Crazy Rich Asians – The first all-Asian ensemble in a contemporary Hollywood film in 25 years

CRAZY RICH ASIANS

A love story and a comedy about family, and culture, and conflict, and coming together.

Based on the acclaimed worldwide bestseller by Kevin Kwan, the contemporary romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians takes a fun, engaging and hilarious look at what can happen when young love collides with old money.

The story follows New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her longtime boyfriend, Nick Young (Henry Golding), to his best friend’s wedding in Singapore.  Excited about visiting Asia for the first time but nervous about meeting Nick’s family, Rachel is unprepared to learn that Nick has neglected to mention a few key details about his life.  Not only is he the scion of one of the country’s wealthiest families, but also one of its most sought-after bachelors.  Being on Nick’s arm puts a target on Rachel’s back, with jealous socialites and, worse, Nick’s own disapproving mother (Michelle Yeoh) taking aim.

It soon becomes clear that the only thing crazier than love is family, in this funny and romantic story sure to ring true for audiences everywhere.

“We’ve all been there,” says director Jon M. Chu, “feeling out of place, confident in some moments and self-conscious in others, being on the outside and trying to find common ground.  It’s great to have a close family, but sometimes that can drive you nuts. They embarrass you. They’re judgmental about who you’re seeing and where you’re headed.  Mothers, especially, can put their sons on a giant pedestal and make it their business that the person he chooses is worthy.  I have gone through that with my own mother,” he confesses with a smile.

Set in Singapore and featuring the first all-Asian ensemble in a contemporary Hollywood film in 25 years, the story mines humor from the idiosyncrasies of one family in a way that people everywhere can relate to—no matter who they are, how much money they have, or where they call home.  It taps into the fundamental desire to fit in, while honoring your own identity, in an era of blending—and sometimes clashing—cultures.

As Rachel’s friend tries to warn her: these people aren’t just rich.  They’re crazy-rich.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Constance Wu, who stars as the intrepid Rachel, describes her as “a college professor raised by a working-class, single mom.  For many people, that’s a point of pride, but not for the Youngs.  Their pride comes from legacy.  I don’t think the story says one value system is better than the other, but shows those cultural differences and the differences between Asian and Asian-American, that are often overlooked.  What I love about Rachel is that when things get tough she has the courage to follow her heart and forge her own path, in ways that are tested, but, ultimately, make up who she is.”

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New Yorker Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) receives an invitation from her boyfriend Nick Young (Henry Golding)

It’s a test for Nick, too, even though he knows what’s coming.  “Having decided that Rachel is the one, he first has to get over the speed bump of bringing her home,” says Henry Golding, making his feature film debut as Nick.  “He’s afraid if she sees how he was brought up, she might think he’s not the guy she fell in love with.  Also, once home, he sees more clearly the forces conspiring to tear them apart and how standing his ground will affect them both.”

“We knew that the universality of the story would come from its specificity,” Chu offers.  “The more specific we could be about the cultural touchstones, the characters and their backgrounds, the more we would create a story that people everywhere could emotionally connect with.  Because every culture and every family is crazy and has traditions and weird things you’re reluctant to show anyone, but that, over time, you just might become proud of and want to share.”

That concept is evidenced by the worldwide popularity of the book on which the film is based, author Kevin Kwan’s New York Times and international bestseller Crazy Rich Asians.

KWANKwan served as an executive producer on the film and makes a cameo in the montage where the gossip over Nick and Rachel’s imminent visit goes viral.  He consulted on myriad details from character to costumes, locations to design, opened up his private family albums to inspire the design teams and even put the filmmakers in touch with a private watch collector who lent the production a prized high-end timepiece that arrived with its own security escort.   “He was the best creative partner,” Chu attests.

Regarding the script, though, Kwan was strictly hands-off, stating, “I was too close to it.  So, we brought in these amazing writers, Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim.  I wanted to give them absolute freedom to go in and take out the story that would work best for the movie.  Between their vision and Jon’s, they really supercharged it.  It’s one thing to describe a scene when you have 30 pages to create this world, but, in a movie, you have a split second.  People respond immediately.”

Chiarelli_250Peter Chiarelli graduated from the University of Washington in Seattle and went on to earn a master’s degree from the Peter Stark Producing program at the University of Southern California.  He began his film career at DreamWorks and, during that time, produced the short film “Terry Tate Office Linebacker,” which went on to become one of the most popular Super Bowl commercials of all time.

