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When Words Aren’t Enough: Jon M. Chu and Jimmy Smits on In the Heights

After a year of delays due to the pandemic, Jon M. Chu’s adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights” is finally opening in theaters this Friday and premiering on HBO Max the same day. It’s no exaggeration to say this is going to be an event. A musical about community, the film has been hyped up as a return to normalcy after so many months trapped indoors, and it has been blowing away preview audiences in the run-up to its release. The story of a entire community in Washington Heights, it centers a young man named Usnavi (the great Anthony Ramos) as his dreams intersect and collide with those around him. The great Jimmy Smits co-stars as a father who is willing to make whatever sacrifice he can for his daughter but may be ignoring her real dreams. Director Chu and Smits spoke with RogerEbert.com over Zoom last month and discussed the timing of this film, the importance of representation, and much more.

JON M. CHU

What did the delay mean to this movie? People on Twitter keep talking about this being the first movie they’re going to see in a theater in 15 months. It’s become like this “return to normal” event. What does that mean to you and why do you think this is that movie?

We didn’t build it to be this. We built it to be about a neighborhood that knew what it felt to feel powerless, to learn how to survive and rally and pick each other up and get back up on the horse and keep moving. So it feels very fitting. The fact that we’ve gone through a year of isolation and everyone feeling powerless, it feels appropriate that it would be Washington Heights that would A) Bring us back to each other and B) Show this is how you get up and find your family again. Dust yourself off and move on to tomorrow. I think them leading us out of this darkness is appropriate.

The film has such energy. What’s it been like to have to keep that energy bottled for so long? How do you even maintain your interest and your passion for so long?

[Laughs.] I may have been trained for this when "G.I. Joe" was pushed nine months when I was two weeks away from finishing it. I look back and think, ‘Thank God I went through that because that was really hard.’ This one, I knew that waiting a year what it would entail for me emotionally. To put it in a box and suppress it for a year might be the best way to do that. There’s also other things in the world that were way more important at that moment. And so that made it just less consequential for us. We had to take care of our families. We had to take care of each other. So, yes, I don’t think I realize how much I suppressed it until now when we’re sharing it with people and seeing people’s reactions—how much that has meant to us. I cry all the time now for no apparent reason other than it feels like breathing again. I’m just excited for people to feel that as well.

Let’s talk about community and how it’s reflected in this film. 

When I first saw it on Broadway, one of the dancers was in “Step Up 2 the Streets,” so I was shooting my first movie. I had no idea who Lin-Manuel Miranda was. Like all of us when we first see one of his shows, it blew me away. I had never seen anything like this. I recognized so many pieces of it though. I grew up in the same era. Hip-hop, rap, or how they were dancing—it connected. I grew up on the other side of the country in a Chinese restaurant. I have zero connection to Washington Heights. And yet I felt as if someone was speaking my story. I knew who my abuela was. It was my boo-boo and we made wontons on the kitchen table. And he said it in ways that I had never been able to say it before—to grow up in an immigrant community where your aunties and uncles are taking care of you and protecting you. And what it felt like to not know what you were supposed to do with all of this information. So, to me, that’s what community always meant to me. Lin’s genius is able to take that out of some intellectual idea and put it right in front of you. I think that, to me, is what community really means: this giant portrait that he painted that I got to play with.

Let’s talk a little bit about representation. It’s a major discussion now and this film presents a community that hasn’t been in major blockbusters enough. Why does this kind of representation matter?

One, I think the idea of a movie where a giant studio and corporation like AT&T and Warner Bros. spent tens of millions of dollars to tell the world that these people, this community, these characters are worth your time, your money, your attention—you must leave your house and spend some time in the dark and pay attention to these people. It’s priceless actually. That doesn’t come often. I do believe that this community of Washington Heights deserves that kind of treatment. It deserves the treatment that even the bodega owner on the corner that you pass by every day—their stories, their struggles, their hopes, their dreams are bigger than any movie character that you’ve seen in your life and we’re gonna treat it that way.

Movie history hasn’t really done that. It feels like a new wave.

That’s why we do some nods to old musicals too. These actors, these performers could have been in those old musicals. It’s not that they all match. They’re all different shapes, sizes, shades, ages. It is music—dance comes from a place of necessity of expression. When they exude that, that’s the power of a musical. When words aren’t enough. When they are together and giving that, that communicates everything of some of your favorite musicals in the past. And we hope this will be a favorite musical of the future.

You speak about the importance of this play to the community. Were you worried about living up to the pressure of that representation? You only get one chance to do this. They’re not gonna make this movie again. Were there any nerves related to that?

Of course! I knew the power coming from “Crazy Rich Asians” of what that could do. I didn’t understand the power when I was making it but I saw it after. So I knew the potential. I remember at Sundance in 2001, going to see “Better Luck Tomorrow.” I was a kid. I stood in line for three hours to get that ticket. I watched “Better Luck Tomorrow” and it blew me away. Somebody stood up in the crowd and said, “How could you show your people like this?” And the next person who stood up was Roger Ebert. He stood up and he said, “How dare you say that to them? They can represent their people in any way they want and this shouldn’t be the one that you rest everything else on.” This got so heated. I’m 18, watching this. They decided to kick everybody out and so we go into the hallway and that argument with Roger Ebert representing Asian-Americans and defending how we are allowed to present ourselves in any way we want had a huge impression on me.

