director of “Crazy Rich Asians,” Jon M. Chu. Given Hollywood’s poor track record of hiring diverse talent on and off screen, it’s a pairing that might never have happened — even a decade ago. But for 41-year-old Chu, who finds himself working with a largely Latino cast shortly after directing a ground-breaking all-Asian one, the journey has taken him full circle.

Chu’s new chapter began about five years ago with a desire to move away from reliable hits like “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, or dance movies in the “Step Up” franchise, and to instead, pursue projects that, while not necessarily commercial hits, would, crucially, “meet a moment.”

Around the same time, the industry was facing accusations of “whitewashing” and calls for better representation. Films like “Aloha” and “Ghost in the Shell” were being criticized for casting White actresses like Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson, respectively, in Asian roles, while in a leaked e-mail to Sony, Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin infamously wrote, “There aren’t any Asian movie stars.” The social media campaign #OscarsSoWhite was quickly followed by the trending hashtag #starringjohncho, which saw the face of actor John Cho, who has worked for more than two decades in film and television, photoshopped onto the posters of blockbusters like “Spectre” and “Avengers: Age of Ultron” in a call for more Asian American actors to be cast in leading roles.

Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on location for "In the Heights" in June 2019.

Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on location for “In the Heights” in June 2019. Credit: James Devaney/GC Images

For director Chu, these sorts of conversations served as a wake-up call.

“I was definitely affected by … people fighting back for the first time, finding each other and uniting to discuss issues that we all knew were happening but didn’t feel like anyone cared enough to make it a ‘thing,'” he says over a video call from his home in Los Angeles.

“I realized I had been in those rooms, where I was being told ‘you can’t cast this person or that person as this romantic lead,’ because it needed to ‘play globally.'”

Recognizing that he was either part of the solution or part of the problem, Chu told his agents and manager to “buckle up.”

“I’m going to do a couple of movies that aren’t going to make you guys any money,” he recalls warning them, adding: “because right now, I’ve got to find who I am … as a storyteller.”

Telling Asian stories

Ironically, one of those projects, 2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians,” would go on to gross $239 million worldwide. Featuring the first all-Asian cast in Hollywood for 25 years, it proved that Asian actors in America’s movie industry — many of whom had long been sidelined or relegated to bit-parts and stereotypes — could play romantically, comedically and dramatically complex roles.

“Everyone wanted to go large, everyone wanted to shoot for the moon and everyone wanted to do what they couldn’t do before,” Chu recalls from his conversations with the cast. “It just shows that it’s the opportunity that’s missing, not the talent.”

Crazy Rich Asians' cast and crew celebrate their win for Best Comedy Movie at the Critics Choice Awards in January 2019.

Crazy Rich Asians’ cast and crew celebrate their win for Best Comedy Movie at the Critics Choice Awards in January 2019. Credit: Michael Kovac/WireImage/Getty Images

Lately however, Chu feels the pride that accompanied the film — and its wider impact on diversity — has been eroded by anti-Asian sentiment and the rise of hate crimes during the pandemic.

“We were bleeding this whole year — shouting that these things were happening,” he says. “Everyone was saying the same thing we always hear: ‘It’s just a joke, relax. You can’t take a joke?’ And then it escalates to this point now. And now everyone is concerned.

“America (is) the place we are taught to love, because it’s where our parents came to find hope and opportunity,” he adds, before suggesting that the country’s politicians are also to blame for the uptick in racist attacks: “For leaders to say the same things that the bullies are saying, now that we’re grownups and now we have power? I think there’s a moment … where we say, no more.”

Chu says he is energized by the growing number of Asian Americans standing up for their communities. He is in the process of figuring out how to make a difference himself. As a filmmaker, this means creating more room for Asian-led — and specifically Asian women-led stories — that break from the stereotypical “dragon lady” roles and overtly sexual stereotypes. “It’s up to us storytellers to change the narrative,” he says.

He also is especially conscious of how he raises his two young children, aware that their mixed heritage will impact the way they see the world.

“I have to paint what being Chinese means to my children, who are half White,” he says. “The smell of that food means home (and) that older lady you see on the street in Chinatown looks like your grandmother and you should treat her like that. These are not strangers to you. These smells and these tastes are not strange to you. They should give you a sense of home the way they do for me.”

Generational divides

As a kid, patrons to his parents’ restaurant in Los Altos, California, were aware of his budding interest in filmmaking (“they knew Chef Chu’s son loved making videos,” he remembers). Customers working for nearby tech companies would even give him beta versions of new hardware and software, such as a “scuzzy” Vincent 601 video card and breakout box from the ’90s that he still owns today. This type of equipment helped him get ahead of the curve as he experimented with non-linear editing before many of his peers.

Chu expressed an interest in filmmaking early on.

