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'America is not what we were told it was': Director Jon M. Chu on hope amid despair

The "In the Heights" director talks characters defined by more than tragedy and Asian American and Latinx solidarity.
Jon Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on set of "In The Heights."
Jon Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on set of "In The Heights."Macall Polay / Macall Polay
/ Source: NBC News

In 2010, director Jon M. Chu went to a Broadway show by an up-and-coming composer named Lin-Manuel Miranda. That show was called “In the Heights” and took place in the Dominican neighborhood in Manhattan, New York, where Miranda grew up and still resides, Washington Heights. Although Chu isn't Latinx, he said the musical brought him to tears.

“It spoke about my family, even though I'm not from Washington Heights, I'm not Latino,” Chu told NBC Asian America.

That’s because like the characters in “In the Heights,” Chu grew up in an immigrant neighborhood; his parents are from Taiwan and Hong Kong. He related to the musical characters’ struggle to find their own identity while still honoring the elders who raised them, in a country that treated them like foreigners.

"I grew up in a Chinese restaurant," he said. "I knew what it felt like to have aunties and uncles raise you, the hopes and the dreams that are on your shoulders, the conflict that can happen. … [Miranda] said things that I was not capable of saying about my family."

When the opportunity arose to direct the film version of “In the Heights,” that's why Chu signed on immediately. He said he has a helpful background in music and dance, pointing out that his mother signed him up for dance classes as a kid to help him assimilate.

“I tap danced for 12 years,” Chu said. “I took drums, saxophone, violin, piano, guitar, so I think it's in my blood.”

“I'm not very good at any of them, by the way,” he added.

“In the Heights” was Miranda’s first big musical, before “Hamilton” propelled him to international stardom. The film opens simultaneously in theaters and HBO Max on June 10, after being delayed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The musical is about the residents of Washington Heights and their “sueñito,” or “little dream.” The main character, Usnavi, who was played by Miranda originally on Broadway and is now played by Anthony Ramos of "Hamilton," dreams of going back to the Dominican Republic. His love interest, Vanessa, dreams of moving out of the neighborhood and becoming a fashion designer. Another character, Nina, is the first in her family to go to college and struggles to live up to her family’s expectations. A number of other characters round out the musical, who all have their own little dreams.

“In the Heights” has been in development since 2008. The project stalled for many years between different directors and studios, because executives wanted more well-known Latino actors to star, such as Shakira or Jennifer Lopez. They also wanted more stereotypical storylines for the characters, such as pregnancies and gang violence.

But in making “In the Heights,” the creative team was determined to stay true to the original intent of the show: to showcase Latinx characters as full humans, who aren’t defined by tragedy but are filled with hope and joy. The musical also takes on more true-to-life topics such as immigration (one character is a Dreamer), gentrification, displacement and being a brown face in an all-white space.

Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures' "In the Heights."
Anthony Ramos as Usnavi in Warner Bros. Pictures' "In the Heights."Macall Polay / Macall Polay

Chu said a key way to break stereotypes is through storytelling.

“That’s the responsibility we have in our stories,” Chu said. “Sharing is probably the most powerful thing we could do — not dictating, just sharing.”

“In the Heights” was filmed in Washington Heights, and Chu characterized the process as a collaboration between him, Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes — who also wrote the book for the original musical. The director depended on his two collaborators, as well as the actors in the cast, to make sure the movie was authentically portraying Washington Heights and its people.

“It was a lot of listening,” Chu said.

Hudes and Miranda gave Chu a tour of Washington Heights, which allowed Chu to not just find the perfect shooting locations but also to immerse himself in the neighborhood and find the best way to capture its energy on screen.

"It was an open forum for actors, for crew, for Lin and Quiara, and for the community, people just passing by, to say what they felt about it. And we would adjust," Chu said. "Priority No. 1 was making it as authentic, whatever that word means, as possible."

Chu sees his collaboration with Miranda and Hudes as an example of what allyship can look like — how people from different backgrounds can come together to uplift one another's stories. The Latinx characters in “In the Heights” speak about feeling invisible within American society, a similar sentiment expressed by Asian Americans today.

With the recent conversations around Stop Asian Hate on his mind, Chu said it’s not just about standing up for one’s own community. It’s also about standing up for other communities in need.

“We've learned from them about how to make change, and we need to be by their side if we're asking others to be by ours. We're all growing together,” Chu said.

After all, Chu said, “the Latinx community, the Asian community are the fastest-growing communities in the United States right now. That's our future.”

Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario in "In the Heights."
Jimmy Smits as Kevin Rosario in "In the Heights."Macall Polay / Macall Polay

Chu’s next film is going to be another musical, “Wicked,” based on the hit Broadway musical about the Wicked Witch of the West in “The Wizard of Oz.” The musical also touches on themes of discrimination and racism.

As for the “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel, Chu said it’s still “in the works.” Though, “I'm not going to go do it unless it's better,” Chu said. “And I'm not going to go do it unless we have something to offer. We want to do it so badly. I love that cast. I can't wait for us to get in a room together.”

For now, Chu is focused on making sure as many people as possible see “In the Heights,” so that it gets the same warm reception that “Crazy Rich Asians” got and that it gives another underrepresented community some much-needed visibility. In fact, the film was so special to Chu that he named his son, who was born in 2019, Jonathan Heights Chu.

He said it's poignant to be able to see how representation will impact future generations.

"Every generation has a moment to push us forward to what we want [America] to be. America is not what we were told it was. And it's not what we all want it to be yet. It may never be. But each generation gets to push it a little further," he said. "And I think it's great when it's not just me. It's other filmmakers and writers and actors and directors out there, who are all going to be creating. The more we have out there, the more we can refine what we are."

Chu added with a chuckle, “That puts a lot of pressure on the movie, by the way, because if it's a s----- movie, then my son's going to hate me.”