Jon M. Chu is a film and television director, producer, and screenwriter. He may be best known for directing Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights. If you want to get the most out of this episode, go watch them first.

Not that Jon would keep score this way, but his films have grossed more than $1 billion. The other films that he directed include:

  • Step Up 2: The Streets
  • Step Up 3D
  • Jem and the Holograms
  • Justin Bieber: Never Say Never
  • Justin Bieber’s Believe
  • Now You See Me 2
  • GI Joe Retaliation

Jon was born in Palo Alto and raised in Los Altos. Here’s a small world story: when I lived in that area, I often ate at his parents’ restaurant, Chef Chu’s. That restaurant is still operating in Los Altos. If you go there, do not miss the Beijing Duck–which you must order in advance.

Jon is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts where he created a student short called When the Kids Are Away. The great story is that Jon was “discovered” when Steven Spielberg saw the film. Jon is currently directing the big-screen adaptation of the Broadway smash hit Wicked.

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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Hollywood director Jon M. Chu:

Guy Kawasaki:

I’m Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. This episode’s remarkable guest is Jon M. Chu. Jon is a film and television director, producer, and screenwriter. He may be best known for directing Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights. In fact, if you wanted to get the most out of this episode, you should stop right here and go and watch Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights. Go ahead. We’ll be waiting when you get back.

Welcome back. Not that Jon would keep score this way, but his films have grossed more than $1 billion. The other films that he directed include Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 2: 3D, Jem and the Holograms, Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, I saw that, I love that movie. Justin Bieber’s Believe, Now You See Me 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation.

Jon was born in Palo Alto and raised in Los Altos. Here’s a small world story. When I lived in that area, I often ate at his parents’ restaurant. It’s called Chef Chu’s. The restaurant is still operating in Los Altos. If you go there, do not miss the Beijing duck, which you must order in advance.

Jon is a graduate of the USC School of Cinematic Arts, where he created a student short called When the Kids Are Away. The great story is that Jon was “discovered” when Steven Spielberg saw the film. Jon is currently directing Wicked.

I’m Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People. And now, here’s the remarkable Jon M. Chu.

You might want to move the Yeti a little closer. Look at that, I’m telling Jon M. Chu what to do with video and audio. My life is complete.

Jon M. Chu:

How’s that? How’s that?

Guy Kawasaki:

That’s good. That’s good.

Jon M. Chu:

I got into Macs when I was a freshman in high school. I mean really into Macs. And I would ditch my classes to go to Macworld every year. Yeah. So me and my buddy, we would go to Macworld and sometimes he had a hookup, sometimes I had a hookup, because my parents had a restaurant there, and sometimes we paid for it. Because you could get the student pass or whatever. And so you were a legend. You are a legend.

And that was also when loving Apple wasn’t that cool because it was ’90, I don’t know ’95, ’94 ’95-ish area. And I had Mac User, Macworld subscriptions. I’d keep every issue because I loved to go back and look. So I had piles and piles of these magazines and of course, your articles in there were always the best. They were always the best. You were always the smartest, the one that spoke to the people.

Guy Kawasaki:

We can just end the interview right here. Can’t get any better than that. Geez.

Jon M. Chu:

Exactly.

Guy Kawasaki:

I went to Stanford, when the rich people’s parents came and they took all their friends to dinner, we only went to two places: Chef Chu’s or Ming’s. That was it.

Jon M. Chu:

And I loved both of those places. We go to Ming’s every Sunday. Yeah, totally. We were friends with their family, but we went there, yeah, every week.

Guy Kawasaki:

Wow.

Jon M. Chu:

For sure. It was all love in the bay. There’s enough room for all the Chinese restaurants.

Guy Kawasaki:

Going to Ming’s, was kind of the center of my world, because it was right next to Carlsen, Porsche, Audi. So my whole world was complete there, you get a chicken salad and you can look at Porsches, what else do you need?

Jon M. Chu:

There’s also the duck pond where we would go after and go feed the ducks over there. Because it was Yamcha on Sundays. Yeah. And they had a huge parking lot. So you never had to worry about parking. That’s great.

Guy Kawasaki:

Unlike Chef Chu’s.

Jon M. Chu:

At Chef Chu’s, you got to find your spot. You’ve got to get there early. We had the Tower Records across, kitty-corner to Chef Chu’s.

Guy Kawasaki:

Yeah. That was the original, wasn’t it?

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. Was it the original? I didn’t know if it was the original.

Guy Kawasaki:

I think so.

Jon M. Chu:

I loved that Tower Records. I’d spent hours at that Tower Records. We’d be dropped off at Chef Chu’s, do our homework, and then we’d go over there and hang out. Penguin’s Yogurt. Penguin’s Yogurt right there. That was amazing. I remember when that opened how crazy it was to get that yogurt.

Guy Kawasaki:

Nothing like a high content interview.

Jon M. Chu:

When I went to the Oscars one year, our dance company was performing. And in the VIP area, so Steve Jobs walked past me, and I never met Steve Jobs. And that was, “Oh my gosh, that’s Steve Jobs.” And I walked towards him, but I wasn’t going to talk to him because you never know, I didn’t want him to… They say, never meet your heroes. I’m sure he didn’t want to be bothered. And I didn’t want to know how he would treat me if I bothered him that day.

So instead, my friend went up to him and was talking to him because my friend was in a bunch of his iPod commercials back in the day. So he was talking to him and he said, “Oh, Jon, my friend, Jon wants to meet you.”

And grabs my hand and pulls me over to Steve Jobs. And Steve was, “Oh, hi.” And I was like, “Oh, hi.” And I had already a couple of champagnes in my system. So I was all red. I had the Asian red glow. And I also get a rash, so I had a rash as well. And I was like, “We’re neighbors. I grew up in Los Altos.” And he’s, “Oh, Los Altos.” He’s like, “You’re a neighborhood kid.”

And I was like, “My parents have this restaurant, Chef Chu’s.” He’s like, “Oh yeah, that’s great.” So we connected on Los Altos and then a second later, Bob Iger came over and said, “Steve, oh, did you get to meet Jon?” I directed my first two movies were these Step Up movies, which were distributed by Disney or Touchstone. And Steve was like, “Oh.” And Bob Iger said, “He directed these movies called the Step Up movies. Have you heard of them?” And Steve Jobs was like, “No. Never.”

But his wife turned around, who was in a conversation behind him, and was like, “Oh, our daughters have, and they love it.” So I was like, “Yes.” And then Steve Jobs continued to tell Bob Iger, “Oh, no, but we are neighbors. We’re hometown buddies.” So he had my back there. And then I proceeded drunk on champagne to recite the Think Different commercial back to him by heart.

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh, my.

Jon M. Chu:

Which I was a little drunk, so yeah.

Guy Kawasaki:

Since we were totally off topic already–

Jon M. Chu:

Sorry.

Guy Kawasaki:

…I’ll tell you a Think Different story.

Jon M. Chu:

Yes, please.

Guy Kawasaki:

So I was an Apple Fellow back then. And Steve had just sold the company next to Apple. So he was hanging around Apple. So there was this meeting of all the marketing people and me, as an Apple Fellow, and Steve, and the guy from Chiat Day who did the Think Different commercial. Okay?

