Jon M. Chu Interview

In the Heights, a film based on the successful stage musical, is about to land in Australian cinemas.  I recently had the chance to speak to director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) about the fun film…

Matt:  Big studio musicals are few and far between these days.  What made you want to take on this project?

Jon:  I remember seeing the show over a decade back and remarking on the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Even though I’m not from Washington Heights and I’m not Latino, it spoke to my own upbringing in an immigrant community in California.  I knew what it felt like to be raised by aunties and uncles and have their hopes and dreams on your shoulders and to not know what to do with it.  It felt like the right time to tell that story now.

Matt:  As we know, a filmed musical throws up many more possibilities than a staged musical and we can see that here by making the neighbourhood such a big part of the movie.  What was your vision in making that transition?

Jon:  It was about taking the audience to Washington Heights and not the other way around.  It’s about embedding them on those streets.  Lin, who still lives in the neighbourhood, had written this amazing music but it had never been performed on the streets that it was about.  For me, it was about connecting the two.

There’s a language of music and movement that comes from this area and I wanted to capture the truth of these songs.  It’s not about us watching them perform the songs but rather, to experience their feelings and to yearn, to dream, to have hope, to feel down, to feel alone, and then to feel together.

Matt:  What sort of challenges does a musical bring that weren’t there on other films you’ve directed to date?

Jon:  There was a lot of pressure because it’s the first adaptation of a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (laughs).  There are also logistical things.  For the pool in the 96,000 sequence, we had 600 extras and lifeguards to keep everyone safe.  We had people aged between 5 and 81.  We had fire marshals there because there were BBQs with fire.  We had the whole cast there are dance numbers that everyone had to do.  It was a lot!  But, ultimately, my job is to focus on the story and making sure that beyond the spectacle, we’re showing these people have dreams and it’s a “I want” song for the whole community. 

Matt:  Was there much that needed to be modernised?  For example, characters are carrying around iPhone and I think I heard a reference to John Wick at one point.

Jon:  Yeah.  The original Broadway show was set in the 1990s and was more of a period piece.  Times have changed really quickly and we made a conscious choice to make this post-gentrification.  There’s no fight against it and we’re not fighting the mayor who wants to buy all the buildings.  It’s happening and so what is our next move forward?  That was the spot we felt the whole world is in right now.  It’s changing and so what can we do to see our neighbours again and see them as human beings.   

Matt:  In The Heights has been with Lin-Manuel Miranda for a long time having written a first draft over 20 years ago in college.  We see appear in the film every so briefly but how involved was he in this film version behind the camera?

Jon:  We were shooting in his backyard because he still lives there.  Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writer, still lives there too.  When Lin gave me the tour, it was the best.  He was like “this is where I used to shoot my home videos” and I was like “yep, we’re shooting a scene there”.  He had other work on at the time but since he lives there, he would come after work and hang on the set.  He got a lot involved with the casting, the music and the editing and he was the perfect creative leader to look up to.

Matt:  A huge cast is required for the film but I’m particularly interested in Olga Merediz who I believe is the only main cast member reprising their role from when the show won the Tony Award on Broadway.  How did that come about?

Jon:  I was trying not have any Broadway cast members given how much time has passed since then but you can’t find anyone better than Olga.  She was obviously way younger than Claudia back then but now she’d grown into the role and she has more gravitas.  Honestly, I wanted to get it on tape forever.  I knew how special her performance was on Broadway and I knew she could add a lot to this movie.  We convinced her to come on in and she made everybody cry in the table reads and the rehearsals.  She embodied Abuela Claudia.

Matt:  Anthony Ramos has such a great screen presence.  He really do want to root for his character.  How did you settle on him for the lead role?

Jon:  Lin knew him from Hamilton and he did a stint of Usnavi in a smaller theatre version of the musical.  Again, I was trying to avoid going back to people who had played the role before and I auditioned a tonne of people, but when I sat down with Anthony at a coffee shop and he told me about his struggle growing up in New York and not knowing if he was worthy or not of becoming an actor, we cried.

I knew it wasn’t about putting him in a movie, it was about putting a movie through his lens.  It changed everything including the tone.  When other actors saw what he was doing, they were like “oh, we’re doing that.”  That set the course.

Matt:  As for the rest of the cast, how easy was it to find the right actors for each role?

Jon:  It was very difficult.  There are not a lot of roles for Latinx actors in the world and so you might not find them in the normal systems.  We had to search high and low.  We wanted people with high confidence because we think that’s contagious on the big screen and further, they had to be able to sing and dance as fluidly and as naturally as another language they spoke.  It takes a high-level craftsman to do that and we had to look deep to find those people.

Matt:  The film was shot in mid-2019 and now here it is being released two years later.  How much of an impact did COVID-19 have on the post-production and the film’s eventual release?

Jon:  It was hard emotionally to hang onto it for so long.  We were just about to finish it when COVID-19 struck but it gave us time to do some extra refinements with the sound mix.  In a musical, the mix is so important like what level do you hear the lyrics versus a door slamming behind the lyrics? In making it as real and visceral as possible, we had to find our balance and so we had extra time to make it right.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?

Jon:  We’re working on Wicked at the moment with Universal and I’m working with lyricist Stephen Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman.  We’re finding out way into that one and hopefully it’ll be huge.