With ‘In the Heights, ‘ Jon M. Chu disturbs the movie musical. Here’s just how he did it


There’s a less busy moment in the opening associated with “In the Heights” when Usnavi, performed by Anthony Ramos, stocks his secret dream: This individual feels stuck to the bodega his parents left him, and longs to return towards the Dominican Republic. He reveals this while staring out the store window at a crowd of dancers, visible towards the viewer in the window’s reflection.

This shot — combining footage of 75 performers on place in Washington Heights, and Ramos singing through a film set’s glassless window — is a visual reference to certainly one of Jon M. Chu’s favorite films, “Meet Me in St . Louis, ” the 1944 movie in which Judy Garland belts a now-iconic Christmas carol from a window of the home she’s sad to leave.

“In our version, Usnavi is looking out in the block, feeling trapped within this classic ‘Meet Me within St . Louis’ kind of body, yearning to even inhale and exhale the air outside, ” the particular director explains. “What’s reflected in that glass isn’t their community feeling sad for him or even ignoring your pet. Instead, they’re challenging your pet. They’re daring him in order to through that window plus dream bigger. ”

A later melody sees two characters like magic , dancing on the side of a developing — an ode in order to Sam Astaire’s ceiling routine in the 51 movie “Royal Wedding. ” And an exuberant fixed piece, with 90 dancers splashing in sync within the Highbridge Pool, echoes the particular kaleidoscopic water ballets of 1930s Busby Berkeley musicals. Chu’s Warner Bros. release, which formally debuts June 11 inside theaters and on HBO Max with early screenings Summer 10, notably quotes these types of Golden Age moments along with actors and characters of color.



“In the Heights” is Chu’s first feature-length movie-musical — a four-quadrant live-action style that, with uncommon exceptions , has been directed with a handful of white men in the last 20 years. It’s the exact type of project the “Crazy Rich Asians” director dreamed of when he initial decided to make movies — and a pursuit on which he’d long given up. “It’s so strange. I never thought this odyssey would find yourself right back at the musical, ” he says.

“But I’m so down. I’ve been waiting a long time with this. ”

Anthony Ramos looking out a window in "In the Heights"

(Warner Bros. )

It’s a balmy afternoon in May, and Chu, 41, is doing paradiddle tap techniques down some stone stairs in his Calabasas backyard. Although he tried out piano, drums, saxophone and violin all through his childhood, he just took to tap, and continuing lessons for 12 years. He brushed up on their moves for his 2017 wedding reception — a surprise to get his wife, Kristin Hodge, a graphic designer today pregnant with their third child.

“Be careful, Dada! ” shouts their 3-year-old daughter Willow, whose name Hodge still does not believe derives from Ron Howard’s 1988 film . Chu themselves got his name from the guide character of the 1980s series “Hart to Hart, ” and his professional name follows the format of Broadway legend George M. Cohan, after he saw film production company ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ with his grandfather.

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“I started writing my name as ‘Jon M. Chu’ on my home movies, thinking it’d end up being so cool to see this on the big screen someday, ” he tells me. We’re sitting down on the patio of the home he and his family moved into six months ago. The nearly 3-acre Calabasas lot will two times as his “creative compound, ” with ample area for a future editing dojo and dance rehearsal area.

Director Jon M. Chu stands in the branches of a large tree.

“Tension needs to be inside a musical too, ” states director Jon M. Chu, seen here in his Calabasas backyard. “It can’t just be a bunch of songs. ”

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

The definition of “home” is up for debate throughout “In the Heights. ” Aspiring designer Vanessa (Melissa Barrera) feels suffocated by the gentrifying Upper Manhattan neighborhood, while Stanford student Nina (Leslie Grace) craves the security of the close-knit community. Whenever Chu saw the Tony-winning stage musical from Lin-Manuel Miranda and Quiara Alegría Hudes, he immediately recognized with Usnavi. The daily rhythm of his bodega paralleled that of his father’s Chinese restaurant in Mis Altos, Calif.

