Jon M. Chu Interview

In the Heights, a film based on the successful stage musical, is about to land in Australian cinemas.  I recently had the chance to speak to director Jon M. Chu (Crazy Rich Asians) about the fun film…

Matt:  Big studio musicals are few and far between these days.  What made you want to take on this project?

Jon:  I remember seeing the show over a decade back and remarking on the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda.  Even though I’m not from Washington Heights and I’m not Latino, it spoke to my own upbringing in an immigrant community in California.  I knew what it felt like to be raised by aunties and uncles and have their hopes and dreams on your shoulders and to not know what to do with it.  It felt like the right time to tell that story now.

Matt:  As we know, a filmed musical throws up many more possibilities than a staged musical and we can see that here by making the neighbourhood such a big part of the movie.  What was your vision in making that transition?

Jon:  It was about taking the audience to Washington Heights and not the other way around.  It’s about embedding them on those streets.  Lin, who still lives in the neighbourhood, had written this amazing music but it had never been performed on the streets that it was about.  For me, it was about connecting the two.

There’s a language of music and movement that comes from this area and I wanted to capture the truth of these songs.  It’s not about us watching them perform the songs but rather, to experience their feelings and to yearn, to dream, to have hope, to feel down, to feel alone, and then to feel together.

Matt:  What sort of challenges does a musical bring that weren’t there on other films you’ve directed to date?

Jon:  There was a lot of pressure because it’s the first adaptation of a Lin-Manuel Miranda musical (laughs).  There are also logistical things.  For the pool in the 96,000 sequence, we had 600 extras and lifeguards to keep everyone safe.  We had people aged between 5 and 81.  We had fire marshals there because there were BBQs with fire.  We had the whole cast there are dance numbers that everyone had to do.  It was a lot!  But, ultimately, my job is to focus on the story and making sure that beyond the spectacle, we’re showing these people have dreams and it’s a “I want” song for the whole community. 

Matt:  Was there much that needed to be modernised?  For example, characters are carrying around iPhone and I think I heard a reference to John Wick at one point.

Jon:  Yeah.  The original Broadway show was set in the 1990s and was more of a period piece.  Times have changed really quickly and we made a conscious choice to make this post-gentrification.  There’s no fight against it and we’re not fighting the mayor who wants to buy all the buildings.  It’s happening and so what is our next move forward?  That was the spot we felt the whole world is in right now.  It’s changing and so what can we do to see our neighbours again and see them as human beings.   

Matt:  In The Heights has been with Lin-Manuel Miranda for a long time having written a first draft over 20 years ago in college.  We see appear in the film every so briefly but how involved was he in this film version behind the camera?

Jon:  We were shooting in his backyard because he still lives there.  Quiara Alegría Hudes, the writer, still lives there too.  When Lin gave me the tour, it was the best.  He was like “this is where I used to shoot my home videos” and I was like “yep, we’re shooting a scene there”.  He had other work on at the time but since he lives there, he would come after work and hang on the set.  He got a lot involved with the casting, the music and the editing and he was the perfect creative leader to look up to.

Matt:  A huge cast is required for the film but I’m particularly interested in Olga Merediz who I believe is the only main cast member reprising their role from when the show won the Tony Award on Broadway.  How did that come about?

Jon:  I was trying not have any Broadway cast members given how much time has passed since then but you can’t find anyone better than Olga.  She was obviously way younger than Claudia back then but now she’d grown into the role and she has more gravitas.  Honestly, I wanted to get it on tape forever.  I knew how special her performance was on Broadway and I knew she could add a lot to this movie.  We convinced her to come on in and she made everybody cry in the table reads and the rehearsals.  She embodied Abuela Claudia.

Matt:  Anthony Ramos has such a great screen presence.  He really do want to root for his character.  How did you settle on him for the lead role?