So the Chiat Day guy shows the commercial. We all love it. And at the end of this, with Steve sitting there, he says to Steve, “I have two copies of these commercials. I’ll give one to you and one to Guy.”

And Steve says, “Don’t give one to Guy.” Okay, this is in front of thirty people, right? And so at that point, I said, “Screw it. What’s he going to do to me?” So I said, “Steve, are you saying that you can’t trust me? Is that why I shouldn’t get a copy?” And he says, “Yes, Guy.” And I said, “Steve that’s okay because I don’t trust you either.” And that probably cost me $200 million, but it was worth it.

Jon M. Chu:

That is amazing. Being in that room would have been amazing to see. Even that interaction alone. But I remember I was eight, it was Sunday night, a wonderful world of Disney, Toy Story was premiering on ABC that night. And so me and my buddy were like, “This is the night that Steve Jobs and Apple are putting their first commercial out since he’s been back. This is going to be a momentous moment. They’re going to declare who they are. And we’ve been waiting for this.”

And so I remember sitting there that night watching it live and being so moved by that commercial. So anyway, that’s why I’ve memorized it and then repeated it to him. But during that, when I said it to him, he jumped in and repeated it with me. By the end, we were saying it together. So it was a blast.

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh, man, that would’ve been a moment.

Jon M. Chu:

I’m glad I didn’t bring up your name, he would have…

Guy Kawasaki:

That asshole? I’m so glad. Ever since he left Apple, we’ve been doing well. Okay. Before we get too far, Peg Fitzpatrick, who is the producer of this podcast, is a great fan. And I know she expects some great stories about the swimming pool scene. So can we take care of that right now?

Jon M. Chu:

Okay. I have way too many stories about the swimming pool scene. And I could set it up. The swimming pool scene is in In the Heights, my latest film, that Lin-Manuel Miranda created with Quiara Alegría Hudes, and we have this big number called 96,000. And in the local pool and all the neighborhood comes out and someone has won $96,000 in the lottery, but nobody knows who it is. So everyone’s dreaming about what they would do with $96,000.

So she wants to know some stories. One, I would tell you that it was freezing cold, that water was freezing cold. And we had over 600 extras and dancers there that day from the ages of four to eighty-something years old. And lights everywhere, so we had to make sure no one was going to get electrocuted. So that was very scary. We had lifeguards every thirty feet, so nobody drowned.

We had to have towels that were constantly being dried over and over and over again so that people didn’t get hypothermia. There was thunderstorms, so every time you heard a rumble, by law, we have to shut down and bring down all our generators and wait thirty minutes. And the moment you hear another thunderstorm or thunder in the distance, you have to wait another thirty minutes.

So you never knew when we had to get back in. And it got so cold that the dancers started to refuse to go into the water. And so I had to take off my clothes and get into the water with them. So I directed while in the pool with them. So anyway, I don’t know if that’s one or twelve stories about the pool, but-

Guy Kawasaki:

That’s pretty good. But what about the story that, when Vanessa is sitting in the inner tube, the dances were creating waves, so you couldn’t shoot that in one shot? Is that a true story?

Jon M. Chu:

That is true. So now we’re in the pool, I’m in the pool anyway because I have to be in there so I know what the dancers are going through in this cold water, and she’s in the middle, and everyone’s dancing around her and we have a giant camera doing an overhead shot and everyone’s dancing and splashing.

What we didn’t take into account, because we didn’t have a big enough pool to ever really rehearse this thing, was that when they splash around, her inner tube is going to go everywhere and she’s never going to be centered. So we tried all sorts of things. We put sandbags and tied her down to the floor and every time she would be spinning, it was crazy.

So the only thing that would help, it was me and another dancer swam in the middle and we got under her floaty and held it by our hands. So I’m underneath it, holding it, just a little bit off camera, trying to hold it in center so it doesn’t move. So anyway, yes.

Guy Kawasaki:

And then CGI put all the other swimmers around her?

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah, we did two passes. We did a pass where she’s sitting there and I’m holding it and then a pass where nobody’s there and she’s sitting there. They’re pretty short shots actually in the movie, any shots that we needed to adjust her or she’s not singing the right moments at the thing, we could piece it together a little bit there.

Guy Kawasaki:

Could you make the argument that if the pandemic had not happened and that pool was closed, you probably could not have had that pool for three days and made the shot?

Jon M. Chu:

Well, the reality is we shot this the summer before the pandemic, so this was pre-pandemic. We had almost been done with the movie by the time the pandemic… I’m not sure, if we’d hadn’t shot the movie by the time the pandemic happened, I don’t think this movie gets made. There was no way at that time. So we tried the summer before, that said, they wouldn’t allow us to shoot there unless we shot… Because they fill the pool about four days, maybe six days before the public lets in. So it’s been empty when we scouted it, that’s why we couldn’t rehearse in it.

And they wouldn’t fill the pool earlier for us. So they filled the pool six days before, that’s when we got access to it. And we only got it until six days later when they opened the pool. And so it’s fresh water, which is why the water was freezing cold. We put a heater in and heated it for a week. And even that wasn’t enough, those pools are so huge. So anyway, yes. They had to be closed down for us to shoot. It was just pre-summer that we got in there.

Guy Kawasaki:

And New York has a law that you can’t use a drone to make those shots?

Jon M. Chu:

There’s a lot of laws about drones in New York and you cannot fly above… Youtubers can do anything with the drone. So they’re doing amazing shots. For us, we have so many restrictions because we’re a giant corporation and it’s a giant whole thing, but we can never fly. And that’s a problem on every movie. Sometimes a helicopter is easier to get to shoot a scene like that than a drone, even though it’s way more dangerous in my book. The fact is they have laws with the helicopter stuff and they have no laws with the drone. So everyone doesn’t allow it.

Guy Kawasaki:

Why is thirty-three your favorite number?

Jon M. Chu:

Wow. You guys did research. I believe thirty-three is the year that everything changes in your life for good or for bad. Everyone I know when you think about the age of thirty-three, that’s when I met my wife, that’s when I went on a different trajectory of who I wanted to be as an artist, as a human being. And everyone I’ve talked to, all my friends at thirty-three, something big has happened. Three used to be my favorite number, but thirty-three is double the fun. So I think those two things keep it tight to me.

Guy Kawasaki:

And 96th street is the border between poverty and wealth? That’s the 96,000?

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. I didn’t know this going fully into the movie until talking with Lin as we broke down his lyrics and I asked him about that. And yeah, according to him, $96,000 can change your life, but not forever. And so it’s like a very interesting line. And for him, anything above 96th Street, where they lived and anyone below it, was a different type of person than he was. So their goal was always to get below 96th street.

Which is why in the lyrics also those tourists who were like, “Oh, I’ve never been above 96th Street.” They never come to this part of town.

Guy Kawasaki:

That’s like, “Which side of eighty-five are you on?”

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. Exactly, exactly.

Guy Kawasaki:

When you were a kid and you fell in love with editing and all that, were your parents instant…? You tell this story about you showed them the editing and everybody was in tears and all that. So from that moment, were they all in, or did they want you to get a real job like dentist, lawyer, doctor?

