By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD— “Crazy Rich Asians” is a romantic comedy based on the wildly popular bestseller by Singapore-born author Kevin Kwan (who has published two more equally successful books in the series).
The film, arriving in theaters Wednesday Aug. 15, is being hailed as the first Hollywood studio film featuring an all-Asian cast since “The Joy Luck Club” (also based on a popular book) was released 25 years ago. While it’s themes about Asian (Chinese, specifically) culture and family dynamics abound, “Crazy Rich Asians” also stacks up as a solid universally relatable romantic comedy about class and family dynamics.
Nick (newcomer Henry Golding) is a UK-educated immigrant living in New York, whose ridiculously wealthy Singapore family—especially his mom—are reluctant to accept his less well-off Chinese-American girlfriend when he brings her home with him for the wedding of his best friend. Rachel (“Fresh off the Boat’s” Constance Wu) is unaware of Nick’s vast family fortune until they wind up in First Class on the international flight bound for Singapore. Once they touch down on the scenic Southeast Asian island, she enters a whirlwind of extreme luxury and decadence as she is introduced to Nick’s family, including his stoically disapproving mother (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s” Michelle Yeoh). Thankfully, Rachel, who rose from humble beginnings to established herself as a New York University economics professor, has a close friend from college (scene-stealing comedic actress Awkwafina) on the island and her zany family to take her in while her beau joins the groom-to-be and the other fellows in the wedding party on a raucous, no-expense-spared bachelor party. Nick wants to ask Rachel to marry him but is concerned his mother’s disapproval of the girl’s upbringing—she was raised by a single mom—might make her ineligible to marry into their revered family. Meantime, Rachel is shunned and belittled by Nick’s status-conscious family and friends. Will love conquer all?
The film is directed by Jon M. Chu, a Chinese-American filmmaker whose credits include the “Step Up” movies and a Justin Bieber documentary. The screenplay is co-written by Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim. “Crazy Rich Asians” is produced by John Penotti, Brad Simpson and Nina Jacobson, and executive produced by the book’s author Kwan. All were present for a press conference to discuss the Asian-infused yet universally relatable romantic comedy and why it was important for the project to reach the big screen.
Q: You passed on a generous offer from Netflix to turn this book into a cable movie and held out for a studio—Warner Bros.—to distribute it so the story could appear on the big screen. Why was it important to you for this to be in theaters?
Chu: One has to credit our producers who deferred to (me and author Kevin Kwan). We had 15 minutes to decide. I love Netflix, by the way. I watch it all the time.
We all knew putting it on the big screen meant something. Cinema tells people that this is worth your time and energy to gather your family or friends—or by yourself—and leave your house, fight parking, go pay for food at the food court and sit in the dark and watch a story. I think it subliminally says this romantic couple, this cast of characters of all Asian actors, are worth your energy to do that. When you put something in a museum in a glass box, it still trickles down to everything else and says a lot. That was the main motivation for me. We had talked a lot about before the phone call (with Kwan) about the book.
Q: Kevin, was that your idea all along—to see your book adapted on the big screen?
Kwan: Absolutely. There’s nothing like that communal experience. Because my book is so loved by all generations—you have grandmothers giving it to their daughters, who give it to their teenage daughters—I wanted it to be this experience. Also, this was the first chance we had in 25 years, so I wanted it 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 walking up and down it the same way any other movie would get. So, we want that treatment too. Ultimately, we want to inspire.
Chu: It trickled down to all of us, like “We’re doing this!” We have to really make this work. Warner Bros. had no guarantees to spend money to market or when they were going to release and all that stuff, we just knew we had to make a great product. We have this big Hollywood studio saying it’s worth the bet and we hope the audience responds to that.
Q: How much of the bet is dependent on foreign distribution, particularly China? How well do you think this movie will play internationally?
Jacobson: From the beginning, we always felt this was a great story to tell, a great cinematic experience that would be a great domestic play and would travel around the world. It wasn’t a cynical idea of “Let’s go after the Asian markets.” The Asian markets are huge and everybody wants their movie to perform globally and to get a chance to have the exposure and upside of a global release that includes these very powerful Asian markets. But from the beginning this book is a huge hit in all these markets around the world, and it’s a big domestic phenomenon. People love the book. We have a very inside-out approach to the movies and the TV series that we make, which is “Do we love it?” and if we love it and relate to it, do we think that experience will be contagious for audiences everywhere. We just tried to make the best movie we could make that was the most relatable movie in hopes that people would relate to it all around the world and not in any one particular market.
Kwan: That’s why I choose (the producing team) to make this movie.
Simpson: We had this line in the script initially, which was from the book, where it said that Rachel hadn’t dated Asian men in the past. It’s complicated in the book and it’s explained. It was a throwaway line in our script, and none of us had really questioned it, and then Constance (Wu, who plays Rachel) wrote this really impassioned email to Jon (Chu, the director) that said, “You’re going to contribute to desexualizing Asian men if you keep this in. It may be fleshed out in the book.” So, it gave us pause, especially now that there is a conversation going on. I think that’s the most important thing I would say when you’re representing cultures that aren’t your own, which is you need to set up something that is a conversation and you’re not just relying on one voice, and that’s what we tried to do as producers.
Lim: From the get go, with Jon and Nina and Brad, when you talk about marketing (the film) to a certain audience, it always came to the question of how do we ground this because there’s a lot of splashy-ness and color. After all, it’s called “Crazy Rich Asians.” When we were talking about the dynamics between Rachel and Nick and Eleanor, it always was about does this come from a genuine authentic place. The number of conversations we had when we talked about cultural specificity, what’s wonderful when I talk to people who’ve watched it, especially Asian-Americans, when it comes to Rachel and always having to feel like you have to strive for something bigger and more and still feeling like you don’t measure up by American standards, by Singaporean standards, getting to place to feeling like, “No, I am enough,” it’s almost a story that only could be told here. It was wonderful that we could do that here and it was because of all those conversations we had about it early on. We had to show the conflict in a way that’s understandable to an audience about her being an “other,” and it all came back to Eleanor’s fear of losing her son.