Jon:  Lin knew him from Hamilton and he did a stint of Usnavi in a smaller theatre version of the musical.  Again, I was trying to avoid going back to people who had played the role before and I auditioned a tonne of people, but when I sat down with Anthony at a coffee shop and he told me about his struggle growing up in New York and not knowing if he was worthy or not of becoming an actor, we cried.

I knew it wasn’t about putting him in a movie, it was about putting a movie through his lens.  It changed everything including the tone.  When other actors saw what he was doing, they were like “oh, we’re doing that.”  That set the course.

Matt:  As for the rest of the cast, how easy was it to find the right actors for each role?

Jon:  It was very difficult.  There are not a lot of roles for Latinx actors in the world and so you might not find them in the normal systems.  We had to search high and low.  We wanted people with high confidence because we think that’s contagious on the big screen and further, they had to be able to sing and dance as fluidly and as naturally as another language they spoke.  It takes a high-level craftsman to do that and we had to look deep to find those people.

Matt:  The film was shot in mid-2019 and now here it is being released two years later.  How much of an impact did COVID-19 have on the post-production and the film’s eventual release?

Jon:  It was hard emotionally to hang onto it for so long.  We were just about to finish it when COVID-19 struck but it gave us time to do some extra refinements with the sound mix.  In a musical, the mix is so important like what level do you hear the lyrics versus a door slamming behind the lyrics? In making it as real and visceral as possible, we had to find our balance and so we had extra time to make it right.

Matt:  What are you working on at the moment?

Jon:  We’re working on Wicked at the moment with Universal and I’m working with lyricist Stephen Schwartz and writer Winnie Holzman.  We’re finding out way into that one and hopefully it’ll be huge.

Finn Little Interview

Finn Little, a 14-year-old from here in Brisbane, has a starring role opposite Angelina Jolie in the new Hollywood action-thriller Those Who Wish Me Dead.  I recently had a chance to speak to Finn about his biggest project to date…

Matt:  You’re a teenager from Brisbane starring in a Hollywood movie opposite Angelina Jolie. Tell us a little about your background. Have you always lived in Brisbane?

Finn:  Yeah, I’ve always lived in Brisbane.  Born and raised and I love it here.

Matt:  How did you get into acting?

Finn:  Mum got me into acting when I was younger.  She got me and my sister into Eisteddfod performances to help us with our public speaking so we wouldn’t be nervous.  She must have thought we were all right because she signed us up with an agent.  We did some commercials and then when I was 10 years’ old, I landed the role in Storm Boy.

Matt:  Have you always enjoyed movies growing up?

Finn:  Definitely.  It’s a great escape from reality to just watch someone else’s life for a bit.

Matt:  What type of movies do you enjoy?  Do you have an all-time favourite film?

Finn:  Um… I don’t know.  I love Saving Private Ryan and also Breathe with Andrew Garfield.  Those are both great films.

Matt:  Those Who Wish Me Dead is a big project. How did you become involved?

Finn:  I have an American agent and they told me about the role.  I did a self-tape in the lounge room at home with my mum and sent it through to them.  They must have liked it because they sent me to Los Angeles to interview with director Taylor Sheridan and Angelina Jolie.

Matt:  I’m sure there would have been a lot of people up for the role so to land it would have been pretty cool?

Finn:  Yeah.  I was quite nervous for the audition so to get the part was very exciting.

Matt:  Angelina Jolie is someone herself who started in the business quite young. Was there much you could learn from her in terms of acting and the movie industry as a whole?

Finn:  Definitely.  She’s very experienced and it was great to work alongside someone who also has an action background to help me through it.  There was a lot to learn and I think we had a great time with each other.

Matt:  Did you get to spend a lot of time off-screen with her as you did on-screen?

Finn:  Yeah.  We spent a few weekends together and I was with her kids doing stuff like airsoft, skate rooms, BBQs and swimming.  We got to know each other pretty well off-set and it was great to have that so we’d feel more comfortable on-set.

