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Making a Scene

Anh-Minh Le | August 30, 2018 | Lifestyle Story News and Features Profiles Culture

It's a mid-July morning and filmmaker Jon M. Chu has just walked into the bar area of Chef Chu’s, his family’s Los Altos restaurant. He hands out sugar-free vanilla lattes from the neighboring Peet’s to his father, Lawrence, and his brother Larry Jr., before settling onto a stool. Soon, the three men are reminiscing about the time Justin Bieber, whose documentaries Jon directed, was craving Chinese food two hours before a concert in San Jose. Chef Chu’s closed off its upstairs dining room, which can accommodate 120 people, so that Bieber, his pal Jaden Smith and their small entourage could eat in peace.

Fans who spotted Bieber leaving the restaurant pleaded for the glass, straw and napkin he used—anything that the superstar had touched. One teenage girl even requested what was left of his mocktail; six months later, her mother informed Larry that the undisturbed remains of that nonalcoholic Lava Flow had taken pride of place in her bedroom. (“It’s like some creepy Justin Bieber science experiment,” Larry quips.) During another local performance, Bieber announced to the crowd that his crew would be going to Chef Chu’s afterward. Hopeful Beliebers subsequently gathered at the corner of El Camino Real and San Antonio Road. For security reasons, he didn’t end up going, yet for the following week, the restaurant fielded calls about the visit that never happened.

Flashing back to these escapades, Jon—in a baseball cap, T-shirt, shorts and checkered Vans—appears very much at ease, drinking his latte and cracking jokes. When I ask him how he feels about the posters of his movies that hang in the bar, he refers to this part of the restaurant as “a vortex of marketing” for his work, and even slips in a gentle dig. “Jem and the Holograms was only up for a week,” says the 38-year-old, causing all three Chus to bust up laughing. Watching their family dynamic, I can’t help but wonder: 1) How much fun the holidays must be with the Chu clan. 2) If laid-back moments like these will be rarer for Jon in the coming months. He is getting married in St. Helena in a couple of weeks and, 36 hours after that, will embark on an international press tour for his latest—and perhaps most significant—blockbuster, Crazy Rich Asians.

While any new release must feel like a milestone for a film director, this one has a special distinction: It is the first non-period studio movie to feature an all-Asian cast and center on the stories of Asian leads since The Joy Luck Club, which debuted 25 years ago. Given this quarter-century gap, the big-screen adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians, Kevin Kwan’s 2013 best-selling book, the first in a trilogy, has a lot riding on it. “There’s so much pressure on this one story because it’s the only one, which is a shame and shouldn’t be the way it is,” says Jon. If more movies centered around Asian characters are to be greenlighted, including Kwan’s sequels, then this one has to be a hit. “If you say that there’s an audience, the audience better be there for it. To actually make this not just about a movie, but about a movement, we’ve got to back it up.”

The Warner Bros. romantic comedy, which landed in theaters Aug. 15 and reportedly had a $30 million production budget, surpassed expectations—tallying $35.3 million in its initial five days. Opening weekend earnings of $26.5 million put it in first place at the box office. The movie follows the fictional Rachel Chu as she accompanies her boyfriend, Nick Young, to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding. Rachel and Nick reside in New York, where they’re both professors. Nick, it turns out, is the scion of a wealthy family, and Rachel is completely unprepared for the over-the-top lifestyle of Singapore’s elite. The cast includes Constance Wu and Henry Golding as the protagonists, along with Michelle Yeoh, Gemma Chan, Awkwafina, Ken Jeong, Harry Shum Jr., Jimmy O. Yang and Nico Santos.

“The first time I saw it, I cried, 100 percent,” says Larry, who, a month before the flick’s official release, had already watched it eight times—a perk of being the director’s brother. “You feel so proud to see a reflection of yourself on a movie screen.” It is indeed a rare sight: In July, a new USC Annenberg report on the top 100 films in 2017 found that of characters with an ascertainable race or ethnicity, only 4.8 percent were Asian, a stat that has essentially remained unchanged for a decade. On Twitter, Wu posted that, prior to Crazy Rich Asians, she never dreamed she would star in a studio film “because I had never seen that happen to someone who looked like me.” But 2018 could go down in history as a turning point: With Crazy Rich Asians, as well as Oakland native Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, moviegoers are letting it be known that representation and inclusion do matter—and Hollywood is paying attention. “The dam has broken; it’s happening,” says Jon. “The movie business is bleeding, and they need new ways to tell stories. But it still takes a lot of work to pull the whole dam down.”

When Jon was a kid growing up on the Peninsula—he attended Los Altos’ Pinewood School from grades K-12—he was tasked with filming family vacations. “I’m not sure why my parents entrusted the youngest one with the camera,” says Larry, the oldest of Lawrence and Ruth Chu’s brood of five children. He recalls “running around the bottom of the Eiffel Tower because I think Jon wanted us to.” It was an early harbinger of things to come. After spotting a Sima Video Ed/it 2 in a Sharper Image catalog, Jon convinced his dad to buy it for him. “It was a $200 machine that could take VHS players and connect them to your stereo,” he says. “I remember editing [the vacation footage] together, and, when my parents saw it, they cried. It was probably the worst thing, but they loved it so much. And for the first time, in a family of seven people, I remember thinking, ‘Oh, they’re hearing me.’ And I knew that this was something I was going to do for the rest of my life.”

