“Crazy Rich Asians” was one of the biggest hits of the summer. A romantic comedy from a major studio, coupled with a cast of Asian and Asian-American stars propelled it to eighth place in a summer that included “Incredibles 2,” “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” and “Misison: Impossible – Fallout.”
Yes, it was a big summer for this charmer. But the movie isn’t just a surface level crowd pleaser. It took a lot of work to translate a big, bestselling novel into the great film it was.
One of the key players in crafting the production was editor Myron Kerstein. His illustrious career has given him the opportunity to work on films and TV shows including “Garden State,” “Fame (2009),” “The Great Buck Howard,” and “Girls.” I recently had the chance to speak with Myron about his career, and especially about his time working on “Crazy Rich Asians.” It was a fun and insightful discussion, and we hope you’ll enjoy it too.
Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How are you today?
Myron Kerstein: Good, how are you?
KP: Good! Thank you so much for agreeing to talk to me for a few minutes. I really appreciate it.
MK: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Thank you for writing about our movie.
KP: Oh my gosh, I love your movie!
KP: I’ve seen it twice!
MK: Well, we’re very proud of it and anything I can do to sort of give you our hidden secrets, or give the fans of the film anything to talk about, that would be great.
KP: Well I would like to know anything you’d like to tell.
MK: (laughs) Well, let me tell you! It all started– No! (Laughs) There’s no secrets at all on our movie except that…We, you know, how do we filter down a complicated novel with a lot of story lines into something that feels like a romantic comedy that people can enjoy?
KP: Yeah, that’s actually somewhere that I’d like to start. Actually, no, first of all, at what point did you join the project?
MK: I joined right around pre-production. I worked with the producer, Brad Simpson, about twenty years ago when he was a post supervisor on a film I was the assistant editor on called “Velvet Goldmine.” And “Velvet Goldmine” was basically a tribute to the glam era with David Bowie, and it was directed by Todd Haynes, and the editor was Jim Lyons and we both became friends after that… We weren’t super close… we haven’t seen each other a whole lot since then, but we had stayed in touch. When my name was sort of in the mix for possibly doing [“Crazy Rich Asians”], I wrote to Brad and said, “Would you put in a good word?” And he said, “Of course I would! I’d love to be working on that film with you.”
And so that was the first step. He wasn’t the decider. It was also talking to Nina Jacobson, who is the other side of Color Force with Brad, and then of course Jon [M. Chu]. And I ended up, my first interview with Jon was actually a Skype call which are always the hardest interviews to do because you kind of feel like a schlub, and you’re usually making these calls from your kitchen or something. He was in Malaysia prepping the movie. And I just basically wore my heart on my sleeve and said how much I loved the script and how important a movie I thought it would be, and that I thought my past work would lend itself to what he was trying to make here, and that literally I would kill to be part of it. And it seemed to be enough (laughs) to basically convince him to take a risk with me. Then… three or four weeks later I found myself on a plane to Malaysia and I spent the next nine weeks in Malaysia and Singapore while they were shooting the movie.
MK: Yeah, so it was a very…it all happened very quickly. You know, often times you’ll hear your agents give you a bunch of names of movies and who the directors were and Jon I actually knew because I was a big fan of his early work. His “Step Up” movies and his Justin Bieber documentary, and even some of his genre work like “Now You See Me 2” or “GI Joe.” I just felt like he was a director that was basically A) trying to make a living doing this and also B) just trying a lot of different styles and trying to find his voice as a filmmaker. I really related to that. I related to the fact that he was doing a lot of films that were music related and I just saw a kinship and I, strangely enough, wanted to work with him for years. When I saw the opportunity to even have an interview with him I was like, “I just have to convince him to hire me!” So yeah, that was the beginning right there. The past and the present sort of come together.
KP: It’s funny because I talk to a lot of people in the industry, and it seems like so often a lot of these things really do come down to a little bit of luck and having things fall into place at just the right time. Do you feel like that was a little bit of it for you too?
MK: I would say that it’s not only luck, but it’s magic. (Laughs) You know, there’s no reason I should be talking to you right now about having made this movie. But it makes all the sense in the world at the same time. That I was the person that was supposed to cut this movie with Jon and the fact that I was the guy that he connected with. It is a lot of luck and it just kind of feels magical, just being in the right place at the right time and having a connection with somebody years ago to help kind of feed that energy, just is really cool.
KP: I feel like I understand what you’re saying from my side too. I grew up obsessed with movies and now I get to write about them and talk to the people who make them—
MK: I know!
KP: This is awesome.
MK: I know. I just wanted to get paid somehow for making art, you know? I grew up basically drawing and being obsessed about movies and thinking, “How will I ever make a living doing this?” My father said to me that I’m never going to make a living watching movies all day. And now here I am—
KP: In your face, Dad!
MK: Yeah! Exactly! How do you do this? How is it possible that we get to do what we love to do and make a living at it? It is really amazing.
KP: How do you feel that has happened for you? What are some of the things that you have specifically done to get yourself to the place you are now?