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. So I edited our film together from one of our vacation trips. We got a little mixer from sharper image and I showed them on our TV. I was young, I don’t remember exactly the age, but I remember showing, that was probably fifth grade, and I showed them and they started to cry. And that’s when I knew I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.

They made me take a lot of instruments, drums, saxophone, violin, piano, guitar. I wasn’t good at any of them. I took a lot of art classes, I loved to draw. I was pretty good at drawing, but not the best in my class. I took dance classes. We went to shows every weekend. I watched movies all the time, TV shows, but I was never amazing at any one of those things.

But when I edited, suddenly all that knowledge of all these different things came together. And so being able to express myself to them, it felt like breathing to be honest for the first time, like this is something I exhaled from me. And so when they saw that and no, they did not immediately say, “Yes, you’re going to do great at this.”

In fact, they were the opposite. They thought it was fun to watch, but they wanted me to be… I was their youngest. So I’m their last chance to have a doctor in the family. They literally made me say when anyone asked what do you want to be when you grow up? I would have to say brain surgeon. I think that’s in my yearbook.

But they knew I didn’t want to be that. I was not even smart enough. And there was one night I had convinced all my teachers to let me make videos instead of write papers in high school because I had all this video equipment.

All my video equipment came from people from the restaurant who would come in and give my parents, they knew I was a filmmaker, so they gave me all this equipment. So I was literally bred by Silicon Valley to be a filmmaker, with stuff that people my age could not have access to. This was not the day of the iPhone and video cards built in, you had to buy. I had a Vincent 601 Card from Media 100 and I had the breakout box and I had a VideoVision from Radius.

So anyway, I was editing movies instead of writing papers for my classes. And my mom came in one night, I was editing it at two in the morning, three in the morning, something like really in the middle of the night, she was so mad. She unplugged my computer, which at those times, if you unplug, you don’t have anything left, they can ruin everything.

And she’s like, “You’ve conned your school. I’m calling them tomorrow. This is terrible.” She went to bed. I got up in the middle of the night and went to her and I said, “This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. So you can either support me or fight me,” and went back to bed. And the next day she came to school with a pile of filmmaking books and said, “If you’re going to study this seriously, you have to study it like a craft, like a real subject.” From then on, they had my back.

Guy Kawasaki:

Wow.

Jon M. Chu:

100 percent. I also think because I was the youngest, they gave up. They were like, “We have other issues.”

Guy Kawasaki:

This is like when Rachel Chu tells her prospective mother-in-law, “Nick can go marry somebody else”, and everything gets resolved.

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. Michelle Yeoh, Eleanor in that reminds me so much of my mom.

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh, really?

Jon M. Chu:

Which I think that’s why Michelle and I connected so much on this character because Michelle, from the very beginning said, “I’m not going to be a villain in this movie, you know that, right?” And I was like, “Great, because I don’t think mothers like that are villains. I think they’re doing this because of love. And they want to protect their families. And I get that.”

But I also get the other side of a kid trying to break away from that idea of that control and trying to have their own life. So I think that’s really helped the movie to have that kind of nuance.

Guy Kawasaki:

And when you proposed to your wife, did you use your mom’s ring for the engagement?

Jon M. Chu:

No, I did not. No. I’m the youngest. My mom gave all her jewelry away to my sisters and my brother. My brother has my dad’s watch. I got nothing. The only thing I got was from the engineers of Silicon Valley.

Guy Kawasaki:

Well, at least you remember your friends. Yeah. I read many things about you. And one of those things talks about your cultural identity crisis. Now, what kind of cultural identity crisis does Jon M. Chu have in his past?

Jon M. Chu:

Honestly, it was something that I ignored. I didn’t have a crisis for so long because I didn’t want to deal with any of that. In a way, I watched my parents come to the states, well, I didn’t watch them come to the states, but I was raised in a way that they wanted to protect us to never feel othered here.

So people saying stuff to my parents when we’re out, little side comments under their breath or people treating us poorly, they never reacted. They always told me, even in the restaurant when people would treat them poorly, they always told me because I would get upset, and they would say, “Jon, we’re probably one of the first Chinese families they’re meeting here.”

In 1969 they were there and so as we had been here, we were ambassadors to this and so some of these people obviously know Chinese people but may not be close with them. And so if they leave here, no matter what, happy and their belly full, maybe the next time they see another Chinese family, they will treat them with some respect. And so that was always there, for good or for bad, by the way.

I’m not sure that’s the way you should always react nowadays, especially, but for them, they needed to do that to move forward and to survive. And for me, it helped because I didn’t have the baggage. It wasn’t until much later that even two months ago when the Asian hate stuff has been happening everywhere and we’re sort of reassessing how we were raised and what do we need to speak about and why haven’t we spoken up and what’s…

My sister was like, “Do you remember going to Tower Records across the street and after school one day and a car pulling over and saying all those crazy things to get out of this country to us?” We were so young; we were probably ten and eight. “And they said all this stuff and called us the C-word and all these things. Do you remember that?” And I was like, “Ah, no, I don’t.” And the more I thought about it, I was like, “Oh yeah.” She’s like, “You were laughing the whole time because you thought it was funny.” And I was like, “Yeah, that’s right.” I didn’t understand any of those words. It didn’t bother me at all. And she’s like, “I’ve thought about it all these years.” Because she was just old enough to understand what that was saying to her.

And so again, I might’ve missed some of those things because I was just young enough to not understand some of those things and then taught in the ways of my parents to not give any energy to people who would say those things. It wasn’t until much later, even going into college, where I started to become more aware of how people saw me, how they would treat me when I walked into a room, because it was no longer Los Altos. Now you’re in LA and they tell you how they feel to you in their face here.

So that’s when I started to figure… And I went to USC Film School. And at USC Film School, I saw a short film, a comedy about a girl’s dating, her habits of dating. And the last joke in that film, and I’ll never forget this, I’m sitting in the theater hopeful and excited about going to college, and the last joke of this thing is she opens the door and it’s an Asian dude for the last date. And she doesn’t even let him talk, she says “No.” And she shuts the door on his face. And the whole crowd laughed and I was sitting there and it never occurred to me. I’m like, “Why is that funny? Why is that funny to everyone?” Oh, because this guy’s Asian and of course she would never date this guy?

That really affected me. And so the next year when I was in that film class, I was like, “I’m making a short that’s going to destroy that notion.” And so I made a short called Gwai Lo: The Little Foreigner, which is what they called me when I went to Hong Kong for the first time, which is white devil, basically. And wrote it about an Asian-American kid growing up in America and being torn between what his family wants him to be and what his school mates want him to be. And it was a musical.

So we showed it at the big screening, and it went really well. Everybody loved it. It was great. But for me, I was still really unsure about it. So I never submitted it to film festivals. I basically buried it because I felt so insecure about what I was saying in it. I wasn’t sure if what I was saying was right, because people would ask, “People don’t say that stuff to you.” And then I would be like, “Well, they do, but if you don’t believe it, then what’s the point?”

I didn’t have all the answers. And so I never released that movie and instead, I did other types of movies and said, “I’m not touching the subject matter of my own cultural identity because it’s just too sensitive. I don’t know if I’m giving the right answers.”

