COMIC: Director Jon M. Chu's Long Journey From Home Videos To 'In The Heights'

Jun 11, 2021
Originally published on August 10, 2021 6:17 pm

Ever since he started shooting home movies with his family's bulky video camera, Jon M. Chu knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. But after directing several Hollywood blockbuster films like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Now You See Me 2, Jon felt uninspired by the stories he was bringing to the silver screen.

In 2018, he directed Crazy Rich Asians — the first Hollywood film with a majority Asian cast in 25 years — and in 2021, Lin Manuel Miranda's In the Heights.

This comic, illustrated by Fred Chao, is inspired by TED Radio Hour's recent episode, The Artist's Voice.

Fred Chao/NPR
Fred Chao for NPR

Fred Chao is a freelance illustrator and designer based in California.

The podcast version of this story was hosted by Manoush Zomorodi, produced by James Delahoussaye, edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. It was adapted for the web by Janet W. Lee and Katie Monteleone.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


Hey. It's Manoush here, and we've got a little something extra for you today. But first, I want to give a big shout out to NPR. It's our 50th birthday. For the past year, NPR staff have been combing through 50 years of audio, 50 years of interviews and music, 50 years of dogged journalism. And they've pulled together an absolute treasure trove of NPR's best moments. Like, I just listened to the story behind the Rolling Stones album "Sticky Fingers," which was released five decades ago. So just go online, search for 50 years of NPR, and dive in. But before you do, listen to what we've got for you right here, right now.

We recently did an episode called The Artist's Voice, featuring TED speakers who discovered how an art form, from poetry to dance, could help them find their voice. And one of the people I spoke to was director Jon M. Chu.

Hey, Jon.


ZOMORODI: Nice to meet you - online, that is.

CHU: Do I - how do I sound? How do I sound?

ZOMORODI: You sound good to me.

Jon's latest movie, "In The Heights," is out this week, but he's probably best known for "Crazy Rich Asians." That movie was the most successful rom-com of the 2010s. And it was an especially big deal because its cast was majority Asian, which is pretty rare in Hollywood. Before that, Jon had spent years making big blockbuster movies, but he had a bit of an epiphany. And he decided to use his success to get more Asian Americans on the big screen.

CHU: I just loved gathering our sort of Avengers of Asian actors - Constance Wu, Henry Golding - had never been in a movie before - Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng. That they all now can headline in their own movies, that's the biggest influence.

ZOMORODI: I had such a good time talking to Jon. And like so many of the interviews that we tape for the show, it was a little heartbreaking to leave so much of it on the cutting room floor. So today, an extended cut of my conversation with Jon Chu. We started off talking about his childhood, growing up in California as the son of immigrants.

CHU: My parents came from overseas. My mom's from Taiwan. My dad's from mainland China. And they came to the Bay Area of all places and started a restaurant called Chef Chu's in Los Altos in 1969.


CHU: And it's still there till this day. And they had five of us crazy kids within 6 1/2 years, if you can believe that.

ZOMORODI: Oh, my God.

CHU: They were...


CHU: ...Very busy. It was chaotic all around the house. And I'm the youngest. And I luckily had my parents' camera. They had a video camera. You know, we were in the heart of the Silicon Valley, so there was a lot of technology running around around us, and my family just happened to have a video camera. And I - it was one of those big, large ones you put on your shoulders, and so it was hard to carry around. And so (laughter) they gave it to the youngest one to haul everywhere, and I decided to make my own little movies with it during those vacations.

ZOMORODI: So just why did your parents decide to immigrate to the United States in the first place?

CHU: Yeah. So when my mom came - they both came for different reasons. They came separately. They met in the Bay Area. But my mom's family came here for opportunity. They did not speak a word of English. My mom only knew Beatles songs and Elvis songs. She went basically silent for months and months and months 'cause she didn't know how to talk the language. And so she didn't say anything, and she felt very out of place. And there was a Chinese community that she could hang out with eventually. But at first, it was very, very hard. And my dad on the other hand was - he, like, ran away from home when he was young and sold noodles on a train when he was young in Hong Kong. And, you know, he's a hustler. He survived a lot of stuff. He came to America, was like a bartender at some restaurants and had the mind of - that he had to survive. And he was a little bit more streetwise, I guess, in that way.

