‘In The Heights’ Director Jon M. Chu On Working With Lin-Manuel Miranda: ‘You’re The North Star’

As the world begins to open up again following a difficult pandemic year, In The Heights arrives in movie theaters this week to remind us all that life is worth celebrating. Directed by Crazy Rich Asians visionary Jon M. Chu and from Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, In The Heights is destined to capture the hearts of moviegoers this summer as a likely blockbuster savior to a movie industry desperate to get back up on its feet again after taking a major hit as a direct casualty of Covid-19.

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The powerful In The Heights story debuted on Broadway in 2008 with Lin-Manuel’s music and lyrics leading the charge, nominated for 13 Tony Awards and winning four, including Best Musical. Now 13 years later, its valuable message of community, cultural pride and chasing your dreams will reach even larger audiences with this highly-anticipated film version.

The epic Jon and Lin cinematic collaboration has truly become music to our ears, but how did they initially team up? “I don’t just decide to work with Lin (laughs). He decides I can work with him,” Jon tells Forbes. “It was actually before Crazy Rich Asians, very close in time to each other. At that time, I was looking for something that meant something to me, that spoke to me and that was scary to do. At that time also, Hamilton hadn’t really dropped the way that it eventually really dropped. So, I just had an opportunity. I think people didn’t know how to make this movie. Who knows what happened in those 10 years, but I had a very clear idea of how it connected to me. I saw it very clearly and went to New York and sat down with Lin-Manuel and was very intimidated. He understood what I was trying to do in terms of their dreams and bringing it to the actual blocks of Washington Heights. And then Crazy Rich Asians shot first, so they had to wait for me and thank God they waited for me because I thought they were going to move on, but they didn’t. They believed in the vision.”

Jon’s dedication to filming in the Washington Heights community of New York City quickly becomes not just the film’s picturesque backdrop but ultimately a central character all its own in telling the emotional stories surrounding In The Heights. “Lin and every single one of the actors and every single one of the background players and every single one of the dancers are sharing the world of who they are, in literally the neighborhood of a lot of them are from. I got to be a steward of that, to help use what I know and help make room for that. I learned so much from Crazy Rich Asians of the importance of what kinds of foods are on the table, what kind of sauces are on the table, how do they wear that dress, what are the styles of dance that communicate. When they dance, they’re telling their story and they’re telling their family story and they’re telling their culture story.”

In The Heights raises the bar on what movie musicals can be and are capable of representing today. When asked which scene while filming made Jon see how special this project is, he says the musical number for “Carnaval Del Barrio” was a moment he will never forget. “We shot that in one day, the whole sequence, everything in that courtyard,” Jon explains. “And while we’re shooting, all the residents in the actual courtyard because it’s a real place, all day long we’re blasting this music and they never yelled down like Shut up! They had their own flags tossing them out of that window and Lin is up there and when I call cut, the dancing doesn’t stop. The celebration continues. That’s why I think the big screen is fun because you can look at anybody’s face and they’re giving you everything about who they are. [Actor] Anthony Ramos is ringleader in that because he is pouring himself onto the floor for that and I cry every time I watch that, because I remember when everyone was chanting Latino! Latino! that day and then looking up at Lin and Lin is up on the fire escape and they just start chanting Lin! because he manifested a lane for all these people here and that’s pretty inspiring.”

Even though the filming is over, Jon found a special way to take his In The Heights experience home with him. In the middle of production, Jon and his wife welcomed their second child, a baby boy, and decided to give him the middle name Heights. “I just felt so connected and I felt so inspired by hearing everybody’s dreams from there and seeing the community from there. I just wanted my son, I just thought the word ‘Heights’ was loaded now for me. It meant what you could see the future as this dream, this idea of America that we could strive for something. I wanted to be able to say every day, because we called him Heights, even though it’s his middle name, which is hard to explain to random people on the street, but I wanted to say that word every day and I wanted him to hear that word every day.”

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In The Heights arrives in movie theaters starting Thursday, but just like other 2021 Warner Bros. films released this year, it will also stream the same day on HBO Max. When asked for his thoughts on the options moviegoers will have to experience In The Heights, Jon says, “Listen, we’re in a unique time in our history and people need to be safe and people need to feel comfortable, so whatever way they need to see it, I’m all for that. The more people that get to see this all around the world, the better. Of course we built this for the big screen. Of course we want you to see it in the dark, where your phone is off and you’re sharing it with strangers, your friends, your family. I want you to walk out of that parking lot and immediately call your friend and say, You got to see this! and bring them, too. That’s what we felt with Crazy Rich Asians. I think they’re going to feel that even more so here, and we’ve all got to come back together again. So get vaccinated, feel safe and go! And if you can’t, all good. Turn it up, turn off the lights, pay attention. This movie was made for you to pay attention, to say they’re worth your time to pay attention. That’s my biggest dream is for everyone, no matter where you see it, is watch, pay attention and never forget it.”

Following In The Heights, Jon has several more exciting projects lined up next, including another musical, this time the film version of the Broadway phenomenon Wicked. A sequel to Jon’s 2018 smash hit Crazy Rich Asians is also in the works, which he says is currently in the writing phase. “It’s got to be right,” Jon says of the sequel’s script. “The bar is much higher now and it has got to say something new and that’s always challenging. I’m not going to drag everyone back unless it’s for a much bigger prize, so we’re working on that. It just takes time.”

Jon wrapped up our conversation with a heartfelt message for his In The Heights collaborator and friend Lin-Manuel Miranda. “Well Lin, you know, I say this to you a lot but you may be my same age but I look up to you so much. You inspire me, not just an amazing human being and creator, but as a leader of a moment in our history that will make an imprint that lasts forever. When you saw a problem that you couldn’t get a role, you created one for yourself. You took it on yourself to say the community, a group of people, the world deserved to be seen as heroes. As a leader myself, it feels very lonely and it also feels like there’s no map for you, but when I see you, you’re such a bright light. You’re the North Star for a lot of people. A lot of people beyond me, a lot more powerful people than me, and I just think that light transcends and I want you to know how much we love you and care about you and I’m excited because there’s another Lin out there that we don’t know about that your light is going to touch and that person is the whole reason we’re all on your side and will do what you need us to do to tell the next stories.”

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