So for ten, twelve years making other movies is what I did. And it worked. I was able to make great movies at studios. I mean, some people don’t think they’re great, but for me, great experiences. But at the end of that road, twelve years later, ten years later, somewhere in that zone, I realized, I didn’t know who I was as a… I knew that I knew how to make movies now, I didn’t know who I was as an artist. And so I needed to start going back to the things that challenged me. And the first thing on that list was, “Oh yeah, that thing that I’m so scared to talk about, which is my cultural identity crisis.”

In school people made fun of me for being Chinese, and yet other Chinese friends made fun of me for being too Americanized. And so I lost either way, no matter where I went. Similar with my dad’s restaurant, people would say, “Oh, it’s not authentically Chinese.” And I was like, “I’m pretty sure it is too. But he also had to make adjustments to survive in 1969.”

And so again, being an ambassador, carrying that weight of, “Listen, I’m not anything that you think I am and I’m maybe an identity that hasn’t been fully defined.” And what I did when we started looking for projects like that, I realized there’s a lot more of us out there that felt the same way that I did. I was not myself an immigrant. My parents were immigrants that came here and I had to bridge that gap. And that’s where I found Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights at the same time, that spoke to that side of me.

Guy Kawasaki:

And is this cultural identity now resolved because of those two movies?

Jon M. Chu:

Oh, hell no. No. But you know what? What Crazy Rich Asians did for me was  realized I’m not alone in this. It united a bunch of us that I had known in the business, but  never connected with on a very personal level. And again, this is five years ago, let’s say when you walked into a room and you’re the only Asian dude, and you’ve got into this group of white people that don’t treat you like the Asian dude in the group, it felt like an accomplishment.

So another Asian guy coming into that, you bristled up a little bit, and you’re like, “Oh, you’re the other Asian dude. Don’t mess this up for me,” basically. Don’t make me look bad and don’t make this about the Asians versus the other people. It’s just an instinct. And I think a lot of people would do that. And I think what happened with Crazy Rich Asians and even just that cultural awakening for me, even Twitter helped make me realize, “Oh, we’re not against each other. We actually need each other and we get each other.” And now when I see another Asian person on set, I walk towards them. And I literally say, “I got your back. I got you. I’m glad you’re here. Keep doing what you’re doing because we need you.”

I think the whole experience of Crazy Rich Asians opened my brain to, we are all struggling the same struggle. And in that, it unites us and we are actually, our job, if we’re tearing down systems right now to rebuild them in better ways, then we better rebuild them, then our goal is, “Okay, what is the story we want to tell about America? What is the story you want to tell about Asian-Americans to the world?” Because now we have people in the driver’s seat and so go do that.

So I think that changed, again, it’s not a resolution to my cultural identity crisis. It’s a path to help figure it out with other people who are going through the same thing.

Guy Kawasaki:

Sure. I will tell you a story that’s similar to your dad about me. Okay. So I was living in San Francisco on Union Street, right where Union Street dead ends into the… Oh God, what’s the name of that military installation there? That is not converted and it’s…

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah, the Presidio?

Guy Kawasaki:

Presidio. Right. So I’m living on Union Street, right near the Presidio. And one day I’m outside trimming my bougainvilleas, and this older white woman comes up to me and says, “Do you do lawns?” Okay?

Jon M. Chu:

Oh no, oh no.

Guy Kawasaki:

And so I said to her, “Just because I’m Japanese, you think I’m the yard man, right?” She goes, “No, no, no. It’s because you’re doing such a great job trimming your bougainvillea, I want to know if you also do lawns.” So that’s a good enough story right there about stereotype.

But wait, it gets better. So two weeks later, my father visits me from Hawaii and I’m Sansei. So I tell him this story and I fully expect him to just go off on this woman like, “How dare she ask you if you’re the yard man because you’re Japanese and you went to Stanford, you worked at Apple, blah, blah, blah, you’ve written five books.”

But you know what he said to me, Jon, he said, “You know what, son, statistically on Union Street, where you live, a Japanese man cutting the hedge probably is the yard man. So get over it. Don’t take it personally, take the high road. She probably meant nothing by it.” And that was a very formative experience in my life. Ever since then, it really takes a lot to offend me.

Jon M. Chu:

Wow. Yeah. That’s funny. It’s funny because your picture being in articles and in newspapers of a good looking Asian man that has power, but every article wasn’t about you being Asian at all, to me those were beacons of light for me.

Guy Kawasaki:

Holy shit.

Jon M. Chu:

Well, consciously or subconsciously that, yeah, we belong here or someone like you can belong here. Yeah.

Guy Kawasaki:

You know I didn’t write Rich Dad Poor Dad, right? That’s Kiyosaki.

Jon M. Chu:

Oh, that’s right. Oh, shit. What am I doing here?

Guy Kawasaki:

Wrong guy. So I tried to verify this, but I’m not quite sure. So Rachel Chu, her last name being Chu, that was in the original book or did you just take director’s power?

Jon M. Chu:

I would probably get killed if I changed it myself. No, that’s in the original book. And this is crazy about it, is that Kevin Kwan, what I did not know when I signed on to this, only a week after, Kevin Kwan is very good friends with my cousin, Vivian Chu, who lives in New York. And so they were very, very close. And Vivian apparently would tell stories about the Chu family in Cupertino that she would visit, which is her side of the family over there.

And she would tell these crazy stories of us, not the crazy rich part of it, but just the crazy Chu part. And so apparently a lot of this stuff, because the Chu family in the book is from Cupertino, not Flushing. So a lot of it, I guess, is based off some of her stories of our family, which is crazy. And I’m even mentioned in the book.

He says, Nick is defending Rachel and her family to his mother in the book, and he says to his mother, “Yes, they may not have money like we do, but they work hard for their money and they get places. They even have a cousin who shoots movies in Hollywood.” Which is–

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh my God.

Jon M. Chu:

…crazy. I remember reading that in the book and having and I remember being, “Oh, that’s weird.” But when you read things or you see something happens to you, you always think, “Oh, there must be a camera somewhere and I’m on a reality show or something,” but that never happens. It’s never real. But we went out to dinner for the first time he told me, he’s like, “You know you’re in the book.” I was like, “That’s crazy, dude. That’s crazy.”

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh, that is crazy. Wow. What is your opinion of the status of Asians in Hollywood these days? That was a breakout film, right? It was all Asian cast and now are things all great or that was a blip and now we’re back to…

Jon M. Chu:

Well, Hollywood is slow. The world is slow. Changing systems is slow. So I didn’t expect overnight, but I do think there was a moment there. And I think more than just the movie, it was a moment that infrastructure was put into place. Gold House was put into place, connecting dots of all these Asian groups that were doing different things in entertainment industry could come together and rally around one thing. And once you build those nervous systems, you can’t take those down.

And so I think that allows us to rally, allows us to organize in ways that we were never able to before. This is only three and a half years later, I saw a trailer for Immortals, Marvel’s new movie, the star of that movie is Gemma Chan. The advertisement for that movie on YouTube, the advertisement before it, was Snake Eyes, starring Henry Golding, who by the way, before our movie, had never acted before. And then the ad for that one, so there’s two ads before, was Marvel’s Shang-Chi, with Awkwafina and Ronny Chieng and Simu and Michelle Yeoh.