Outside the restaurant, Chu undoubtedly spent his childhood studying the storytelling power associated with music. His entire household gathered around the TV to view classics like “Singin’ within the Rain, ” Disney cartoon movies and even the latest Michael jordan Jackson music video (“which was basically Fosse’s ‘A Snake in the Grass, ’ ” he says). And his parents ritualistically delivered him and his four older siblings to ballets, operas and musicals all over the Bay Area.

“There’s a truthfulness of why music and dancing exist in these stories to begin with, ” says Chu. “It’s not because a melody will be catchy but because simply saying the words isn’t enough to communicate whatever that character wants to express. ”

Chu acted in school productions, and even played the Guy in San Jose Civic Lighting Opera’s “Pacific Overtures” in 1991. “There was one efficiency where I’m up right now there in the tree, singing the particular song, and I skip a verse, ” he says. “The conductor is really angry, and the orchestra just keeps playing, but I’ve stopped singing because there’s nothing else for me to sing! An adult comes back onstage and makes up words to a Sondheim song to fill in the time. When I got offstage, I thought, ‘I’m never achieving this again. ’”

He didn’t realize his weakness for the form until he started film school at USC in the early aughts. “For a screenwriting class, I actually started writing something called ‘The Last Great United states Musical, ’ about a senior high school that was putting on a show, so it was a musical of a musical, ” he recalls passionately. “My teacher was like, ‘Musicals are dead — you’re supposed to write something it is possible to sell once you graduate. ’”

Instead, Chu doubled down with the tap-centric “Silent Beats” and the barbershop-quartet short “Gwai Lo” — two music-driven pieces regarding racial and cultural identification. “‘Gwai Lo’ means ‘white devil, ’ it’s what they called me when I went to Hong Kong for the first time, ” Chu says solemnly. “My course liked the film, but I was so self-conscious because I didn’t know how to specify what an Asian American is. I didn’t publish it to festivals, I actually never really shared it with anybody. I buried it. ”

For the purpose of his final project, Chu pivoted to whimsy along with “When the Kids Are Away, ” the jubilant, humorous and diversely cast 18-minute musical about housewives’ weekday routines. It kicks off with a burst associated with color akin to Dorothy’s “Wizard of Oz” arrival, plus follows the busy females as they take genre-hopping dancing breaks.

An "In the Heights" scene with 90 dancers splashing in sync in the Highbridge Pool.

1 exuberant “In the Heights” set piece features 90 dancers splashing in synchronize in the Highbridge Pool.

(Warner Bros. )


The roots of “In the Heights” in this short are undeniable, says cinematographer Alice Brooks, who chance both projects: “When i was filming the [“Heights”] opening with all the dancers in the middle of 175th Street, this immediately reminded me of the finale, when I sat on top of a crane to get 30 dancers dancing in the middle of that will street in South Pasadena. ”

The piece got the attention associated with Hollywood, which, thanks to the success of “Moulin Rouge” plus “Chicago, ” had deemed the movie musical undead. With all the sudden support of Steven Spielberg, Chu quickly marketed the “Romeo and Juliet” revamp “Moxie” and a modern “Bye Birdie”: Rather than getting drafted to battle, superstar Birdie could visit jail, but not before pulling off a buzzy advertising stunt of cohabiting having a devout fan.

“The idea of fame had been changing then — actuality shows were just hitting, and everything was [all about celebrities like] Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan, ” he says of what he or she called a “remixed musical” at the time. “We could’ve caused it to be super comedic and enjoyable, with everyone trying to find their true selves in this fallacy of a reality series reduce PR campaign for this superstar. ”

Neither of them project materialized, and others fell apart. Though he finished film school with amazing attention, Chu didn’t direct anything for five years. “Then this script for the straight-to-DVD dance sequel gets there and you’re like, ‘Is this what I’ve come to? ’” he says, shaking their head.

