Jon M. Chu: Walking always grounds me. There’s a certain sound of the gravel, of the grass, of the leaves blowing and the rustling of the trees, and you can hear birds scatter in the bushes or lizards run across. And to me, those are the, the reminders that you’re not alone, that there is a planet and lives all around you and that you are one piece of this.
Walking sort of reestablishes a connection to reality, to planet Earth.
Sam Sanchez: It’s Time To Walk, where some of the world’s most interesting and inspiring people share stories, photos and songs that have influenced their lives. Jon M. Chu is the director of “Crazy Rich Asians”, the first major Hollywood film since the ’90s to feature a majority Asian cast in a modern story. On this walk, Jon talks about the unexpected recognition he received from two visionaries and how addressing his own cultural identity led to a creative breakthrough.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
Jon M. Chu: So we’re on a walk along this mountainside near the ocean where the hills of Los Angeles meet the Pacific Ocean. That sun is not quite setting yet but getting a little closer. There’s a soft breeze. You can see some hawks flying around looking for food. And we’re going to be heading up to a point where hopefully we’ll see all of Los Angeles.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
So I grew up in the hills of Los Altos, California, in the Bay Area, and I was the youngest of five, and the TV was always on. And we’d always go to a movie or we’d go to a show in the city. It was either musical season, opera season, or ballet season. And so entertainment was always around us. And the person that we looked to in all of this art that was around us, the one that probably had the biggest impact on us, was Steven Spielberg.
There was a vision of America that he had in “E.T.” or “Close Encounters” or even “Goonies” that we subscribed to. It was a great adventure, and America was the greatest place, and everyone could have a family and work hard and encounter a little bit of magic in their life.
So that played very heavily in my… in my life, and when I learned to pick up a camera and realized that I could speak with this camera, that I could edit with it, I immediately… You know, Spielberg was the one. Where did he go to school? How do you become Steven Spielberg? How do you become the Hans Christian Andersen of our time? And so I saw that he was a big supporter of USC Film School. And so that’s where I wanted to go. And I signed up and went there.
And while I was there, I made a couple short films, and my final short film was a… was a musical, about the secret life of mothers, sort of a random thing. I loved musicals. And I was graduating. And then, I got the call that every graduate from USC wants to hear, saying, “Hey, Steven Spielberg saw your short and would love to meet with you.” I’m literally 21 years old, maybe 22 at that point, and this was a Friday night, 6:00 p.m. I was at my friend’s house, who collects toys. So we were looking at “Star Wars” toys in his living room, and I get this call from my agent being like, “Yeah. So his office has been calling. They claim he’s seen it, but we don’t know if it’s true or what. So don’t think about it all weekend.”
You say that to me? I’m thinking about it all freaking weekend. And I couldn’t sleep that night, and on the next day, I got a call from my agent again. He’s like, “Jon,” he’s like, “I know I told you not to think about it all weekend, but they keep calling, and he really wants to meet. So are you able to meet up with him?” I was like, “Anywhere. You tell me where. I’ll go.” I was driving, at that time, like, an old Previa, Toyota Previa, my family minivan that all the backseats are out of, and there’s, like, stains all over. I was like, “I’m going. You tell me where.”
So the night before, Sunday night, I call my best friend, Jason Russell. He also went to film school and maybe loves Spielberg more than I do. And I fill him in. He’s so excited for me. And so I went to Dreamworks, which is on the Universal lot, and I was like, “All right, I’m here.”
I go in and check in and, “I’m here to see Steven,” which is pretty crazy to say. I mean, literally, I’m 21 years old. I’m freaking out. And then I waited, and then they brought me up to this little room. And so I sit there alone for maybe like, I don’t know, a few minutes, and then Steven Spielberg walks straight in and just sits down and talks to me. And we talk about musicals. We talk about movies. He told me his favorite musical was “Oliver Twist”, and he started singing one of the songs from it. And I was in “Oliver Twist”. I played Asian Oliver in “Oliver Twist” when I was in high school. So I knew the words to the song, as well, and then we sort of sang it together, if… if you can picture that. It was kind of awkward but so awesome.