So within three years, these actors have become… That’s the big breakthrough, is that they make their own path. It’s not about Crazy Rich Asians anymore. It’s about these actors who every movie they’re in, becomes a starring vehicle for them. That changes things for the future, that allows other people to get used to our face in leading roles, in romantic roles, in heroic, superhero roles, in dramatic roles, in award types thing.

When you see Awkwafina winning a Golden Globe, it just gives permission. So it’s not fixed and there’s not a button to fix it. It’s a cultural shift that everybody moves together on. So it takes time, and we take a step forward, two steps back. So, we just all have to keep it going. It doesn’t take one movie, it doesn’t take five movies, it takes hundreds of movies to really change things.

Guy Kawasaki:

I might have to edit this out, but in a sense, you’re saying that yellow is the new white, but…

Jon M. Chu:

I think yellow was always actually gold.

Guy Kawasaki:

When Crazy Rich Asians was about to come out. You guys are rather pessimistic about its acceptance. Right?

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah.

Guy Kawasaki:

And so would you make the argument that without social media and the ability for this word of mouth to build, would Crazy Rich Asians have succeeded?

Jon M. Chu:

Crazy Rich Asians wouldn’t exist without social media, the movie, because it’s social media that woke me up. It’s social media during Oscars so white that I read for the first time and made me aware of the problems with Hollywood, even though I understood it intellectually before, I didn’t understand that it was changeable until seeing this guy, William Yu on Twitter, who posted a hashtag starring John Cho.

And he basically made these posters of all these big action movies that usually star Matt Damon or Tom cruise and instead he put John Cho in it. As 007, as all these roles. And I’m looking at the posters and I’m realizing, “Oh, yeah, this could totally happen.” And I know the system, and I know the people in place and how to make that happen and all the things that you would say, why can’t this happen?

But when I see the poster, I’m like, “Oh yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And that can happen.” And then it was, why isn’t that happening? And it made me question my own business and all the facts that I was fed for so many years.

Who doesn’t sell internationally? What can you do domestically…? And in the end, it made me really angry and pushed me to think, I can do something, I don’t have to go debate it on Twitter, I don’t have to go on a news channel and talk about it. I literally, if I decide to make a movie and cast all Asian actors, I can just do that. I’ve made enough money for these studios. I probably have one free one for them that I can do. So I’m one of the only people who can actually change that. And so that put me to the fire.

So yes, social media, absolutely. Without it, Crazy Rich Asians wouldn’t exist. And then for its release, absolutely, I believe Gold House, Gold Opening all helped solidify a base for us, a foundation for us to grow.

Guy Kawasaki:

Since you’re such a nerd…

Jon M. Chu:

Who said I was a nerd? I didn’t say that.

Guy Kawasaki:

Jon, I mean…

Jon M. Chu:

You made nerds being cool, literally.

Guy Kawasaki:

I have a firm grasp of the obvious, Jon. So what’s the role of movie theaters going forward. And like when you’re making a movie now, are you planning that, “Oh, In the Heights is going to be streamed on Apple TV and it’s going to be in the movie theater.” Does that affect your directing and what do you keep in mind now?

Jon M. Chu:

It’s confusing, man. It’s hard. The last time I made a movie was before it became even harder. We chose Crazy Rich Asians to be a theatrical release over Netflix, even though they wanted it. Not because we didn’t like Netflix and not because we’re against streaming, it’s because we knew that a cultural shifting movie event, the space that was so precious to people was the space of paying money and going into the dark and watching something and a giant corporation advertising tens of millions of dollars to say, “These people are worth your time and the space and your attention”, turning off your phones to pay attention to it.

And so In the Heights was a similar strategy of, “Hey, we can get all the money we want and do this on streaming.” And in a way it would be a lot easier for me. I don’t have to worry about reviews. I don’t have to worry about box office. It’s a win no matter what, they can say whatever they want, because they don’t release the numbers. So they can declare victory a million times over.

But I knew, Lin knew, we all knew that the power still in cinema, is that it can be culture shifting very quickly, because there are very few things that block our time for two hours in the dark and our attention for two hours, very few things, other than traffic. And it’s a cultural exchange of we’re giving you money so tell us a story and we’ll listen, because we want our investment to be worth it.

You don’t get that on streaming. You may get that in a series because you have a month, or you binged fourteen hours or something. So it embeds itself into your soul and you, over time, give it enough space. But for a movie, we needed to do that. And unfortunately, In the Heights, in the movie theater, didn’t do as well as we had hoped.

However, I think the impact is still very strong. You see Anthony Ramos becoming the lead of Transformers now. You see Leslie Grace becoming Batgirl in the DC universe now. And you see Melissa Barrera become the lead in the new Scream franchise. So all these new faces that did not have a place before, have a place because of it. And so I think cinema still has that place. I just think it’s a lot trickier.

Guy Kawasaki:

May I point out to you that you’ve done this several times, that in a sense, you measure your success, not by awards, not by Rotten Tomatoes score, not by money, you’re measuring your success by the future success of your actors and actresses. That’s a very interesting concept.

Jon M. Chu:

I think that we’re telling the story of what we want to be. And I think I love movies and I love making my movies. I love the process, but the end product is two hours of somebody’s time and it floats away. But the things that stick there, the thing that’s actually has meaning, that is worth the time that I take away from my family to go make this thing, the ripple effect, that stuff is the thing that fills you. That’s the thing that makes every fight, every struggle, every up and down in this business worth it. It transcends some angry reviewer in wherever they are. It transcends a Rotten Tomatoes score.

By the way, most of my Rotten Tomatoes scores are terrible. I’ve become used to terrible Rotten Tomatoes… But the fans who go see it, love my movies. So I think…

Guy Kawasaki:

Wait, wait, wait. So Crazy Rich Asians is like ninety-one.

Jon M. Chu:

Well Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights have great, great scores. My other movies, not so much. But that never discouraged me because Justin Bieber fans went nuts for Never Say Never. And it became a part of his legacy. The Step Up fans, I still get people coming up to me saying their favorite movie of mine is Step Up 2: The Streets. And that got terrible reviews. So in a way, I also grew up in this business with thick skin. And those things meant nothing to me from the very beginning because they couldn’t.

Guy Kawasaki:

I’ll tell you; I am sixty-seven years old and I love Never Say Never. And in fact, I’ve been to–

Jon M. Chu:

Thank you.

Guy Kawasaki:

…two Justin Bieber concerts. I’m so proud of that for my daughter.

Jon M. Chu:

There you go.

Guy Kawasaki:

That’s right.

Jon M. Chu:

There you go. I loved making that movie too. I loved that group. I loved what we learned from that. It was a Silicon Valley fairytale of showing how kids at home chose their next pop star and made this guy’s dream come true.

Guy Kawasaki:

With his mom’s help.

Jon M. Chu:

With his mom’s help. Absolutely. With the whole family, even mom and beyond. He’s your talented cousin, that he was kind of a brat, but you rooted for him because he was so talented. And look, he survived. He’s doing great. So I root for him.

Guy Kawasaki:

So we’ve mentioned Rotten Tomatoes a few times. If somebody said to you, “Okay, you can either get a Golden Globe or a 99 on Rotten Tomatoes. What would you pick?”