Matt:  There are some scenes in this movie that require some big emotions and the camera is right there up in your face. How easy is it to create those moments?

Finn:  I just think about school which is quite traumatic (laughs).  Nah, I just think about past experiences.  Everyone has some stuff in their past that’s changed them a bit.  I think of that and try to bring it onto the screen as best I can.

Matt:  You’ve done a couple of big movies now.  Do you find it gets easier now the experience is building up?

Finn:  Yes.  It was hard at first to get into that headspace but now I can turn it on whenever I need it.

Matt:  You touched on the subject of schooling.  How does that work?  Do you get home schooled on set?

Finn:  I do have a tutor on set who helps me with my school work while I’m away.  That’s all right I guess but I then come back and go to normal school.

Matt:  Those Who Wish Me Dead is rated MA in Australia which means you actually can’t watch this unless in the company of a parent or guardian. Do you get a laugh out of that?

Finn:  Yeah, a little bit.  It’s interesting that I’ve done the stuff on set and have lived it but I can’t watch it myself… but I have watched it on the big screen and it looks really great.

Matt:  On that note though, are there safeguards in place for a young actor like you on the set? This is a very violent, intense movie in places with much of it shot at night.

Finn:  There are a few little things that I have to stay in-bounds of.  Kids have a certain amount of hours on set that they’re allowed to work.  I can’t be overworked so they had to get my scenes done fairly quickly each day.  There were a few more rules but I was happy to follow them.

Matt:  This movie was shot roughly two years ago but it’s taken a while to reach cinemas due to the impact of COVID-19. I’m sure you’ve grown and matured a lot over that time. What’s it like for you watching this movie and judging the performance of your younger self?

Finn:  I hate it.  I can’t stand it.  It’s hard to watch everything I do because it’s me and I notice every tiny thing that’s wrong with my American accent and every little acting mistake that I make.  I still haven’t gotten used to it yet.

Matt:  Have you had the chance to show the movie to family and friends yet?  Did you get some good reactions?

Finn:  Yes I did.  We invited quite a few family friends to the premiere last Friday night at Palace Cinemas.  That was my first time watching it on the big screen and it was great. 

Matt:  I was a big fan of both Sicario and Hell or High Water which were written by Taylor Sheridan.  What can you tell us about his approach to this film as director and how he guided your performance?

Finn:  Taylor Sheridan is really great to work with.  He builds an environment for his actors to work in that helps them deliver a better performance.  With the fire scenes, he actually built a forest and lit it on fire.  He did that to help us actors get into a headspace of what the characters were going through.  It was a pleasure to work with him.

Matt:  Were there many stunts you had to do as part of the film?

Finn:  Yeah, there were a few but they were fun and I really enjoyed them.  Wade Allen was our stunt coordinator and he always made sure I was good on set.  Angelina is such a professional at all that stuff and so it was nice to work alongside her.

Matt:  What was the hardest part of the shoot?

Finn:  Maybe the altitude in New Mexico.  I might be wrong but it’s about 2,000 feet above sea level so the air is a lot thinner and it’s harder to breathe.  Anything I normally do might take three times as long but I got used to it after a while.

Matt:  How do you find the PR side of things? Doing interviews like this?

Finn:  It’s all right I guess.  It can be fun to talk to a lot of different people about the movie and I hope I’m doing all right. 

Matt:  Is there anything you’re working on at the moment?  Any projects you can tell us about?

Finn:  I can’t talk about too much at the moment but stay tuned and you’ll be surprised and pretty happy about what’s coming up.

Andra Day Interview

Andra Day recently achieved the rare honour of earning an Academy Award nomination for her first movie role.  I had the chance to speak to Andra about her wonderful leading performance in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.

Matt:  Many people will know Andra Day as an acclaimed singer-songwriter but this is the first chance we get to see Andra Day the movie star.  Were you a film buff growing up?