And so when they got together and came up with this dream of starting a restaurant for this area, which there weren't a ton of Chinese restaurants in 1969 in this area, I think it was a very ambitious idea and - but - and only in America. And so I think that they, you know, when they had kids, it was - and also bridging a gap of introducing a community to Chinese food, especially students from Stanford who came from all over the place, I - it was definitely like they had to bridge that gap. They had to be able to connect with them. And so for us kids, we were always taught America is the greatest place in the world. If you work hard and love what you do, you can do anything. You don't even have to speak the language, and you can make it. And I think the community showed up for them. And so that's what they really instilled in us. And that's why they took us to shows every weekend in San Francisco. We had season tickets, so we'd see, you know, whether it was musical season, opera season or ballet season. They put us in dance classes, in etiquette classes to know how to, like, drink tea and (laughter) ballroom dance.


CHU: I took tap for 12 years.


CHU: Piano, drums, saxophone, violin. It was...


CHU: (Laughter) Tennis. There was a lot of...

ZOMORODI: What do you think - what was it...

CHU: ...Lot of classes.

ZOMORODI: ...That they wanted? Did they want you to be, like, the ultimate American? Or they wanted you to have every opportunity that they didn't have? I guess I'm wondering, you know, I don't speak either of my parents' languages very well. One I speak OK; the other not at all. And, you know, it just seems like every child of immigrants, you know, there's a different level of the parents being like, no, you come from, you know, the motherland and don't forget it. And other people...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Who really don't want that at all. I once found a book - don't tell anybody - in my dad's office that said, how to get rid of your accent in English. So I guess I'm wondering, like, what was the message do you think you were getting?

CHU: We got the message that, hey, you need to fit in. You're going to have a - you need to show that you can go to a country club. You can go eat at a restaurant. You can play sports. You can talk about the news with people. They wanted everything that - again, that they couldn't have when they got here. And they would say it. My mom really pushed us to fit in and to assimilate so that we weren't looked at as strange or foreigners. And she saw herself as Jackie Onassis and us as those kids.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: I mean, she would call me John John.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: She wanted people to know not to treat us like we were foreigners or not part of this community. I think she had gone through a lot, and she was going to make sure that we never felt that outsider feel, whereas my dad, on the other hand, you know, he had to play both host in front of the house at the restaurant and then go back in the kitchen and cook and get greasy and get dirty.

ZOMORODI: Oh, wow.

CHU: And so there was a different feel there. And at the same time, when we came to eat at the restaurant, he wanted us to only to drink tea. And we would want, like, a Coke.


CHU: And my mom would - if my dad was like, no, you have to drink tea. This is yum cha. This is dim sum. You drink with tea. My mom, I remember specifically, would defend us and be like, no, they can drink whatever they want. And I just think that it was all a reaction to protecting us. And for good or for bad, it did. It made us feel - I never felt othered at school.


CHU: And when I did, I mean, I - there was moments where I would bring, like, dumplings to school and dump them before I'd get to school because people would make fun of the smell in my backpack.


CHU: And I never told my mom. And then there were times when, you know, they volunteered to come for a Chinese New Year presentation. And I was like, oh, no, this is going to be a disaster.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: Like, they're going to present to my whole class about Chinese New Year? I don't even want people to know there is a Chinese New Year. And then they come, and they bring red envelopes and gold coin chocolates, and they describe the traditions, and they bring these lion dancers that were basically their chefs and Chinese food. And after that day, like, I was the most popular kid in the school.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: Like, everyone wanted to hang out with me. Everyone wanted to go to the restaurant after soccer games and basketball games. So in a way, the combination of all of it worked.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. It's fascinating. OK, so in terms of, like, pop culture and TV and film, how did that...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Become your thing? You mention in your talk that, actually, you and your sister were named after the protagonists...

CHU: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...On the show "Hart To Hart" from the '80s. Like, was that...

CHU: That is true.

ZOMORODI: ...Were you - (laughter) like, was TV and video and all those things - were those a big part of your life?