Jon M. Chu:

I don’t know if Golden Globes exist anymore, so I couldn’t choose Golden Globe, but I certainly don’t care about my Rotten Tomatoes score. I’ll take my daughter knowing all the words to In the Heights songs above any of that stuff. So one of my favorite moments of any movie I’ve made is when we’re watching Awkwafina, Nora, win the Golden Globe, best actor, and I start screaming up and down, I said, “She did it. She did it.” My daughter Willow starts jumping up, who’s three at the time, she’s like, “We did it. We did it.” She’s like, “What did we do?” I was like, “She won. She made it. That’s like the first ever. It’s crazy.”

And then a week later, we’re walking in the subway in New York and we see a poster for her TV show, Awkwafina. And my daughter starts saying, “Dad, she did it. She did it.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” She points to the poster and there is Nora. And that just means so much when she sees someone who looks like her and cheers for her and roots for her.

Guy Kawasaki:

That’s great. That’s a great story. How does a Chinese guy from Los Altos connect the dots to Latinos in Washington Heights? How does that work?

Jon M. Chu:

You shut up and listen. You got a great tour guide, which is Lin-Manuel Miranda–

Guy Kawasaki:

Well, that helps.

Jon M. Chu:

…and Quiara. I remember seeing the show for the first time on Broadway and being completely moved by it. It was in a language of music that I had not seen in a Broadway show before, which we now know it’s because Lin is a genius. It said things about living in an immigrant community, being raised by not just your mom and dad, but by your aunties and your uncles, and your Abuela Claudia, that I knew what it felt like.

I was raised by my mom’s sisters and her and our whole family. We had dinners every night with thirty people at our house cooking together. And so even though I wasn’t from there, he tapped on something that I could never express, even as a storyteller myself, I could never express in the story. So I remember being very moved by that.

A decade later is when the script came to me and they asked if I would be interested. And I had to have a very frank conversation with Lin about, I attached to it, but I’m not from here. And would you give me permission because I know how to tell this story in a movie. I know how to translate this and actually communicate to other people who are not of this community, but you’re going to need to guide me in every step of the way.

And so he’s like, “Jon, I’m going to be right there with you. Don’t worry.” I was like, “Okay, perfect.” So it was a great collaboration of music and dance and story and culture exchanging. And because I had done Crazy Rich Asians, thank God I had done it before, I knew the space to give it. I knew where to focus, whether it was listening to people about the food, “Hey, what’s the food? How do you organize the food? When you put it on a table? What are the little details that your Abuela Claudia of your home has in there? Oh, it’s the calendar on the wall that’s from the supermarket? Oh, it’s the homemade sauce, in what kind of bottle usually? Okay.”

And those details, I knew, went a long way. And as a director, you’re the only one who can make space on the day. You’re the only one who can take a left when you’re scheduled to take a right. And so let’s say Leslie’s hair, she had her big curls and it was in her face, a lot of productions would change the hairstyle so it’s not in her face. Instead, we’re saying, “No, this is a part of who she is. You change the lighting, you change the camera angle to get the hair with her face better.” And so those are the kinds of things that we just did. We all have helped other every inch.

Guy Kawasaki:

I have to ask, what is it like working with Lin? I can tell you what it’s like working with Steve Jobs. You can tell me…

Jon M. Chu:

Let’s do with that exchange. I’ll start and then you go. Lin is everything you hope he is, everything he presents himself to be, he is. He wears exactly who he is on his sleeve. When he’s on the microphone or off the microphone, he acts the exact same way. We had a meeting for extras in the neighborhood, that I never go to extras gathering, they gather extras, they take pictures, they put them on a wall. I go there, they pre-cut them. I go into a room full of hundreds of pictures and I pick the type of whatever, environment I want the school to be in or the environment that I want this scene to be in. So I never go to the place where they take the picture.

He called me and was like, “Where are they doing that?” I was like, “Oh, down the street at the theater.” And he’s like, “I’m going.” And he goes there and makes a speech to these people who are all coming in to take a photo of how much this means to him, how much this means to the community, how much he appreciates them. That’s the sign of a true leader. Took time out of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s day, which he is packed full day. He doesn’t have time for anything. He’ll make it for his neighborhood. I look up to that every moment.

So that is what it’s like to work with him. It’s crazy. But he always described himself as, he’s like, “Jon, I’m the guy who does his homework on his way to school.” He’s so talented and he has so much going on. But his biggest talent is when push comes to shove, he can focus. And he is literally a gifted person, a gifted human being that can drum it up when sparked.

Guy Kawasaki:

Does he use a Macintosh?

Jon M. Chu:

He does. Yes. He does.

Guy Kawasaki:

You think he knows who I am so if I asked them for an interview, he’d say, “Yes, oh, you were my childhood hero.”

Jon M. Chu:

Maybe, you never know. You never know.

Guy Kawasaki:

So you know that scene where Vanessa kisses, what’s the guy’s name?

Jon M. Chu:

Usnavi.

Guy Kawasaki:

Yeah. And they were kind of kissing through the freezer door.

Jon M. Chu:

Oh yes. Okay. Yeah.

Guy Kawasaki:

In the bodega. So who comes up with an idea like that? Did you say, “Oh, let’s have them kiss through the freezer door. That would be… ”

Jon M. Chu:

Well, they don’t exactly kiss through that freezer door.

Guy Kawasaki:

But he tries.

Jon M. Chu:

But that moment, they get real close. They get real close. So a moment like that, which is not in the show itself, that was something that me, Quiara, the writer, Vanessa played by Melissa, and Anthony Ramos who plays Usnavi, we came up to that together. Because we realized, we were in a rehearsal and we realized this moment in between her song, because she’s singing, it’s in between her songs, singing about what she dreams of and how she’s not seen. She gets kind of ignored. People just see her for her beauty, they don’t see her for her.

And we wanted a moment where we realize why she needs him and why he needs her. How he sees her when she can’t even see herself. And he knows how to cheer her up even when she says she doesn’t need cheering up. And so that moment came out of “Well, what would you do if she came in and she was depressed but didn’t want to say it. What would you do?” And naturally Anthony said, “I would make her laugh.” And he is funny like that.

So we came up with this idea, “Oh, what if you came up to her”, and I think he’s the one who said, “I’ll just blow and make a little smiley face,” or something. And then he ad-libbed that day putting his nose up against it and rubbing down. He’s just naturally charming like that. And she couldn’t help but smile at that because their chemistry is really actually electric.

And yet she also is strong like him. So she would never give him the satisfaction of seeing that smile. So her shutting the door and walking away, but it’s a delicate line because she can’t be too mean to him. Because if she’s mean to him, we’re not going to like her. Melissa Barrera is an amazing actor because she walks that line so finely, she’s tough on him, but not judgmental on him, and gives us enough room where she can come back to him and rub the stain off of his shirts as if she’s flirting with him and is asking him out on a date without asking him directly. It’s an amazing performance between these two.

Guy Kawasaki:

I asked about it. Yeah. So, okay. The other moment is when the three of them are walking down the street after they now know that somebody won the 96,000 at the store and there’s these white computer graphics that’s happening. How did that happen?

