Even before he signed on to the Hollywood adaptation of Wicked, Jon M. Chu helped his characters defy gravity. In a scene from the director’s forthcoming musical film In the Heights, a torrent of emotions literally sweeps the lovebirds Nina and Benny off their feet. As they sing the ballad “When the Sun Goes Down,” the fire escape on which they’re perched tilts, and the world shifts sideways. They leap onto the side of their apartment building, dancing weightlessly in the twilight glow.
This isn’t how the original Broadway production staged the song, but it’s the way Chu’s imagination works: A love song is also a chance to challenge the laws of physics. His cinematic version of the Tony-winning musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, about a tight-knit immigrant community living in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, works the same way. The movie isn’t a re-creation of its source material but a spectacle that makes a few New York blocks feel like a universe.
Though Chu is a film director, it may be more appropriate to think of the 41-year-old as a magician whose favorite trick is injecting wonder into stories, even those grounded in reality. His movies are maximalist feats of controlled chaos committed to celluloid: Dance-offs are staged in the pouring rain, weddings take place in indoor jungles, and a neighborhood gossip session turns into a Busby Berkeley–style number at the local pool. With his most recent film, the 2018 hit Crazy Rich Asians, Chu showed that he could, through the same sleight of hand, revive a stale genre while providing a launchpad for Asian movie stars and mainstream Asian stories. The movie became the highest-grossing romantic comedy in a decade, while its cast—the first all-Asian ensemble in a studio film in 25 years—went on to score a slew of magazine covers and prestigious leading roles.
Not to give away the secret, but Chu’s guiding principle is a simple one: Music, movement, and marvel can translate ideas in ways dialogue cannot. “Words are not sufficient,” he told me over Zoom recently. “For me, three notes can say what a paragraph could never say. One picture can say what a whole [essay] can’t say.”
So far, the approach is working. In the Heights, out Thursday in theaters and on HBO Max, is being lauded as a feel-good summer film that will ease audiences out of the pandemic. Hollywood has come to trust Chu as a maker of movie musicals, and the long-awaited adaptation of Wicked is next on his list. Even Miranda, who ushered in a new Broadway era with his smash hit, Hamilton, considered the filmmaker a mentor as he migrated behind the camera for his forthcoming directorial debut, an adaptation of the musical Tick Tick ... Boom! Miranda told me he kept Chu his “No. 1 on speed dial,” adding, “He really has been a guiding force.”
These are triumphant times for Chu, whose career finally appears to be matching the soaring scale of his films. He might as well be floating, like Nina and Benny. It seems almost impossible that only six years ago, he was wondering if he’d get to make another movie at all.
If the events of Saturday, October 24, 2015, were scenes from a Jon M. Chu movie, there’d be nothing but silence.
The day before, Chu’s musical fantasy film Jem and the Holograms bombed so badly that it set a box-office record low. Critics despised it. Some superfans sent him death threats for changes he’d made, Chu said—even though he was an ardent fan of the original ’80s cartoon himself. Chu was devastated, but on that morning, by some sick twist of fate, he was scheduled to deliver a speech to his fellow filmmakers at the Film Independent Forum in L.A. about the joys of directing.
He almost canceled the talk, but around 5 a.m., the disappointment gave way to an urge to hold himself accountable for his failure. The speech he hastily rewrote wouldn’t be perfect—indeed, the final product is an awkward, if rare, look at a filmmaker processing disaster in real time. But it was a necessary exercise. “I needed to say some things out loud, in a way, not even to [the audience] but to myself,” he said. One of those things was a question he’d been avoiding: “You’re an artist; what are you trying to say?”
Chu had always thought he knew the answer. As a film student at the University of Southern California, he produced charming amateur creations demonstrating an affinity for escapism informed by the work of Tim Burton and Steven Spielberg. Chu admitted that he was the kind of kid who kept love letters he’d written and received in a box and who wanted to make earnest crowd-pleasers. “I grew up very naive,” he told me. “I believed in fairy tales and love ... I had this vision of [my life as] a Disney musical.”