So when I feel that pressure today about going into this movie and listening to Lin and Quiara and every actor and every background dancer and our crew—it was like “How do you see yourself?” It’s why we, in the end credits, show pictures that were taken by the residents of Washington Heights. Those are pictures from them themselves. I knew that we were doing representation of a perspective of what Washington Heights. But I wanted to see with cameras in their hands how they would paint their community. And so that’s why that was important for us to do that.

People still talk about that Sundance event.

I’ll never forget it. I was there.

JIMMY SMITS

We just talked to one of Roger’s good friends, Gregory Nava, about representation, and about how it’s changed. And he charted "Mi Familia" through current representation, and I want to get your take on "Mi Familia" to "In the Heights" and how representation has changed, or has it?

You know, Brian, we’ve had these little touchstones, whether it’s been Anthony Quinn or Jose Ferrer or Rita Moreno, "La Bamba," "Mi Familia," "Selena." All of these are dispersed over many years, these artists and these projects, hoping that inclusion will kind of take root in some kind of way. What I see now that is really undeniable is that because of the population numbers, because of our influence in terms of pop culture or whatever artistic zeitgeist, and the fact that we do go to the movies in over-percentage numbers, our potential economic and political power. All of these things have been since "Mi Familia" have been true, but it’s formalized in a way. And I think because the country has gone through what it has gone through with regards to the pandemic ... we’ve had this time of introspection and a lot of social things have gone on during that time, LGBTQ rights, the #MeToo Movement, BLM, all of these things with regard to what it is to be an American, what it is to be a part of this country, resonate a little stronger.

The fact is that I was very depressed when we went into lockdown because of what it meant not being able to see my kids in another state. But all of that introspection, I hope, as we open up, and the fact that the film wasn’t going to be able to open—we were supposed to open summer last year—things happen for a reason. It’s the perfect time for this vehicle of joy in the framework of a musical. Positivity and joy. But with the importance of all of these thematic things of community—what does it mean to be at home? Is home back there where my folks are from? Or that language? Or is it here and me going to school? The sense of community, the sense of belonging—all of those things resonate a little more deeply in the framework of the film. And we need to feel that joy. So I hope that that will be a jump start in a way.

Let’s hope the representation aspect takes root this time.

Yeah. Exactly.

Your character’s arc is about two interesting things. It’s the concept of sacrifice for another generation, but it’s also very importantly about listening to that next generation. Making sure you’re sacrificing the right way. That we’re doing the right thing and not just what we think we should be doing. Can you speak on the ideas of generational sacrifice but also making sure we’re paying attention to the generation below us?

Those issues that you’re talking about and those themes with regards to Kevin’s role as being a spoke in this wheel have been amplified in the film, and it’s one of the reasons I felt like in my pitch to talking to these guys was I think I can offer something with regard to an understanding of that character. Yes, the immigrant story, no matter what wave it’s been that you come to this country and you want your children to do better than you, and you will sacrifice anything for them to do better, and sometimes that gets misguided in a way because you must do better than us. But there was a realization that Jon talked about that he wanted to deal with, and Quiara and Lin went back and did the draft in terms of opening the film up, cracking the nut of making a musical and opening it up. They dealt with these themes in a different kind of way, so that element that you’re talking about of looking at your child and saying, “Wow, this is the moment that I look and see that you’re going to go beyond me.” Not only in monetary success, social success, in the way you think. That really is something I didn’t have from my dad. But I felt like I could bring that to the party. And I was able to check off that little item from my bucket list to be able to sing a few notes.

You’ve been around a lot of young talent in your career. Even just Jennifer Lopez in "Mi Familia," for example. Can you speak a little bit about being around the young talent in this movie? And what that energy is like on a set?

I remember Greg saying to me, “Come watch dailies with me.” I said, “I’m not working that day.” He wanted me to see one of Jen’s first scenes. And she just popped. And that’s the way I feel about this cast. The pain-staking work that they did in terms of the casting. Leslie Grace, who is a super talented singer, but didn’t have a lot of experience. It’s her first big, big film. Corey Hawkins, who’s done from Shakespeare to NWA movie to all of that in between, but is he a singer? Yes. During the process of the couple of months we had prior to filming, a boot camp, they all kind of coalesced. Anthony Ramos, who has this incredible history of coming from a rough section of Brooklyn and just believing—sheer will to become a part of Hamilton. Melissa, who reminds me of Jen in so many ways because she just explodes on the screen. This group coalesced in such a really great way, and buoyed each other in terms of “you can do all of this.” I think it really sizzles to me on-screen when I see the chemistry between them. And Jon Chu was right there in these beautiful odes to what movie audiences will know and remember of Old Hollywood. And current at the same time. So I think that it’s going to be a great springboard for them. They’re on the diving board and going into the deep end! All of them!

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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