Andra:  Yeah, I’ve always loved movies.  I didn’t know I was going to be in one though!  Up until now, I’ve been a happy consumer of film and TV.  I’ve become a big action person in the last few years of my life because it allows me to disappear into whatever crazy explosions are happening on screen as opposed to the explosions that are happening in my life.

Matt:  If that’s the case, we’ll have to see you a James Bond film or similar at some point?

Andra:  Listen… you speak it, I receive it (laughs).

Matt:  It can take a long time for some people to find their feet in Hollywood but here you are breaking through and receiving huge acclaim for your first acting role.  Take us back.  How did you first learn about the project and what made you decide to become involved?

Andra:  At first, I didn’t want to be involved because I wasn’t an actor.  I also love Billie Holiday and I didn’t watch to be a part of botching her legacy.  I thought I would ruin everything.  Further, I didn’t want to remake Lady Sings the Blues because I thought Diana Ross was amazing even though I know that movie didn’t provide the full accurate picture of who Billie was.

Ultimately, I met with Lee Daniels and fell in love with him.  He’s a visionary and there’s no other way to describe him.  He’s supported and stood for black stories for so long.  We shared insecurities and we shared how we felt about this movie.  I learned from him this wasn’t a retelling of Lady Sings the Blues but that we would be talking about the government going after her and crafting the war on drugs to stop her from singing Strange Fruit, a song about lynching black people in America.  It felt the film would be vindicating of her legacy and as a fan of hers, that pushed me into the audition.

Matt:  What was the preparation like in terms of rehearsal?  I believe you were working with both an acting coach and a dialect coach?

Andra:  It’s funny because I’m a researcher.  I did tonnes of reading and listened to her music.  I’ve been a big fan of her since I was 11 years old.  Lee and my acting coach, Tasha Smith, had to teach me how to act in a very short period of time.   They were like “Andra, we love the research but acting is about more than that – we have to inform that research with a real human being.”  They taught me how to be extremely vulnerable and bring certain emotions to the surface.  They also taught me how change “at the drop of a dime” for the director.  She prepared me great in that way.

With my vocal coach, Tom Jones, it was about finding Billie’s voice.  What muscles do we train?  Where does she speak from?  I found her though her laugh.  Tom would always say to me that Billie chases her breath when she speaks. 

There was also the physical transformation.  I lost a bunch of weight, I cut off my hair, I started smoking cigarettes and drinking.  Lee didn’t have me do that.  I did that.  I didn’t want to “half way” do Billie Holiday.  That’s part of who she is and you’d be hard pressed to find a photo of her without a cigarette or drink in her hand.  I needed to feel that in my own body.

Matt:  Did any of that take a toll of you?

Andra:  Yes.  I think I look 10 years older than what I did before the movie (laughs).  It has taken a toll on my vocal cords that my ENT doctor isn’t happy about.  Those things can be nursed though.  I understood the advice others gave to me about taking care of my voice because I’m a singer.  It was totally sensible and logical.

However, I realised that God had brought me to this role and I remembered something my dad had taught me – “you’re either in or you’re out.”  I can’t save myself for a long-term singing career that might not be there.  I’ve got to be here and give everything I can right now.  That’s all that really matters.

Matt:  You already have background knowledge of Billie Holliday having sung a cover of Strange Fruit back in 2017.  How did you see Billie Holiday growing up and did that opinion change much in making this movie?

Andra:  Growing up, I saw her as a deeply emotional person who had experienced a lot of pain and then sung about it.  In my late teens, I did more research and my appreciation for her got even deeper.  It also got me thinking about her fight.  She was singing Strange Fruit prior to the civil rights movement and it was like a solo mission for her.  She was wiling to give up her life for it.  It made me want to take a page out of her book and understand that’s what it takes when you really want to see lasting change.

Matt:  Tell us about director Lee Daniels.  How did he help you in creating such a memorable performance?