So when Spielberg himself called Chu at the end of his senior year, Chu felt like his vision had become reality. Spielberg had seen one of his student films—a musical about stay-at-home moms—and put him on the studio track. For Chu, the call validated his ambitions. But it also quieted a latent fear that his career would be defined by his identity. “I did not want to be ‘the Asian American filmmaker,’” he said. “I wanted to be the filmmaker.” Chu reasoned that his favorite filmmakers weren’t defined by who they were, but by what they made. He was so afraid he’d be “put into this box” by audiences and by studio executives that when he made a short film at USC about a Chinese teenager who feels like an outsider, he stopped showing it after a single screening. The project, titled Gwai Lo in reference to a Cantonese term for Westerners that Chu heard himself called when he visited Hong Kong as a 16-year-old, was a musical in which dancing “ghosts” haunt the lead over his confused cultural identity. “It was really hard to share, because I didn’t know if I was being overdramatic,” he told me. “There was not a lot of discussion about what the Asian American identity was, so …” He paused. “I just hid it away.”
Chu’s parents, Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants who met in the States in the late 1960s and raised their family in the Bay Area, always encouraged him and his four older siblings to embrace American culture. (Chu is even named after a character from the hit ABC show Hart to Hart.) While his father opened a restaurant—the popular Chef Chu’s in Los Altos—his mother sent the kids to etiquette lessons and ballroom-dancing classes, hoping they’d learn to never feel out of place among their white peers. “They wanted me to fit in 100 percent,” Chu said of his parents. “This was their idea of America, that in this place we never had to feel othered. For good or for bad, we took that in, and it worked for us.”
Fitting in meant that when Chu began making Hollywood movies, he went for trendy projects that tapped into his interests rather than anything too personal. He directed some of the sequels to Step Up, which capitalized on the late-2000s street-dancing craze, and became well liked for delivering films on time and scoring healthy box-office returns out of low budgets; it’s why studios went on to hire him for franchises such as G.I. Joe and Now You See Me, and why Justin Bieber’s team tapped him to make the pop star’s concert documentaries.
Chu felt unstoppable. He was earning a living as a Hollywood filmmaker, staging the kinds of grand scenes he loved. He wasn’t critically adored, but industry executives trusted him and fans appreciated his work. So when Jem failed, it dawned on him that he was successful, but not satisfied. In trying to avoid being pigeonholed, he’d inadvertently become a filmmaker without a perspective—a journeyman directing movies that, as he put it to me, “anyone could have made.”
After that speech in 2015, Chu had a lot to ponder: Was he wrong to have shied away from his identity? Was making mostly sequels a bad thing? In an earlier interview, he cheekily referred to himself as a “slave to the studio business,” but during our Zoom call, he winced at the memory, telling me he doesn’t really think of himself that way. “I was aligned with the studio system … because I had not made my small independent movie that showed who I was,” he mused. “I was an exciting young person, and I was down to have that label.” He remains proud of the movies he directed before the heartbreak of Jem; they were “waterslides,” he said—fun to make and fun to watch.
In the months after Jem, he figured it out: “I always promised myself I would do stuff that meant something to me, my family,” he said. But “I found myself in an actual, professional storyteller position, ignoring all the stories I was told.”
Invigorated, in 2016 he pitched himself to direct Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, two films that had spent years searching for financing and the right creative team. For the former, Chu brought in family photos, making the case that he understood the heroine’s story of discovering her self-worth on a personal level. For the latter, Chu framed the story—a sprawling tale of a predominantly Latino neighborhood fighting to preserve its culture—as a collection of its denizens’ sueñitos, or “little dreams.” “This movie is about How big can you dream, and can we see those, can we feel how big that is?” Chu explained. “Almost like art installations invading the space of Washington Heights.” He won over Miranda with the approach, as well as with their similar backgrounds. “We both are first-generation” Americans, Miranda said. “He understood that the characters in this show are navigating what home means.”
During production of both films, Chu took advantage of his years in the studio system. He’d played so often by executives’ rules that he knew how to convince them to play by his. For the Step Up sequels, he’d recruited talent who didn’t have traditional agency-assisted representation. For Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, he cast a similarly wide net, pushing back against studio notes urging him to find stars who “test international”—as in, high-profile actors with potentially global appeal—so new ones could be born. And as he continued to play to his creative strengths with jaw-dropping set pieces, he also sought ways to stave off his fear of being boxed in and to accept that risk. On the set of Crazy Rich Asians, he wrote the word joy on a Post-it and stuck it on his monitor, a trick he’d picked up from the author of the novel on which the film is based, Kevin Kwan. On the set of In the Heights, he’d repeatedly ask himself and his collaborators, “Are we proud of what we’re doing here?”
