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Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda Behind the Scenes of In the Heights

Director Jon M. Chu on His Movie Musical Inspirations for In the Heights

“I was very nervous,” Jon M. Chu remembers of how he felt the day he met Lin-Manuel Miranda. The Crazy Rich Asians director met Miranda at a café near the Richard Rodgers Theatre during the pinnacle of Hamilton in 2015 or 2016, to discuss directing a film version of Miranda’s other Tony-winning creation, 2008’s In the Heights. He flew in from California and Miranda, still “in his Hamilton hair,” had a hard out in order to get back to the theatre for the show.

“I’m about to present to him a show that is of his heart, and I want to tell him how to change it? That’s crazy!” Chu says of that initial encounter. One of Chu’s immediate ideas was to go back to the source of why Miranda wrote these songs in the first place. “I wanted to go back to the idea of why musicals were ever invented. When words aren’t enough, you need something else to show how that feels. Let’s use cinema to express these internal emotions in the best way possible,” he explains.

Of course these two larger-than-life creative artists hit it off. They bonded over their love of Disney and Jonathan Larson’s Rent, as well as their connection to family. “He spoke about what it felt like to grow up in an immigrant community more than I could ever have written down. I understood [what it’s like to be] raised by our aunties and uncles. As storytellers, what is our responsibility? What are we supposed to do when we feel as artists? When we feel as a son? What do we feel as a grandson? I think we connected on that, and we knew the bigger task at hand.”

The task at hand was giving life to a screen adaptation of the beloved musical that would appeal to fans old and new, premiering in theatres and streaming on HBO Max June 10. Set in NYC’s Washington Heights, In the Heights tells the story of a predominantly Latino neighborhood filled with dreams. Anthony Ramos plays Usnavi, the bodega employee hoping for a better life, a role originated by Miranda that catapulted his career.

While In the Heights marks Chu’s movie-musical directorial debut, he says he feels like he’s been directing musicals his entire life, from the Step Up films to Justin Bieber’s live concert films (“A musical documentary — we recontextualize his music to tell the story of his life”), and even action movies like G.I. Joe: Retaliation and heists like Now You See Me (“When words aren’t enough, you can express these things”).

He says his biggest challenge was navigating lyrics for the first time, but he credits Miranda and screenwriter Quiara Alegría Hudes for guiding him through it. “Lin would be like, ‘You have to hear those words.’ And I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s right.’ That’s doing a lot of the job for me. Yes, of course.”

Music and dance have always been a part of Chu’s life. He grew up seeing shows with his family, The Nutcracker being one of his first live experiences. He even took private tap lessons for 12 years and showed off his fancy footwork to his wife for the first time at their wedding. In 1991, when Chu was in fifth grade, he made his professional debut in an all-Asian production of Stephen Sondheim’s Pacific Overtures starring Mako at the San Jose Civic Light Opera, later known as the American Musical Theatre of San Jose. During performance 17, Chu admits, he skipped a verse and the orchestra’s conductor started “freaking out.” The actor had to make up words to fix his error, and that’s when Chu realized he wasn’t “made for this at all.”

Instead of performing, he took his passion for musical theater and channeled it into directing films. For Heights, Chu looked to source material from some of his favorite movie musicals. Meet Me in St. Louis inspired him with themes about “what you make of home” and “about community.” Royal Wedding, the 1951 film starring Fred Astaire and Jane Powell, inspired a scene in which a building is flipped onto its side, turning a fire escape into a ballroom floor, “begging Nina [Leslie Grace] to express what it feels like to be in love.” Chu referred to Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid, and Singin’ in the Rain. He credits 1937’s Shall We Dance, with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, as inspiration for the scene where Nina and Benny [Corey Hawkins] are on a park bench “doing something that was almost classic, and yet with a neighborhood full of people, you never would have seen in those musicals.” He even drew from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “The fact that they can skip genres, and they have permission to express whatever they wanted, we definitely wanted to create that sort of environment here.”

As this movie musical hits theatres, behind the scenes, Chu’s already digging into the script of his next one: Wicked. He is in the early stages with playwright Winnie Holtzman and composer Stephen Schwartz, going over the 2003 Broadway musical line by line.

“I probably shouldn’t be saying this out loud because everyone will want to wish I recorded it, but we’re literally going lyric by lyric. I am asking him all stupid questions: Why did you write this? Where did this come from? What versions do you have of this so I can really understand the source of why this stuff was put in? Because I know, as a fan, why I love certain lines and what moves me. But that’s only going to do me so good. So, I’m getting in there and learning where all the plumbing is. It’s really delightful.”

Chu said no changes have been implemented yet, and they are still a ways away from casting anyone. However, he loves hearing everyone’s dream casting ideas. “I’ve gotten calls. I’ve gotten videos. I’ve gotten so many that I just was like, ‘I’m not talking about this.’ Give me a little bit to get everything else in order. And then we will go after that.”

Before he defies gravity, it’s lights up on Washington Heights.