Andra:  Lee is the genius at the centre of it all.  Coming into the film, I was like “if I can cry on screen then it’ll be believable and realistic” but I learned through Lee that just being sad doesn’t make people want to root for you.  He wanted people to be strengthened by my performance and to fall in love with Billie as we had.

He was so specific.  He said he didn’t want her to be a victim.  It was so much so that we had to put crime scenes back into the film because we were like “she’s too hard now”.  Lee is collaborative and a visionary.  He’s totally in service to the moment and that is invaluable.  He’s not going to move on unless he “gets it”.  He’ll also spontaneous and will do whatever it takes to get the right emotion and the accuracy of a scene.  He’s not afraid to toss something in at the last minute.  It’s like the scene where the dog runs in – that was random and unplanned.  He’s committed to getting an honest reaction.

Matt:  It’s a shame the film will be skipping cinemas and going directly to streaming in some countries due to the impact of COVID-19.  How has the pandemic been from your perspective and how big an impact has it been on your own professional career?

Andra:  The movie theatre thing is really challenging.  It’s amazing that Hulu picked it up and we were able to get it out there on so many more screens but at the same time, the movie was intended for theatres.  Lee shot it on film which is expensive to do.  From my perspective, I missed him and the rest of the cast after the end of the shoot.  The pandemic has made me much more grateful.  It made me realise the things I hold on to that aren’t that important and vice-versa.  At the end of the day though, I’m not choosing between food and shelter like many other people are.  I’m trying to stay grounded throughout all of it. 

Matt:  What was it like showing the film to friends and family for the first time?  What sort of reaction did you receive?

Andra:  My dad was the funniest.  He watched the film and when it came to the sex scenes, he goes “hey you know when something is burned into someone’s memory forever… well it’s not burned into mine because I didn’t watch it.”  I was like “I’m glad you didn’t!”  They loved it and were really proud.  My family is an interestingly grounding force.  Others are like “this is amazing” and my family are like “hey, that was great… can you pass me a bottle of water?”  I love my family.  They’re so nonchalant about life.

Matt:  I’m not sure how closely you follow it but you’re part of one of the most interesting Oscars race in recent years.  Carey Mulligan won the Critics’ Choice Award, Viola Davis won the SAG Award, Frances McDormand won the BAFTA, and you won the Golden Globe Award.  What are your thoughts going into the upcoming ceremony?

Andra:  People ask me what it’s like to be competing against these women and I don’t see it that way.  We’re just representing different women in different communities.  Two black women are nominated in this category for the first time since Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were nominated back in 1973.  There are other historic nominations this year with women directors.  I feel nothing but love for all the incredible women in my category and I’ve been moved by their performances.

Kelly McCormick Interview

Nobody is an action-thriller with an unlikely hero played by Bob Odenkirk.  I recently had the chance to speak to producer Kelly McCormick about the project…

Matt:  For the most part, Australia has been on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and cinemas have been open here but I know cinema managers and the public have been disappointed by the lack of product coming out of Hollywood.  Nobody was originally scheduled for release in August 2020 so what’s behind the decision to finally push the button and get it out there?

Kelly:  You can’t wait forever and I think people are really wanting new material.  Universal has been bullish in making sure there’s a theatrical release for this.  It’s a great film to experience with an audience.  We expect that a lot of people will come to theatres for something like this and for those not yet comfortable, it’ll be released on streaming 3 weeks later in the U.S. and they can watch it in their own homes.

Matt:  You’ve been involved in a few action films like Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw and Shadow in the Clouds.  In your eyes, what are you looking for if producing an action flick?

Kelly:  The company 87North, which is David Leitch and myself, are looking for iconic characters that are rich, detailed and complicated.  They go on a journey that’s relatable and the journey is heightened and improved with action moments.  I think Nobody has that in spades in that he’s an “everyman” and has a lesson to learn in that he needs to show up and be there for his family.  When Bob Odenkirk came to us with the idea, we were over the moon.