CHU: Yes. TV and audio and music and movies were a big part of my life, especially because with five kids, I think you need distractions to keep everyone busy, and so TV was on all the time. And when I came around, especially - because we had VHS tapes. We had CDs. We had all this stuff. So yeah, we would watch it, and there was no filter. Like, I was watching "Child Play" (ph), Freddy Krueger. I was watching, like, crazy movies when I was probably 5 years old.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: We were watching "Airplane!" which was kind of on constant rotation or "Spaceballs." The fact that me and my sister are named after Jennifer and Jonathan Hart from "Hart To Hart"...


CHU: ...TV was on, which, you know, maybe a lot of Chinese families would be against. But the TV was always on when we're eating dinner or eating breakfast, even.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. So you, as you mentioned, were the, like, household videographer, essentially. Can you just...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: And it seems like it - we have so much to talk about, but I do feel like this is a very pivotal moment in your personal story, where you realized that you could make - you could tell stories about your family in a way that made them feel proud, right?

CHU: Yeah. I definitely didn't know what I was doing at first. We would shoot these videos on our vacations, and I didn't know how to put them together. But one day I saw in the Sharper Image there was this mixer board that you could put, like, VCRs together and cut it together. So I convinced my dad to get me one. And luckily, in a house full of kids, we have a bunch of VCRs in people's rooms, and so I stole them all and their stereo and connected it all and made a video of, like - I think it was a trip to Boston or something.

And when I played it for my parents - I just sat them down on the couch and played it - they cried. And I'd never seen them emotional like that in a context of anything I've done, for sure. And in a way, it's - I think it felt like it was the movies and the TV shows that they watched growing up, this American life that - of a big family traveling together and in this context with music and cut together - felt like one of those on their actual television, I think it really all hit home for them. And I felt it, and I felt the power of that. And I knew from that moment on I was not going to do anything else ever. I was going to do this for the rest of my life.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. You ended up going to USC School of Cinematic Arts, one of the best film schools in the world. And were you, like - did you have an idea in your mind of what kind of movies you wanted to make? Like, obviously, you did it incredibly well because you ended up being discovered by Steven Spielberg and other directors, right?

CHU: Yeah. I mean, you know, I grew up around storytellers. Like, my dad hosted. My mom hosted. Like, they're - at that restaurant, they are the ultimate storytellers. They're constantly painting the picture of our family or of politics or gossip or whatever is happening at the restaurant. And so it came very natural for me. And I think that in a way, they could be open to me going to film school, unlike maybe other Chinese families at that time, because they had crazy dreams themselves that came true. So I always feel lucky that I grew up in a place in a family that achieved things that other people didn't think were possible. And so it was instilled in us, but it was always through hard work and craftsmanship.

And so when you're looking at craftsmanship - I remember my mom giving me a pile of filmmaking books one day in high school and being like, if you're going to do this for real, it's not going to be a joke, then you have to study it like a real craft, like a real subject in school. So don't - it's not just a hobby if you're really going to do this. And I took that very seriously. And the best place to go, of course, they want - what's the Harvard of film schools? (Laughter) And that is USC.

ZOMORODI: I'm just so curious about, like, did - what - in your mind, were you like, I am going to become a Hollywood director? Or were you like, I don't know, you know, for me...

CHU: Yeah, yeah.

ZOMORODI: Was that the plan? Were you like, I'm going to make these big blockbustery (ph) kind of movies that appeal to absolutely anyone? Or were you like, I mean, there are a lot of people who go to film school because they want to make small indie documentaries. What...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: What was your goal?

CHU: Yeah. My goal was always to make big blockbustery-type movies. I mean the prototype for me was "Batman" when Tim Burton did that. I was - the fact that it was an event, that everyone went, that you went and got the Happy Meal at McDonald's. You got the toys, and you played with more adventures in your backyard. Then you listened to the soundtrack before you went to sleep, and you danced in your living room to it. There was this all-encompassing idea of this fantasy that you could wrap yourself in and then play with your friends and extend that play. To me, that was, like, the ultimate form of entertainment. To me, yeah, that was - it was putting on the biggest show in the world.

ZOMORODI: So I want to fast-forward, like, 15 years later. You make it in Hollywood. Just for maybe people who are like, huh? What would I maybe have seen before "Crazy Rich Asians"? Could - would you mind just doing...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...A list of movies that you...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...Worked on or directed?