After that I was like, “I have an idea for a musical I would love to talk to you about.” And he’s like, “Great. How about this Friday?” I was like, “Perfect.” And so I came back to the apartment, and my friend was still there, and I was like, “Jason, you and I are going back to pitch our musical.”
I had never pitched anything in Hollywood before. And so we go in. We brought in a costume chest that we opened up, and as we pitched, we brought pictures out and put it on the table. And we also had costumes and hats and wigs and almost acted out the whole thing like “Moulin Rouge”, where they’re running around, dah, dah, dah, dah, dah, putting on a performance. It was nuts.
By the end, it was just like, costumes everywhere, pictures everywhere, and we’re like, “Ta-da, buy this pitch.” And he could not have been nicer. He said, “That was amazing.” And we didn’t know if he was ever going to buy it. They left the room.
We were, like, so happy in this room. We took pictures all over the conference room. We have poses of us, like, on the table.
And a few days later, I got the invite to go to visit Steven on set because he was shooting “Terminal”.
And so I drive out to… They’re shooting in a giant hangar for this movie, and I go in. The hangar doors open up, giant doors, and you walk inside. And, I mean, a Steven Spielberg set is incredible. It’s not facades. It’s like you are literally in an airport. So just the details alone are blowing me away.
And then I go over, and they’re like, “Right this way,” and Steven has a chair for me next to him, next to the monitor. And he’s like, “Hey, Jon, welcome. Come sit down.” Again, I am a nobody. But I got to ask him questions like, “Why are you shooting this shot?” And he would be like, “Well, I already got the other one so I’m just getting this angle.” No hesitation from his part, by the way. And the best part is I got to see when trouble happens. So, I’m sitting there, and a shot… They come down the escalator, and they can’t get the shot right.
And so I got to see them get into a little bit of, like, confusion about how the camera should work or how… And rather than ho-hum about what to do and try the shot over and over again, Steven just stopped the whole thing, reset it, broke the shot up into two, and they were right back into work. And I got to see how a leader can communicate in a time of uncertainty in a small, little way. And, by the end of the day, he’s like, “Jon, this has been great. Come back anytime. Have a great day.”
And I’ll never forget the way he treated me because when I meet young filmmakers, I always remember that. That is such a power of… of Mr. Spielberg.
And all the ideas of what America is, the power of creation, of expressing yourself, the power of storytelling that I was raised in suddenly came together in this human being that was in front of me and, in a way, made it not a fairytale anymore. He made it a reality. And the fact that I knew or I had an example in my mind very early in my career that you could be that person, that you don’t have to be cynical, and you don’t have to go hard at people to get what you need or what you want, that you can do that in kindness and you can do that in imagination and creativity, and you can still achieve that level of wizardry, that gave me all the fuel I needed for my whole entire life, to know that there is somebody that exists like that.
His kindness to me was real, and our responsibility to pass that on to others will always stay with me.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
You know, I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s in the Silicon Valley, before there was a Silicon Valley, where it was all about engineers and about building a better future.
And my parents are immigrants. They came from China and Taiwan and started a restaurant in 1969. The restaurant’s still there today, 50 years, Chef Chu’s over there. And I basically grew up in the restaurant. I’d come from school, be dropped off at the restaurant, fold napkins, do my homework. And people would come in, and they would know that, “Oh, Chef Chu’s son loves to make movies.”
And so they would come in and tell my dad, “Hey, we have this beta software and this beta hardware. When we’re done, we can give it to you to give to your son, and he can make movies in this sort of new digital way.” And so I was the benefactor of getting these amazing tools at a very young age and had the ability to cut things and do dissolves and do special effects before anyone my age really could.
And I really do think that that is what allowed me to get ahead and learn very quickly how to use the language. I was raised by the Silicon Valley to go to Hollywood, in a way, before Silicon Valley had any interest to go to Hollywood.