He then moved on to become an executive at Red Wagon Entertainment, where he worked on the films Memoirs of a Geisha, Win a Date with Ted Hamilton and RV, before going to MGM as a Director of Development, supervising production of The Pink Panther and The Amityville Horror.  He also served as an executive producer on The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.  He later returned to DreamWorks to head up Kurtzman/Orci Productions and was a co-producer on that company’s first film, Eagle Eye.

Chiarelli began his screenwriting career with The Proposal, and went on to write screenplays for Sony Pictures, Paramount, Disney, Universal, Fox 2000 and DreamWorks.  Most recently, he was a writer on the movie Now You See Me 2, directed by Jon M. Chu.  Currently, he is writing a screenplay at Universal for an untitled holiday comedy that will star Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer.

ADELEAdele Lim is a screenwriter for television and film.  A Malaysian native of Chinese descent, she came to the United States at 19 and graduated from Emerson College, Boston.  After getting her start as a writers’ assistant on Xena: Warrior Princess, she went on to staff on multiple network primetime dramas, including One Tree Hill, Las Vegas, Private Practice and Lethal Weapon.  Lim has run writers’ rooms and was the co-showrunner and executive producer on Starcrossed for The CW.

She also mentors writers through CAPE’s New Writers Fellowship and has been a long-time judge for the Writers Guild of America’s Writers Access Project.  Writing the screenplay for Crazy Rich Asians was her first feature project.

Currently, she is developing a one-hour network drama for FOX about community policing, and writing a feature screenplay for Disney Animation Studios, slated for release in Fall 2020.

Kevin Kwan (centre) with the crew and cast of Crazy Rich Asians

Kevin Kwan (centre) with the crew and cast of Crazy Rich Asians.

Kwan’s involvement began with producers Nina Jacobson and Brad Simpson of Color Force and John Penotti of Ivanhoe Pictures, who were galvanized by the story while it was still in galleys.

Says Jacobson, “I couldn’t put it down.  It completely swept me up into this world I’d never known, yet I found it very accessible.  Anyone who’s been rejected by their in-laws or made to feel that they’ve brought home the ‘wrong’ kind of girl, the ‘wrong’ kind of guy, the ‘wrong’ gender, race, background, class, whatever, will understand.  We live in a global community.  We’re connected by the internet.  We have a million ways to meet people with common interests but not necessarily common backgrounds.  Those things aren’t as likely to match up now as they would when people met in the same neighborhood.  So that experience of trying to bridge the gap, trying to hold on to who you are but still lean forward into what you’re becoming and who you’ve fallen in love with, I think, is as timely and universal as it gets.”

Likewise, says Penotti, “I was struck by how the story drew you in with both its eccentricities and familiarities, and, most of all, its heart.  That’s a tricky thing to pull off.  I’m Italian. I have a deep-rooted history in Italy and a very large family, and it’s easy to see the peculiarities of that mirrored in an Asian context; the focus on food and home, and the appreciation of family and tradition.  That, to me, felt like the basis for a great motion picture experience.”

The author, in turn, was taken by what he recalls as “their passion and commitment.  I really trusted this team.  I said, ‘Go for it, as long as it retains the DNA of my book,’ and I think we’ve done that, in spades.”

When the time came to seek a director, Penotti acknowledges, “We knew well before he knew that Jon was the one.”  Beyond his qualifications as a filmmaker, the producer notes another, less obvious attribute.  “Jon innately understood Rachel’s character, as a fish out of water.”

A first-generation American of Taiwanese heritage, Chu says, “Growing up in an immigrant household, part of me is traditional Chinese.  But, I’m really a California boy.  Going to school, I would play basketball and tennis and do all these very American things, and that struggle over my cultural identity was very much present in my life.  You actually have to make choices about which parts of which culture and philosophy you’re going to use, what to drop and what to incorporate.  The world is getting smaller and I think we need to celebrate human beings in all their craziness, in all their cultures, and see the similarities.  The future is the next generation taking pieces from all these different influences and making it their own.

