“I think the biggest obstacle is getting more people the opportunity to get their start.”
-Jon M. Chu
In the Heights is Jon M. Chu’s follow-up feature to the historic Crazy Rich Asians. It is rare for a director’s work to launch a movement for authentic representation of their community; Jon, in partnership with Broadway icon Lin-Manuel Miranda, will indisputably do it again, this time for the Latin community – a feat ineffable. The merging of these industry revolutionaries is a crucial cinematic genesis.
Jon recalls how nervous he was to meet Lin-Manuel Miranda for the first time in New York at the height of Hamilton to pitch his ideas for In the Heights. “Pitching a new version of something that is his life, that he poured out onto the page was really hard. I had a secret weapon, Quiara.” Quiara Alegría Hudes is not only Lin-Manuel’s best friend but co-writer of the original Broadway play. After a great many conversations and the support of Quiara, the trio began development for the film. The making of this film was so impactful Jon gave his son the name Heights. “My son was born during production. I named him Heights because I was so inspired by the dreams and the hopes of these people and how they took care of each other. I wanted to say Heights every day of my life, and I wanted my son to hear the word Heights every day of his life.”
Jon’s work on Crazy Rich Asians allowed him to “break norms to get to the important stuff.” Lin-Manuel felt that he had to reduce his ambitions for the film, but Jon was adamant that this story was deserving of more. “One of the only people on the set who can ask for more is the director it’s your role. I knew that we had to elbow out to get some room to showcase this community.” The success of a film like this sets a precedent for underrepresented artists to achieve the meaningful change they seek in the industry through collaboration.
“There is openness to go against stereotypes that have been traditionally shown in the media. I can bring up now in meetings that this is a trope. You may not notice it, so let’s move on from that. Let’s do something different. They will react to that, but someone has to call that out,” he says. The opportunity to be in the room with these decision-makers to call out stereotypes and tropes as a creative or to become a studio executive as a person of color remains aberrant. According to the 2020 UCLA Hollywood Diversity Report, only 1.5 out of 10 directors are a person of color, and 93% of studio executives are White.
Jon emphasizes that studios want to hire artists of color with experience, but the pool of experienced artists of color remains small. “We have power in numbers. We need a deeper pool of people we can grab from. The excuse is to say that all the Asian assistant directors with experience are taken, we have a list of Asian writers, but they are working. I’ve been in that situation many, many times. We need more. I think there is a long game here that we have to play. I think the biggest obstacle is getting more people the opportunity to get their start.”
Hamilton alum Puerto Rican American actor Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi in his first leading film role, a performance that will redefine the Hollywood leading man. “It’s hard to find a leading man in general. To find a leading man in a form we’ve never seen before who embodies that confidence, intrigue, kindness, heart, and mischievousness that attracts us. I know he has a lot more to give than he does in our movie. I knew it wasn’t just us putting him into the movie. We were putting the movie into him. His tone of truthfulness and how he ebbs and flows between music, dance, and dialogue so effortlessly like butter. I knew that he was going to be the North Star of how we were going to tell this story,” says Jon. This film not only defies the status quo of Latin American depictions in film but expectations of movie musicals. In the Heights is a masterful oeuvre about dreams. Jon wanted to show Lin-Manuel’s Washington Heights bodega owner Usnavi, “had dreams bigger than any main character in a movie ever made before. There are no such things as small stories.”
For Jon, the most important trait a director needs to have is the ability to listen effectively. “A lot of people think directing is telling people what to do but, it’s actually absorbing what the story is. I’m not Latino. I grew up in a Chinese restaurant on the other side of the country. This is a medium of empathy; listening, talking, and understanding human beings.” Open discussions between the crew and cast regarding how scenes could be more culturally accurate were encouraged. Jon would stop everything to make the right adjustments. “Sometimes the right choice takes more time which goes against what the producers want because time is money. It may go against what the studio wants because you may only have this location for a day. I knew the number one priority was representing them because they had not gotten that justice before.”
Filming took place in Washington Heights, where the neighborhood became “a character, a crew member and co-writer,” says Jon. Tears were shed nearly every day of filming because of how monumental it felt to capture this extraordinary community on film. “I brought my mom to set. I took her to the side and told her not to go anywhere because we were filming this big musical number, she gets into trouble sometimes. When I come back, she’s gone. I look up and see her in a window hanging out with neighbors drinking beer. They thought my mom looked lonely so they invited her up, that’s the spirit of Washington Heights. To see an older Asian woman with Latinos partying it up meant the world to me. I knew what this movie could do.”
In the film Kevin Rosario tells his daughter Nina, ‘This is the moment when you do better than me, not because of some fancy education, but because you can see a future that I can’t.’ Jon looks forward to a future where directors like him won’t have to carry the baggage that he’s had. “They are going to have the rules off of them and are going to be making stuff that I didn’t see coming. I’m excited to see everyone bring their stuff to the table.”
Watch In the Heights in theaters and HBOMax June 11, 2021.
Production photos courtesy of Warner Bros. Photo Credit: Jon M. Chu headshot Bryan Dale