“Crazy Rich Asians” is poised to take the box office by storm when it opens nationwide Wednesday. Based on the runaway 2013 bestseller by Kevin Kwan, it’s the first major studio film with an all-Asian cast since 1993’s “The Joy Luck Club.”
So after a 25-year wait, the energy in the room was electric — with every seat in the house filled — as the Writers Guild’s Asian-American Writers Committee presented a pre-release screening last Friday night at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills.
In fact, the theater manager said 100 people who had RSVP’d had to be turned away outside and he had to kick out a number of people who tried standing in the aisles.
The movie has a rich backstory. Kwan and the filmmakers turned down what they called gigantic, life-changing money and a three-picture deal from Netflix because they wanted a theatrical release, a traditional cinematic experience for fans to see it in communal environments rather than sitting in front of a TV. They went with Warner Bros. — which is run by Kevin Tsujihara, the first and only studio chief of Asian descent.
“Crazy Rich Asians” stars Constance Wu (“Fresh Off the Boat”), newcomer Henry Golding and the inestimable Michelle Yeoh as the three main characters, Rachel Chu, Nick Young and Eleanor Young. Supporting cast includes Ronny Chieng, Ken Jeong, Awkwafina, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Jimmy O. Yang, Selena Tan, Chris Pang, Nico Santos and Sonoya Mizuno.
Directed by Jon M. Chu, it is the first of his eight films, which include the “Step Up” franchise and “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” that explores his own Chinese-American identity.
The romantic comedy is set initially in New York City before the action moves to Singapore and the rarefied, ostentatious world of a group of its incredibly rich denizens.
After the credits rolled and the applause died down, moderator Lorene Scafaria introduced “CRA” screenwriters Peter Chiarelli and Adele Lim, who traced the story of the film’s journey to the screen.
(Some of their references are purposefully left vague as they refer to specific scenes in the film that would be spoilers.)
Chiarelli, whose career broke out when he penned 2009’s “The Proposal” starring Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds, worked on the screenplay for a year before director Chu brought in Lim, who at the time was writing on and co-executive producing the TV version of “Lethal Weapon,” now going into its third season on Fox. Among her other television credits are “One Tree Hill,” “Reign,” “Life on Mars,” “Private Practice” and “Star-Crossed.”
“I read the book and on Page 1, I said ‘Oh my god,’” Lim recalled. “I grew up in Malaysia, where the culture is every female relative thinks they own you. To potentially work with not just an Asian lead but an Asian cast … I said I’m 100% in.”
“There are 3,000 characters in the book so we had to pare it down, including the whole Astrid story. But every scene has a relationship to the book, which was our Bible. Kevin, the author, was very cool with it,” Chiarelli said.
“We centered on Eleanor, Nick and Rachel and describing the crazy culture in Singapore, having to take it down to two hours,” Lim said. “The dumpling scene and the mah-jongg scene are not in the book but it’s very specific to the culture.”
“It’s a universal story,” Chiarelli chimed in.
“It came from a deep place of devotion to family. You gain sympathy when you know Eleanor’s story. It grounds her — and it doesn’t follow into the typical mother-in-law tropes,” Lim said.
She went on to discuss one of the main themes of the film. “There’s a feeling of otherness. Even if you grow up in a culture, you still feel like you don’t measure up and you really see it play out in Asia. It’s not based on race or money.”
“Rachel is capable and smart from the beginning. But what does she need to find? Self-respect,” Chiarelli added.
“It’s that thing, specific to Asian Americans, that you need to keep hitting the benchmarks to reach a point when you’re in the club. For her, it’s having the pride to walk away,” said Lim, who moved to the U.S. when she was 19. “The other theme is of an overseas minority family where the kids are schooled here in the U.S. but the family is afraid of losing them.”
“We show this loss aversion at the beginning when Rachel teaches her game theory university class,” said Chiarelli.
“For the modern American it’s about going for your dreams — but that doesn’t play in other cultures,” Lim said, and added that she felt a great deal of pressure to get this one right. “It had to be Rachel who made the decision from a place of honor and integrity.”
Asked about their process of working together, the two said the script was like having shared custody of a child. It went back and forth between them as they physically worked in separate places.
“The Nick-Eleanor-Rachel story was what we focused on the whole way through. Otherwise, we would lose the audience because there are so many tangents,” Chiarelli said.
“The book came from a place of joy. It was a love letter to the culture and to family,” Lim said. “It came from a true and real place.”
But demonstrating her comedic talents, Lim mused about an ideal world of acceptance, saying, “I would love to write a movie we could sell as ‘Wretched Poor Asians.’”