Matt:  I was going to ask where the idea first came from.  Did it come from Bob Odenkirk?

Kelly:  It did.  It’s based on a true story in his life.  His house was invaded and he wished he had acted in a different way.  I told him he probably acted in the right way in real life and it’s for the best that we live out this alternate version in movie form.  You can feel the passion in his performance.

Matt:  It is a genre that get stale and repetitive but writer Derek Kolstad gave us something fun and original with the John Wick franchise.  This is his first effort since John Wick so how did he get involved?

Kelly:  It’s his first produced since John Wick.  I’ll note that he has a lot of scripts in motion in a lot of places in town.  Bob’s dream writer was Derek.  Both Braden Aftergood and I had previous working relationships with Derek and so we could connect them.  Derek and Bob have become close friends and they did a lot of tailoring of the screenplay together.  It’s been a team effort and a wonderful experience.

Matt:  If you asked me to put together a list of actors who might transition into the action genre, I have to admit that Bob Odenkirk wouldn’t have been the first name that popped into my head.  I realise it was his idea but did he always know he would star in it himself? 

Kelly:  I don’t when he decided he wanted to become an action star to be honest.  Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad had action adjacent to him but he often wasn’t involved.  We at 87North are always looking for who that next “unexpected actor” would be that you could put into something different.  It allows you to do some unique things because they don’t look and seem like a typical action star.  That’s exciting.

Matt:  I don’t know a lot about Russian director Ilya Naishuller.  What can you tell me about his approach?

Kelly:  Ilya is awesome.  Biting Elbows is a great music video and then he also did Hardcore Henry which is inventive.  He’s bold, lyrical, organized and thoughtful.  He knew what he wanted and we loved the experience with Ilya.  He brought so much to the picture including some of the most authentic Russians in American action movies.

Matt:  I love the touch that the villain is a fan of karaoke and he opens with a musical number.

Kelly:  Isn’t it ridiculous?  I love it.  That guy, Aleksei Serebryakov, is a serious actor in Russia and then he comes over here to the United States and plays this fantastic villain.  He’s quite a performer.

Matt:  With any action film, it’s always a question about how far to push things when it comes to violence.  I’d say this film doesn’t overdo the gore but there are some moments that’ll catch audiences off guard and there are some “creative deaths”.  What was your approach in terms of that?

Kelly:  87North always works with the director to find the right style.  With the main character, we find out what they can do physically and then what they want to do physically.  We then create the energy and the choreography around that.  That allows you play.  For us, it’s not trying to shock every time but rather, it’s about what’s original and what hasn’t been done before.

Matt:  Without giving anything away, there was one moment with a drinking straw that will certainly stick in my head for a while.

Kelly:  That was actually Ilya’s idea and it was pretty intense.

Matt:  Nobody is an action comedy set in the current day but the soundtrack list includes Andy Williams, Louis Armstrong, Pat Benatar and Gerry and the Pacemakers.  What was behind that creative decision?

Kelly:  Isn’t that a cool throwback?  It was about “what does Bob hear in his head?” and “what informs us about who he is?”  He’s also a throwback character in the sense that he’s older and we thought – why not go with an old-school, classy vibe as he kicks ass throughout the movie.  It’s one of my favourite parts of the movie.

Matt:  Hopes to make a franchise out of this or is it intended to be a one-off?

Kelly:  Lots of hope.  Derek planted a lot of seeds and Ilya allowed for them to grow.  There are a lot of different ways for it to take off whether it looks more at the family or Chris Lloyd’s character or the other mysterious characters in the middle of it.  What is this agency?  There’s a lot of things we can play with.

Matt:  I realise COVID-19 has made life difficult but is there anything you can share that you’re working on at the moment?

Kelly:  Yeah.  David and I are shooting a movie now called Bullet Train and it’s a crime caper set in Japan with Brad Pitt, Joey King, Bryan Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  We’re having a ball.