Based on the multi-generational best selling book by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is a modern-day, Asian Cinderella tale where romance is central to the story. But what’s impressive about both the book and movie is that it doesn’t just hit the stale fairytale tropes of courtship, love, rejection and marriage. Instead, it delves deep into traditional cultural values, some Chinese, some American, along with the reality of what it means to be a modern, independent woman looking for love.
In the movie, Asian-American finance professor Rachel (Constance Wu, Fresh Off the Boat) is dating Nick Young (Henry Golding, The Bachelorette), a businessman from Singapore. When Nick asks Rachel to come to Singapore to meet his family, she has no idea she’s going to enter the world of an ultra rich Asian family.
At a recent press conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the filmmakers gathered to take questions from the press.
With a current score of 100% on Rotten Tomatoes – a rare feat for a rom/com – screenwriters Adele Lim (TV’s Lethal Weapon, Reign) and Peter Chiarelli (Now You See Me 2, The Proposal) tackled a mountain of characters from a trilogy of books. Chiarelli says the process was painstaking.
“Kevin wrote a book with 2000 characters in it so there was a lot to choose from,” Chiarelli joked. “It was pretty much all about picking Rachel, Nick and Eleanor and then how everybody else would surround that orbit. If they fit into that story, they made the cut. We also talked at the very beginning about which characters the fans love most, so we were sure to give those characters some extra time as well.”
Lim also chimed in, “I think the big thing was how do we introduce the audience and Rachel to this constellation of crazy, amazing, out-there characters. It all came to this vortex in that big family house [in Singapore] where they meet everybody, making sure that Michelle Yeoh, [who plays Eleanor, Nick’s mother], gets her moment. John [M. Chu, the director] had this great idea that she’s not with the rest of the party [when the family arrives at her home].
Instead, Eleanor is in her busy kitchen, at the center of domestic power. “You see her as the majesty by contrast ” continues Lim, “because she’s surrounded by cooks and smoke and you get that dynamic immediately.”
While many films these days are chasing the Chinese movie market, the book Crazy Rich Asians isn’t available in China. While the filmmakers wanted to capture the Chinese culture as accurately as possible, the priority had to be telling the story from an American perspective.
“[The character] Astrid [Henry’s sister], is the fan favorite in the book but for me,” says director John M. Chu, “as an Asian-American going to Asia for the first time is something I really wanted to explore, so for me, the way into that would be through Rachel. So Rachel was really personal to me watching her go into Singapore, it was also my first time to Singapore and to see all these Asians from all around the world converge on this island.”
American culture is a lot different than Chinese or Singaporean culture, even today. It was terribly important for Rachel, the female protagonist, to be relatable to American women.
“We didn’t want any of these women to depend on some man,” adds Chu. “Their decision [to get married] had to be their own decision. This is something Adele and Nina [Jacobson, the producer] talked about a lot. This is not about getting the guy for Rachel or Astrid, it’s about self-worth, knowing that you are worth everything and you deserve anything you want.”
But when the true-life inspired rom-com The Big Sick released last year, the filmmakers had a heated discussion about the film’s central conflict, worried the central conflict in Crazy Rich Asians wasn’t strong enough.
In The Big Sick, an Indian-American man Kumail Nanjiani falls in love with Emily (Zoe Kazan), a white, American woman, much to the distress of Kumail’s traditional Indian family. Because Emily and Kumail are different ethnicities and cultures, the conflict is clear. But in CRA, Rachel and Henry are both ethnically Chinese.
Lim said the question became: “How do we show this conflict in a way that’s understandable to an audience about Rachel being an ‘other?’ It came back to that ‘otherness’ and Eleanor’s fear of losing her son. So, [Singapore] is a foreign culture, but when you get right down to it, the fierce family dynamics below it, it’s something that everyone can relate to.”
In other words, the answer was to ground all the “crazy” characters with good old family dynamics with which we are all familiar. A mother always thinks she knows what’s best for her son and a wife always thinks she knows what’s best for her husband. No matter the ethnicity or culture, those two beliefs are always true. Add in two stubborn-as-hell women like Eleanor and Rachel – and you have believable emotional fireworks.
The other surprising thing about CRA is that the filmmakers turned down a crazy, rich payday from Netflix. Not only would the streaming service commit to marketing and producing the entire trilogy of movies, all of the producers would have received a seven-figure paycheck. Author Kwan said, “I could have retired to an island somewhere.” The filmmakers had to decide their fate in just a 15-minute window of time. Talk about pressure.
But, much to the consternation of their lawyers, they went with a theatrical release with Warner Bros.
Though Chu admits he loves Netflix, the decision for a theatrical release was the only one for him. “We knew that putting it on the big screen meant something, that cinema is still worth your time and energy to gather your friends or family or by yourself, leave your house, fight parking, go pay for food, sit in the dark, and say ‘tell me a story.’ I think that subliminally says this romantic couple, this cast of characters of all Asian actors are worth your energy to do that.”
Author Kwan agrees, “I absolutely wanted to see it on the big screen and get that communal experience. Because my book is loved generationally, you have grandmothers giving it to their daughters who give it to their teenage daughters, I wanted this to be a community experience. Also, this was the first chance we had in 25 years, god damn it!”
The last time a Hollywood studio made a movie with an all-Asian cast, was The Joy Luck Club in 1993.
“I wanted this to be an experience,” says Kwan, “that future generations could say, ‘we achieved this! We’re watching a red carpet of amazing Asian actors get like any other Hollywood movie would get. We want to get that treatment to because we want to inspire. A Hollywood studio is saying this is all worth the bet.”
Crazy Rich Asians opens on Aug. 15.