A big smile of relief crosses director Jon M Chu's face when he says: "It's been a long time coming. It feels good to give joy and hope to the world, if they decide to see it."
Those feelgood emotions are at the big-spirited heart of his new film In the Heights, a bright and vibrant musical based on the Tony award-winning stage production by Hamilton's Lin-Manual Miranda and playwright Quiara Alegría Hudes.
Set in the predominately Latin neighbourhood of New York's Washington Heights during a sweltering summer, the film is overflowing with infectious Latin-flavoured songs, huge and imaginative musical sequences and a multi-faceted story about chasing your dreams, finding your place and celebrating your culture.
Bereft of cynicism, it's an optimistic celebration that feels like the perfect film for right now. But the truth is, the movie was supposed to come out way back when, its release delayed over a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
"That was hard. I'm not gonna lie. There were days ..." Chu says, trailing off. "We have something special here and I wasn't sure anyone was going to get to see it. It was only when we started showing the movie and seeing people cry and feel hope and joy again that it really hit me how much we were suppressing internally."
"We all felt pretty let down at first," actress Leslie Grace sighs. "Knowing that we'd have to wait a whole year. We'd all seen the first edit of the movie so we knew how special it was. We all felt it was timely, especially before the election with all the things that we touch upon."
Miranda based the story on his real-life experiences growing up as the son of immigrants in America, as well as the daily goings-on in his neighbourhood, the plight of dreamers (the American born children of undocumented citizens) and the everyday racism he and the people in his community encountered.
In the year-long lead-up to America's 2020 election, while In the Heights was in production, its then-President was rabidly attacking both dreamers and immigrants on the daily as he sought to turn racism into votes.
"It gave us resolve and it gave us urgency," Chu answers, when asked how being under attack by the highest office in the land impacted him, his Latin actors and the diverse crew.
"We cried almost every day of shooting because you could feel the pressure of the world collapsing on this beautiful community of what America is and we were making a movie to show the beauty of all of that. So every day it only pushed us to do it better, to do it harder, to do it more truthfully."
Actress Melissa Barrera agrees, saying that she felt they had something special before shooting even began.
"I felt magic from the rehearsals," she smiles. "We were all in this tiny rehearsal room in Harlem, over 50, 60, 70 people and I look around and it was like, 'wow, these are all people of colour'. It's all Latinos and black people. When has this ever happened? For a Hollywood movie!"
"And a musical at that," Grace laughs.
"It felt huge and I remember we all stopped and took that in. We were like: 'we're a part of something important right now'. I realised this has the potential to change a lot of things in the industry for the better."
Chu certainly hopes so, saying he wants the movie to follow in the groundbreaking footsteps of his previous film, 2018's Oscar-nominated rom-com blockbuster Crazy Rich Asians.
"We made movie stars out of that movie," he says. "It created whole new lanes of actors and I want that for this cast."
For their part, Barrera and Grace are extremely excited to showcase the art, music and culture of their Latin heritage to the globe in such a positive and uplifting way.
"I hope it makes the Latin community in New Zealand feel like home and feel proud," Barrera says. "To claim this movie and feel proud of it."
"We personally have waited for someone - anyone - to represent with so much celebration, so much brilliance and so much imagination our communities the way that we know them to be so that we can go out into the world confidently and be like, 'Yes! You love what my family looks like, who I am, my language... Let me tell you about my music and where I'm from," Grace says, her enthusiasm spilling out. "To be accepted and cherished, everybody longs for that."
While Chu is far too modest to say whether he thinks he succeeded in bringing a colourful representation of Latin culture to the world - "that's not for me to determine, I can only do my best communicating what I saw and observed. I did a lot of listening." - the passion with which Barrerra and Grace talk about the film and its importance to their communities, as well as the advance reviews, all indicate that he did.
"I hope that when people watch this movie they're entertained as hell, but while watching it that they become curious," he says.
Chu wants In the Heights to inspire people to, say, take up salsa dancing or explore the roots of the film's music or learn more about Miranda's initial inspirations. He hopes it will make people less resistant to venture out of their own communities and go into the Heights, wherever that may be in their own country.
"I hope they ask their Latin friend: 'What food is that? Can you make that for me?' and they go: 'Oh that? My Mum makes the best one. Come over'." Chu enthuses. "I hope they share all those things because once you see it, you can't unsee it and it changes the rest of your life."
Who: Director Jon M Chu and stars Melissa Barrera and Leslie Grace.
What: The bright, vibrant musical In the Heights.
When: In cinemas now.