Ever since the 2016 Oscar’s ceremony premiered on televisions across the globe, Asian representation in Hollywood became a trending topic in mainstream media discussion. Jon M. Chu, whose new movie, Now You See Me 2, is due to be released in theaters on June 10th, weighed in on the subject matter in a roundtable discussion with several Asian media outlets, including AsianInNY, China Press, Ming Pao Daily, Korea Daily, Taiwan Daily and World Journal. A California-native Asian film director, Chu offered insight into both his filmmaking techniques and experiences as an under-represented minority in Hollywood.
Now You See Me 2’s mind-heist adventure genre is new to you. What did you enjoy most about directing this genre? What challenges did you face?
I was very excited to work with a large cast. I was a huge fan of the first movie and was happy to fly around the world with the cast. I loved the concept of magic because I experimented with magic as a kid. I also liked the idea of the film’s story.
The challenges I faced included devising magic tricks, and creating a specific architecture for setting them up. I also had to train the actors to learn magic, so we sent them to a magic camp.
Why did you decide to film in Macau? Were there any other locations in Asia that you considered?
From the beginning, we planned on shooting in London. The second act was originally supposed to be shot on an island off the coast of England, but I wanted to film in a more interesting and exciting location. I chose Macau because I had been there before as a child. Many people have heard of it but not many have seen it on camera. I wanted something that was like Las Vegas, but wasn’t Las Vegas. I also chose Macau because of its Portuguese architecture, and because it’s an island that is away from people. I thought it was fun and crazy enough for a film about magic.
In fact, the magic store featured in the film is an actual magic store in Macau. It inspired me. I also had to ask myself, “What does magic mean on the other side of the world?”
Why did you invite Jay Chou to act in the movie? Will you introduce more Asian actors in future films?
I was a fan of Jay Chou ever since I saw him in the film Green Hornet. Asian men are rare in Hollywood. I chose Jay because he is cool and memorable, and I thought he would fit in with Now You See Me 2’s cool cast. I wanted a character that wasn’t stereotypical.
I would like to see him more. In fact, he improvised his first scene in the film. The cast’s reactions to his improv were real. He also does magic in his music videos, and wrote a song for the movie.
Tsai Chin, the actress who played Bu Bu, the Chinese grandma in Now You See Me 2, is famous in the US but not famous in China. How did she get on board?
Tsai Chin was educated in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in England. She was actually the first Asian actor in the school, and I admired her work in Joy Lucky Club. She is mysterious, funny, strong and in control. I thought she really fit the role. She is small but fierce, like Beyoncé. She also has high expectations both of herself and her co-workers. She is intelligent and powerful, like a master magician in hiding.
This summer, Hollywood has seen an increase in Asian directors. How do you feel about the increased presence? Do you feel more pressure?
There are about three Asian directors in Hollywood/big film studios. When I first started directing seven to eight years ago, it was not that way. I think the increased presence means a lot for young filmmakers. It means that the barrier is coming down and that there’s nothing a young filmmaker can’t do to achieve their goals.
The more diverse voices there are the better. When people watch movies together, they feel more united. I don’t feel pressure. In fact, I celebrate it, and I hope the trend continues.
There is a lot of discussion about whitewashing and lack of Asians in Hollywood. As arguably the most famous Asian director, do you see a change?
It is important to speak up about these issues. I think it definitely changes the conversation. When people bring up the subject, they have to take it seriously politically. My parents immigrated from Taiwan and China, and they encouraged me to ignore prejudices and keep working. Now, eight years down the road, I realized that I was able to get into Hollywood because there were Asian people before me who helped make a path. I also want to help make paths for younger filmmakers.
I want to inspire artists. Last year, I wanted to do a Chinese movie and asked myself, “What voice can I add to make a film unique?” I am working on a new film called Crazy Rich Asians, and it will feature a variety of Asian actors.
I think that we are in a critical state of change. I feel inspired to help broaden the diversity of voices in movies. Asians haven’t had their time yet, but there are a lot of talented actors and people excited about making a change in the film industry. If I am lucky to be a part of that change, it would make my life complete.