‘Crazy Rich Asians’ director discusses past and future projects

Rawson Thurber (left) and Jon M. Chu (right) both attended the School of Cinematic Arts and went on to direct the comedies “We’re the Millers” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” respectively. (Andres Casanova/Daily Trojan)

Directors Jon M. Chu and Rawson Thurber, both USC alumni, spoke with students about their careers, paths to success and advice for future entertainment creators in the Ray Stark Family Theatre Tuesday.

School of Cinematic Arts Dean Elizabeth Daley started Tuesday’s talk with an introduction of the Alumni Conversation series. This was the inaugural event, to kick off a celebration of the SCA’s 90th Anniversary.

“We’re doing this so that our alumni can share with each other and with you the kind of conversations that can only happen in a place where a professional community comes together,” Daley said.

Chu, who directed the global blockbuster romantic comedy “Crazy Rich Asians,” graduated from USC in 2003 with a degree in film and television production. The film was nominated for an array of awards, including two Golden Globes, a Screen Actors Guild Award and several Critics’ Choice Awards.

Thurber graduated from USC in 1999 after participating in the Peter Stark Producing Program. Thurber’s first feature screenplay was the hit 2004 comedy, “Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story,” and since then, he has directed comedies like “We’re the Millers” and “Central Intelligence.”  

The pair kicked off the conversation by explaining how they know each other, despite attending USC at different times. Thurber saw “Step Up 2: The Streets” and became an admirer of Chu’s work, while Chu first became acquainted with Rawson when Rawson wrote “Dodgeball.”

During the conversation, Chu recounted successfully pitching one of his first projects to director Steven Spielberg, and Thurber spoke about his journey to making “Dodgeball.”

“I wrote a bad action movie, and I gave it to [screenwriter] John August,” Thurber said, referring to one of the first projects he wrote. “He has the script of my bad action movie, and he throws it on the desk and says ‘nope.’”  

Rawson and Chu also spoke about their upcoming projects. Chu’s next project will be the highly anticipated film adaptation of playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical, “In The Heights.” According to Chu, this production follows a string of projects he says left him “creatively empty.”

“I was doing genres I didn’t know if I wanted to do or not,” Chu said. “I just want to find something that means something more to what I want to say, and I came across two things: ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ and ‘In The Heights.’”

For his next film, Rawson will team up with actor Dwayne Johnson on “Red Notice.” Rawson came up with the idea for the film while they were shooting their previous collaboration, “Skyscraper.” Drawing from this experience, Rawson also stressed the importance of effective pitching in the film industry.

“It needs to be a conversation between the people in the room and if you look like you’re running for eighth grade class president, it’s over,” Rawson said. “Create a picture in their mind as best you can.”

The two directors also offered advice for students hoping to enter the entertainment industry.

“I find that most actors, especially nowadays, on commercial pictures — that sacred rehearsal period has eroded,” Rawson said. “Film dailies are also gone. But for me, the rehearsal period is about going through the scenes with the actors, and mostly, it’s like ‘Are there any problems here?’”

On whether movies still have a place in theaters due to the rise in film and TV streaming, Chu offered an experience he garnered from “Crazy Rich Asians.”

“We knew that the impact of movies through cinema, it still has a place in culture, a big place,” he said in reference to his decision to release the movie theatrically as opposed to a streaming service like Netflix.

Chu and Thurber’s conversation is the first of many alumni panels that SCA will host to celebrate its 90th Anniversary.