So, in a way, it’s a foreign culture but when you get right down to the fierce family dynamics beneath it, it’s something everybody can relate to.
Q: How did you cast your leads—Constance Wu and Henry Golding?
Chu: With Constance Wu, our dates didn’t line up at first. She wrote an impassioned email on a plane one day so we talked about it and decided to wait months for her. If we (hadn’t waited), we wouldn’t have found Henry Golding (who plays Nick). After looking all around the world with casting directors in Vancouver, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, the UK and Australia, he was right where the book told us he would be—Singapore! We didn’t even have to pay for his travel. It was awesome. Gemma, when you looked at people’s wish list online, she was always on there (as Astrid). We hoped she would be available and she was.
Q: Obviously, Eleanor, Nick’s mother, is an important part of this film as the obstacle to Nick and Rachel’s happiness. How did you cast Michelle Yeoh?
Chu: 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.” She said, “I’m going to defend our culture and our beliefs to its fullest and you can defend the American ideas and we can let the audience decide,” which is great. In that mah jongg scene where (Rachel and Eleanor) are going head to head—we had four different versions of the mah jongg scene—and Michelle was like, “I’m not going to let this American girl say this **** to me so I’m going to say this part of the script.” And Constance was like, “I’m not going to let her run me over so I’m going to say this.” So, I said, “Alright, say what you want and we’ll see what happens.” And it was just these fireworks. These two super-strong adversaries up against each other, and then the look that Rachel’s mother gives made it so much more. So, it was all of those things that were brought into play because of the cast. It’s a credit to the plan being developed outside and then going to a studio and saying, “By the way, you’re going to have to spend more time and money on casting.” That’s the problem with (other) movies, is that you get the same 10 Asian actors that are presented to you and then you say there are no Asian actors out there. They’re out there. It’s just there are not that many opportunities that exist. We did some online casting. At the end of the day, they embodied so much of the pages we couldn’t put in the movie in their own characters so with one line we could get a sense of who they were. We hope to utilize them a lot more in the future.
Jacobson: We wanted to make sure we had the amazing Singapore talent represented like with the aunties. We wanted a pan-Asian cast. We wanted to make sure we got cultural heritages right while still being inclusive of this talent around the world as well as making sure we were taking advantage of the talents of the people where we were shooting.
Q: This movie is based on the first in a trilogy of books. Where are you in terms of making Part 2?
Penotti: There’s a lot of hope that audiences see this film and embrace it and demand more, it will be helpful to continuing the process. There’s real hope there. It’s important that people show up and make this terrific, fun event also something that demands more attention. With that, you’ll see more.
Q: You shot a lot of this on location in Singapore. What was it like working there?
Chu: It’s a beautiful city. It’s a city of the future. All the ethnicities are all in one place. The families, the love, made a big impression on me. It wasn’t just the cleanliness, which a lot of people talk about. I thought it was a peek into the future.
Q: How did the screenwriters adapt the book, with its many interesting characters, and give them their moments in the spotlight?
Chiarelli: Kevin wrote a book with 2,000 characters in it so we had a lot to choose from. It was about choosing Rachel, Nick and Eleanor and how everybody would surround that orbit, and if they fit in that story, they made the cut. We also looked at, from the beginning, who do the fans love. So, we made sure to get those characters in.
Lim: The big thing was how to do we introduce the audience and Rachel to this constellation of crazy, amazing, out-there characters. It all came to this vortex in this big family house where they meet everybody, and making sure that Michelle Yeoh, as Eleanor, gets her moment. Jon (Chu) was like, “She’s not with the rest of the party. She’s the center of power in this kitchen,” where you see her and the majesty by contrast because you have all this smoke and cooking and you get that dynamic immediately.
Q: What was your decision to introduce the Charlie Wu character from the books at the end of this movie?
Chu: My journey as an Asian-American and going to Asia for the first time is something that I really wanted to explore. And, the way through that, would be Rachel. Rachel was really personal to me, the way of watching her go into Singapore. It also was my first time to Singapore and to see all these Asians from around the world converge on this island. So, for me, that was really the focus.
With Astrid (played by Gemma Chan), we knew we had to get an actress that could tell the story efficiently and surgically and could be really good at what she did. She only has certain poignant scenes and had to deliver them by the end. Throughout the movie, we didn’t want any of these women to depend on some man. The decision had to be their own decision. That’s what we talked about with Adele (the screenwriter) a lot. This is not about “getting the guy” for either Rachel or Astrid. It’s about self-worth. Knowing that you’re worth something and deserve what you want. Rachel goes through that and instigates that in Astrid as well. Obviously, Charlie is a favorite in the book so we wanted to nod to that. I know (actor) Harry Shum Jr., very well. I knew that he would be the perfect Charlie, so we just wanted to tease the audience to say there’s more to this story than what’s here. This is the first part of Astrid’s story.
Jacobson: We originally shot more of them together. But what we found when we first started to show the movie to audiences was that, just in terms of screen time, the dissolution of her marriage and the introduction of this new guy, they actually both got short shrift when you rushed it, so you felt like you weren’t getting the strength it took for her to walk away from her marriage but also the hope you might feel about a new person and it wasn’t just a rebound. Just, with the time we had left, we had to make this choice. Even though we had fantastic material of them together, we figured we’ll just tease it a little bit at the end and hope that audiences ask for more movies so that we can continue to tell the story.