Lawrence and Ruth, who opened Chef Chu’s in 1970, had zero expectation that their children would work a single day in the restaurant. Not as kids, and not as adults. “I love the restaurant business,” says Lawrence, “but the next generation—I wanted them to find what they were passionate about, what they enjoy.” The message was received, loud and clear. “My parents always taught me that you’ve got to love what you do, that America’s the greatest place,” says Jon. “They came here without even speaking English, and they created something that could support a whole family. They said, ‘Do everything that we couldn’t do.’” He learned to play the piano, saxophone, violin, drums and guitar, and took tap-dance lessons. Whatever he was interested in, his mom enthusiastically supported. His childhood was filled with weekend excursions to San Francisco to catch an opera, musical or ballet. During intermission, Jon often made his way to the orchestra pit. “They would see this little kid, and they would talk to me,” he recalls. “I remember saying randomly to my mom: ‘It would be fun to be a conductor.’ So she got me a ‘How to be a conductor’ kit.”

(Of course, if one of the Chu children wanted to take over the restaurant, their parents were keen to oblige. In 2000, after graduating from UCLA and working in sports management in Hong Kong for several years, Larry returned home and became general manager of Chef Chu’s. Lawrence remembers that period clearly, as Ruth, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, was just finishing chemotherapy. He credits Larry with saving the family business.)

Although Jon never worked at the restaurant, it was pivotal in the development of his craft—as was its clientele, which included a healthy number of tech-industry geeks. “In the mid-’90s, digital was coming into play,” he says. “My dad would talk about my movies, my little home videos, so the customers would be like, ‘Oh, you know, we’re working on some really interesting stuff that can digitize your videos, and you can do dissolves and wipes.’ And they would give my dad beta computers that had no manuals. They would give my dad software. Literally every month, every two months, I would get a new thing. My family wasn’t really into computers, so I just had to figure it out.”

While still a student at the University of Southern California’s film school, Jon’s 20-minute short, When the Kids Are Away, an original musical about “the secret life of mothers” during school hours, caught the attention of Steven Spielberg. There was buzz about this up-and-comer, and Jon signed a pay-or-play deal with Sony, locking him into the studio for several years, with payment guaranteed regardless of whether a movie was made. When a promised reboot of Bye Bye Birdie, which was supposed to be his directorial debut, went away, it was devastating. “You’re like, ‘Did my moment pass?’” Jon says. More projects stalled before his manager suggested that he consider directing the straight-to-video sequel to the 2006 dance film Step Up. Jon describes a chat he had with his mom Ruth about the potential gig:

Jon: “I don’t do direct-to-DVD,” he sniffed.
Mom: “When did you become a snob? Stories are stories. Why does it matter if it’s on DVD? You haven’t even told a story.”
Jon: “No, I’m a feature director.”
Mom: “You haven’t directed anything.”

Ruth was right, and so Jon committed himself to making “the best damn direct-to-DVD sequel ever.” He reworked the script and pitched it to Disney, which decided to distribute Step Up 2: The Streets as a theatrical release. It earned $150 million worldwide. A couple of years later, Step Up 3D raked in $159 million. Next, Jon directed the two Bieber documentaries. He created the Hulu web series The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, as well as the Virgin America inflight safety video that everybody adores. He then directed G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Jem and the Holograms and Now You See Me 2 (he’s also attached to the third installment of that franchise).

Unlike some directors who are associated with a specific genre—think Michael Bay (action) or Judd Apatow (comedy)—Jon’s oeuvre is decidedly varied. “I realized that I don’t have to be what everyone thinks I am,” he says. “I can turn and twist and confuse the hell out of people. And I become a better filmmaker for it.” While the obvious common thread is storytelling, his movies “all use another form of language other than talking. Step Up is through dance. Justin Bieber is a documentary, but it’s through his music. We recontextualized it as almost a musical to tell the story of his life. With G.I. Joe, it’s action; it’s movement. In Now You See Me, it’s magic. With Crazy Rich Asians, it’s fashion.”

In 2016, when Kwan and the producers of Crazy Rich Asians were looking to line up a director, the author never imagined that Jon M. Chu would be interested. “He was doing these huge $200 million budget movies with all these famous actors,” says Kwan, who was also aware that “a lot of Asians, especially in the creative field, in the past, almost wanted to get away from any subject matter that had to do with their heritage. That was certainly my story. I had to embrace that part of myself, and it just so happened that that appeared to be the evolution that Jon was on personally too.”

