Every now and then you get a big, big movie based off a hugely popular franchise and you hear that the director was never a fan before they signed their name to the movie. That's not the case with Jon M. Chu. The man is a massive fan of G.I. Joe and has been since childhood.
Of course, you could argue that being a fan of something doesn't necessarily mean you're any more or less qualified to adapt it into a movie, but at least in the case of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it's obvious that it was a very smart move to hire Chu. The movie is markedly more entertaining than 2009's The Rise of Cobra, and one has to credit a lot of that to Chu and his understanding of the exact frequency of fun a G.I. Joe movie needs to be dialed in to.
If you had written off Retaliation because you weren't interested after seeing the first film, we kindly ask that you reconsider. It really is a good time, with a good cast, and plenty of fantastical action. It hits Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray and DVD tomorrow, which afforded us the opportunity to chat with Chu and hear about how he - the dance-movie guy - landed the movie, the surprisingly ballsy thing he made Paramount do after the film was delayed, and what the studio needs to do in the next one to top the absurd action in this one.
Movies.com: There's a craft to making the Step Up movies that lends itself pretty naturally to a movie like G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Jon M. Chu: You should try convincing studio heads that it's a craft that does. It took many, many meetings to try and convince them that there are some similarities.
Movies.com: What was the pitch process for this like?
Chu: Every movie I've done has been pretty different from the one before, but each is the same in that you have to convince them as a storyteller. You have to draw them in the same way you would your audience. This one, in particular, I had a relationship with Paramount and we'd just done the Bieber movie, which did really well and exceeded their expectations. And I know Adam Goodman, the president of the studio, who works really closely with Steven Spielberg, and Spielberg was the one who found me out of film school back in the day.
He wasn't the president of any studio at the time, this was 12-13 years ago, but we kept in touch over the years. So when he became the president of Paramount, that was a big help. He had my back on those things. G.I. Joe was a stretch, but he understood my sensibilities and what I could do. But I had to convince not only him, but also Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] and Hasbro that I was the guy and I could bring them the ultimate G.I. Joe movie that any fan would love.
I was also probably cheap enough, so they said okay.
Movies.com: Did you have any distinct learning lessons from a movie of this scale that you weren't expecting?
Chu: Oh, so many. So many! This was five times more expensive than any movie I'd ever done. You learn how to delegate more. You learn how important it is to hire the right crew. Luckily, since it was my first action movie, Paramount was really scared, so they gave me the best of the best and I really benefited from that. I got to work with the best people, and they all had my back and were very generous. Even the Rock!
The Rock could have come in and steamrolled me in any way he wanted. He's the big star, but he didn't. He trusted me and let me do things the way I wanted. If he disagreed with something, we'd talk about it and we'd always come to an agreement on a way to do it. It was an amazing, creative experience for me. The delay was hard because I didn't know what it meant. To be honest, we were asked to change it to 3D - we didn't do any reshoots, there was nothing changed – but when it takes a year, you start to wonder if everything really is okay or if they were just acting and are going to shelve it. But they were very honest about that, too. They knew when we were going to have the better shot. They knew 3D would be an important part of our box office and our story, so they took the time to get it right.
Movies.com: You mentioned on the /Filmaid podcast that during that meeting you had them pay for your vacation from the movie. Is that how it really went down? What was that day like for you?
Chu: [Laughs] That is literally how it went down. I was in the room and they were telling me this and saying all the stats, and what they want to do businesswise to push it, and how we're getting squeezed a little bit by Spider-Man moving a day back. And I understood, because we really did have a small slot to hit. At that point we only had a few weeks left to finish the movie – I was doing all nighters at that point – and I was so tired, and they literally were like, "There's nothing you can do right now but chill for a few weeks and go on vacation." And I said,"Okay, so can I call your travel agency?" And they just looked at each other like, "Uh..."
