“I’m going to misquote Andre Aciman, who wrote Call Me By Your Name, who said he just created a sculpture, so I feel like I created a sculpture and Jon made it move,” that’s author Kevin Kwan, whose best-selling book Crazy Rich Asians, based on his personal experience of growing up surrounded by the extravagant lifestyles of Singapore’s business elite.
Kwan took it upon himself to get a movie version made, partnering with producer Nina Jacobson (Hunger Games) after fielding the usual ridiculous Hollywood offers. “A very famous producer reached out and said, ‘let’s make this movie, but I feel like we need to change the main character into a white girl’. And I was like, ‘you’ve missed the point completely. Thank you very much. Goodbye.’ But then I found the right team that really wanted to do justice and make it as authentic to the book as possible, and I think the timing just worked out perfectly.”
As he mentions, the key to the film’s success was finding director Jon M. Chu, who up until now was best known for directing a couple of Step Up movies, working with Justin Bieber, and the sequels to GI Joe and Now You See Me.
“It does feel like it was destiny, like all the things had to line up perfectly,” says Chu. “Even though my parents came over from China, they have a restaurant, so I was growing up in that environment, but still, I never made a movie about my cultural identity crisis.”
Born in California in 1979, Chu is known for his slick filmmaking style, which speaks to a youthful demographic, but Crazy Rich Asians has allowed him to show that he’s about more than just choreographed dance move set pieces. “I read a lot, and nothing hit me… nothing affected me. Until I read this book. It touched me in a way that I knew I had to do this; I was going to do this movie whether Kevin wanted me to or not.
“I remember going to Taiwan for the first time and feeling I’m not a minority this time, people are treating me like family,” he continues. “I go into the restaurant, I’m like the brother, the cousin, no-one’s staring at me, and I remember feeling that. I’m actually in a position of power to make a difference, not just donate money but actually make a movie about this stuff, which I avoided growing up, to be honest. I didn’t want to be known as the ‘Asian’ director, I just wanted to be a director. But I’m 38 years old, I’m having my first baby through the production of this movie, I definitely wanted to change my perspective of what I wanted to say.
“I feel like I’m still growing as a filmmaker. Nine years into it, this is my eighth movie, some things work, some things don’t. But I did feel like this was a turn for me, this was my second chapter. Now I can do things more for me and I’m not as worried about getting my next job.”
One of the headlines around Crazy Rich Asians is that it’s the first Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club in 1993 to feature a majority Asian cast. With his newfound direction, will Chu look to make more films in Hollywood filled with Asian casts?
“I would love to, but it is not really a distinction in my head,” he concludes. “I’m really excited if this opens the door, to see the next generation be able to tell different perspectives of stories like this, or others, other genres, superhero even. And I guess I’ll find what I’m destined to tell, whether that’s with Asian characters or not. I got exposed to a huge amount of talented Asian actors around the world. So many I would give a full movie to. I’m excited to go back into those archives.”
Crazy Rich Asians is in cinemas August 30, 2018.