Adele Lim is in an elated mood, she’s laughing as we share stories of growing up Asian in Western culture, checking marks as we agree on family time making dinner, or that Changi Airport is the best in the world. It does after all have a movie theater. We’re talking about Crazy Rich Asians, Lim co-wrote the screenplay with Peter Chiarelli, bringing Kevin Kwan’s best-selling novel to the big screen. Lim talks about the pressure of adapting the novel and how cultural details were important to her.
Lim talks about her first impressions of the book and what she had thought before realizing it was nothing like she had expected. She also talks about her favorite scene and how symbolic it was. Read our chat below:
I was reading that you’re the only working Malaysian TV writer in Hollywood, is that correct?
I’m not sure. I feel I know most of the Asian TV writers, not all of them, but I don’t think I’ve met a working Malaysian TV writer and I think there’s one or two trying to break in and I’m trying to help them.
How did you get your start in Hollywood?
It was a very long time ago. I didn’t think I’d end up here. I always assumed I was going to go back to Malaysia and I met a boy. That boy had a car and that boy was going to drive out to LA and work for TV. It blew my mind. I didn’t realize that was an option so I jumped in his car and we shared a studio apartment. I answered job ads in The Hollywood Reporter and one of my very first jobs was for Xena: Warrior Princess.
Xena! Oh my goodness.
Yes. It was fucking fantastic actually. From there, I met a lot of great writers. Xena is a good analogy for the movie. On the outside, women in metal bras, fighting. I’d walk into the showrunner’s office and he’d be writing a scene about a guest character who gets killed off and he’d be crying at his computer. I think one of the most important lessons in writing for TV for me, whatever your world is and however heightened, even if other people think it’s a lot, it’s important to really believe in the characters and the stories you’re telling. That for me was a really important and valuable lesson to learn right off the bat.
Opening week for Crazy Rich Asians, here we are. You and Jon had been trying to work together for some time, but that didn’t happen. What did he tell you about Crazy Rich Asians?
It was all very hush hush. I was writing on another TV show full time. I didn’t have time for anything else. He called and emailed me asking if I had read the book and if I wanted to come on and be a part of it. It was a book that my whole family had been trying to get me to read but I was too busy. I thought, “Crazy Rich Asians sound exploitative” and my head was up my ass. I got it and read a few pages and immediately got back to Jon saying, “Oh my God! Hell yes.”
He and I had sold a show and we worked together, but he didn’t know that I came from part of that world. He didn’t know I was Chinese-Malaysian. I’m not rich, but everything in it, the Malay, the Indian, the Chinese, the food, the older generation and how they’re all Anglophiles and why everyone has a British accent. The la’s, the alamak and all of that, it was my world. I never in a hundred years thought that I would get a chance to write from my world, and my country, and my people for a major Hollywood movie.
Your reaction to the book was exactly the same as mine. I had no desire to read it; I live it. I don’t know what eventually possessed me to get it and when I did, I whizzed through that book because it’s our world.
Global best-seller. What was that pressure for you to adapt it?
When it was first announced, everyone kept saying, “you must be so excited and what an opportunity.” I felt a tremendous amount of pressure. First, a lot has been made of it, but the last contemporary movie with an Asian cast put out by Hollywood was Joy Luck Club. There was a few minutes of, “If I fuck this up and my part of it, they’re not going to give us another movie for 25 years.” Also, Kevin Kwan did such an amazing, fantastic and joyful job of bringing this world to everyone, I wanted to make sure that between me and Peter Chiarelli we were showing the same side in the same way that he was so skillfully able to do. That you find fascinating and there are parts of the characters and their emotional motivations that relate to you. To get all those little cultural details just right. Even if it goes over the head of the mainstream audience, the South-East Asians of the world can see it was very much done for them. It’s very much a love letter to all those people.
You’re revisiting your childhood, you know how that society works. What was that like to adapt this story and feel that, “Oh my god, I know this”?
I have to boil it down. Jon has this too, there were a lot of gratuitous moments of the universe pointing me in this direction. I think it was an everyday occurrence with this book and for me. The house that features so prominently in the movie and the book. We were shooting in Malaysia and they found this beautiful old historic colonial house but the jungle had taken it over. There was bat shit, iguanas, and everything. I looked at the photos and it looked so familiar and I said, “I feel I got married in a place that looks like this.” It turned out to be the exact same place back in the day. It was a beautiful place, I got married there, it was a hotel and The Queen would stay there.
The production team moved in and Nelson Coates our Production Designer got that place cleaned out and it felt like you were in an analogy for my life and my relationship with my country. It all came full circle.
