There’s a lot riding on Warner Bros.’s upcoming rom-com, Crazy Rich Asians. In terms of representation, star Constance Wu has eloquently remarked on Twitter that this is the first Hollywood studio film in 25 years to tell a uniquely Asian American story with Asian American lead actors (the last was The Joy Luck Club), offering important visibility for the children of immigrants like herself:
Ppl keep incorrectly saying @CrazyRichMovie is the 1st studio movie in 25yrs w/an all Asian cast. It isnt! Theres crouching tiger, Memoirs of a Geisha. But it IS the 1st w/Asian AMERICANS in lead roles. Key words: American & Lead. This is an imprtnt distinction. #crazyrichasians— Constance Wu (@ConstanceWu) July 30, 2018
But it turns out that the film has another weight of expectation on its shoulders — or rather, the filmmakers do. You see, when author Kevin Kwan (who wrote the bestselling novel that Crazy Rich Asians is based on), director Jon M. Chu, and the film’s producers were considering the distribution offer they’d received from WB, another offer landed in their laps. An offer that promised complete artistic freedom, a trilogy, and 7-figure (minimum!) paydays for all the key stakeholders up front. Gee, who does that kind of extravagance sound like?
Yup, you guessed it. Netflix.
So instead of trying to counter all that, Warner Bros. decided on a different tactic: the ticking clock. They gave the filmmakers just 15 minutes to decide which option to take. And that’s when shit got tense, because seriously — who even says no to Netflix anymore. Everyone is going there! They’ve poached Ryan Murphy and Shonda Rhimes! But Netflix also doesn’t release ratings or put films in theaters. So is the mission of Crazy Rich Asians just to make money, or to put an Asian American story out there visibly on the big screen? That was the decision facing Kwan and Chu.
Per The Hollywood Reporter’s cover story about the film:
Kwan and Chu had already tried to rationalize the cash grab: “Maybe we donate a percentage of our extra income to great causes,” Chu recalls the two having discussed the night before. “But where does that money go? Right back to trying to get to this position of getting us [Asians] on the big screen.”
No wonder Kwan, 44, was nervous. “I could sense every lawyer on the call shaking their heads: ‘Ugh, these stupid idealists.’ Here, we have a chance for this gigantic payday instantaneously,” he says. “But Jon and I both felt this sense of purpose. We needed this to be an old-fashioned cinematic experience, not for fans to sit in front of a TV and just press a button.” Adds Chu: “We were gifted this position to make a decision no one else can make, which is turning down the big payday for rolling the dice [on the box office] — but being invited to the big party, which is people paying money to go see us.”
And so the director and the novelist passed on the crazy rich offer — “I could have moved to an island and never worked another day,” says Kwan — and said no to Netflix. After more than a dozen advisers hung up in disappointment, Kwan called Chu. Both were in tears as Kwan asked, “What just happened?”
The article also describes the creative decisions that went on behind the scenes, in the effort to make this film the right way. For his part, Chu was interested in taking on a project more closely tied to his own Chinese-American identity, inspired in part by online protests of underrepresentation like (naturally) the #StarringJohnCho movement. So he created what sounds not only like a helluva dynamic pitch for the producers, but also something very close to the final product, all the way down to the cast:
Chu’s presentation to the producers began with old photographs of his parents, immigrant restaurateurs who bought him filmmaking books in high school, and his four older siblings, who personally catered his first short-film screening at USC. The pitch then segued to a multimedia vision board for “a way we haven’t ever seen Asians before,” Chu explains. “Contemporary, stylish, at the top of art and fashion, emotional, funny, sarcastic and unapologetic. Confident.” He also offered up a dream casting sheet, “the Avengers of fucking [Asian] actors,” which included Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu, The Daily Show correspondent Ronny Chieng, Silicon Valley breakout Jimmy O. Yang, martial arts cinema legend Michelle Yeoh and Brit beauty Gemma Chan.
THEY’RE ALL IN THE DAMN MOVIE. He nailed it! But it wasn’t easy. Securing Wu meant pushing production to accommodate her Fresh of the Boat filming schedule. And landing Yeoh meant ensuring that her character, the disapproving mother Eleanor, didn’t wind up as a two-dimensional cliché:
The Chinese-Malaysian Crouching Tiger star, who had looked into acquiring Crazy Rich Asians’ option herself, made it clear she was not interested in playing a tiger mom stereotype. “Eleanor was very representative of some of the most beautiful women I’ve met in Asia who take a second seat, because that’s how you manage your husband’s position in the society,” she says. “And I don’t think it’s just Chinese women — I think it’s very universal to be self-sacrificing, first to your husband, and then to your children.”
Nailing that nuance in Eleanor’s character was required before Yeoh would commit, so Chu brought in Malaysian-born TV writer Adele Lim, who worked with Chu to incorporate not just more cultural specificity into [screenwriter Peter] Chiarelli’s script, but also emotional authenticity. Resolving the face-off between Rachel and Eleanor without villainizing the latter required a deft touch and a new third act, original to the movie. “This hold that parents have on their children is a specifically Asian thing,” says Lim. “It presents itself in really aggressive ways sometimes, but it comes from a place of deep devotion.”
After the film opens on August 15th we’ll see if their big screen gamble paid off. But for now, check out that THR story for more on the making of what might just be the most important romantic comedy of our generation.