And something we did as a family every year is watch the Oscars together. That was, like, a dream, to go to the Oscars.
So, years later, I got the invite to the Oscars, and I got VIP access. My seats were terrible. But I got to go. And I will never forget, in the corner of my eye, I see Steve Jobs pass me. Now, I don’t just love Steve Jobs. I’ve watched every one of his keynotes. I skipped school to go to Macworld year after year in high school. And so, I couldn’t help myself, and I followed Steve Jobs as he walked into the sort of bar area for VIPs. I’m so scared. I do not want to go talk to him. I don’t even think he likes talking to strangers.
And my friend, Harry Shum, Jr., he was like, “Trust me. I worked on like 20 iPod commercials. I’m just going to go talk to him.” So he goes over, and grabs my arm and says, “Hey, Steve, this is my friend, Jon. He really wants to meet you,” which is, like, the worst. I didn’t know where to start, and I just started like, “You know, I… I grew up in Los Altos, and my family has a restaurant called Chef Chu’s.”
And he was like, “Oh, you’re my neighbor, I love that place. I know that place.” And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Thank god.” And he was so kind, and he… I was like, “You know, the stuff that you make really helped me become a filmmaker. And you know, your devices literally gave me a voice.” I said, “I even memorized your commercial, your “Think Different” commercial.” And he’s like, “Oh, really?” I was like, “Yeah, it’s sort of a mantra I say every day to myself.” And he’s like, “Jon, thank you so much.” He reaches out his hand, and we shook hands. He’s like, “That means so much to hear from a neighbor.”
But I definitely felt that. And the fact that I could talk about literally his hardware and software that got me to be a filmmaker and into this room in Hollywood at the same time as him, entrepreneur to entrepreneur, I can’t help but think about the recognition that we were neighbors, that we had shared roots, in a way, which feels weird to talk about Steve Jobs like that. But it did feel like there was a recognition of that between us. There was an exchange of, “You did it, dude.”
I didn’t think about this at the time but, you know, I think a lot of times we look beyond our backyards for inspiration, when in fact actually the thing that made us, us, the community around us, the source that gave us the need to go make things or do something is right in front of us.
And going back to my own community and seeing what stories need to be told or who needs to be empowered is as much of a responsibility for a storyteller than the story itself. And, in fact, it refills me as a creative person. It brings me back to the source of what drives me, of the stories that I both want to tell and need to tell.
So I think when you’re looking at your own life and what you need and what’s going to give you that power, I say look at your own community because I think there’s so much that has given you already and there’s so much that that can give you right now.
[SOUND OF WALKING]
In between meeting Steven Spielberg and making my first movie was five years, five years of, every six months, them promising they’re going to make your movie in the next six months.
So, after year four, you think you’ve missed your shot. And in year five, you don’t know what else to do. And it just so happened at that moment that I got a script. It was a direct-to-DVD dance movie sequel that I literally rejected and said, “I don’t do dance movies or dance movie sequels or direct-to-DVD movies.”
I talked to my mom about it, and she said, “When did you become a snob?” She’s like, “You have never made anything. So what you met Steven Spielberg? You’re not a storyteller until you tell stories, and if that’s the case, then you can tell stories in any way.” And that definitely made me reassess and said, “You’re right. I’m going to make the best d*** direct-to-DVD dance movie sequel of all time. "
And that’s what plotted me into “Step Up 2: The Streets” and into the studio world for years, which was great until a movie did not perform what I expected it to perform, maybe one of the worst weekends of all time in studio movies. And it made me question everything that I was doing because it hurt so much. In a way I had to figure out, “Why do I do this?”
I had spent years learning how to make a movie but almost none of those years figuring out who I was as an artist or what I wanted to say as a human being. I just felt lucky to be there.
And so I went on a search for what subject matter that would be. And I thought, “What’s the scariest thing to tackle?” And that was always my cultural identity crisis.
