For "Joy Ride" director Adele Lim, raunchy comedy is a palate cleanser

For “Joy Ride” director Adele Lim, raunchy comedy is a palate cleanser

Adele Lim is eager to hear my summary of the night before screening Ride of joy when he arrives from his home office in early June. Not only is it the screenwriter’s directorial debut, but it’s an R-rated bawdy buddy comedy — the kind of film that rarely inspires the same reaction in a sparsely populated room of reporters as it does in theaters full of buddies. So she’s heartened to learn of one attendee’s infectious laughter. “You just need a wanton bitch,” he says, “Then everybody’s like, ‘All clear to party!’ ”

Lim, once a television screenwriter, transitioned into film in a way that made her a sought-after voice and even an accidental ember. Before her new film, one in particular with four Asian-American leads (three of them female and one non-binary), the Malaysian-born mother of two co-wrote Disney’s Raya and the last dragon and co-wrote the $239 million gross Crazy Rich Asians — and then famously turned down the latter’s yet-to-be-made sequel, a decision she made after being offered a tenth of her white male co-writer’s salary.

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During an extended discussion, Lim talks about frontal nudity, the tightrope of promoting a film during a strike, and what she learned by going public with that lowball offer.

What was your relationship to the vulgar comedy in this?

He loves vulgar comedy. That’s my happy place. I had been up Raya, a dream come true, but it was two years of writing for the family, four dials, the whole thing. My friends and co-writers of this, Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao, we hang out all the time and it’s just jokes. Be turned on Raya, all I wanted was a palate cleanser. So, for bullshit and giggles, we met every Thursday to talk about the story we wish we had in our 20s. What would bring us down?

Asian women are rarely shown in this light. Was there a touchstone growing up where you thought, “I want my own version of that”?

Any underrepresented group, there are a few ways you get represented. It wasn’t something I had necessarily set out to do early in my career, but as an Asian woman in this space, I was very aware of how I was perceived. Asian women on screen consider you something exotic. We were like the first subsection on Pornhub. It’s all shitty. But the community’s reaction was, “OK, let’s totally disavow our sexuality” — which is trash, because it’s a part of us. You surrender to terrorists when you do.

In terms of depictions, a producer actually once told you, “I look at you and think, ‘Dragon lady with a beauty salon who could be a human trafficker?’ “

It was verbatim, word for word, me in a room with a producer on a project. I was like, “Really, have you figured out a way to cram all those stereotypes into one sentence? That’s impressive, man.

Did you tell him?

What? NO! This was years ago, before Crazy Rich. I’ve come to a time where if you shut people down, you would get fired so quickly. Your career would have been stillborn. He always navigated between defending what one believed in and survival.

Can you tell me about the conversations or circles that have led you to show female frontal nudity in comedy?

You really can’t do that now, but I remember once Googling “genital tattoos and the people who have them” in a writers room. Notice: You cannot remove those images. When we were telling the story, the character of Kat (Stephanie Hsu) was inspired by a friend of ours, now the most primitive and pearly woman, but a real freak in college. That made us laugh, so we gave the character one and kept expecting someone to tell us, “Fuck, no!” But when you work with Seth Rogen’s company, their reaction is, “Fuck yeah!”

For the past decade and more, nudity in comedy has been dominated by the unexpected reveal of the penis.

It’s a nice pin. We have seen so much pain! I don’t know how you get past Ken Jeong The Hangover.

Has your mother seen the movie?

She thought it was funny, which, by the way, is a big concession. She is a born-again Christian, leader of a prayer group. I told her she probably couldn’t accept her church friends like she did for Crazy Rich, but really wanted to watch the movie. I didn’t want to be in her room with her, but, during the moment of the tattoo reveal, I just happened to walk by. It was as if the power of God had pushed her backwards on the casters of her chair, and she had made this high-pitched sound that I had never heard in my life. But she liked her.

The budget required Lim to shoot Joy Ride's China trip in Vancouver.

The budget required Lim to resume the trip to China Ride of joy in Vancouver.

Courtesy of Ed Araquel/Lionsgate

It’s true that you got your first writing job thanks to a wanted ad DAY?

Yes, because I’m old! I was walking by a Barnes & Noble in Encino – I couldn’t afford to buy The Hollywood Reporter – so I would just check the ads. I didn’t have any contacts, and I was crap on the net, but there was an ad for a writer’s assistant. They didn’t say which show, because it was Xena: Warrior Princess – which has had a huge cult following. If they were to advertise, they would be mobbed by fans.

You have previously recognized that women and people of color often have the opportunity to fail in Hollywood. Knowing this, what prompted you to try directing?

You’ll only be in the fetal position if you think about the pressure. I’m glad I had to deal with all my failures and dysfunctions in the low-stakes world of television. There’s always a showrunner to disappoint. There’s always a bar you won’t hit. But, again, the stakes are high. It’s the first time we’ve put four Asian faces in the middle of an R-rated comedy. If you screw up — if a project with a queer lead, a black lead, or an Asian lead fails — the industry’s knee-jerk reaction is to blame it on otherness. You don’t want that fear to paralyze you and keep you from creating from a place of joy.

The stakes were particularly high for Crazy Rich Asians. Having space from the decision to walk away and then go public about being silenced, what have you learned?

Zero regrets, but I’m happy to be on the other side. I was paralyzed with fear that that story would come out. You never want to be the difficult person, especially if you are a woman. There’s always that fear that you’ll never work again. But these are the lies we are fed: “If you work hard enough, you will get there! And if you don’t, it’s because you simply didn’t have it. Not talking about it is the problem. No one wants to be the face of pay equity, but I’m glad it came out. I got a lot of positive feedback and realized it wasn’t just in my head.

Crazy Rich Asians (right) killed in Malaysia.

Crazy Rich Asians (right) filmed in Malaysia.

Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Fun

Do you have an opinion on how long the sequel has been stalled?

Really, I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for (director) Jon Chu and that movie. I enrolled in directing school at home for Ride of joy and Jon Chu was instrumental in that. I love that movie. I love what he has done for Asian Americans. I want a sequel. Whether or not I’m writing it or not, I want it to be okay.

How have your incoming calls changed after that movie?

I went from spending my entire career writing characters about cis white men, and sometimes women, to getting a million and one calls about everything Asian. And that’s great, but I can create and write for many voices. Now I’m the go-to Asian for things Asian.

Hollywood also frequently dips into the same pool of acting talent. Is it because of an unwillingness to take risks on unproven talent?

This is something we talk about a lot in our circles. Movies are such a risky venture and studios are risk averse. They feel like they have to go to these big names. Personally, I want it all for us. I’m obsessed with Michelle Yeoh. I want her, Simu Liu and Awkwafina to get all the blueprints in the world. At the same time, I want opportunities for projects to find new talent. When you’re an Asian actor, it’s hard to find material that supports your strengths and lets you shine.

What is your opinion on the proposed DGA agreement?

I think he’s made really crucial gains, which are a foundation level that the rest of the guilds can build on.

Are you surprised by pain points like AI in WGA deadlock?

I have already served on the WGA negotiating committee. You approach the table thinking, “Oh, we’ll talk about how much profit we can get!” No, we’ll talk about not restoring the things we already have — even the concession that a writer has to be a human was a lot of work. This affects writers more than anyone else. We have to fix it now for the future. Once rights are taken away, they are hard to get back.

So how are you going to deal with the mid-strike release of this film? Will you attend the premiere? To me, in this film, I’m also a director, a producer, and an Asian American woman who worked very hard for my community. For this film, yes, I will go to the premiere.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to register now.