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Jon M. Chu On 'In The Heights'

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, before Lin-Manuel Miranda created the mega-hit Broadway musical "Hamilton," he made a splash within "In The Heights"

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSICAL, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA: (As Usnavi, rapping) Lights up on like Washington Heights. Up at the break of day, I wake up. Up and I got this little punk I got to chase away.

MARTIN: "In The Heights" was a Latin, pop and salsa-infused love letter to Washington Heights, the predominantly Latinx New York City neighborhood where Lin-Manuel Miranda grew up. This week, more than a decade after its Broadway premiere, "In The Heights" is hitting the movie theaters

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) In the Heights, I hang my flang up on display. It reminds me that I came from miles away.

MARTIN: It is a classic story about the comfort of the familiar - home, friends, neighborhood - versus the pull of what might or might not be new and better yet, it has a fresh up-to-the-minute feel. And after a year when so many of us have been stuck inside, it's a film that feels like a magical summer outing, with enormous dance scenes in the middle of the street, on playgrounds, amid fire hydrant sprinklers, even in a giant public pool - in the middle of a heat wave, of course. Director Jon M. Chu, he of "Crazy Rich Asians" fame, was tasked with taking the Broadway hit from stage to screen. And he is with us now to tell us more about it. John M. Chu, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us. Congratulations.

JON M CHU: Thank you. It's great to be here.

MARTIN: So I don't know if other people are going to receive it the way I did, because I'm born and raised in New York, but because of the pendant, I haven't been able to go home in more than a year. And it felt like being home. It felt like all my relatives and friends in the movie with, of course, better singers and dancers, you know, of course.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And speaking of the neighborhood, I mean, the film premiered in Washington Heights this week as part of the Tribeca Festival. And you premiered it for the dancers. How did all of that feel? How did it go? What was the reaction?

CHU: It was amazing. I mean, I forgot how much it feels to be, A, back in New York, as I've also been gone for a bit, and be back in Washington Heights, where the neighborhood all turned out. They were all in the streets yelling at us in all the good ways. And to have even photographers yell at us to take pictures, to promote a movie and then to be in the Palace Theatre, to be there and hear the movie echo through those walls and people cheer and laugh and cry and get up and dance in the middle of it, it was everything I hoped for what going back to the movies would feel like,

MARTIN: You know, as I said earlier, I think - I hope people will know you from one of your previous films, "Crazy Rich Asians." On the surface. this is different. I mean, "Crazy Rich Asians" was about crazy rich people. I mean, the clothes were incredible. The houses were incredible. I mean, here you're talking about, you know, cramped, sweaty apartments, people working blue-collar jobs, people who are often invisible to other people. I mean, let's face it. So I'm wondering, first of all, what attracted you to this project? And is there anything that feels similar to that other project?

CHU: Well, you know, "Crazy Rich Asians," even though the title is "Crazy Rich Asians," and we're in the world of crazy rich Asians, the reality was it was not about any of the worth of those things. It was about an Asian American going to Asia for the first time and being sucked into those things. And it was actually about self-worth. And what does - who are you? And what are the different parts of you? And what does that - does that have value? Will you ever be enough? And in a way, coming here, it is very different.

However, the idea that this is where American stories start in this neighborhood and that I grew up, even Northern California, growing up in a Chinese restaurant, I saw how hard my parents worked in that kitchen and then had to go on to the floor and host people and serve them. And I know what it feels like to be raised not just by your mom and dad, but by your aunties and your uncles and to have my abuela, Claudia, which was my booboo (ph) who taught me how to, you know, fold wontons.

And so when I saw the Broadway show, it just spoke to me on such deep levels of the weight of your family stories and what you need to do with them in your life and that everyone has different ways to maneuver and use them. But for me in particular, that I didn't know how to express that. And Lin and Quiara have an amazing ability to be as specific as possible, but to tell the story in a way that I felt heard. And so I knew that this story already had that power.

MARTIN: Was it an instant yes for you signing on to this?

CHU: Oh, for sure. The problem was I needed a reason for them to pick me.

MARTIN: OK.

