Skip to content

How SF director Richard Wong got the keys to Hulu’s ‘The Valet’

Actors Samara Weaving (left) and Eugenio Derbez and director Richard Wong attend the world premiere of Hulu’s “The Valet” in Hollywood on Thursday, May 11. Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Munching on an egg sandwich at Tartine in the Sunset District, Richard Wong mused about how he came on board to direct “The Valet,” a $30 million romantic comedy for Hulu. A previous director had left the project, which was delayed because of the pandemic, so the San Francisco director landed the gig despite never having directed a film this large.

The movie, about a mild-mannered Mexican immigrant and valet who’s asked to pretend to date a world-famous movie star to avoid a PR scandal, was really about his father, Wong decided.

“It was about this working-class man and about his family,” Wong said. “I immediately recognized it as my father and my family, and basically my whole pitch was centered around that. It’s not lie. I think the theme of invisibility, of this man who is so selfless that even his family overlooks him — I just connected to it on a deeply personal level.

“There’s also a theme of nice guys finishing first in this movie, which I really like. ‘Nice guys finish last’ has been something that’s plagued my life growing up as a male. Again, I think that’s partly about my father, you know, who is a nice guy who often finished last. Eventually I came to grips with the idea that my dad wanted to be invisible so that we could be visible. So that’s something that I try very hard to reflect in the movie.”

World-famous movie star Olivia (Samara Weaving) faces a PR disaster, so she pretends to date hardworking valet Antonio (Eugenio Derbez) in the “The Valet,” directed by San Franciscan Richard Wong. Photo: Dan McFadden / Hulu

“The Valet,” which premieres Friday, May 20, on Hulu, is a remake of a 2006 French film which starred Daniel Auteuil and Kristin Scott Thomas. In this one, Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez (“CODA”) is Antonio the valet and Australian actress Samara Weaving (“Nine Perfect Strangers,” “Bill and Ted Face the Music”) is the diva, Olivia Allan.

When Olivia is caught by the paparazzi with a wealthy, married businessman (Max Greenfield, “What Men Want”), her press agents put out the story that she is actually dating the valet who was getting her car. Antonio agrees to play along ⁠— the money he is offered will help his immigrant family, which includes an ex-wife (Marisol Nichols, “Spiral: From the Book of Saw”), son (Joshua Vasquez) and his aging and saucy mother (legendary Mexican actress and politician Carmen Salinas Lozano, hilarious here, who died in December at age 82).

Antonio becomes the envy of his friends and fellow valets when he is suddenly dating a beautiful movie star.

When asked why Wong ⁠— who does not speak Spanish ⁠— was best suited to direct a film expected to be seen by a wide Latino audience, Derbez said during a video chat with The Chronicle alongside Weaving that he felt it was more important for the director to know about immigrant families than to be Latino.

Director Richard Wong and actor Eugenio Derbez on the set of “The Valet.” Photo: Karen Ballard / Hulu

“I think he was perfect for this movie, because he’s the son of immigrants, too, a Chinese American,” said Derbez, who helped set up the project through Pantelion Films. “And when we saw ‘Come As You Are,’ his last movie from him, I combined humor and heart really well. So we thought he had everything to direct this movie.”

About 25% of the dialogue in the film is in Spanish, and Derbez was in charge of rewriting those portions of the script, by Bob Fisher and Rob Greenberg, for authenticity and to capture a certain style of Mexican humor.

Wong called collaborating with Derbez, already a star in Mexico who gained wide notice as the demanding music teacher in the Oscar-winning film “CODA,” “the best part of making the movie.”

“I was nothing but excited to work with him on the Spanish stuff because I wanted to be as authentic as possible. That really matters,” Wong said. “There’s nothing worse than seeing your own culture up there and it’s not authentic, you know? Not to mention he’s a great filmmaker. Great actor, but also a great filmmaker.”

Eugenio Derbez stars in Richard Wong’s “The Valet,” which premieres on Hulu on Friday, May 20. Photo: Dan McFadden / Hulu

Despite consistent urging from his agents to move to Hollywood, Wong has remained rooted, with wife Irene and daughter Avery, in the Richmond District, where he was born and raised. His first films ⁠— the cult classic “Colma: The Musical” (2006), “Option 3” (2008) and “Yes, We’re Open” (2012) — were made in the Bay Area, and he has had a long collaboration with San Francisco director Wayne Wang; most recently he was the cinematographer on Wang’s San Francisco-shot “Coming Home Again.”

But he has worked on several Hollywood projects as a director of photography, and that’s what has mainly put food on the table. Fearing he would be typecast in that role, he made a concerted push to get back into the director’s chair, landing “Come As You Are” (2019), a charming $1 million road trip movie about three disabled men who want to have their first sexual experience. It was his first film by him as director in seven years and led him to directing “The Valet.”

Weaving said she enjoyed the look of “The Valet,” which Wong achieved with cinematographer Mateo Londono, and Wong’s overall vision for the film.

“I just loved that he handled comedy in a really stunning way,” Weaving told The Chronicle. “I also liked that the cinematography was different from a lot of other comedies. It was quite highbrow and dreamlike, which I absolutely adored.”

Wong acknowledges that “a window is open” once again on his directing career, and he is trying to line up his next project before it closes.

“I’m attached to like 20 movies,” Wong laughed. “Wayne always told me, ‘You need 20 for one to happen.’ So that’s why I’ve always aimed for 20.”

Diany Rodriguez (left), Samara Weaving, Eugenio Derbez, Max Greenfield, Richard Wong, Marisol Nichols and Betsy Brandt at the Hollywood premiere of “The Valet.” Photo: Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

For now, he’s enjoying the ride with “The Valet.” It is the first of his films to have a big Hollywood premiere ⁠— with cast and crew at the Ricardo Montalbán Theater on May 11 — and he was scheduled to attend a premiere in Mexico City on Thursday, May 19, where Derbez will be the clear star.

Wong is also looking forward to appearing with friend and collaborator HP Mendoza at a “Colma: The Musical” sing-along at the Roxie Theater on June 16. Looking at “Colma” today, it makes sense that Wong would eventually make a film like “The Valet.”

“I try my best to do comedies with a lot of heart,” he said. Perhaps thinking of his father, he added, “I secretly just want to do dramas. So I turn all my comedies into dramas.

“The Valet” (PG-13) premieres Friday, May 20, on Hulu.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.