OAKLAND, Calif. - Bay Area native Jon M. Chu is making waves in Hollywood.
He just finished "In the Heights," a musical written by Lin Manuel Miranda, and he was just chosen to make the film adaptation of Wicked. Yet even now he says the impact of the blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians is still being felt and has helped define how he tackles every project moving forward.
Chu grew up in the Bay Area and this year, he is the Grand Marshal of the Chinese New Year celebration.
"It's always been an aspirational thing to be grand marshal of the parade," he said. "It took me by surprise but the best reaction was when I called my parents because they were like no that's a mistake and I was like no they called me, and to represent them and my family in the Bay and all Asian and Asian Americans going through this moment right now is an honor for sure."
Chu spoke at length about his experience growing up in the Bay Area, a place he describes as warm.
But he added: "Growing up Asian American, in general, is complicated and I’m not sure we always got a chance to talk about it because it was never talked about you didn't complain about it you just lived"
He said it wasn't until much later that he could reflect that it was hard growing up even if he had other Asians growing up around him.
"Some had just come to America others were kids of immigrants like myself and we were all trying to figure out which part of us was us," he said.
Chu’s parents have owned Chef Chu's in Los Altos for more than 50 years and it was a favorite spot for his friends and classmates. His parents immigrated to the U.S. and he says they always believed in possibility and what could be.
"There was no definition of an Asian American," Chu explains. "Asians in America seem like foreigners to Americans so it was always in the media in literature. It is always the foreigners are here, the foreigners are here, so when you are told that's what you are and when you walk around town and that's how people treat you until they get to know you it's confusing for a kid."
When he discovered the camera in 3rd or 4th grade he said he found a voice in filming.
"I found, 'Oh, this is something I can do' and people will respond," he said.
His love for the camera grew and after college, he found success working on blockbusters and with Hollywood’s stars but in recent years his success also came with a new understanding.
"I don't think that moment came till five years ago when I said what am I contributing to this and at the same time the internet, Twitter started happening and seeing the conversations happening what's wrong with Hollywood and I realized I’m part of that problem and yet I’m on the front lines and I could change that in one second if I wanted to," says Chu.
He says that was an important moment because "that's when I realized the responsibility I had and the people and the organizations that had gotten me to that point."
He said that so many organizations, scholarships, mentorships paved the way for him.
"I knew my responsibility to meet the moment is to make things that no one else would make," he said.
That’s what makes the movie Crazy Rich Asians so pivotal. He says he didn’t make that movie to make a romantic comedy, he made something more.
"This is about Rachel Chu, an Asian American finding her own identity and her own self-worth it's not about the worth of your Prada bag, it’s about how you think you are worth and she owns that at the end."
He added that "to have us as a generation and a people own that as we define who we are as Asian Americans that's what the whole movie that's the whole reason I wanted to do the movie."
And he made sure that people saw these actors in a way that haven't been seen before.
He said the cast was critical to changing opportunities saying "I think when we cast it, the cast is phenomenal and I think each of them has the confidence they ooze this confidence because they have been in the business for so long and haven't been able to let loose because they are so positioned in these little parts and in this movie we are like run free be you."
And he says when the movie was finally finished, "people came out of the woodwork and including people in my family. Chu says he didn’t realize how the movie would impact people including his own brother. "My older brother cried when he saw Nick Young come out of the house in his white suit and he was presented as the most handsome Hollywood leading man that you could as any big movie would."
Chu has two children and one on the way and says his children also guide him.
"Willow this is my 3-year-old and my biggest production is painting the world for little Willow here and what she's going to be and what I want her to see the world in," he said.
So while he does have new projects this movie will always be significant.
"So everything I do now has to have some sort of purpose real purpose and something that I know I’m adding something that no one else can add," says Chu. "It’s not out of obligation it's out of gratitude and out of inspiration from seeing how the world is shifting and changing everyone who speaks up makes a new piece of art that blows our mind and makes me more excited the future of Hollywood depends on this new voice otherwise it’s going to be the same thing we’ve seen."