Crazy Rich Asians’ box office currently stands at $136 million dollars, the highest grossing romantic comedy in nine years. We could continue with records and milestones this film has set, but it’s a shame that a nomination for Best Popular Film category won’t be among them. This film could have provided some interesting competition for Black Panther.
Scroll twitter and search for reactions to this film and you’ll see people loving it, crying, laughing even on their third visit, myself included. This film is a phenomenon.
It doesn’t just break, it shatters the typical representation of Asian-Americans on screen. Constance Wu plays Rachel Chu, dating Henry Golding’s Nick Young. He brings her to Singapore for his best friend’s wedding and she also gets the chance to meet his wealthy family for the first time. Rachel, it turns out has been dating the most eligible bachelor in Asia, heir to the Young family’s fortune that includes several hotels and apartments and seemingly endless stacks of cash. In the first few minutes, when Nick’s mother is snubbed at the front desk of a hotel, she solves the problem by buying the hotel. How’s that for an “eat my shit” moment?
When Rachel meets Nick’s family, that same fierce mother has to be won over, and Michelle Yeoh commands the screen as the woman whose resistance must be conquered.
The film’s editor Myron Kerstein is an integral part of piecing these scenes together, whether it’s the interplay between Nick and his “new girlfriend,” or that battle between Eleanor and Rachel over a game of mahjong, or making us salivate over the delectable food scenes. I caught up with Kerstein to talk about the art of cutting Crazy Rich Asians.
Read our chat below:
That opening where we first meet Eleanor Young is so important to the rest of the film. Talk about setting that up and what it says about her.
There was a big debate about that scene because it’s like no other scene in the rest of the film. It’s the most important scene to the film but also setting up a potential three-story drama with all the books.
There was a debate about whether or not the scene should be in the film. Jon was pretty adamant that this scene did two things: it set up who Eleanor was, and that was someone who was not going to be taken advantage of. Someone who was going to fight for everything. It set up a potentially bigger idea which is what the world is experiencing now. How do we reconcile differences between cultures and also about the Chinese and their dominance in the world economy?
This scene wasn’t necessarily needed for the rest of the movie, but right from the get-go, it set up the tone that this was a film to pay attention to. Eleanor is someone that whoever is going to meet her, she is someone to be reckoned with. To some respect, you also set up Astrid and Nick and in observing this family dynamic, we’re going to take control of these situations and we have the power to make our own lives and our own future.
There’s also no other scene where racism is really touched upon. I’m grateful that we didn’t make a film where we lean into that. We’re acknowledging that this is the first Asian-American film in 25 years, but let’s get past all that.
I still can’t believe it’s been that long.
And that was the biggest challenge when I first started working on it. The stakes were so high, right? Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room with that first scene and then let’s tell the rest of our story.
Where do you fall with familiarity and the books, had you read them before or was the first introduction via the script?
I was not familiar with it. I had read the screenplay before the book. I believe Jon felt it was an asset that I saw it the same way a viewer would see it and didn’t have the baggage of the books. To some respect, back to that original scene, it has more of the cousins in the book. If I had read the books before that, I might have been hung up on a detail like that where this was told more specifically from Nick’s point of view. I think by having that freedom from the source material, and you still have to respect the source material, after I read it, I thought how to do the texting montage. In the screenplay, it’s one line. In the book, it’s a few pages. I wondered how to pull it off. When you go back to the source material for something like that, you have to show how colossal that moment is where you’re traveling the globe with this information.
The book is much more focused on many of the characters, whereas our film is mainly following Rachel and Nick’s journey. Specifically Rachel’s journey. For me, being unleashed to just to be able to treat this like a fish out of water story and less of an ensemble piece, allowed me to focus the film, as long as I stayed true to her journey.
We even debated Astrid’s journey and how much to put in the film. As long as it’s reflective of Rachel’s journey. If it’s a cautionary tale to what Rachel might experience I think it’s ok to have it.