Jon M. Chu:

So I originally wanted, every musical number, I wanted the characters to express themselves in the language that they see the world in. So Vanessa sees the world in tapestry and colors. That’s why when she runs at the end of her number, it’s fabric that comes over. It’s not tears, it’s fabric, the weight of the fabric, and she bursts through the thing. Later when Benny and Nina are walking on the side of a wall, that’s how it feels for them. This is their spot. The fire escape is their spot.

But what happens when you’re in love and the future doesn’t matter, the rules of the world don’t matter, the world can turn upside down and you can use it as a ballroom dance floor. So for the beginning of 96,000, this was sort of in the vein of Graffiti Pete, who was in that scene, and how do these guys express what they want?

I always thought of doodles at first. So at first we had this artist draw all over it as if they’re sketches. So each of them have like comic book sketches around them. And it just became too much. It was too invasive into their performances. So instead we were like, “What if it’s the language of graffiti art, but in 3D space.” And so got a company to show us what that would be. And so our choreographer had choreographed stuff to be held and to drop because we thought it was going to be drawings. But the moment we thought, “Okay, no, it’s going to be graffiti and Graffiti Pete in this 3D space,” that’s where it really clicked. And it could be elegant. It didn’t have to be messy and all over the place. With all different colors, it could assist in their expression without feeling it was taking over the scene.

Guy Kawasaki:

And there’s a tiny bit of that with the red lines on the chain link fence when they’re outside the basketball court.

Jon M. Chu:

Well, that one, it was more of, when she draws it, it’s almost like paper cutouts because he blows it and it floats away. When he says, “There’s no nine train now”, it blows away. To me, it was partly Benny’s world where he’s always working with maps and things and putting pins on maps. And so it has that. It’s her world because her dad owns the driving company so it’s all paper and stuff.

So it was just one of those things that, again, we tried to make sure that every number was speaking the language of the person that was expressing that song.

Guy Kawasaki:

Now this question, this is the last one about these little scenes, okay? Now you are, forewarning, you might think I’m nuts about this one, but when they’re in the hair salon, and there’s a scene where two women are sitting down and they kind of spread their legs and cross their legs, was that sticking it to Sharon Stone or am I just imagining this?

Jon M. Chu:

Guy, you’re imagining all of that. It was more of an homage to… There’s a lot of salon numbers in musicals. So we got to do some nods to some of the classics out there. So yeah.

Guy Kawasaki:

Well, I thought it was sudden deep meaning Sharon Stone kind of thing. Okay.

Jon M. Chu:

No, we have a lot of deep meaning in a lot of things, but that’s not one of them.

Guy Kawasaki:

One thing I’ve taken away is you cannot see one of your movies just once, because how would you… It’s very deep. There’s a lot of things to…

Jon M. Chu:

That’s what I hope for. That’s how I get more residuals actually because people have to be watching… No. It’s just a financial choice, Guy.

Guy Kawasaki:

At least you’re honest.

Jon M. Chu:

No, no, no. Actually, this is our life. We spend years on two hours of your time and you’re leaving your family or you’re bringing your family. You’re sharing with them in this experience that we want to give you, every moment of that. The challenge of a cinema is that it puts the onus on the storyteller to be better. And I’m down for that challenge. I may not be better, but I’m going to try my darned ass off to be better.

And we’re going to try to take that space and utilize it for something good and not something frivolous. By the way, I love frivolous movies and I am down for that, but I think you understand people in two way; either you go through trauma with them and from then on you have their back or you go through the best party of your life with them one night and from then on, they’re your best friend and you have their back.

And some people choose to do the trauma version of that. And that’s great, and that’s fine, and that’s effective, and there are in movies. But for me, I want to have the greatest party of my life with people that I’ve never met so I get to know them, and I want to make those things. And so I guess that’s why joy is so much in my work. And I hope people want that over and over again, because then guess what? You want to then eat that food. You want to listen to more of that music. You ask your Asian friend, “Where’s that performance from. How does that get that?” You ask your Latino friends, “Oh, what’s that dance style?” You ask your Latina friend, “Can we go dancing sometime?”

If it goes from this story in this theater to something that you want to do in your real life, imagine what we can do all that together? That is real powerful shit right there.

Guy Kawasaki:

You mentioned joy just now. So are we ever going to see an action movie or a dark movie from Jon M. Chu? John Wick?

Jon M. Chu:

Maybe. I’m not scared to go there. I just have to be in the right head space. And we’ve lived a lot of years where life isn’t the easiest. And by the way, my stuff isn’t just naïve joy. My stuff is joy, getting through the darkness and coming out. I don’t know how to live differently. Life is too hard.

So why don’t we accept that it is hard and messy and confusing and contradictory and there’s ups and there’s downs, but in the end of the day, we’re living. The alternative is not living. And we have this amazing gift in front of us. And when you’re living, you affect people, or you can help somebody, or they can help you, or you’re creating.

That’s why I think creating is the most joyful thing because it’s literally, you’re taking everything that the world is inputting into you and you get to now contribute. So in a way, you’re adding to the algorithm of life. And I just think that that’s very hopeful and very beautiful. I have the power to do.

Guy Kawasaki:

I know. We’re at an hour and seven minutes and I know your time is valuable. I got two or three more questions. I’m expecting your PR person to interrupt at any second saying, “Excuse me, Guy, but your time is over with.”

Jon M. Chu:

I didn’t give him this link, Guy.

Guy Kawasaki:

We spent fifteen minutes talking about our youth so that doesn’t count towards this. Okay. We’ve arrived at the reMarkable Tablet moment as you, I hope, know. The reMarkable Tablet company sponsors the Remarkable People podcast. The reMarkable Tablet enables you to focus because you can’t check email, you can’t check social media, you can’t check websites, it helps you focus. So in every episode I ask a guest, how do you do your best and deepest and focused thinking?

Jon M. Chu:

How do I do my best and deepest thinking? Walks, for sure. I have about five acres where I’m living right now and so I will walk. But a lot of the time it’s not orchestrated walks, it’s moments, I can’t do it where I’m like, “Okay, I’m spending two hours to think.”

Actually driving when I actually went places back in the day before COVID, driving, I would drive back to San Francisco. And when I drove back to San Francisco, that five and a half, six-hour drive, I always came out of it with five ideas. Four of them would be shit, and one of them would be great. But if I didn’t make that drive, I didn’t have any ideas. So actually, I love doing that, actually, a lot.

Guy Kawasaki:

What kind of car does Jon M. Chu drive?

Jon M. Chu:

Tesla, of course.

Guy Kawasaki:

You drive a Tesla? Yeah?

Jon M. Chu:

I got to have the biggest screen. I only got a Tesla about a year ago, before that I had a Range Rover Sport.

Guy Kawasaki:

So LA.

Jon M. Chu:

It’s so LA. I know. I’m not proud of my car choices, but I am proud of my Tesla because it just feels like not a car.

Guy Kawasaki:

Well, at least you didn’t say you had a G-Wagon.

Jon M. Chu:

I do not have a G-wagon. No. I’m not a car guy. I wish I was more of a car guy, but I’m just not. I just need a car to get to where I need and that can have space to put in C-stands and cameras and load things. And now, enough room for car seats.