CHU: So my first movie - I'd never done music videos or commercials before getting into feature films. I was really thrust into it coming out of film school. So my first movie was "Step Up 2: The Streets" a dance movie, a sequel. And then I did "Step Up 3D" the sequel to that. And then I did "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" which is a documentary about Justin Bieber at that time, at his rise. Then I did a big comic book, Hasbro action movie called "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" with The Rock and Bruce Willis.


CHU: That was my fourth movie. And then from there, I did another Justin Bieber doc called "Believe," so in a different phase of his life. And then after that I did "Jem And The Holograms" which was a Hasbro property based off of an '80s cartoon. And then I did, after that, "Now You See Me 2," which was a sort of magic heist movie starring Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Dave Franco, Lizzy Caplan, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Daniel Radcliffe. It was, like, a - Woody Harrelson. It was, like, a crazy cast of people. And then from there, I went to "Crazy Rich Asians" and then "In The Heights."

ZOMORODI: So, like, you're big-time here. And so, Jon, just go with me here. If we were making the movie about you, I mean, clearly somebody very famous would play you. But...

CHU: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: It's kind of, like, a little bit like fairy tale, right? Like, parents come from hardship. They do good. They open a restaurant that everyone loves. This family is warm and loving and kind and full of life. You go to the most amazing schools. You're making these movies that are just, like, big-time pop - affecting pop culture. But then you - like, in the movie of you, there's a moment - right? - where you're like, wait; hold on. Something happens where you're like...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...I need to make a change.

CHU: Yeah. I mean, there were a lot of moments. But the moment that changed my professional and personal life, especially as I saw myself and the power that I had, was finishing "Now You See Me 2" with this amazing cast of actors. And I've learned so much from them. But during that, I felt a little bit creatively empty. I'd been doing movies for about 10 years at that point and a lot of sequels a lot of franchise stuff, been making a lot of money for people. But I didn't know why I was doing it anymore.

In a weird way, when you get thrust into your dream profession, you sort of win the lottery. I didn't have to work to get it. I didn't do an independent film that spoke my voice, and then they liked it and then hired me to do another movie that was sort of similar that then I could be my artist self. Like, I got thrusted in as a - someone who had the instinct, given money and tools to go make stuff with that instinct, and I didn't know what I was doing yet. And so for 10 years, I think, I was learning how to actually make a movie. That was my grad school. And then once I got to learn and know it all, I was like, oh, but what am I actually saying? What do I want to say? And what am I supposed to be saying? What needs to be said?

So I went on a soul-searching moment to go find what stories were - scared me the most, that weren't franchise, that weren't already set up and that were something only I could make or only I could get made. Again, I made a lot of money for studios and people, so I probably - I knew I could probably get away with one movie that didn't make any sense to anybody. And so that movie I chose was "Crazy Rich Asians," which had just the right - I'd never talked about my own cultural identity crisis being Asian American, you know.

ZOMORODI: Wait. What do you mean? You just referred to it as an Asian American crisis. That's the first time I've heard you use that word. Where was the crisis part?

CHU: I think it was, you know, when you don't acknowledge the - how important the Asian part of your identity is and how many others out there are like you in terms of balancing these different cultures and these different generations and these different expectations. And so you just bury it, and you just forget it. If someone says something to you on the street, if someone says something to you in a meeting, you bury it. You move forward because that's what we were taught - how to survive. Like, don't spend the energy on fighting it because your vengeance is when you make the thing, when you succeed...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

CHU: ...On the other side. Just do better than them and you will win every time. I saw my dad in the restaurant get talked down to all the time. I saw people say things. I - my sister reminded me the other day. She's like, do you remember when we crossed - when we were like 7 or 8 and we went across the street to the Tower Records, and that car pulled over and said, go back to your country, Chinks, to us - kids - three kids.


CHU: And I was like oh, yeah. And in my memory - I hadn't thought of it in so long. And I was like, that's right. I laughed at the whole thing because I didn't understand what was happening. She's like, yeah, I didn't. She's like, that - I have never forgotten that moment. And I was like, that's crazy to me because it just was a blip. But now, seeing that context - three kids, a car pulling over, saying that - that's insane to me. And then I realized how lucky I actually was that I was so young and naive that I - and maybe my parents purposely protected us...