You mentioned the text conversation. How did you come up with that visual?
It took months. When I first tried to figure out how to do it, I was working on my assembly, Jon had these really elaborate storyboards showing these split screen sequences. We were making the ultimate split screen, Pillow Talk on steroids, texting montage in the history of texting montages and how do we pull this off? Again you have five or six drawings that Jon had worked with an artist and it tells me the potential, but now we have to make it. It turns out that making something like that really takes a long time. When I first sculpted that screen, it was me taking shots of the b-roll of people they’d shot in Singapore and I created the simple montage in AVID and it told the story that we needed to get from A to B.
Then we went through this elaborate process of hiring a good vendor which we landed with this company called Aspect. We started working with them to create a style in the editorial pace and what information needed to be conveyed from point A to point B to point 400. That just took this really long process. We had to figure out what we wanted the texting bubble to look like, then who receives what text bubble and when, and when does it divide into many anonymous figures and when do we start traveling the globe, and when do we land at Eleanor?
They ended up being these Disney-esque pops and that was something Jon and I loved. We wanted more of them. It was really this elaborate collaboration between myself, Jon and Jon Berkowitz as Aspect and all the artists in that company were creating that frame.
Tonally, we were struggling with how to tell the story. For the longest time, we had nothing in there. At one point, we ended up putting in John Williams’ score from 1941. When Brian Tyler saw an early version with our temp, he was inspired to do his own version of it. He brought in a big band to help underscore this zanny heightened storytelling device.
I will talk about the mahjong scene, but I do love the Singapore market scene and cutting that.
Some of my favorite scenes are those with Singapore.
It makes you want to go.
It was so important to Jon to have that travel aspect to it, but also we fall in love with Nick and Rachel in Singapore. We actually had a cute meet scene in the beginning of the film which was a karaoke scene. We ended up cutting it because it was something we’ve seen before, but also, this was Singapore.
You’re still getting to know the two of them and I think through food, music, and Singapore, you start to fall in love with both them and the place that they’re in. The Hawker Street market, in particular, was influenced by two things. I was in Singapore and Malaysia when we shot the film and I had the opportunity to go to one of these markets. It is, without a doubt, the most chaotic and most densely populated and is one of the most delicious places you’ll go to in your life. It’s 100 degrees, humid, but there’s something about that sultry, steamy place that feels sexy, exotic and romantic. I went down to the set when they shot that scene. It was just as chaotic as any other day. Jon set up a bubble section inside a working market. They didn’t close it down. The extras were there as a boundary. He first shot the scene where they’re talking at the table. At the same time, he had a b-roll camera operator shooting the stalls while he was shooting that scene.
All the extra scenes where Nick is explaining all the different stalls and him talking to the vendors in Hokkien, I was standing there and Jon says, “I’m not sure how it intercuts together.” What he wanted to do was create what we were all observing which was this really magical and chaotic and scrumptious place.
Another thing I had in mind was this Ang Lee movie, Eat Drink Man Woman which had all these beautiful food preparation montages. I remember watching those when I was very young and wanting to run out to a restaurant and that’s what I wanted to do for our audience. Here you pick the bits and pieces and then they set up Bernard Tai and they’re falling in love and it was one of my favorite scenes.
It absolutely made me hungry and when they look at each other, I was sold.
How as an editor do you get to find your voice when you’re working with a global best-selling novel, Jon’s voice?
My voice is so infused with my DNA that in being involved with the process, I feel like I’m the co-parent and it’s like that with every film I work on.
I know the writer or DP might say the same thing. I’m on a film for eight months so I have this great pride. We’re also talking hundreds of thousands of decisions are being made about what performances to pick, what music to try. I think having Jon as a director who was open to me giving my input and saying, these are the choices that I’d make. When you find a kindred spirit in that, I find my voice starts to come through. I deeply feel like my voice is romantic and filled with music and humor, but I also have some darkness to me. I’m a fan of melodramas as well so going from a fish out of water comedy in the first half to Imitation Of Life by Douglas Sirk film in the second half. That’s it right there. I want to do John Hughes, Pretty Woman in one half and Imitation of Life in the second half. I think being allowed to put that stamp on and being part of the process happens over the course of the movie where someone allows you to keep on adding.