I knew that was the only moment I could get them to say yes. And they were like "...yeah, sure, just call our office..." and I could tell they just wanted to get out of this awkward situation as quickly as possible. But I did call and they did do it! I spent a week in Hotel Du Cap, which is like the nicest hotel in the world, and they paid for it all. I got massages. I had tennis lessons! I did all sorts of great things and I made them pay for every piece of agony I went through that week. [Laughs]
But that's why I love them and why Adam and I have such a great relationship. Because something like that could destroy a relationship, but that was a warm show of confidence that they were for real and it wasn't bulls**t.
Movies.com: In this movie you guys just absolutely decimate London. It's destroyed beyond repair, but because of the tone of the movie, no one really complained. But then comes Man of Steel, which destroys Metropolis' business district, and everyone went ape s**t. How does that affect you guys down the line? Once you've reached that level of destruction, and have seen how people react to it, what do you do next?
Chu: [Laughs] Well... we go bigger! The thing about the London thing was that we're not there on the ground, so I think people didn't go crazy about it. I did get some s**t from friends in London, but that was it. And since it's G.I. Joe you get a little bit more freedom. Plus, Man of Steel is really grounded with real human moments, but we're a little more heightened than that. We don't go on the ground. We don't see people running from the destruction, so we can get away with it.
Now, do we have to deal with that in the next movie? Maybe. And how do you deal with a world that's mainly nuclear free now? We're paying the price a little bit right now in the development of the next script. [Laughs]
Movies.com: Now that you guys have cleaned the slate and reset the tone of a G.I. Joe movie, what's your biggest obstacle moving forward?
Chu: I think this movie worked great because we got to set a tone that we're in the right ballpark with. Everyone had a different idea. After the first movie, Hasbro had a certain idea, Paramount had a certain idea, Lorenzo had a certain idea. Everyone had these different changes and the only thing I could trust was what G.I. Joe meant to me growing up. We had a lot of different puzzle pieces from the first movie we had to deal with and, like you said, clear the slate, and I think we did that with this movie and now we get to establish a little bit more of our own world. It's great to talk to the fans and hear who they want to see, what type of vehicles, what kind of land, what kind of storylines from the comics and cartoons are worth exploring in this next phase. I think we're going to push it even further. I think it may become more of an adventure and it should be really fun. We're diving into it right now.
Movies.com: What's it like to work with Hasbro – a company with no cinematic foundation that now has heavy influence over these cinematic properties?
Chu: They've been great partners. I was scared going in. I didn't know if Hasbro had artists telling us what to do, because that'd be weird. But Lorenzo and Paramount and Hasbro have done this on Transformers. They've figured out all the kinks and stuff with Michael Bay; when to say something or not, or when to give input. I'm really close with Brian Goldner at Hasbro and the designers there are creative people. I'm a director that loves to be on the ground with the artists. If it's 3D conversion, I want to be there with the artists. If it's VFX, I want to be there too. Those are my people. So when it comes to the toy people, I love them. They're great. And, especially now that they've done a few movies, they know what works for toys doesn't always work for movies. And I don't want to be here to sell a toy, just let me design the stuff.
We'll have a meeting where they'll let me know what they think will work best for them six months before, and then I let that go out of my brain when I go to work. We come to those understandings. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we totally disagree.
They wanted to make Roadblock an Arashikage. They wanted him to train with the Arashikage ninjas, but I rejected it. They put it in the comics and the toys and their own world, but I said, "I'm not putting an Arashikage tattoo on Roadblock in any sort of way, sorry." And we had a big fight about it, but they ultimately said,"It's your movie. We'll keep doing our toy stuff, you do the movie stuff." They were very cool about it.
Movies.com: When is Moose going to get his own Step Up movie?
Chu: [Laughs] I've been trying to get Moose his own Step Up movie since 2! I don't know, we'll have to see. I haven't seen Adam for a bit, actually, but I know they're working on Step Up 5, so you may get your wish sooner rather than later.