Palo Alto’s Jon M. Chu delivers mysterious ‘Home Before Dark’

Tribune Content Agency

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Jon M. Chu, the Palo Alto native who directed “Crazy Rich Asians,” finds it fitting that his first big foray into television is with Apple’s new streaming service.

He, after all, grew up in Los Altos — the same city where Steve Jobs once lived (and home to that famous garage). And he has fond memories of how Apple employees and other tech workers who frequented his parents’ restaurant there would occasionally drop off equipment for the fledgling young filmmaker to use on his projects.

“In a sense, I was raised by Silicon Valley to be a storyteller,” he says. “This is kind of like coming home for me.”

Chu is a director and executive producer for “Home Before Dark,” a tense mystery series that premieres April 3 on Apple TV+. It follows a 9-year-old aspiring journalist named Hilde (Brooklynn Prince) who moves with her family from New York to the small lakeside town where her father (Jim Sturgess) spent his youth. There, her dogged pursuit of the truth leads her to uncover a cold case that everyone in town, including her dad, tried hard to bury.

The 10-episode series, which already has been picked up for a second season, is inspired by the real-life investigative reporting of kid journalist Hilde Lysiak, who ran her own neighborhood newspaper and, at the age of 9, broke a story about a murder in her hometown of Patagonia, Arizona.

Chu, who directed the first two episodes, had no plans to get into television when the project from showrunners Dana Fox and Dara Resnik came to him. But he immediately found the concept intriguing.

“I love true-crime stuff and podcasts and documentaries. I’m kind of obsessed with them,” he said. “So I loved that the show is that. But it also has another layer to it — the father-daughter story, and cords of truth.”

Still, Chu and his collaborators realized they had a tricky tone to navigate. The lead character is a young girl, but “Home Before Dark” is not exactly “Murder She Wrote” for kiddies. On the other hand, it’s not overly dark and gritty, either.

It helps that Prince, who won raves for her breakout performance in 2017’s “The Florida Project,” brings plenty of emotional heft — and nuance — to the role, and helps to keep things grounded.

“A lot of young performers have a tendency to just repeat lines from the script and act the way they think you want them to act. It doesn’t always feel genuine,” Chu said. “Brooklynn isn’t like that. She has to understand what the character is thinking and feeling. Then she processes it in her own way. … She’s not a parrot.”

Prince’s character naturally receives blowback from the authorities and other townspeople, who think a 9-year-old girl should be playing with dolls instead of chasing crime stories. But she’s wise — and serious — beyond her years. She can even recite lines from “All the President’s Men,” a film she’s watched more than 30 times.

Those scenes of Hilde watching the classic Watergate saga brought some extra oomph to the series, said Chu, who believes they’re “relevant to what’s happening now” and serve as a reminder that “the struggle to keep power in check is an ongoing one.”

Like everyone across the country, Chu has felt the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. While a possible “Crazy Rich Asians” sequel remains in the script stage, his next big-screen project — an adaptation of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical “In the Heights” — was scheduled to open June 26. But Warner Bros. has delayed the the premiere indefinitely due to the pandemic.

Chu recently told that he’d rather wait it out than make the film available for streaming at home.

“We want people to have the movie theater experience,” he said. “And with it being a musical, if you look back at history, that kind of movie has always brought people together at the worst times to celebrate life. And now we need that even more so.”

Conversely, Chu believes “Home Before Dark” will make for a good binge-watch among socially distanced people cooped up in their houses during the pandemic.

“I think it’s show the whole family can enjoy watching together,” he said.

As for the platform it’s on, the director-producer insists that he never had any qualms about doing the show with Apple, which joined Hollywood’s streaming wars only last November.

“Story is story,” he said. “If you tell a great enough story, it doesn’t matter what brand, or what platform, it’s on. It will pop through. I don’t even know half the brands that are attached to movies anymore.”

Chu, in fact, describes himself as a “longtime Apple-ite,” and, in some ways, is pleasantly surprised to be in business with the Cupertino-based tech giant.

“Never in a million years did I think I would work for Apple in any way,” he said. “I wasn’t smart enough to be an engineer.”


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