CHU: And I sat down with Lin in New York - I'll never forget, because he was in his Hamilton hair because he was about to go do a performance of "Hamilton." So it's in-between shows. And we connected. We connected on what it feels like to dream. And we both had big dreams growing up in our little bedrooms of what we could be, of a dream that I think a lot of people didn't have - didn't think we ever could make that. And so - and this show is about dreams. And that's where we really connected, and we took it from there.

MARTIN: So a couple questions about that. I want to mention you've mentioned Lin-Manuel Miranda, of course, and Quiara Alegria Hudes, who co-wrote the original Broadway musical. I just want to ask a little bit more about what the process was like. Were there certain things from the play you knew you wanted to keep or were there certain things that you knew you didn't want to keep, mentioning that the play originally debuted on Broadway in 2008? So can you talk a little bit about that?

CHU: Yeah. I mean, I don't know if we had a full-on list, but we had a process. And that was the best. Like, Lin and Quiara create a really safe space for me to come in. Of course, they know all the details. I still had a lot to learn. And the way to direct this movie was to listen, listen, listen, and try to interpret as much as I could, connect some dots. And - but when we started getting into it - and Quiara is the key in a lot of this because I had to work with her. She's - his neighbors. They're very close friends. And he trusts her so much.

And so we basically went to Lin. We're like, you need to give us a little bit of space to try some things, some things that might be crazy. We're going to take, you know, all the music out, and each song has to earn its place back. It doesn't mean the song is gone. It just means it's in this holding pattern. And in the end, if we need to put it in, then we need to find a reason, or we need to accept that we're just putting it in just to put it in. But hang with us for a second. And he gave us that space.

And then I told them too, like, I don't know everything. Of course, I'm not, you know, Latino. And I'm not from here. So I have to have permission to ask you a lot of stupid questions. And I give you permission to stop me at any moment during this process and say, hey, this table is set wrong or that drapery is wrong. And I, as the director, who probably has one of the only pieces of power to stop production, will make room for those things. And we need to give room to the cast for those things.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of this - I mean, "Crazy Rich Asians" was the highest grossing romantic comedy in a decade. And the cast is, as I recall, was the first all-Asian ensemble in a studio film in - what? - like decades, something like 25 years? Did you go into that with a goal of breaking the barrier? And what about this movie? It's my understanding that this film languished a bit.

CHU: Yeah.

MARTIN: It has been years since the Broadway debut. And it languished a bit. I mean, some of it's, like, Hollywood contracts and drama and business drama and personnel drama that we don't need to go into. But it's also my understanding that some of it was they - the powers that be wanted famous people. Like, they wanted some bankable Latinx stars. And you're making stars. So I was wondering, did you go into this with this idea of creating new stars or changing things or changing the dynamics of how people think about something like this?

CHU: Yeah. I - you know, I signed on to this actually before "Crazy Rich Asians." That was a point in my career where I had learned all the things of how to make a movie. And it was for the first time I felt confident that I know how to make a movie. I know how to make a movie with a Hollywood studio. And that I know how to make the money. And then I was like, but what am I? Is that what I am? And I started going back to, if you're a storyteller, what are you actually saying?

And I realized I had been telling the stories that scared me the most, that were the most personal, the things that help me, that's going to help me get through my life. And so I started to explore what those things were. My cultural identity crisis was one of those things - where I came from, the uniqueness of growing up in an immigrant community, of growing up with those stories on your shoulders. How does that feel? And I think the internet helped know that there are others like me out there. So it gave me that - also an extra confidence that they're waiting for someone to tell these stories. And you're right here, and you have the power to, and you could do it tomorrow. You don't have to raise money to do a thing. But like, you could do it.

And it just happened. Like, I don't know if "In The Heights" ultimately has resonance in the end. I know that we made a really joyful, fun movie. And I just hope that - and I know that when you see it, you can't unsee it. And so I hope enough people get to experience it that they'll want to see more, not just one movie, like, 20 movies like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "IN THE HEIGHTS")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing) I'll be home all summer. I'll be home all summer. If you're going to be around, you can find me Uptown. I'll be home all summer.

MARTIN: That was Jon M. Chu, director of the movie musical "In The Heights," which is in theaters and streaming on HBO Max now. Jon M. Chu, thank you so much for being with us. Thank you for this film. And happy summer. What else can I say?

CHU: (Laughter) Let's go. Welcome back to the movies. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.