CHU: ...From that so we didn't have to deal with it. But at some point, there's a reckoning. And that reckoning came both when I showed a little bit of that in high - in college, and then I felt like oh, this is - I can't talk about my Asian-ness (ph). It's the last thing I want people to talk about me. I want them to see me as a filmmaker. And so I, you know, would code switch and turn into the all-American filmmaker. That's what I wanted to be. Just see me as, like, a Tim Burton or a Spielberg or a Tarantino. Like, I just - don't put me in the Asian category because I want you to see me as a filmmaker. And - but at a certain point, I'm like no, now they need to see me. And the idea of an Asian American girl going to Asia for the first time in "Crazy Rich Asians" had all of the elements, like this fun world, fascinating place and you have to root for her. And that she's a different - it's also generational and class differences. And so we got to do that through her sort of as a fake romantic comedy but really about self-worth, not about the worth of your car or your house.

ZOMORODI: So I have to ask. I mean, the movie ended up being a huge hit. But how did you sell it to the executives? Like, did you say, like, yeah, yeah, yeah. It's about Asians, but actually...

CHU: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...This is going to be a huge blockbuster for everyone. Or did you say, like, no, I want a cast that is all Asian because it's about time that we have a mainstream movie that represents the people where I come from. Like, how did you...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: What was the pitch you made?

CHU: Well, I mean, the reality is I am a result of a lot of people paving the way and a lot of people speaking out and getting my attention and waking me up. I speak about the internet a lot because it is where I could be shaken enough, where people were posting things about OscarsSoWhite or about why are Asian characters this way or that way. And there's a campaign with #starringjohncho where they would take John Cho and put him on posters of, like, "Mission Impossible" or all these big action movies or romantic movies as a lead actor. And it really hit me when I saw those things that you can't unsee. That - yeah, why aren't these things happening? This is actually - something is wrong with - if this is just these don't exist and have never existed. That doesn't make any sense to me. And when I processed that, it was like oh, something's very wrong with Hollywood. Because I've also been in those meetings where they've told me you can't cast this or cast that. And then I realized oh, I am literally Hollywood. I'm in the position where I can hire whoever I want, and I'm not doing it either. So if I'm not doing it, then why is - why would anyone else do it?

So the opportunity when we found "Crazy Rich Asians," this great story that I could speak to very clearly and specifically about because a lot of it was my story when - going to Hong Kong for the first time and feeling at home but at the same time rejected by the end of the trip, feeling like oh, they don't see me as one of them either here. And luckily also, "Black Panther" had - either was just dropping or it just dropped.


CHU: I forget in that situation. So we could really use movies like that, which I'm sure other movies have used our movie like that. But again, it's all building on top of each other's shoulders that hey, we have an opportunity to tell a very universal story in a very specific way and cast people that are not your traditional stars and will do it for a price to make sure of that. But I promise you, when you come out of this, you're going to have a whole cast of people that are going make their own lanes, that it's going to be bigger than the movie itself. The fact that we may - that Constance Wu, Henry Golding had never been in a movie before - Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Jimmy O. Yang, Ronny Chieng. That they all now can headline their own movies...


CHU: ...That's the biggest influence.

ZOMORODI: To be clear, like, the movie is not all relatable, right? I mean, these are like some of the...

CHU: No.

ZOMORODI: ...Most wealthy, ridiculous, over-the-top people. I mean, there are also a lot of stereotypes, like the tiger mom, Chinese mother and some thick accents. Do you think that anyone else could have made this movie? Did it need to be an Asian American director? Because, you know, it's like the old saying, like, well, I don't want people to make fun of my people, but I can make fun of my people, right?

CHU: Yeah, yeah. Listen, I am not in the business of telling artists what they can or cannot be doing or what they should or should not be doing. I think that's the point of artists is to shake things up so we can fight about it and debate about it. However, I do believe that I was meant to do this movie. I do believe when I read the script at first, which was not written by an Asian person, that they were not - it was not a funny movie because they didn't - they couldn't go to the places that I could. And if they did, it wasn't funny. It was stereotypical. I can make fun of my mom. I can make fun of my grandma. And the best part of it - I can make fun of my dad. And the best part of that is that we get to make the rules. Like, it was us in control of that.

