Bucking the so-called conventional wisdom that there would be minimal box office return for a feature with an all-Asian cast, director Jon M. Chu committed to Crazy Rich Asians which went on to not only became a huge hit but also a pop culture phenomenon. The critically acclaimed film’s commercial success and groundbreaking accomplishments helped Chu earn the Motion Picture Showman of the Year Award at the International Cinematographers Guild’s Publicists Awards in 2019 for his unique contribution to the art of movies.
One such contribution was to diversity. Crazy Rich Asians was the first major studio film with an all Asian cast and an Asian-American lead in 25 years; the last had been The Joy Luck Club in 1993. Crazy Rich Asians also departed from the action and superhero blockbuster norm, proving the major viability of a romantic comedy--which also had a multilingual script ranging from English to Cantonese to Mandarin.
In accepting the Motion Picture Showman of the Year Award, Chu said it was gratifying for the honor to come at a time of major change which he viewed as “only the beginning” of giving more diverse voices the opportunity to be heard.
Fast forward to today and Chu is adding to his feature filmography--albeit at a delayed timetable due to unexpected circumstance. At press time he was in postproduction on In The Heights (Warner Bros.), the feature adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning Broadway musical. Originally scheduled to debut in theaters this month, In The Heights has been postponed until June 2021 due to the pandemic.
Meanwhile Chu is making his mark in television--on Apple TV+ to be exact, directing the first two episodes of and serving as an exec producer on Home Before Dark based on the real story of child journalist Hilde Lysiak. Brooklynn Prince, known for her work in director Sean Baker’s 2017 feature The Florida Project, portrays the young reporter (under the name Hilde Lisko). Home Before Dark centers on Hilde’s relationship with her dad (portrayed by Jim Sturgess), a former investigative journalist in NY who loses his job, causing him to uproot his wife and kids, and return to his hometown of Erie Harbor. There Matt’s family secrets come to be revealed as a cold case murder mystery and a recent homicide unfold with intrepid reporter Hilde on the case.
SHOOT: Provide some backstory. What drew you to Home Before Dark and how did the opportunity emerge for you to become involved in the series?
Chu: Joy (Gorman Wettels, executive producer) and Dana Fox (co-creator and EP) approached me about the story of the real Hilde Lysiak. I remembered having read her story years ago in the paper. She broke a story in a local newspaper, investigating a murder. I was drawn to how a little girl can have that kind of courage. From (Nobel Peace Prize laureate) Malala to (environmental activist) Greta Thunberg, there’s a new generation of young women who are making an impact on the world. It was such an important idea they came to me with--a young girl saving us, dedicated to the the truth of journalism. They knew I just had a baby girl and was a few months into it. This was a father-daughter story with a sense of purpose. It’s a true story when truth in journalism is more important than ever.
SHOOT: What was your approach to telling this story? What were the biggest creative challenges that it posed to you?
Chu: I thought about the story Joy tells of how she had to get the rights to the story. The parents gave it to Joy because she was the only one who talked directly to Hilde instead of focusing on the parents. That’s the perspective of the show. This isn’t a kids’ show. We are not taking the consequences as light and cutesy. We’re getting after the real truth, treating it as seriously as any Sherlock Holmes mystery or detective show. That was really important. We never looked down on her.
SHOOT: Which made the casting of Brooklynn Prince essential.
Chu: Yes, she is the reason we were able to do this show. There’s no other girl who can do that. How does a nine year old carry a show that adults will want to watch? She had to carry it and did.
SHOOT: Would you also tell us about why you gravitated to other key collaborators, specifically cinematographer Alice Brooks and production designer Nelson Coates?
Chu: Alice is one of my favorite people in the world. We went to school together. She shot my short film years and years ago. I was a little whippersnapper. She was older. I was able to convince her to work on my short. We’ve worked a lot together. She shot The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (TV series) and recently shot In The Heights.
I met Nelson on Crazy Rich Asians. We didn’t have the biggest budget on that film yet he created this amazing world for us to play in (for which Coates won an Art Directors Guild Excellence in Production Design Award).
Home Before Dark was a very different world to create. He’s a very good storyteller with a keen attention to detail. In creating the family house (in Erie Harbor), he gave us layers--layers which we peeled away to reveal more. The house became a symbol of the relationships within the family, helping to tell the story. I love that about him. He also did In The Heights for me.
SHOOT: How was your Apple TV+ experience? Was this your first foray into the brave new streaming world?
Chu: This was my first experience with streaming and one of my first TV experiences. I love the collaborative nature of TV in general, the way you can dive into characters.
I grew up (in Northern California) around Cupertino (where Apple is headquartered). It was a dream of mine to work with Apple. Making content for them was great, knowing they strive for excellence, quality over quantity. I enjoyed being involved as they are trying to figure out their voice in the content world. They are great creative collaborators. They said they wanted to make a great story--they stuck by that and supported it. We started shooting season two before season one came out.
SHOOT: What was your biggest takeaway or lessons learned from your experience thus far on Home Before Dark?
Chu: I learned about parenting. I saw the way (series creators) Dana (Fox) and Dara (Resnik) treated their kids. I looked at Brooklynn and how her parents treat her. It’s not one of those weird parent-kid Hollywood relationships. They talk things through. I look at Hilde and her real father, the way he treats her. It’s so eye opening. You don’t have to talk down to your kids. You don’t have to lecture. You connect in a human way and they will respond.