Director Jon M. Chu on reaching great Heights

The filmmaker of In The Heights discusses Lin-Manuel Miranda, the importance of cultural representation, and fighting anti-Asian racism

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      When the first In The Heights trailer dropped in December 2019, theatre fans all over the world rejoiced, eager for the June 2020 release.

      It helped, of course, that this was an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony Award-winning musical—the one he wrote before his monster hit Hamilton. And that Anthony Ramos, one of the original cast members of that blockbuster show, was starring in the film. And that Jon M. Chu, hot off the success of Crazy Rich Asians, was directing.

      It also didn’t hurt that terrible reviews of the execrable Cats adaptation were coming in, with musical lovers pointing to this trailer as an example of how to do a movie musical right. 

      And then, a couple of months later, the pandemic hit.

      “It felt like such good momentum, sharing our little secret—the trailer of this movie,” Chu says, during the recent In The Heights press junket. “We had to pause things. We couldn’t even finish the movie. We were still mixing [the sound].” 

      The opening date kept getting pushed later in the year, and there was talk about releasing the film—about several days in the life of a group of Latinx friends and family in New York’s largely Dominican Washington Heights—on a streaming service. 

      “But Lin agreed that this had to be a cinematic experience,” Chu says. And the studio agreed. 

      “[It was about the studio] saying, ‘This cast is worth your time, your money, your effort to go out and see them being put on the pedestal of a cinematic experience',” says Chu. “And to me, that said everything. It meant these [actors] could then go make their own movies and be the stars and make whole new paths—just the way Crazy Rich Asians happened.”

      Chu and Crazy Rich Asians novelist Kevin Kwan famously turned down a huge offer from streaming giant Netflix to go with Warner Bros and a theatrical release. The gamble paid off brilliantly.

      “At the time, we had the idea that people would show up,” Chu says. “Thank goodness they did. After experiencing it with an audience, who dressed up for it, who brought their friends and grandmas—who hadn’t been to a movie in years—and stayed in the lobby talking to each other, that’s when I realized it wasn’t an intellectual idea but real. When you see yourself up there, that pride and confidence is contagious.”

      With In The Heights, Chu knew he was coming in as an outsider—at least culturally. 

      “I’m not from Washington Heights, and I’m not Latino,” he says. “And I didn’t want to get in the way of that. The actors, the dancers, the crew, Lin, Chiara [Alegría Hudes, screenwriter]—if there was something I was doing wrong, or that I could do better, they were allowed to speak up. I would make room for that.”

      Chu says he couldn’t have asked for a better creative partner than Miranda, who gave him and Hudes a lot of room in their adaptation. 

      “He loves movies, so he understands the difference between movies [and stage], and also the roles of a director,” he says. “He trusted me. And we couldn’t have done it in any other way."

      Chu’s stylish signature is all over the film, especially in the dance numbers, which range from the jaw-dropping opening sequence—which has just been released as an extended trailer—to a pool sequence that owes as much to Busby Berkeley movies as Washington Heights in the '00s.

      The director of two Step Up movies and the Justin Bieber documentary, Chu finds a unique visual language for each number—something that was carefully thought through. 

      “I wanted each person to use movement and music in their own way,” he says. “[Aspiring designer] Vanessa [Melissa Barrera] feels trapped, unheard and unseen. She just wants to leave and go somewhere where she can be seen and heard. She just doesn’t know where. So how do you express that? She runs out of that salon and down the street. She doesn’t cry, because she’s not a crier. Instead the tapestry comes over these buildings like tears. Because that’s how she sees the world—through pattern and colour. And then she flies past us like a jet plane. And we pull out and we realize we’re in the iris of her eyes and she hasn’t gone anywhere. She’s still in the same spot. To me that expressed more than her admitting this to Usnavi [Ramos].”

      Chu, who’s currently working on the two Crazy Rich Asian movie sequels (“I will not move further with them until they are better—the bar is very very high”) has understandably been greatly affected by the rise in anti-Asian violence during the pandemic. 

      “We’ve known this was going to happen—we’ve been yelling and screaming that you can’t have rhetoric that’s out there that ‘others’ us, so part of it is frustration,” he says.

      “But the other part is confusion. What can you actually do? Yes, you need to keep making movies that represent, but at the end of the day, the real thing on the ground is having those awkward conversations with your friends. To say, ‘Hey, it’s actually not what you donate this money that’s going to help, it’s maybe you stop doing those Asian jokes as if I’m going to get those jokes with you. Because I’m not going to get those jokes anymore.’

      “The real hard work is in those awkward, private conversations that no one ever gets to see,” he says. “There’s an urgency now that’s changed me. We’re not talking about theories anymore. We’ve got to just do this. And it’s not easy.”

      In the Heights opens Friday (June 11) on digital and VOD services. See our review here.

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