Exclusive: Director Jon M. Chu on Adapting ‘In the Heights’ and Drawing Inspiration from ‘Annie Hall’

     August 8, 2018

Lin-Manuel Miranda made an international splash with his musical Hamilton, but before he won Best Musical for that brilliant bit of theater, he won Best Musical for his previous Broadway show, In the Heights. The adaptation of In the Heights, which tells the story of a group of first and second-generation immigrants living in Washington Heights, had languished in development hell for years, but got a jump start thanks to the success of Hamilton and moving from The Weinstein Company to Warner Bros. Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) is set to direct the adaptation.


Image via PBS

Chu came into the Collider studio and sat down for an interview with Steve Weintraub, and during their conversation, Chu talked about what attracted him to In the Heights:

I got attached at the same time I got attached to Crazy Rich Asians. I was looking for a story that meant something more personal to me. I had just seen the show. And to me, the immigrant story has been under attack; this idea of what America is that I grew up with—that America is the greatest place in the world if you work hard and love what you do you can do anything—my parents came from China and didn’t know a word of English. They started a Chinese restaurant, raised five kids. Fifty years later, it’s still there. My dad is still in the kitchen. Anything was possible.


And of course the youngest son, myself, got into the most American business in the world, Hollywood. That is only proof of how great American can be. And what I love about In the Heights is that it’s Lin’s story ultimately of living in Washington Heights in New York City, and having that same community of immigrants whose dreams are beyond what you could ever imagine and finding home. The story was always compelling to me.


At the time, Hamilton wasn’t out yet, so he wasn’t the hottest thing in the world yet, although the show had won the award for Best Musical at the Tony Awards, so I attached myself to it, but we didn’t know if it was ever going to get picked up or if Harvey [Weinstein] would ever make this movie or not. So we just did our thing, and it’s hard transition from a show to a movie, so we just kept breaking it and breaking it and breaking it, and I think we got a really great combination, and it’s nice to be at Warner Bros., the same studio that’s doing Crazy Rich Asians.


Image via PBS

When asked how Chu would compare In the Heights to other musicals, he instead revealed that he’s drawing inspiration from non-musicals, specifically Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing and Woody Allen’s Annie Hall:

I sometimes think of Do the Right Thing, which is not a musical, but has a really cool vibe to it, and it speaks some truths, but is sort of in this visual world that I love and has some pop to it. I think of Annie Hall. The playfulness of Annie Hall where it’s not this typical love story but it has the freedom do really interesting things whether they’re drawing on the screen or breaking the fourth wall. So this has a little bit of that. It’s a story that’s being told to us through Usnavi, and because it’s a musical you have some of those freedoms to do it. When I think about New York, I think about how New York is usually the centerpiece to your visuals. How could you up New York? But here it’s “What do New Yorkers dream about? What do people in Washington Heights dream about?” And how do you bring the wonder in the everyday things of the city?

Chu added that they’re planning to shoot next summer on location in Washington Heights and that they’re in the beginning of the casting process.

Watch the video above, and come back to check out the full interview with Chu where he talks about Crazy Rich Asians, which opens August 15th. In the Heights is currently slated to open on June 26, 2020.

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