'In the Heights' Director Jon M. Chu Wants Audiences to "Dream Bigger"

"If someone can show that light, to someone who could be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda, why wouldn't you?"
'In the Heights' Director Jon M. Chu Wants Audiences to 'Dream Bigger'
"People kept saying, 'This is an on-the-street musical,'" says In the Heights director Jon M. Chu. "Why did they keep saying 'on the street' musical? These dreams are huge! We may be doing art installations inside Washington Heights. We're gonna show that their dreams are bigger than these walls."

That, in a nutshell, is In the Heights, a musical that's larger than life yet rooted in a real New York City neighbourhood.

It's the perfect vehicle for Chu, who in conversation comes off as the man his movies would suggest: sincere, bright, and present. Breaking into features as the director of the most accomplished entries in the Step Up series, he's built up a varied career that's circled back to dance and music often.

Even as he's taken on higher profile projects, taking advantage of advances of big-budget filmmaking along the way while dipping into franchises like G.I. Joe and Now You See Me, he's also retained some scrappiness. His work is always refined but it's not tough to imagine him and his crews fighting against any limitations they might have.

In the Heights, his new adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda's hit Broadway musical, is such a spectacle that the $50,000,000 budget quoted online for the feature seems fully believable. Chu, however, says that the real budget was closer to $15 million.

"They may promise you $50 million and then all of the sudden the budget is $40 million, and then all of the sudden you have to fight to get that original $10 million back," says Chu. "We had to be creative on our side."

In the Heights, Miranda's pre-Hamilton success, brings in Anthony Ramos for the role of Usnavi, a striver in the New York neighbourhood of Washington Heights. Like the people in his community who surround him and populate this story, they're concerned with the trajectories of their own lives in the city, along with the outside forces that threaten their families and neighbourhood.

Miranda produced and wrote new music for the movie, while Quiara Alegría Hudes, who wrote the book for the stage production, adapted the screenplay. Chu's quick to credit the entire team — from the writers to the cast all the way down to the location scouts — for the resulting film, a movie shot and grounded in a real space with the romantic heart and imaginative fantasy of a classic film musical.

There's a tremendous variety to the tones and techniques used. Chu says, "For us, there was always this principle: 'How do we get to the centre of these songs? What are they trying to express emotionally?'"

On Chu's end, the seed of some scenes came from landmarks of the genre.

"I was thinking of [1944's] Meet Me in St. Louis," he says of an early scene. "It's all about home, and there are shots where everything's framed by windows. I loved the idea of showing Usnavi in his bodega, looking out, yearning for something more. He's held back by this glass. What's reflected in this glass? His neighbourhood. And they're not soft, saying stay away — they're daring him to break that window. They're daring him to dream bigger than the bodega. That conflict, that pressure is what we're trying to make the audience feel."

That aspirational sentiment isn't foreign to Chu's films, and it's certainly present in Miranda's work as well. To Chu, it's only natural to try to present that in his work.

"How could you not when you're an Asian kid who grew up in a Chinese restaurant who never thought that being a director would be a real path? Who thought, 'Maybe you'll be a videographer for wedding videos?' Which I would be happy to be doing, and which I did do," he says.

"How could you not when you're Lin-Manuel Miranda and there are no roles for you, so you're like, 'I'm just going to write my own roles. I'm going to write my own community,' and now it's turning into a movie? How could you not have that sense of wanting to share the possibilities with everyone? To say, 'Dream. Dream bigger.' Yeah, life is hard. It might not be for everybody, but someone's going to get through there. And if someone can show that light, to someone who could be the next Lin-Manuel Miranda, why wouldn't you?"