Chu expressed an interest in filmmaking early on. Credit: Courtesy Jon M. Chu

The old Vincent 601 is among keepsakes the director feels emotionally connected to — objects that both ground him and inspire him to keep progressing. There’s also a Minolta Super 8 camera, which he used to film animations and stop-motion videos throughout high school and during his time at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. There’s an old film viewer, too, which reminds him of cutting his hands as he physically spliced footage together.

Holding various mementos up to the camera, Chu reveals that his collection also contains props, including a mahjong tile from “Crazy Rich Asians” and a coaster, stolen from the set of “In the Heights,” bearing the Spanish words “el sueñito” (or “little dream”).

A Super 8 camera the director keeps to this day.

A Super 8 camera the director keeps to this day. Credit: Courtesy Jon M. Chu

The latter movie’s protagonist, Usnavi de la Vega (played by Anthony Ramos), keeps the coaster stuck to his wall as he dreams of leaving New York and opening a beachside bar in his home country. The item, Chu says, evokes questions the film wrestles with, like, “What is your home? What is your father’s home? Where do you actually belong? Where do you end up and where should you be?”

"In the Heights" depicts the aspirations of residents in New York's Washington Heights neighborhood.

“In the Heights” depicts the aspirations of residents in New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood. Credit: Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures

As a person of color, the director says he can relate to this generational debate and the pressure placed on immigrants’ children to “write the next chapter of your family’s history.” Recognizing these pressures, he drew from his own experiences of “growing up in a restaurant, growing up with under-the-breath comments from people who walk past,” and everything from “the feeling of being othered to your family, giving you advice, keeping your head down, keeping you moving (and) being there for you.

“And the struggle it is to either take on the baggage that they’ve brought or let go of it and find your own path,” he says.

Cultural nuances

Chu’s approach to directing “In the Heights” involved listening to — and learning from — the actors’ own experiences to ensure the film not only shines a light on the neighborhood’s beauty but also the struggles and dreams of its residents. Then there was the task of adapting Miranda’s musical numbers and choreography for the big screen.

Chu had worked with many of the film’s Puerto Rican and Dominican dancers before, helping him to “connect the dots” when using dance and movement to tell their communities’ proud stories. He did so using cinematic techniques like close-ups and shooting “from 10,000 feet in the air,” but he says that subtler details were also important.

In one scene, for instance, someone on set pointed out that it wouldn’t just be branded hot sauce found on dining tables during gatherings — people would also make and bring their own — so Chu’s team made sure to include both in the shot. He also made sure that singer-actress Leslie Grace’s voluminous and naturally curly hair was “given room” and appropriately lit. (Grace had told Chu that, in other productions, she had been made to change her hair, because its size would create shadows, and that, in some shots, her real skin tone would been distorted because the lighting was calibrated for the scene’s White actors.)

Corey Hawkins as Benny and Leslie Grace as Nina in a still from "In the Heights."

Corey Hawkins as Benny and Leslie Grace as Nina in a still from “In the Heights.” Credit: Macall Polay/Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Speaking to online newspaper A.V. Club about the film, Miranda, who is of Puerto Rican descent, praised Chu’s commitment to authenticity and the scale of his vision.

“Jon, I think, dreamed bigger than any of us in terms of the size and scope of this,” he is quoted as saying. “I think we’re so used to asking for less — just to ask to occupy space, as Latinos. Like, let us make our little movie. And Jon, every step of the way, was like, ‘No. This is a big movie. These guys have big dreams. We’re allowed to go that big.”

For Chu however, Miranda was the one who “set the dream on the table first” recalling how much the musical moved him when he first watched it in 2008.

“He (sowed) the seeds on Broadway … and started a revolution of theater, and roles for him, his friends and his community, preceding anything that I could have ever dreamed for Asian Americans in this space.

“That definitely got into my brain as I was making movies and realizing there were no roles for Asian Americans in Hollywood — especially at the studio level — that portrayed who we really were, or who I felt we were.”

Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jon M. Chu on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures "In the Heights."

Melissa Barrera, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Jon M. Chu on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures “In the Heights.” Credit: Macall Polay/Macall Polay

“In the Heights” is, at its core, about dreaming. It’s a theme that resonates with the director and one that feels particularly urgent in today’s exclusionary climate. The characters’ dreams reflect the American Dream, one shared by people and communities across the country, though Chu is wary of sugarcoating all of the difficulties and uncertainties this entails.

“The American Dream is very, very real, and is just that — the dream. It’s not given to you, and guess what? Some of the promises aren’t true. Sorry, fairy tales don’t exactly happen the way they’re sold to us.

“But I do believe that America is what we all make of it, because we’re in power,” he says of the country’s fast-growing minority populations. “We can all work together… to build a world where we all have equal footing to go after the opportunities we think of in our bedrooms when we’re dreaming about doing whatever it is we want do.

“Are we prepared for what America is going to look like when — and it’s when, not if — we look like this? Are we prepared for how big that dream of America will be?”

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