There were a few scenes that were not in the book but are in the film, the mahjong scene and the dumpling scene. Jon and I had talked about them. We needed scenes where we could bring the family together and have the drama play out because we didn’t have time to go to a bunch of different things like the book. They were both inspired by things I do with my family. Making food together, it doesn’t matter how much or how little money you have, it’s the thing we come back to.
Mahjong is a game that is so specific to us, men and women are equally into, things get said and bonds get broken or strengthened around those tables and that was so much fun to get into.
The dumpling scene is what you do. In the Philippines that’s what you do, you make lumpia. It’s so bonding, but also can be tense.
OK that opening scene. I think it the first time I’d ever seen such a reaction of people applauding at a press screening. Talk about writing that scene. You know you’re in for an amazing ride.
That’s all Kevin Kwan, it was in the book. Jon and I talked about it, we wanted to open with that scene. That scene came up with other people when we were talking about the script like, “Is this the best way to start?” We all felt it was so important to put that world into perspective. It’s hard to have sympathy for or to relate to people who are being branded as crazy and rich. If you can see a glimpse of that struggle, even for people who are that rich, that when they are in Western Culture and what they’re dealing with, without feeling like you’re being preached at, it’s something many priorities and Asians in particular, watch that scene and there’s something in there that is parallel to their own lives. They come in with Louis Vuitton but they still look a certain way.
Was there something you wanted to be extra careful of when writing that you didn’t want something to come across as negative?
Constance Wu brought something up early on. The detail in the book is she is called out on her friends who are not dating Asian guys. Jon and I wanted to get into that and explore that. It’s not self-hating Asians, but it’s this detail that is specific to growing up as an Asian in a predominantly Asian culture where you feel like you don’t want to end up with somebody simply because you are of the same race or you are culturally the same. We thought it might be something interesting to get into with the character, but Constance pointed out, and she was 100% correct with it, that if you don’t have the real estate or the space to talk about it, it’s going to come across as self-hating Asians. The whole point of it is that Asian men have to deal with a lot of how they are depicted in Western media. It was probably an overt agenda of mine, and I know it was also for Jon. The men in our movie are these beautiful guys. It sounds so silly and so superficial but representation matters. There is a reason why Asian men in this country have had to deal with things in terms of dating or how they’re perceived is how they’re depicted in the media. Constance said no, in terms of the dialogue and the script. It was fantastic for the book, but we had to omit from the movie because it didn’t have the space to give it the discussion that it warranted.
I’m not straight, but Henry Golding is lush. I was drooling over him, he’s lush!
Rachel’s scene in the airport brought back so many memories because it is one of the best in the world. It made me want to book a flight to Singapore.
For anyone who’s been to Changi Airport and been to an American hub airport, you see the difference. There are a bamboo area and butterfly garden. Then you get to LAX and it’s the worst.
You are a part of a movement. How does it feel?
I don’t think it’s really occurred to me. I think Jon probably had the foresight about this. He talks about it being a movement. I would like for it to be part of an ongoing movement that started long before us with Joy Luck Club and other movies like Black Panther and Get Out, about giving people who are Americans and part of the American fabric a voice and celebrating their stories.
In that same spirit, Joy Luck Club came out 25 years ago. We thought things would be different, but the truth of that is not much changed. I think there’s mindfulness about it, that not one thing will change anything. On the heels of the movie, there is hope that there will be many more Asian Americans and people of color creators who are out there and it will motivate people who have the power to greenlight projects and give those projects a chance.
I’m working on a Disney feature animation. I’m also working on a pilot that I sold and in one of the calls last week, the development executive mentioned they have a lot of projects that are being inspired by the Crazy Rich Asians explosion whose success is dependent on how well this movie does so you do feel that pressure.
I did tweet about this interview, and people want to know if you’re gearing up to write the sequel.
I can not speak to the sequels. I’m still in this space hoping we open well. I’m not privy to the plans anyone has after this. [laughs].
Did you have a favorite scene to write?
The mahjong scene, it felt so meaningful. To be able to show these two strong characters. Neither of them you think are evil. You get where they’re coming from. Being able to pull from my culture to set it in. Having the mahjong to reflect the conflict that is playing out. She has that card and it’s an analogy for Nick, she can win with it, and she chooses not to. So much is said and unsaid. That’s all Jon Chu, having her mother there. Other versions had her not there. I thought she’s strong enough, she doesn’t need her mother. Jon was like, “Have her mother be in there.” It is one of my favorite moments because she has this love for Rachel and there’s this great look between her and Eleanor. There’s this look of the new world matriarch and the old world matriarch. Rachel might not have this extensive rich family, but she has her mother who loves her just as fiercely and that’s where your richness lies.