Nobody likes to feel different in school, let alone when your food smells in your locker and people call you out on it, or when your parents say certain things in English that aren’t grammatically correct, and yet you pick it up because you grew up around it. And so, when you say it in class, you’re made fun of. Nobody likes to be the other. And those feelings still live in me, I realized in my 30s.
But I saw this tweet of #StarringJohnCho by this guy, William Yu, and it was… it was a simple tweet. He did posters of John Cho as 007 or as Ironman or as main characters in movies. And his point was: why isn’t this happening? He’s a movie star. He’s a leading man, and he’s not in any of these. And suddenly, like, it broke my brain. It’s like when you see something, and you can’t… like, you can’t unsee it, and so your brain changes because of it.
And I realized, “Oh, I’m part of that problem because I’ve been in the rooms where people tell you you can’t hire this person or that person because it doesn’t sell internationally or it doesn’t make sense for the business.” Now, having been in the business, I, I can actually think for my own and understand that that’s actually just not true and that, in order to make it factual factual, we had to prove it, and the only way to do that is make a movie.
And so I went on that search of: what… what movie could I tell my story through but not be my story? And I found this book, “Crazy Rich Asians”, that I got recommended by many people: my mom, my cousins, my… my friends. And I read it, and I loved it.
We met with Kevin Kwan, the writer, and we talked a lot about Asian representation and the idea to, like, if we were making these characters, an Asian male, desirable, unlike most Asian males represented in Hollywood studio films at the time, how we would do that. And how do you get this into a movie, and how do you get the marketing behind it to send that message to the world?
And so there was a time when we went out to all the studios with a script, got a lot of interest, which was actually surprising for us. And we had to choose. It came down to two, one… one traditional studio, Warner Bros. that would release it theatrically, and one streamer. And the streamer, of course, was going to spend so much money.
This was life-changing money, for me, at least. On the other side was, okay, theatrical, but we actually have to do a marketing campaign, bigger risk.
And it came down to the streamer saying, “We’re going to make one last offer,” and Warner Bros. saying, “You guys are taking too long. We’re going to give you an offer, our final offer, and you have 20 minutes to respond. And if you don’t, offer’s off the table.”
So we get all the lawyers, all the managers, on a conference call waiting for the offer. And the offer comes in, and the streamer’s offer is better than they had ever offered before, plus the opportunity to work on sequels plus other marketing promises. Warner Bros. came back lower than their offer four days ago.
And so all the lawyers were pushing us to take the streaming offer. “More people, this is the future. Why would you even risk anything? Why would you risk the future of Asian American entertainment on this one movie? It’s a romantic comedy. It’s not going to change the world.”
So that put me in a tough position. But we wanted Asian Americans to be invited to the big show. We wanted them to be put in the museum of cinema. And if they could come out, it would change everything.
We had to get a giant corporation to spend tens of millions of dollars to tell the world this is important, and these characters and these actors are movie stars. We had to take that chance.
And so we said that, and we made that deal. And I’ll never forget saying we’re going to go with Warner Bros.
And we got to gather the best Asian American talent all around the world and get them in this movie.
And the biggest moment was when that movie actually came out. And that was when I knew we made the right decision, when the audience showed up. You know, we just made a movie, but the people made the movement who came out, and they started bringing their grandmothers and their mothers.
And I remember going to the theater that first weekend, and not just people going and laughing and crying in the theater but, when they came out, and they were all dressed up, by the way, and not just Asian people, people of all walks of life and ages… They came out, and they didn’t leave the theater. They just stayed in the lobby and talked about it.
And that is the power of cinema, when that word of mouth started to spread, and everyone had to see these characters, they had to get their friends to come experience that, and it suddenly normalized an Asian family. You can’t unsee that.
I had that experience with my brother, too, like, when he watched the movie. You know, he’s always the hardest critic. He’s, like, the… He’s, like, 6'2”, athletic, and he’s never sad or worried or anything like that. He’s the rock.