Guy Kawasaki:

Do you carry a RED with you or?

Jon M. Chu:

No, I used my Sony a1, which I love.

Guy Kawasaki:

You have a Sony a1? I mean, obviously that’s only a few months old, so…

Jon M. Chu:

I don’t just have an a1.

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh my.

Jon M. Chu:

Let me see what I got here. I got my a1. All right. Which is my main baby right now. I got my FX3. But really I have the FX3 because of the handle, because this is how I shoot stuff. Right? I have an a7S above the screen. I’m not using it for this because I don’t have a power thing for it. So it would have died in a little bit. I have a Leica Q over there. I have an a9 over there.

Guy Kawasaki:

I have an a9.

Jon M. Chu:

I love my a9. Do you have the a9 II or the a9…?

Guy Kawasaki:

I got the first one. And I have not, not that, if you ever want to borrow it because I never use it. I have one of those 600 millimeter, 2.8 Prime. It’s a humongous lens. It comes with a suitcase. My God. I feel so Sports Illustrated when I use it.

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. I don’t go that long.

Guy Kawasaki:

So last question for you is, young people are listening to this, hopefully they are. And they say, “Oh man, I want to be in the movie business.” What’s your advice?

Jon M. Chu:

I say, don’t say you want to be in the movie business, say you want to be in the storytelling business. Because movie business, who knows what’s going to happen with the movies. A story is a discipline and how you tell your story once you have a story, what medium is it going to be told in, is a new way of creating story. And usually that’s the better way.

So if you have a great story, it could be a podcast. It could be a YouTube video that you just make on your own. It could be a big feature film. It could be a television series. It could be so many things. So think story first.

And by the way, directing may not be your cup of tea. I think people don’t really have a lot of experience directing or know what directing feels like. So the romantic idea of a director sounds great, but actually there’s a lot to it. You got to be used to taking some bullets.

And by the way, maybe sound, maybe you tell best stories by recording sound and being a sound mixer. And that’s a great, amazing place to be. Or maybe music is the place, scoring is the place that you’re the best storyteller at. It is not less than a director. It is not less than, every crew, if you watch In the Heights, you can take any element of that, and that takes a master storyteller to be using that in that movie.

Each person is carrying so much weight to tell the story for it to work altogether. And so I guess for anybody out there trying to be a movie maker, think story first, medium second, and be open, keep your antennas up to figure out what medium is it that you’re the best storyteller at. You may be an author more than you are a screenplay writer, and that’s okay, but you’ve got to be open to understanding that otherwise you could get caught. And you’re categorizing yourself before you even know what the job is.

Guy Kawasaki:

I’ve been podcasting for two years. I think my podcast is the best work I’ve ever done in my career. It’s also maybe the most unappreciated of my work in my career. But it’s the best work of my career. And oh, I have to reciprocate because you told me what it’s like to work with Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have to tell you what it’s like working for Steve Jobs.

Jon M. Chu:

Please do.

Guy Kawasaki:

So everything you’ve read and seen and heard about Steve Jobs being abrasive and difficult and just mean-spirited, it’s all true. All of that is true. And yeah, he would drive in the carpool lane by himself and he wouldn’t register his new Mercedes because he thought license plates ruin the aesthetics of a car. So he would just flip it every six months because you can go that long without registration. And I’ll tell you one illustrative story about Steve Jobs.

So one day I’m in my cubicle and I’m working, and he shows up with this guy that I’ve never met, and he asked me what I thought of this company. And the company’s name was Nowhere, knowledge software. So it was an educational software company. And I proceeded to say “It was a mediocre company with mediocre products, drilling practice, two plus two equals four. It’s not really strategic for us or important for us, Steve.” And he says to me, “I want you to meet the CEO of Nowhere.” So that’s what it was like. You have to prove yourself every day.

Jon M. Chu:

That’s hilarious.

Guy Kawasaki:

And you know what, Jon? If I had said it’s insanely great software, it’s so beautiful, so wonderful, I might have been fired on the spot, because I would not have passed the Steve Jobs IQ test.

Jon M. Chu:

That is amazing. That is amazing.

Guy Kawasaki:

That’s what it was like.

Jon M. Chu:

I can’t even imagine. That would be, yeah, insane to watch, to have a front row seat to all the things that happened. That’s pretty amazing.

Guy Kawasaki:

Post Steve stress disorder. Jon, you’ve spent so much time, it’s late. Thank you so much. It’s been such a pleasure and I’m going to go eat at Chef Chu’s. I’m going to go say hi to your mom and dad. Are they literally–

Jon M. Chu:

Please do.

Guy Kawasaki:

…still working there?

Jon M. Chu:

They’re literally there. Fifty-one years. Fifty-two years in January.

Guy Kawasaki:

Oh my.

Jon M. Chu:

It’s crazy. My brother’s there now and be sure to text me when you go so they can take care of you.

Guy Kawasaki:

I’m going to take a selfie.

Jon M. Chu:

Yeah. Please do. Or I’ll fly down, we’ll do it together. That would be fun. You tell me when you’re there, I’ll make a trip. That’d be a dream come true.

Guy Kawasaki:

That would be utterly fantastic. All right. All right.

Jon M. Chu:

Perfect.

Guy Kawasaki:

So thank you so much. You’ve been so–

Jon M. Chu:

Thanks, Guy.

Guy Kawasaki:

…kind and generous with your time and I have to tell you, I just loved Crazy Rich Asians.

Jon M. Chu:

Thank you.

Guy Kawasaki:

And the line where Eleanor says, “Go on to Corinthians. I’ll catch up.” Oh my God. Oh my God. What a great line.

Jon M. Chu:

Michelle Yeoh can deliver anything. It’s so good. Thank you, Guy. I’m so glad you’re doing the best work of your life. What an amazing, that’s so inspirational to know.

Guy Kawasaki:

Thank you.

Jon M. Chu:

That’s great.

Guy Kawasaki:

Thank you. And now I want to tell people I have Jane Goodall and Jon M. Chu, what else is left?

Jon M. Chu:

Perfect. Let’s do that.

Guy Kawasaki:

I’ll pitch that to Lin-Manuel Miranda. I have Jane Goodall and Jon Chu. You either want to be on it or not. I mean…

Jon M. Chu:

Exactly, exactly.

Guy Kawasaki:

Lin-Manuel Miranda, if you’re out there and you’re listening to this podcast, I’m begging you, come on this podcast. I mean, Jon M. Chu, Jane Goodall, Lin-Manuel Miranda. My life would be complete. Anyway. I’m Guy Kawasaki, this is Remarkable People. I hope you enjoyed this episode with Jon M. Chu.

Let me tell you a little backstory about this episode. Peg Fitzpatrick reached out to Jon and asked him if he would be on my podcast. Thank you, God, Jon knew who I was. He claimed he was a fan and he instantly made a decision to do it. Thank you, Peg, for making that happen. Thank you, Jeff, for the sound design.

If you haven’t watched Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, just trust me and go watch those two movies. They are utterly fantastic. Until next time, be safe, get vaccinated if you’re not vaccinated, even if you are vaccinated, wear a mask. This pandemic isn’t over until it’s over. Mahalo and aloha.