Now Ken Jeong - I could flip it on someone and say you're not going to have any accent in this, but let's trick the audience. Your first line is going to be in an accent so you can mess with the audience and check them on that. And Jimmy O. Yang, you can be as ridiculous and crazy - and guess what? You're allowed to be rude. You're allowed to be grotesque. We're allowed to be anything we want. So, everyone, like, let your freak flag fly. Like, let's go.

ZOMORODI: I want to ask one more question about "Crazy Rich Asians" before we get to "In The Heights."

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: How did people in China, in Hong Kong, Taiwan, how did they respond? Obviously, like, not everyone, but, generally, what was the response to the version of being Chinese that was reflected back at them? Because, of course, Hollywood is a global industry.

CHU: Yeah. Well, I think that everyone took the movie in different ways, which is the point of art. You know, it's hard to know exactly what a Chinese person thought of it versus a Singapore person thought of it...

ZOMORODI: Of course.

CHU: ...Or someone from Taiwan, to be honest. I didn't keep up with everything. I mean, this was a movie from an American perspective. I mean, it's my perspective. And it was about going to Asia for the first time from that. So, listen, I - this movie was never meant to answer everybody's questions or represent everybody. It was really to entertain and to show that we are worthy of a big classic Hollywood movie as any one. And so it is what it is. If people have issues with it, I love that. In fact, I don't take offense to anybody having issues the way I represent - and, again, it's one perspective. It's my own perspective that we built. But, hey, at least we get to have the debate about who gets to play what kind of roles. Do you have to - a Chinese person has to play a Chinese person? These are the things that I don't know the answer to and we probably all disagree what the answer is. But without us being in the room to decide those over time, we don't get to have this debate. So I think it's a real privilege to be able to - I think that's the goal is to, yeah, let's fight it out.

ZOMORODI: So the current project, or the one that's about to come out, is "In The Heights." It's the movie version, as you mentioned, of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical about a bodega owner in Washington Heights in New York City.

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: This is another huge film that features all actors of color and, presumably, you're hoping will have an impact on Latinx representation in film going forward. Is that one of the reasons why you wanted to do it or, you know, you saw "Hamilton" and just fell in love with...


ZOMORODI: ...I mean, that's for me legit (ph).

CHU: Well, this is before "Hamilton."

ZOMORODI: Oh, OK. Right.

CHU: It's true. When I saw it, I was crying during that show in Broadway because I saw my immigrant family. I came from a Chinese family working family that took care of each other, and that's what this show was about and different generations with different expectations and pressures on each other, this idea that every generation can see a little bit further that the generation before can't, which is kind of what creates the discrepancy between the two. I love that nuance between that. I felt that. The family dinners that I would have, they had these family dinners in this Broadway show. And it was about dreams. We were taught to dream really big when we're young. There's nothing too big you can't dream in America and about being American. I always thought that that's what I'm bringing is I understand this.

I'm not of - I'm not Latino. I'm not from Washington Heights. I'm all California kid. But that core of those relationships, which is I think what the whole heart of the show is, I got it and I could communicate that. And what I learned - I'm so glad I did it after "Crazy Rich Asians" because "Crazy Rich Asians" woke me up. Just the releasing of the movie, the process the movie, I learned so much meeting all these Asians from around the world, learning their stories, realizing Asian Americans aren't the only ones with this kind of story; and then seeing people see the movie, realizing they're not alone in that struggle, in that Asian identity crisis, cultural crisis, sharing their stories, feeling free to share their stories and then bringing their friends who aren't Asian to come see it and their grandparents who haven't been to a movie in years coming to see it and sharing, sharing, sharing, sharing, and then going out to eat afterwards the same food you just saw in the movie.

Like, if you could eat together, if you could listen to the great music that you hadn't heard before in another language and share that together and watch a movie and share that together, imagine what you can do when you have debates together and understand each other and see each other. To me, that was so powerful to experience. So going into "In The Heights," I only protected those things more this time. Like, all right, I am not Latino, but you tell me, what are the traditions? What are the sauces I need to have on this table? Where is everyone sitting? And they would be like, oh, you know, there would be a homemade sauce, but there would be the regular one from the bodega. And then there would always be an uncle with their own homemade sauce. OK, great.