MK: First of all, I think it’s never giving up. And then more specifically, I think it’s following your heart. First I wanted to be an artist and also I wanted to be an architect. So I moved to the east coast chasing those dreams. Architecture didn’t seem to be working out for me mostly because I just thought I’d be drafting doorknobs for the rest of my life. I was like, I don’t want to do that, but I was really good at photorealism, drawings of buildings. Maybe I’ll be like a matte painter or VFX artist. So I went to a school called UMASS Amherst, and funny enough, they didn’t have a class on matte painting, but they did have a fine arts program and they had a school across the way named Hampshire College which had an experimental film program.
I started taking classes over there and sure enough, I fell in love with actually making the movies in any capacity… Editing started to lend itself to something I was interested in as well. Even my artwork, I was making these collages, found objects just on the street and stuff. I felt like my physical art-making was relating to my filmmaking. I was taking pieces of other things that already existed in the world and putting them together. And I was like, I think I could maybe be into this but I’m not sure.
And then I ended up moving to New York and thought I might want to be in filmmaking but still not sure. I was a PA on a TV show called “TV Nation.” Do you know “TV Nation” at all?
KP: I remember it, yeah. But I don’t remember much.
MK: Michael Moore had this TV show that was a precursor to, like, “The Daily Show.” It was political satire and it was almost like a “60 Minutes” news format, but political satire pieces. They had eight editors that worked on that show and soon I really found that all those editors needed somebody to help them. And I raised my hand and said, “I want to be involved with the amazing talent in front of me.”
Soon enough, they all started hiring me. Then building a network of all these people that wanted to hire me again. And those people put my name to somebody else saying, “Hey, this guy is really hungry, he wants to do it. He really wants to be here.” And that really goes a long way, by the way, just somebody being enthusiastic about their job. (laughs) You can get a long way by being the smartest guy in the room, but if you don’t have enthusiasm, if you don’t want to actually be there, people don’t want to bother with you. It sounds obvious, but a lot of people just don’t get it.
But anyways, those editors started to hire me and friends’ editors started hiring me and then slowly I started making a living as an assistant editor. And then I got my break to start cutting my first couple movies and I cut this beautiful film called “Raising Victor Vargas,” that Peter Sollett made. And then Zach Braff saw [that] and hired me with “Garden State” and then Paul Weitz saw me with “Garden State” and “Victor Vargas” and hired me on “In Good Company” so I got to make my first studio movie and then one after another people just started hiring me because they liked my other work and thought that I might be able to lend myself to their work or their TV show and…
KP: And now here you are!
MK: And now here I am…This year will be 20 years that I’ve been editing and it’s just building one project on top of another. Now I do a fair amount of TV as well as features. That’s a whole other world that has been gratifying and it exercises other muscles. So, you know, I got to work on “Girls” for a bit and now I just started this show called “I Feel Bad,” which is like a half hour comedy.
KP: That one is on my list to check out, actually.
MK: Yeah! So I’m just trying a lot of different things and putting food on the table, but also…sometimes you take jobs just ’cause you have to stay employed, and then other times you get opportunities to stay employed and get to make something really cool. But all of it is really lending—it’s one link to another link that keeps building upon each other. It’s patience and perseverance, you know?
KP: Yeah. So with “Crazy Rich Asians,” which, like I mentioned, I love (laugh)—
MK: (Laughs) Thank you!
KP: Yes! I’ve seen it twice and I want to see it again. So it’s pretty exciting. You get hired on and you hop on a plane to Malaysia. This was a pretty significant book, too. Did you read the book ahead of time? Or did you just go with the script and the material that was presented to you?
MK: I just went with the script, mostly out of necessity. Because I just got whipped into it so quickly. I also, to some extent, I finally just came clean to Jon and said, “I haven’t read the book.” And he said, “Well, that might actually be an asset to us, that you’re not trying to make the book, you’re just trying to make the movie in front of you.” So I didn’t. I’ve since gone back to educate myself, but it was good to some extent just not having the baggage of that material weighing me down or keeping me from making decisions just as a filmmaker trying to make a two-hour movie.
One instance of that is, you know, even the opening scene. There was a big debate whether the opening scene should even be in the movie, and Jon felt adamant that it was really important to be in the film, but I was worried that it didn’t feel like the rest of our movie. You know? It’s so different from the rest of our film. So just having that voice in the room—I ended up losing that battle, and I’m happy I did—
KP: It’s a great scene.
MK: Yeah, and also that scene had the other cousins in the book, so it was interesting because it’s a much more narrow cinematic piece, rather than the book [which] is obviously literary. So you’re just wondering how does one thing lend itself to the larger film that we’re making?
