Crazy Rich Asians' Jon M. Chu on using technology as your creative co-pilot
Jon M. Chu was slightly sheepish when we met before his talk at the Apple store in June. He had wrapped up the shoot for Crazy Rich Asians at the Merlion that morning just as the sun was rising at 7am — so an iced vanilla latte was essential. Directing the film adaptation of Kevin Kwan's bestselling book about, well, crazy rich Asians in Singapore, Chu was in town with a crew and cast that included Singapore-based actors Henry Golding and Fiona Xie, as well as Malaysian's doyenne of cinema Michelle Yeoh.
"I apologise for shutting down the street and causing more traffic than necessary," the 37-year-old director jokes. A Palo Alto native, the second-generation American was born from a Chinese father and Taiwanese mother and was practically raised in a Chinese restaurant his father owns, Chef Chu's (yep, we're getting Fresh Off the Boat vibes, too). After graduating from the film programme in the University of Southern California (renowned for an alumni that includes Judd Apatow and Ron Howard), he went on to direct films such as Step Up: All In (2014) and Now You See Me 2 (2016). While the former tapped into the musical background of this former tap dancing director, Crazy Rich Asians marks the first time he's taking on an Asian-American narrative.
Switching Chu's primary focus from Crazy Rich Asians to technology is an easy choice for our conversation. Having straddled life and work through numerous technological advances and the advent of social media, the director has gone through specific changes that saw him swapping out thick, heavy binders for a seamless sharing app. Apart from a back-end that's harder, better, faster and stronger, Chu also shared his early emotional connection to technology.
It's almost aligned in the stars that you're set to direct Crazy Rich Asians — you're reportedly referenced in the book as a relative in showbiz. What sparked off need to work on this movie?
My sister told me to read it [the book] when I was making Now You See Me in London. I needed something fresh and more personal, and to find a story that I hadn't explored before. When I found out that Kevin knew my cousin, and that I was referenced in that, I felt compelled both emotionally and personally to it. I don't know if this movie is going to bomb or be a huge success but whatever it is, I'm supposed to do this movie. Whatever got in my way, I didn't care.
You've pitched films for over 100 times. What exactly do you bring to the table each time?
Everyone is confused, what does a director do? You're not just directing the actors and production design; you're bringing an overall tone. And tone can be anything. Tone is who you are; it's your perspective. How do you communicate tone by images, music and presence? How you collect and present those things is a good indication of how you see the material.
Before using the iPad Pro, what tools did you use to convey a story?
I had files and files of magazines, whenever I buy a ton of magazines I'd rip things out and put them in files. So whenever I present I would go into those files and take glue, paste it on sheets for the character, location...I'd photocopy them and pack it into this giant binder and make seven of them. It was exhaustive. You almost had to focus more on making the thing than actually the thing itself.
What's an app in the iPad Pro that's been useful to you as a filmmaker?
For storyboarding, I use Linea. I'm not a storyboard artist but I can draw what the vision is, and then I get it to the artist, without having to scan and print it out. I can add music. I can draw and make playlists. Those kinds of technologies are amazing and have streamlined the process a lot.
How has technology shaped the way you've grown up?
It's been an important part of my creative life. I was a shy kid, I wasn't sporty and I didn't have a lot of friends. I was the youngest of five kids, but technology gave me a voice, and that has continued to give me a voice for things that I want to say. It's more than just you holding your phone. When you know how to utilise it as your creative co-pilot and what you want to achieve in this life, it's a whole other thing.
Tell us about the first time technology changed your life.
One day, when we were on vacation, my mom put me in charge of the video camera. This was the moment that I remember putting the lens up to somebody and they paid attention to me. They talked to me. They engaged with me. It really changed the way I saw the world. Through this lens I could show people how I watched and experienced things, and that was empowering in itself. I convinced my dad to get me a video editor. I cut the vacation video and my parents cried when they watched it. I remember sitting there watching them cry about our family on vacation and thought, "This is what I want to do for the rest of my life". And I found my voice. It saved my life. It found me a place in my family.
Your relationship with Apple started when you were pretty young, didn't it?
By some divine reason, because I was in Palo Alto and my dad had a restaurant, people from Apple and Adobe would come in. They would talk to my father and he loves to talk about what I'm doing. The one benefit of that was that he told them I was really into movie-making. We didn't have computers, so Apple had these old computers, some with limited capabilities. I had no manuals, but I could do a "dissolve" — when you go through one image to another. It was so empowering. This was the second time technology made me ahead of the curve, gave me a tool to communicate.
Check out our interview with Kevin Kwan, author of Crazy Rich Asians.