This period coincided with a time when the studios were regularly asking Jon: “What have you got?” “That question,” he says, “is what really hit me and drove me to Crazy Rich Asians. What am I contributing? What am I actually saying? I’ve made a lot of really fun movies—I love every single one, and I don’t take anything away from them. I looked back at what scared me the most, and talking about my ethnicity or cultural identity scared the shit out of me. Because that’s the thing I don’t want to talk about it.

“I love being it and living it,” Jon continues, “but I don’t want to be the only Asian guy in the room. I don’t want to talk about me being Asian; I want to talk about the film. I knew the moment you do that, people look at you and they label you. But at that point, I had enough confidence in my own self and in my professional life, that I didn’t feel just lucky to be here anymore. I earned this spot.” He likens the decision to do Crazy Rich Asians to “a power switch turning on: ‘Oh, if I want to make this, if I want to change this, I can.’ It felt very freeing.” As our conversation segues into representation in the film industry, Jon recalls a talk he saw. The audience is shown an ink blot and asked what they see. The responses include clouds and a bunny. A pattern is then layered behind the blot, resulting in an image of a coiled snake. The pattern disappears from the screen, but the audience can’t shake that image of the snake. “The point is: We see things from our own memories and references, so you can’t unsee the snake,” Jon explains. “We’re painting the picture for everybody’s brain when they see an Asian person, what they think. We’re painting the picture of how human do they see this other person, how complicated, how empathetic. Are they like me, are they not like me.”

In the case of Crazy Rich Asians, the depictions—from the down-to-earth Rachel Chu to the gossipy Oliver T’sien to the glamorous Astrid Leong—are a far cry from Sixteen Candles’ cringeworthy Long Duk Dong from the ’80s. “Representation is so important, in many different ways. Writers, directors, people behind the scenes—we’re the ones who can stand up to common stereotypes,” Jon says. “When we start to look at our stories—who’s telling the stories and what kind of characters we’re talking about—that definitely woke me up. I think we’re all waking up.”

In a corner booth at Chef Chu’s, Jon has requested a few of his comfort foods: chicken salad (which is the most popular dish here, for good reason) and the handmade pot stickers. The youth soccer team that was extricated from the cave in Thailand is still in the headlines, and news outlets from USA Today to Variety have reported that Jon wants to turn the improbable rescue into a movie. He is quick to point out that discussions about optioning the rights to the story are in the very preliminary stages. But Jon is passionate about the need to tell their tale respectfully. “I felt protective of the family and the team,” he says of his much-publicized reaction upon learning that Pure Flix, an Arizona-based studio, had announced its intention to pursue the film rights. “I didn’t want them to think that there was only one choice—if the movie was going to get made, that there was only going to be one player in town. I have the power to send the signal to say: ‘Hey, there are other choices, and, if anyone else is going to make this story, know that you’re on watch.’ We’re not just going to let a story be told whatever way.”

As it stands, Jon has several high-profile projects in the pipeline. He recently directed and executive-produced the first episode of Freeform’s Good Trouble, a spinoff of its award-winning drama The Fosters. He’s also set to helm a mystery series for Apple, based on the true story of Hilde Lysiak, who, at age 9, broke the news of a murder in her hometown of Selinsgrove, Pa., in a self-started publication. With the deal, he joins the ranks of notable filmmakers signing on with streaming services; Ava DuVernay and Spike Lee, for example, are both collaborating with Netflix. “It’s such an interesting turn of events that, when I thought I had moved away from Silicon Valley the past 10 years,” says Jon, “Silicon Valley is back in my life because content is what all these places—Netflix, Apple—want right now.” (In a cover story last month, The Hollywood Reporter detailed Netflix’s desire to distribute Crazy Rich Asians, and Jon and Kwan’s rejection of the lucrative offer in favor of a major theatrical release.)

A few days prior to our interview and photo shoot, Jon was running around New York City’s Washington Heights neighborhood with Lin-Manuel Miranda, whose pre-Hamilton hit musical In the Heights, currently slated for a 2020 big-screen release, Jon is directing. “I was always a fan of Lin; I was always a fan of the show,” he says. “And the immigrant story, I got—it’s my community too—so I jumped on board.” I’m curious if this is a dream project: a feature film combining music, dance and a narrative that resonates on a personal level. But that’s not how Jon approaches his work, he says. “I don’t think of it like, ‘When that movie’s done, that’s it. That’s the movie I’ve always wanted to make.’ My mentality is: ‘What do I need to tell right now?’”

Shortly after swirling the last pot sticker in a pool of garlic soy sauce and popping it into his mouth, he stands up, puts on his jacket and spins his suitcase around. The work-wedding-media-junket whirlwind is getting under way (the honeymoon will have to wait). Jon checks the time and realizes he needs to get to the airport for his flight home to Los Angeles, where, the next day, he and his soon-to-be-wife will celebrate their daughter’s first birthday. He exits through the bar, past the framed poster for Crazy Rich Asians—which is bound to be there a very long while. Hopefully, it will be joined by posters for a sequel or two.

Originally published in the September issue of Silicon Valley

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