Another big debate was the debate of Astrid. Her story line goes on for chapters. How do we essentially make a film that’s about Rachel and Nick and their journey, especially Rachel’s journey, and keep the other stories moored to that central plot line. And I had to somewhat almost rationalize to myself why Astrid’s storyline had to exist. At one point I was like, “I don’t know. Maybe we don’t need Astrid.” And Jon’s like, “Well it’s a very important part of the book. Astrid’s character means so much to so many fans.” But for me, I had to find the function, and to me it was like, okay, this is a cautionary tale for Rachel. And if I can basically make sense of that then I think Astrid’s storyline can exist.
If that makes any sense. Just to be able to really…I didn’t want something that exists just because people are fans of it in the book. (laughs)
KP: Right! It has to make sense.
MK: Yeah, it has to make sense to the movie that we’re trying to make. And, you know, they had taken liberties from the book to make Rachel and Nick a sole focus of their journey. And I just…any time we spent any time with Astrid or any other character, for that matter, we just had to really agonize about was it worth it?
And then you have something like where the book really serves a guideline to help expand what you’re doing there. In the script, the texting montage was only just a line or two. Whereas when you read the book, it’s really elaborate and you’re like, this can’t just take five seconds! (Laughs) We need to actually make this into an event. And without the source material to give some guidelines, I think we would have just said, do we really even need this thing?
KP: And I love that scene. I think it tells you so much about everybody that you are about to meet, and it really gives you this other look at Nick’s life and what he’s bringing Rachel into. It really plays out well.
KP: What was it like working with Jon? How closely did you collaborate with him? What kind of director is he to work with from your point of view as an editor?
MK: He’s literally the best kind of director that an editor can have because he really intuitively knows what he wants out of a scene or a section of a film, but also allows for outside collaboration. And he’s also somebody who likes to get in the weeds with the material if he has to.
So, for example, when I cut the Majong scene, he basically had that whole scene choreographed, but he never told me how he wanted it put together. He just allowed me to make an assembly of that scene. And I kid you not, the scene that exists now is very close to my first cut. But then he’ll be the same guy who will basically say if something’s not working, let’s watch every take together, let’s make selects together, let’s reconstruct a sequence together in order to get it close to what he had in his head. He knows how to edit himself. He was an editor for many years. He edits—I don’t know if you saw, he made this incredible iPhone short that dropped yesterday.
KP: Oh, I haven’t seen it.
MK: So he got a new iPhone because he’s about to work for Apple, I think, on a TV show. And he shot a video of his friend practicing dance. And he shot it by himself. No equipment, no lights, and then edited it all by himself.
(Note: You can view the video here.)
So he can do it all. He can shoot, he can edit, but he also, just because he can doesn’t mean he wants to take away from the people that he’s brought in to give him a take of a scene or show them, “This is what I think you were trying to say with your footage.” He’s extremely open and, like I said, he’ll get in the weeds if he feels it’s not there or it’s not working. But he’ll also just let us have freedom [to] give our own voice to the footage. I would say the same thing for placing music or giving direction to the visual effects house to make that amazing texting montage, to intercutting scenes that were never scripted together. He’s just the most giving and inspiring director I’ve worked with in my career.
KP: It’s so great when you get those opportunities.
MK: Yeah, yeah. And I’ll just say that I’ve been pretty lucky too, with the directors that I have worked with. They’ve all been very similar directors. I just find that you just don’t always get the package the way you get with Jon, you know? And he’s also a bit younger, so he’s just got so much energy and enthusiasm to some extent. That was almost intimidating to walk into. I was just like, I love this guy’s work. How do I meet up to his standard? And there’s something about when an editor works with somebody who’s just grasping for excellence. Your work, the bar gets raised.
KP: It all came together so beautifully. This movie is fun and it’s funny and it’s sweet and it’s beautiful. The overall package comes together so perfectly.
MK: Yeah. I agree! (Laughs)
KP: I do have to wrap things up, but I have one more question for you. What is something you learned or experienced while making “Crazy Rich Asians” that you would like to take with you into future projects?
MK: Hmm, interesting. I think just that if you believe…something I’ve always been struggling with was that I feel like romantic comedies got the short end of the stick for many years. But to some extent, I feel like the studio stopped making these movies and no one believed that they could be these spectacles that were sort of hallmarks of the 50s and even the 80s. I just always believed that there was a place for them. And I left finishing this movie going, Yes! That was right. This still can exist out there. These type of movies never should have went away. They have a place in our culture, they have a place representing other cultures, and I think it’s just like, don’t give up. Don’t give up on the thing you believed in in the first place. I think that just for awhile, I was like okay, I’m going to make TV shows that did the same thing, or maybe a Netflix movie or something. Is there really a place where we can make this sweeping romantic comedy that has melodrama and spectacle? And the answer is yes.
KP: It’s true. And I know they say people won’t watch romantic comedies anymore. It’s because they just aren’t making them. There’s not anything else for us to choose from here. I’m so glad for “Crazy Rich Asians” to come along. Congratulations for your work on that film and the success it’s had. It’s been such an exciting summer.
MK: Yeah, thank you so much. I think time will tell, but hopefully Hollywood will get the message. I”m just incredibly proud of everyone’s work on the film. Everyone brought their A game and I think it shows it.