And I showed him the movie, and the moment that Nick Young comes out of the mansion in his white suit, and it’s like seeing Leo DiCaprio coming out in “Titanic”, the coolest dude, most good-looking, charming dude. And my brother starts crying. And I was like, “What’s going on?” He’s like, “I’ve never seen an Asian man represented like this before, and growing up, I never thought I would. You just feel so ugly or underappreciated. You just feel so othered.” And he’s like, “When I see him, like, that’s a freaking movie star. That is someone that the whole world will want to be like.”
So to hear stories of other people experiencing that same thing is… is very moving to me. The movie changed my whole compass of where I’m headed and what I want to do or what I should be doing. And I realized I could never make another movie that didn’t mean that much to me ever again.
And I want my daughter and my son to know what I did in this moment. What did you do? Were you listening? Did you just make another movie, or did you make something that spoke to this thing that everyone’s calling out for help with? And I want to be the person that at least tries.
I’m not the most brilliant person. I’m not the most creative person, but I’m in this position, and I can try my a** off so that the next generation can see things that we can’t quite see yet.
[SOUND OF WALKING AND BIRDS CALLING]
So we’re getting to our destination in these rolling, golden hills. It actually reminds me a lot about where I grew up and played with all my toys. That’s definitely where I learned storytelling the most, was playing with my toys in these exact type of hills.
The view from here is probably the biggest, most expansive view I will ever see of Los Angeles from the ocean and the islands out there, Catalina all the way to downtown, where those buildings look very tiny from this location.
So the reflection of the ocean is just beautiful. It looks like stained glass right now. You could just feel the power of the ocean right now.
Music is an emotional elixir to me. It’s like software for my heart where, when I listen to it, it takes me to some other place or it reminds me of dreams when I was a kid or a hard time. And sometimes it’s nice to feel those things, to jump into those moments in your life where now you can have perspective on those things. In a way, I feel it’s very healthy to dive into those emotions.
So there was a period sort of in my mid-20s where it seemed like my opportunities had passed. It’s those five years that I don’t want to think about. But it’s during that time that I really listened a lot to Nick Drake, and it just spoke to me on another level. They weren’t just beautiful songs. They were actually really dark songs, and it helped me get through a lot of that. And the song that spoke to me most, the most gorgeous but also melancholy was “One Of These Things First”.
[MUSIC - “ONE OF THESE THINGS FIRST” BY NICK DRAKE]
So when I was prepping for my very first movie, “Step Up 2: The Streets”, I was nervous, I was scared. And I often use music as inspiration as I’m brainstorming or storyboarding. And Nas’ “I Can” would play often in my playlist. And it really inspired me as I was meeting all these street dancers because they… they worked hard. They came from all walks of life. They were living paycheck to paycheck but were finding their art everyday, and there was just so much hope in that community. So “I Can” was like an anthem. Even to this day, hearing it makes me want to work harder, and now, with kids, it means even more to me.
[MUSIC - “I CAN” BY NAS]
When I started shooting “Crazy Rich Asians”, I spent a lot of time in Malaysia, and I got to take in the, the music, the people, the food, and it really opened up my senses. And one of those people that I just adored was Yuna, an amazing artist there. Her music is just so full of soul, and she does a song with Usher called “Crush”. To me, this is like a warm tea on your walk. It’s soothing, it’s sultry. It’s falling in love, when the hair on your skin stands up and you worry about nothing else but the person right next to you because, when it comes down to it, the secret to our lives, in my opinion, is, is being with someone that you’re crushing on all the time.
[MUSIC - “CRUSH” BY YUNA FT. USHER]
So we’re getting to the end of this walk, and I don’t feel tired. I feel like there were moments on this walk that were tiring, but when your blood starts pumping, you’re more awake. I want to go… I want to go write something or go make something right now. I love this feeling. It’s always the middle that’s the hardest. But the wind-down is always an amazing feel, to know you got there.
Thank you for taking the time to walk with me today.