The level of wealth depicted in Kevin Kwan’s bestselling novel Crazy Rich Asians is mind-boggling by design, witnessed through the wide-eyed gaze of protagonist Rachel Chu (Constance Wu) as she accompanies her boyfriend Nick (Henry Golding) to his native Singapore for his best friend’s wedding—only to discover that his family is one of the most wealthy and influential in the city. And while the long-awaited movie adaptation sees Rachel whisked around Singapore on a whirlwind tour of the high-rolling lifestyle, no single sequence encapsulates the title more completely than “the wedding of the year,” the event around which the entire story pivots.
This climactic moment also encapsulates the challenges of making a crazy rich movie on a sane, modest budget. “We’re rubbing two dimes together to make millions,” production designer Nelson Coates tells me when I arrive at the wedding location, a Gothic-inspired Catholic chapel in the heart of Singapore’s business district. “You go through the book, and it’s like, “Okay, well, that chapter alone is more money than we have to make the movie!” It’s about capturing the ambiance of wealth.”
“We’re rubbing two dimes together to make millions.”
Within the film, the wedding is supposed to cost $40 million, a figure which might well suggest the end result will be ostentatious, even tacky. That’s a pitfall Coates and his team were careful to avoid. “One thing about the old culture in Singapore is that they’re not showing off their wealth. It’s offensive to talk about your money, and to be showy about your money, and so we don’t ever want this to go into tacky.”
Tacky it is not. Walking onto the set is a breathtaking experience, not least because it takes a moment for me to understand what I’m looking at: a sumptuous blend of nature and architecture, amounting to a miniature botanical garden within the arches of an ancient chapel. Rather than flashy decoration, the set’s beauty comes from an earthy and verdant outdoor-indoor theme: palm leaves and orchids and maidenhair ferns line the walls and the aisle, creating a meandering path through which the guests, and ultimately the bride, move during the ceremony.
“To create a sense of immersion in the wedding, [director] Jon Chu and I decided to have the guests seated amidst plants,” Coates explains. “We created green velvet benches made of freeform shapes, so that no-one’s actually sitting in rows. They’re in and amongst the grasses.” The result is a space that feels tangibly, thrillingly alive. All of the vegetation is real, with the exception of the three-foot-tall grass, because real grass would wilt under the lights throughout days of filming.
As awe-inspiring as the space is itself, the film uses it merely as a backdrop to the bride’s entrance. As fashionista Araminta (Sonoya Mizuno) walks down the aisle, water floods ahead of her “so that she’s actually walking on water,” Coates describes breathlessly. “Each guest has a handcrafted meter-long stick with a wire-twisted butterfly or firefly on it that lights up, and those will all start to appear out of the grasses. It’s all designed to create this breathless moment.”
That breathless moment necessitated a very particular kind of wedding dress. “This set is not in the book, and neither is my wedding dress, which is completely mad and amazing,” Mizuno enthuses when I sit down with her between takes. “It’s not like a movie-bride wedding dress at all—it’s completely different from anything I’ve ever seen for a wedding, but it felt so right for me and for Araminta.”
Costume designer Mary Vogt took inspiration from Mizuno’s background as a dancer to create the singular dress. “I didn’t want her to have a dress that was this big ungainly thing, hiding this gorgeous dancer’s body,” Vogt explains. “I looked at her and thought, I’ve never seen anyone with such gorgeous legs in my life; we have to show them.” The solution is a bold garment that’s part wedding dress, part catsuit, all uniquely Araminta. “That’s what is so great about this film,” Mizuno says. “It’s really playing to its uniqueness.”
Kwan’s novel name-checks designers with dizzying frequency, particularly when it comes to Nick’s cousin Astrid (Gemma Chan), an impossibly glamorous and goddess-like figure whose perfect life is gradually revealed to be a sham. “There’s this understated fact that if you happen to walk into a person’s closet, each handbag is sixty thousand dollars, and there’s thirty bags there,” Coates says. “How do you accomplish that, on a budget?” The production faced challenges in persuading designers to agree to product placement, “because by the time the movie comes out, [the designer] is already two or three seasons ahead of what we filmed,” he adds. “Their thinking is that people are going to see it in the movie and rush to the store, and it won’t be there any more.”
But the concessions in terms of designer presence ultimately didn’t matter, because the opulence of Crazy Rich Asians is not there for its own sake. Every element of the production design serves a storytelling purpose; the wedding and its extraordinary opulence precipitates a brutal breaking point in Rachel’s relationship with Nick’s family. The film’s color scheme shifts with its locations, becoming gradually more saturated with color as Rachel goes from Manhattan to Singapore. “Our New York sets are all black and white; we tried to keep them very monochromatic and stripped down, so that when you get to Singapore you’re getting into this explosion of color,” Coates explains. “By the end, when you get to the wedding reception, it is the most smashing color of the whole movie. It just keeps building to this amazing crescendo.”
Related article: Your Ultimate Primer To All The ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Characters
That reception takes place at Singapore’s iconic Gardens By The Bay, a majestic waterfront park famous for its illuminated “Supertrees.” Having opened to the public in 2012, the gardens were celebrating their fifth anniversary during production, which made filming there initially problematic. “They eventually realized how exciting it was to be involved, and that it actually is a great way to promote the Marina Bay, because you’re not going to have a Singapore-centric story like this come along every day. The movie is a bit of a travelog as well as a romantic fantasy.”
This article originally appeared on Harper’s BAZAAR US.