He wanted them to chime in if anything ever felt off—to take, as he put it, a “magnifying glass” to the material. Leslie Grace, who plays Nina, grew up in a salon like the one in which the number “No Me Diga” takes place, so she proposed small details—where a hairdresser might leave her towel, for instance—that helped the story feel more substantial. “We’re so used to seeing the Latinx community through this little scope, and Jon was adamant about ‘No, let’s blow it up,’” Grace told me over Zoom. Melissa Barrera, who stars as Vanessa, told Chu she wanted her character to address a little girl as “mi vida,” a Spanish term of endearment; it’s how her mother and grandmother spoke to her when they raised her in Mexico. They filmed a take that ended up in the final cut, one of many improvisations Barrera said Chu encouraged. “He makes everyone feel important,” she said.
Making Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights helped Chu figure out what he’s trying to say with his films. Through them, he’s arguing for telling fresh stories via beloved, old-school Hollywood styles. But he also wants to do more than entertain; he wants to help audiences reflect on their own connections to what’s happening on screen. “Escaping isn’t good enough,” he said. A truly transporting film? “It’s not a window. It has to be a mirror.”
The TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, the historic venue with celebrity handprints preserved in the concrete pavement outside its handsome doors, normally seats almost 1,000 people. On Friday, June 4, it welcomed only 350—all masked and either vaccinated or negative-COVID-tested attendees of the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival—but the difference in crowd size seemed negligible as soon as the screening of In the Heights began. The audience didn’t seem so scattered or socially distanced when every number elicited applause; a woman near me danced in her seat so much that the rest of her sparsely occupied row vibrated. Afterward, I caught snatches of conversations among those milling about the premises, chuckling over how many tissues they’d used to wipe away their tears.
As almost every director does at a major preview screening, Chu introduced his film, walking in from stage right to a spotlit lectern. Seeing him gave me déjà vu: Three years ago, I’d watched him make that same walk to deliver his opening remarks about Crazy Rich Asians, at the same theater, for its premiere in L.A. “What a moment,” he’d said then, in a tone that conveyed the thrill and the weight of the expectations around the film. This time, there was a lightness to his step. The day before the In the Heights screening, he’d told me over another Zoom call that after such a long pandemic-induced delay, he’s “surrendered to the universe.” “I accept whatever happens to this movie, that it’s the right thing, the thing that is supposed to happen,” he said.
These days, Chu is no longer afraid of being seen as a filmmaker who can only tell stories about his race. Instead, “I feel scared about being behind the conversation,” he said. As much as he’s tried to be an advocate for representation in Hollywood, he hears the criticisms that come his way—such as those regarding Crazy Rich Asians’ casting and its narrow focus on East Asians—and wants to, if he can, use what he’s learned. He told me he’s arrived at “sort of a Zen place” about the way no film of his will address every criticism or highlight every perspective; only a sustained stream of movies, from a variety of directors, can come close to achieving that. In other words, he said, “I can’t be the only one.”
Chu is fairly certain he won’t be. The triumph of Crazy Rich Asians reminded Chu of a day when his parents visited his elementary school and delivered a presentation about Chinese New Year. Chu remembers being mortified; they had encouraged him to immerse himself in American culture, yet here they were with lion dancers and food from Chef Chu’s. But his friends—actually, the entire school—loved the experience, because, Chu came to realize, his parents exuded pride. They showcased confidence. Opening a Chinese restaurant where none existed, sending their children to etiquette classes—these were their magic tricks, how they and so many other immigrant parents overcame cultural barriers.
Since he started making Crazy Rich Asians, Chu himself has become a father of two, with a third on the way. Like him, his children have been named after pieces of pop culture—his daughter, Willow, after the ’80s film, and his son’s middle name is Heights, after In the Heights—continuing a tradition his parents began. “It’s the silliest thing that our kids learn: Sharing is caring,” Chu said, laughing. “Sharing is the oxygen of change … The sharing of food, of images.” Making these films in that way has been “so freeing,” he said, “and so healing for me.”
To Chu, success isn’t getting a phone call from Spielberg, or even becoming a filmmaker. “Success is a pattern of consistency,” he said. “To me at least, the version of success that I think about [now] is something that’s tried and true, that’s in the roots.” It’s not about constructing waterslides, but constructing runways to help others—talent and audiences alike—drive their narratives forward. Chu is no longer levitating just fictional characters. He’s helping stories take flight.