Jon had a huge playlist that he gave me at the start of the movie which stylized what the tone would be, but he didn’t tell me where to put every song and when I do my films, I take the first crack at putting my music in the film. I get a big swing at influencing the movie before anyone including Jon has even seen it. I take great pride in everything I have.
OK, the mahjong scene. I know how to play the game so I knew how important that card was, but you have 99.9% of the audience who have no clue about it. How do you get that importance over and talk about the sound design?
First of all, there’s got to be a huge shout out to John Marquis and Nancy Nugent who did the sound in the movie. It really did sound really loud. Jon would describe it almost like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon moment. You could almost hear the clanking of steel drums getting ready for battle.
We went back many times trying to find the perfect sound. He actually bought this mahjong set to record pieces dropping and he’d want it heavier and louder. I didn’t know how to play mahjong. I also knew to some respect that 99.9% of my audience would not know how to play it either.
What’s the trick? One of the greatest things I had was to watch the dailies of the scene and to hear over the b-roll of these tiles being placed, Michelle Yeoh and Jon debating where tiles go. So by me listening to them while they were shooting the b-roll was me learning how to play mahjong or understand the basic concept.
The other thing Jon did was he choreographed the scene completely, but he never told me how to put it together. I think he did that because (A) he trusted me, but (B) he wanted to get my take on how I would put it together. He wanted to see what my take was. Slowly but surely you start to craft the scene which is our Raging Bull. It’s two fighters tit for tatting each other and you have to understand that this game is similar to poker and you might win different points or you might be able to steal pieces, but these pieces become unimportant. Maybe the most important piece is the piece Rachel gives away right?
We start to understand slowly through looks, the way she’s holding the piece and what she’s talking about that this represents Nick. She’s going to sacrifice this piece that will allow her to win. I just think through the combination of the dialogue, the looks and how we hold on to certain pieces, how Eleanor might react to something Rachel does or vice versa that we understand to some idea what the universality of the game, but what they’re really talking about is Nick and sacrifice.
In any kind of scene, you have to find a kernel. I already had Michelle and Jon somewhat telling me how the tiles work in the game. I also needed a kernel of a performance to build the scene outward from. Constance’s performance in that scene was amazing. Many times over the course of the scene I was like, “Is she going to be able to pull this off?” It’s so emotional for her and she’s almost breaking down while they’re shooting it.
She says, “I’m not leaving because I’m scared or because I think I’m not enough, but because for the first time in my life, I know I am.” I’m just like “Oh my God!” Screw the game, the game doesn’t even matter anymore. I just need to build up to that moment. I had that kernel and had to get from the beginning of that scene to that line.
I was able to build the performance first and then start building the game around the performance. I needed to find the internal conflict. Rachel was there to tell Eleanor, “You don’t control me.” She was going to leave there proud and she’s is saying, “I could have had your son, but decided I’m not going to come between you and know that I’m worthy.”
That scene was quiet because it had a lot of tension in it and those are the hardest to pull off. It’s almost like a classical guitar where you’re playing very specific notes, slowly and you can hear any off-key notes. I’m a huge fan of action sequences that have an extreme amount of cutting. There’s something to be said about a scene where you can hold on gazes and play tiles at specific moments and make it feel like a fight scene and maybe leave you crying at the end. I’m nearly in tears every time.
Every time. You know, I’ve seen men crying about that scene too?
These are the types of movies that I have always wanted to make, a film that could play to a large audience that they could find a little different and be subversive and commercial at the same time. I love the fact that a movie like this could be so culturally specific and widely accepted at the same time.
And now you have the sequel.
Right around the corner. [laughs]