“But it turned out to be the best thing that will could’ve happened. It was some sort of intersection of destiny that will started everything. ”

Director Jon M. Chu leans on a bookshelf in his Calabasas home.

“Just saying what isn’t sufficient to connect whatever that character really wants to express, ” Jon Michael. Chu, seen inside his Calabasas home, says associated with stories driven by songs and dance.

(Christina House / Los Angeles Times)

“Step Up two: The Streets” ended up being a surprise hit, but the true win was the bond Chu forged with the movie’s dancers.

“Jon honestly loves dance, which, on this industry, that’s rare, ” says “Step Up 2″ dancer and “In the particular Heights” choreographer Christopher Scott. “Even if you do love dancing, Jon wants to understand every part of it: ‘Why don’t they would like to be called break dancers? Oh, they’re breakers, B-girls — got it. ’ This individual immediately gave that respect to the dancers, who went, ‘You’re one of us now. ’” (It was “Step Up 2″ choreographer Luis Salgado, also an original “In the Heights” cast associate, who got Chu to first check out the stage display. )

Though Chu himself will be admittedly “terrible” at hip-hop dance, he regularly labeled along with the performers to their clubs and competitions. “When they will danced, people stopped what they were doing and paid attention to them, ” he says. “But they weren’t spinning on the heads to perform to suit your needs. They’re spinning on their brain so you could believe in magical things that you didn’t believe someone could do before they did it. They’re telling you a story about themselves and exactly how beautiful the world can be. ”


Pursuing the viral success of dance fight videos with Miley Cyrus, Adam Sandler, Amanda Bynes plus Diana Ross, Chu teamed with choreographer Scott and cinematographer Brooks on the dance narrative series “The LXD. ” The trio began fine-tuning their formula with regard to capturing the discipline on camera.

“The thing that the 3 of us love is telling a story through dance, and not just filming a big dance quantity for no reason, ” says Brooks. “During rehearsal, we each shoot the dancers in different ways — moving around with a Steadicam, standing on a ladder for high-angle shots, laying on the ground intended for low-angle shots. Jon rapidly edits some of the videos collectively and we go over what works, what we can frame better and exactly how we can better showcase the characters’ expressions, because we all never want to distract through that. ”

Miranda, who noticed “Step Up 2″ inside theaters on opening weekend and followed “The LXD, ” first met along with Chu about “In the particular Heights” in 2016. (Chu praised “Hamilton” to Miranda, even though he hadn’t however seen it, and kept up that lie for any year. ) Miranda ultimately believed Chu to be right for “In the Heights” since “honestly, of all the directors we talked to, Latino and non-Latino, he had the lived experience that was closest to the characters. ”

Plus, “Jon knew the right way to shoot the s— out of a dance number. ”

Jon M. Chu and Lin-Manuel Miranda on a film shoot.

“Of all the directors we talked to, Latino and non-Latino, he had the lived experience that was nearest to our characters, ” claims “In the Heights” composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, right, of the film’s director, Jon Meters. Chu.

(Warner Bros. )

Still, “In the particular Heights” — Chu’s function movie musical debut, almost 20 years after he has been predicted to disrupt the particular genre — might not have happened if it weren’t for Chu’s circuitous journey. Even the extremely technical choreography of the mountain fight in “G. I. Paul: Retaliation” and the building excitement of the hidden-card sequence of “Now You observe Me 2″ were constructive towards the already significantly acclaimed adaptation.

“Those large action movies are basically giant spectacles, performances, ” says Chu. “They function because there’s a piece of danger that allows you to just go from it, no matter how unrealistic it is. That will tension needs to be in a musical too; it can’t you need to be a bunch of songs. ”

Chu intercuts the movie’s more fantastical sequences with seconds-long vignettes associated with life in Washington Levels, featuring a group of actors known as the movie’s “community chorus. ” In the opening, for example , they sing along with Usnavi whilst they’re cooking breakfast, going to work or getting their children ready for school. It’s Chu’s way of saying that these residents, who live on this part you may have never noticed, get their own dreams too.