“I’m at a point in my career where I wanted to do something a little more personal,” Chu continues.  “There aren’t a lot of stories on the big screen that speak to experiences like mine, so, when I heard there was going to be a movie of this book I loved, I was energized.  I had a vision for it.  The moment I reached out to Nina, Brad and John, I learned they had already sent me the script, so it was as if it was meant to be.”

Like the book, the movie brackets the heartwarming and romantic with laugh-out-loud bursts of candor.  “Comedy is a great way to bring the audience in and let them know you’re in on the joke,” says Chu.  “Sometimes when you’re trying to say something real about culture and self-worth, it’s good to bring in some brilliant comedic voices.  We were lucky to find such amazing actors.  And having an all-Asian cast tell this story is truly exciting for me.”

The film showcases a large ensemble of fan favorites from film, television, music and comedy—legends and rising stars alike—in a wide array of compelling, original characters, from the leads to every distinctive supporting role. They represent a range of nationalities and countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, China, Taiwan, Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and The Philippines, as well as the U.S., UK, and Australia.

“Jon was passionate about this film like it was his baby,” proclaims Awkwafina, playing Rachel’s outspoken and always fashion-forward former college roomie, Peik Lin.  “He was invested in all the characters, he knew our potential, and he created an environment for us to function at our best.  We were like a big family.”

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Part of the cast and crew’s bonding experience was being on location in Singapore and Malaysia.  “The movie is a love letter to the food, culture and beauty of this area,” says producer Brad Simpson. “Shooting in Singapore itself was non-negotiable. The mixture of pristinely preserved colonial architecture from the past with ultra-modern cutting-edge buildings of the future, the life on the streets, and the vibrancy of the Hawker Markets, all make its signature.  We also knew there were two iconic locations that had to be in the film: the Marina Bay Sands, and the famous Gardens by the Bay.”

Adds Chu, “I think our film showcases much of its beauty it in a way that audiences around the world can appreciate, and, hopefully, make them feel like they’re traveling along with us.”

Taking all these elements together, “There’s a side to the movie that’s completely fun and crazy,” says Michelle Yeoh, who portrays Nick’s mother, Eleanor.  “There’s also the balance of what it takes to be part of an empire and such a family with all the responsibility and expectations, and I think audiences will gain an understanding into some of these traditions.”

“Every character has an understandable back story,” says Ken Jeong, who plays Peik Lin’s flashy nouveau riche dad, Wye Mun Goh.  “It’s so well written and dimensionalized. I even got choked up in some of the small, sweet moments.”

At its core, “Crazy Rich Asians” is a love story…a kind of savvy Cinderella tale, complete with a charming prince, a magnificent castle, and a battle of wills between two strong women determined to write their own ending.   “I definitely see this as a modern-day, aspirational fairytale,” states Chu.  “Rachel is our princess-warrior, and this is her journey to discover who she is—an American girl on her first trip to Asia, who comes away with a deeper appreciation not only of her past, but of her future.”

For anyone familiar with Kwan’s book, Singapore itself plays a starring role, bursting with vibrant color, heat and dynamism in every way.  The filmmakers agreed that capturing this story anywhere else but Southeast Asia would not have done it justice.  “The texture of our movie, its escapism, comes from the fact that we really shot in these places.  Everywhere we pointed the camera we found something special.  It’s a unique blend of cultures,” says Chu.

On a personal note, Chu reveals that the film’s production coincided with the birth of his daughter, which underscored its various themes and raised such questions as, he says, “What do I want to pass on to her?  How do I want her youth to be different from mine?  Presenting a story with a strong female character like Rachel, I was very conscious of what my daughter might go through in her own life, embracing her cultures and finding out who she really is.  The film is a love story and a comedy about family, and culture, and conflict, and coming together.  It’s also a representation of the next generation’s journey: to make choices about what our parents have given us, what we have learned, and what we want to pass on to our children.”

During Kevin Kwan’s first visit to the set, the director reveals that he shared an insight into how his book began.  Chu recalls, “When Kevin set up his computer, he wrote ‘Joy’ on a Post-It note and put it right on the monitor, and every day he wrote his story he looked at that note.  He said that whatever happened, that was the most important thing he wanted to communicate.

“Seven years later,” the director concludes, “we’re making this movie and he told me, ‘Whatever you do, this is the only thing that matters.  If you can convey joy, it’ll work.’  That has been our guiding light, our North Star, throughout.  And I hope that audiences will feel that joy when they watch the movie.”