And then what's this - what are the foods that remind you of the smells of those places? And we'd have those. Hey, you know what? That hair that usually in a movie is problematic because maybe lightingwise they don't light it in that way so they're going to get a lot of shadows - no. We're going to take the time and let it - make sure it lands in the right place and light it right so that we can have your hairstyles. To me, that creativity allowed - gave me the experience to know, make room, make room, make room and make time to have those conversations.

ZOMORODI: I read that you also were - felt very strongly that "In The Heights" should not be released in streaming during the pandemic because you also wanted to create kind of a cultural moment by making sure that the film is actually in theaters. Why? Why would that not have been sufficient if people saw it at home and thought it was great?

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: Why does it matter that they need to see it out in the world?

CHU: Listen - I mean, streaming is the future, no doubt. More people get to see streaming. It's more accessible. It's all across the world. But there is a place for cinema, a place that is a different - when you watch movies, it is a different contract with the audience. It's like going to a museum. You pay money. You fight traffic. You park. You get popcorn. You take your friends, loved ones, and you sit in the dark with strangers. And you're literally paying money to say, tell me a story. To me, that is a very, very powerful space to have in someone's life. And I take that with so much responsibility to give them the joy or the escape or the confidence or whatever that they need for that moment. So for "In The Heights," I knew that streaming is great - more eyeballs, of course, of course, more accessible, of course. But is a giant corporation putting hundreds of millions of dollars into the system to say, hey, these people are beautiful. These people are special. They're so special. You need to take time off your day to go see them and to bring people. That is a message. That is a giant marketing message that has power. And then the bigger than the movie itself is you make these people stars. Anthony Ramos is a giant star. He's our next Will Smith. He can do action. He can be charming. He can be funny. He's all these things. He can sing. He can dance. Same with Leslie Grace and Melissa Barrera and Corey Hawkins - you make them stars. Now there's a whole new lane for them.

ZOMORODI: And is that the way forward then - putting people on screen who are underrepresented? I mean especially - perhaps it's even more urgent, considering the discrimination against Asian Americans...

CHU: Yeah.

ZOMORODI: ...The real divisiveness here in the United States. Is that your responsibility - to use pop culture, art that is accessible to everyone, to try and make people understand each other better?

CHU: My dad always said, like, when I would see someone treat him poorly out there - and he would treat them nice right back at the restaurant, feeding them. I would be like, Dad, they can't talk to you like that. And my dad would say, like, you're representing - we represent - that's probably your first time they know a Chinese family intimately, and my responsibility is to treat them kindly and fill their stomachs, so next time they see another Chinese family they won't treat them like that.


CHU: I don't know if I - if that's the right way or the wrong way to teach a child, but it definitely informed me that kindness and love is - it's very - it is transcendent. Like, it can speak volumes. And what I think my - what really I got from that was my mom and my dad did what they could to give us safety, to give us confidence, to give us things they didn't have, to build the America that maybe wasn't but what they really wanted it to be, what it had to be for them to survive. America is the idea of what we're making. It's not what we are. It's what we all want it to be, and we - every generation has to keep getting us closer. I want people to know what I'm - what I think the American story is, which is built of many, many different things, many different cultures, many different people, languages.


CHU: That's what I want my stories to tell. I want you to come to the movies and come out of it feeling hopeful - not naive, but hopeful that if we all do our little piece, that we can meet this moment that is begging us to meet, that is begging us to see each other and empathize with each other, that our stories can do a little bit of that and move us forward. That makes it more containable for me.

ZOMORODI: That's director Jon M. Chu. His new movie, "In The Heights," is out in theaters starting June 11. You can check out Jon's TED Talk at ted.com. Also, be sure to listen to our full episode featuring Jon. It's called The Artist's Voice, and you can find it wherever you get your podcasts.

Today's episode was produced by James Delahoussaye and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our TED radio production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Christina Cala, Matthew Cloutier, Janet Woojeong Lee and Fiona Geiran, with help from Daniel Shukin. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.