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Kevin Kwan, Jon M. Chu and Others on 'Crazy Rich Asians'

14 Aug, 2018   
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screenpicks.com

Rachel (Constance Wu) truly embodies the American dream. She is a Chinese woman who was born and raised in the U.S. by a working-class single mother. Through determination and hard work, she’s built a successful life for herself, which includes a job at NYU as an economics professor and charming boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding). Her world gets flipped upside down, however, on a trip to Singapore to attend the wedding of Nick’s close friend. That’s when Rachel learns that Nick is essentially Asian royalty. In fact, his crazy-rich status puts Rachel squarely in the crosshairs of a long line of love-hungry ladies, and some not-so-pleased relatives.

ScreenPicks attended the press day for Crazy Rich Asians  to speak with Kevin Kwan, author of the best-selling novel and inspiration for the film, as well as director Jon M. Chu, screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli, and producers John Penotti, Nina Jacobson, and Brad Simpson. They talked about what it was like to have old money and ideals collide with new in this modern fairytale.

On whether it was always Kwan’s goal for his novel to be adapted for the big screen:

Kevin Kwan: Absolutely. My book is so loved inter-generationally - you have grandmothers giving it to their daughters who give it to their teenage daughters – [and so] I wanted this to be a community experience, first of all.

Also, this was the first chance we had in 25 years god damn it! [Everyone laughs] I wanted this to be an experience that future generations could look at and say, “Look, we achieved this. We’re watching a red carpet of amazing Asian actors … in the same way that any other Hollywood movie would get.” We want that treatment too because ultimately we want to inspire future creative people and actors.

On turning down a generous offer with Netflix to make the film(s):

Jon Chu: Credit to our producers. They literally said [they] defer to us for the decision. [Points to himself and Kwan] And we had 15 minutes to decide. And I love Netflix by the way! The only thing for me was, we knew putting it on the big screen meant something. Cinema still means something. To tell people, “It is worth your time and energy. Gather your friends or family or [go] by yourself, leave your house, go fight parking, pay for food, sit in the dark, turn out the lights, and say, ‘Tell me a story.’” I think that [putting it on the big screen] subliminally says that this romantic couple and this cast of all-Asian characters are worth your energy …

On foreign distribution (specifically China) and how the film is anticipated to be received overseas:

Nina Jacobson: Honestly, from the very beginning we always just felt that this was a great story to tell, a cinematic experience that would be a great domestic play and would travel around the world. It was truly not a cynical sort of play like, “Oh well, let’s go after the Asian markets.” … Of course everyone wants their movie to perform globally and to get a chance to have the exposure and upside of a global release … but … for us, we are very much an inside-out approach to the movies and TV we make. Do we love it? And if we love it and relate to it, do we think that that experience will be contagious for audiences everywhere? We just went for it and honestly just tried to make the best movie we could make … in hopes that people would relate to it all around the world and not in any one market.

Kwan: And that’s why I chose them to make this movie.

On filming in Singapore:

Chu: It’s a beautiful city - a city of the future. All the different ethnicities that are all in one place. And the families, the love - that made the biggest impression on me.

On how the screenwriters chose which characters from the books to use for the film:

Peter Chiarelli: Kevin wrote a book with 2,000 characters in it so [laughs] … a lot to choose from. It was pretty much all about picking Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor, and [finding] everyone [that] would kind of surround that orbit. If they fit in that story, then they made the cut. We also talked in the very beginning, saying, “Who do they love? Who do the fans love?” So we were sure to give those characters some extra time as well.

Lim: I think the big thing was how we introduce the audience - and Rachel - to this constellation of crazy, amazing, out-there characters?

On the Caucasian producers representing a culture that wasn’t their own:

Simpson: As a producer … we’re just looking for stories that have specificity … that bring us into worlds that maybe we don’t know, but other people might know them. We [also] take it very seriously to listen. As a producer, your main job is to listen. That’s the mistake that people often make when they’re doing something is that they’ll hire one person of color and that person will become the spokesperson. You create actually a competition for that role amongst people of color. But also, you don’t get the dialectic.

[For example,] we had this line in the script which was from the book … about Rachel not having dated Asian men in the past. It’s complicated in the book and it’s explained, but it was a throwaway line in our script, and none of us had really questioned it. And [then] Constance wrote this really impassioned email to Jon saying, “You’re going to contribute to the desexualizing of Asian men if you keep this in. It may be fleshed out in the book, but it just becomes a line in the movie.” And we took it seriously. It was because there was a conversation going on. That’s the most important thing I would say in representing cultures that are not your own. You need … a conversation where you’re not just relying on one voice throughout.

Jacobson: And to ask a lot of questions and never be afraid to ask a lot of questions even if you think they might be dumb … and just to let yourself … learn and be open.

On maintaining authenticity:

Adele Lim: From the get-go … it always came to the question, “How do we ground this?” Because there’s such a lot of splashiness and color. It’s called Crazy Rich Asians!

But when we were talking about the dynamics between Rachel … and Nick, between them and Eleanor, it always came to “What’s a genuine, authentic place?” You’ve got this rich Singaporean family and you’ve got Rachel. She’s Chinese and they’re Chinese – what’s the issue? And she’s an economics professor! How do we show this conflict in a way that’s understandable to an audience? [And it’s] about her being an “other” … and fierce family dynamics … and [that is] relatable to everyone.

On the casting process and the challenge to find the right fit for so many well-loved characters:

Jacobson: I have never seen a director who has more patience and appetite for watching every single audition for every role – no matter how small. And not just that, but then going and doing a dive on the social media of the person, and really, the level of fluency and attention to detail was amazing. We did have so many roles to cast … and we wanted to make sure we had some of the amazing Singapore talent represented. We wanted a Pan-Asian cast and to get the cultural heritage right … and be inclusive of the amazing talent around the world. We had an amazing head of casting … but Jon’s attention to detail [was] truly extraordinary.

On casting matriarch and central antagonist, Eleanor, in particular:

Chu: Michelle Yeoh, when I called her, she said, “Just one thing: If you expect me to play a villain, I’m not going to do this movie. I’m going to defend our culture and beliefs to [the] fullest, and you can defend the American ideas - and we can let the audience decide.”

On the source material being a trilogy and the potential for more films:

John Penotti: think there’s a lot of hope that as audiences see this film, embrace it, and demand more … that’s going to be very helpful to continue the process. There’s real hope there. But it’s really important that people do show up and they make what we hope is a really terrific, fun event something that also demands more attention. I think with that, we’ll see more.

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