At first, these snippets were very costly to film. “But I knew if we didn’t have these shots, the area wouldn’t be complete, ” says Chu. An initial reduce of the sequence with stock footage tested well but didn’t exactly click, which convinced the studio in order to expand the budget for these particular shots. “The people right here work hard for their families and their community — they are the magic of this place, ” says Chu.


Audiences first noticed Chu’s cultural reverence within “Crazy Rich Asians, ” the first studio film from the kind in 25 years. “He is no stranger to massive cinematic pressure, especially when it comes to representation, ” the film’s Ken Jeong says of Chu. “There’s an empathetic spirit to his visuals — every frame is certainly warm and full of empathy, as well as stunning. ”

Coincidentally, Higher Manhattan is also the backdrop just for “West Side Story, ” Spielberg’s anticipated remake that was filmed during the same summer time. “They had a catering truck in our shot — that is how close we were, ” Chu recalls with a play. (He invited Spielberg to visit his set; he by no means came, or reciprocated the invitation. )

Nevertheless, Chu loves the truth that both “In the Heights” and “West Side Story, ” two movie musicals with Latino characters, are being released in the same year. “The rivalry thing is definitely fun — not that will there’s a rivalry, he is Steven Spielberg! — but it evokes the conversation associated with, why does there only have to end up being one? Why do you think there has to be a competition? ”

Hopeful residents of Washington Heights

Throughout “In the Heights, ” Jon M. Chu intercuts more fantastical sequences with vignettes of neighborhood lifestyle. A bodega scene, best, with Corey Hawkins, left, Gregory Diaz IV plus Anthony Ramos, as well as a hair salon interlude, with Melissa Barrera, left, Stephanie Beatriz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Leslie Grace plus Dascha Polanco, are just two examples.

(Macall Polay / Warner Bros. )

Now that he’s pulled off “In the Heights, ” he’s breaking through plus dreaming bigger: a display screen adaptation of the hit music “Wicked, ” which has been in development since just after its Broadway opening in the year 2003. “I have sessions every single day with [composer-lyricist] Stephen Schwartz and [book writer] Winnie Holzman as we’re breaking the screenplay again, ” Chu states, “going through every series, every word, to find the way in cinematically. ”

While he plans to highlight “Wicked’s” dominant themes of “being othered” and “female friendship, specifically, ” he also sees the long-gestating project as an opportunity to meet the moment. “Right today, our definitions of history are usually changing — we’re in a really important moment about finding comfortable with being uncomfortable, ” Chu explains.

“‘Wicked’ is all about that: [Elphaba] revisiting the innocence of what we think the world is, and discovering that it’s more complicated compared to that. And what does residing in a bubble mean to get Glinda? People don’t simply build a bubble for simply no reason, you build a bubble because you don’t want to handle something.

“Now that bubble is filled all around us, which can be seen as a scary, scary thing, ” this individual continues. “You can feel sorrow for the things that are going away, you can feel fury for the things that have occurred, you can feel vengeance for your things you want justice designed for. Sometimes violence occurs — good or bad, it happens.

“I think this particular movie has an opportunity to show the world that change — real, true change — is OK, ” he says. “And getting through it along with grace and forgiveness can make all the difference. ”

Regardless of what he is working on, “In the Heights” will always be with him. The director’s newfound love for the New York neighborhood spurred Chu to ask Miranda and Hudes a big question. “I want to be able to say the word ‘heights’ every day of my life, and I want my kid to hear that word every day of his life, ” he told them. “Is it OK if I title him Heights? ”


They both cried with Chu and gave him their particular blessing. Jonathan Heights Chu was born in the middle of the movie’s shoot.

“I love the way individuals take care of each other, ” Chu explains of the name. “And I love how they dream — they look out their home windows and see past the horizon — and I want those exact same things for my son. ”