It wasn’t all that long ago that Jon M. Chu was on the TED stage, reflecting on learning about the power of connection at his parents’ famed Los Altos restaurant Chef Chu’s.
“This place was a hub of connection,” Chu says. “People coming there to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, business deals, eating, drinking…” In the 1990s, it was also where Chu’s father, Lawrence C.C. Chu, would brag about his budding filmmaker son to a loyal customer base that just so happened to be made up of engineers and techies from Hewlett-Packard, Sun Microsystems and Adobe.
It wasn’t long before the restaurant’s regulars started gifting young Chu beta digital video-editing software, he says, helping seal his fate as the future director of 2018’s groundbreaking romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians. He’s since been delving into other high-profile projects, including the forthcoming big-screen adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical In the Heights, which will be released this summer; and, Willow, a Disney Plus series based on the cult 1988 feature film, for which Chu will be directing the pilot.
“All the powerful connections in my life were through generosity, and kindness and hope,” says Chu. “So when I think about my movies … all I want to do is show joy and hope in them, because I refuse to believe that our best days are behind us — but in fact around the corner.”
We’re not crying, you’re crying!
Los Altos living: Chu’s parents are Taiwanese immigrants who met in the Bay Area and set down roots in Los Altos — “the Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley,” says Chu. They opened Chef Chu’s in 1970, where Chu and his four older siblings spent a solid chunk of their upbringing in the midst of powerful Silicon Valley figures like Steve Jobs, who famously ate there in the early days of Apple. His parents believed wholeheartedly in the American dream and raised five “all-American kids,” putting the Chu children through ballroom dance and etiquette classes. They even named Chu and his sister, Jennifer, after the characters Jonathan and Jennifer Hart from the classic ’80s mystery series Hart to Hart. “That’s how much they loved America, apparently,” Chu jokes.
Break on through: Growing up, Chu was on video camera duty during family vacations. One year, around 1991, he cobbled together footage for his first cohesive project. When he sat his parents down in the living room for a screener, “something extraordinary happened,” says Chu. “They cried. … not because it was the most amazing home video edit ever — although it was pretty good — but because they saw our family as a normal family that fit in and belonged on the screen in front of them just like the movies that they worshipped and the TV shows that they named us after.”
Resume: Chu attended USC School of Cinematic Arts, earning a collection of awards and making a short film that got him noticed by Steven Spielberg, then thrust into the industry. After directing a number of studio films, including Step Up 2 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, he eventually found his creative opus in Crazy Rich Asians, an adaptation of Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel and the first in a trilogy. The film was the highest-grossing romantic comedy of the last decade and featured the first all-Asian cast since 1993’s Joy Luck Club (hi, Amy Tan!). It was also the first time Chu tapped into his cultural identity professionally.
Dedication to the craft: With his wife, Kristin Chu, Chu has two young children named Willow Amelia Chu and Jonathan Heights Chu. Wait, Willow and Heights? As in, Willow and In the Heights? Let’s speculate: Willow was born in 2017, long before Disney Plus hired her dad to direct the pilot for Willow, but Chu has said to Variety that as an ’80s kid the film had a “profound effect” on him. There’s a clearer line to bed rawn for his young son, who on Instagram captions simply goes by Heights. Heights was born in 2019, during the filming of the movie in New York City’s Washington Heights, an experience Chu describes as “magic.”
Reflections: In a podcast interview with former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, Chu reflects on his role as a filmmaker this past year. When the pandemic hit, Chu was in the process of putting the finishing touches on In the Heights, which had to postpone its release date one year to summer 2021. But on a deeper level, it’s been illuminating. Says Chu: “People are consuming more and needing hope and inspiration, the power of storytelling.”