Since he directed Step Up 2: The Streets, Jon M. Chu has become an increasingly rare find in Hollywood: a director who can inherit a film franchise, with an existing fan base, harness what’s most appealing about it, and reinvent it to great success. In between turning Step Up into the premier dance-movie series and with G.I. Joe: Retaliation returning G.I. Joe to the iconography of cartoons, toy and comic books which spawned it, he also helmed Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, which only further demonstrated his aptitude for a thoroughly modern filmmaking style, not to mention cutting-edge pop music.
Movies spoke with Chu late last week to discuss his work on G.I. Joe: Retaliation, one of the year’s most highly anticipated sequels. In addition to talking about designing the world from the template of its predecessor, and choosing its musical backdrop, Chu offered his thoughts about the changing tide in Hollywood for filmmakers of color, and revealed a few details about the challenges he faces as he undertakes another iconic cartoon series next: He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.
Movies.com: What materials or ideas did you have to work with when you came into this film, and what from the first film did you know you were not going to be able to use?
Jon Chu: If my memory serves right, there was a lot of stuff that was already set – characters were set in there by the time I came in. There was Firefly, Roadblock -- Roadblock wasn’t a main character yet, but he was there. We had a bunch of code names, which was also hard, because we didn’t want to give the script out, so literally all of the characters were named different things; some of those crazy names were actual Joe names, so then [people] thought they were in the movie. But Zartan as the president was already built in, there was no Joe Colton – that was something we brought to the table. And that was something that was very rare, when you get writers who have been there since the inception, through production, and are still on the movie – that’s pretty amazing. And we had a great relationship, and it was a great advantage to have someone who’s been through the journey and knows all of the pitfalls.
Also, though, coming in fresh for myself, I could inject a new perspective on a lot of stuff that we got to collaborate on. But we talked a lot about whether to include Destro or not. Destro was already not in the movie, but how much do you acknowledge him and how much do you attach to the first movie? We found that as we went, I think.
Movies.com: How many of the references to G.I. Joe canon – the B.A.T.s, the Water Moccasin, et cetera – did you contribute, since the first film departed so sharply from the landscape of the toy series and cartoon?
Chu: It was very much ‘let’s bring what I remember playing in my back yard to life,’ because I remember that being just fun. And there weren’t that many movies that were just being crazy and fun, but I had nothing to lose – like if it was another filmmaker, they might be a little more cautious, a little less crazy on some things, or a little more apologetic about the crazy world, or maybe they just don’t understand the world. But I grew up on the world – the world is in my DNA – so I got to go for it. When I got to dune buggys and all of the crazy drawings we came up with, as crazy as we went with it, it was never Joe. So we just went, let’s just go back to how it would really be in life if you saw the toy exist.
And most of the time, that’s the way we went. I was never drawn to a Snake Eyes that was totally different than the one I remembered. And obviously we needed to reinvent things and there were things we’d never seen, but the essence needed to be there. G.I. Joe, the name, begs us to retain those things to bigger-than-life proportions, and that alone was the thing to me that would make a fun movie.
Movies.com: Your past movies used a lot of pop music as a soundtrack for the action. Did you ever consider doing the same thing with Retaliation?
Chu: Yes, and Henry Jackman, having him do our score was a part of that choice, because he came in with a bunch of, actually, dubstep stuff, that we were temping in there just as we were playing around. Ultimately, though, when we went too far, and we did go too far many times, it lost the tone of the movie in a way. It took you out – the joke was killed that we are in this satirical world, and it was too hard to get back in. And we’d done such a delicate job of trying to balance a world that you’re familiar with, and one that’s actually nutty, that when we did a needle drop, it was just too hard to get back in. So through the process, Henry Jackman’s goal was to have every person have a different sound to their music, and try to make it sort of needle droppy, but ultimately be a score for this grand adventure that we’re on.
Movies.com: You and Justin Lin share in common that you inherited franchises, and then truly made them your own – him with Fast and Furious and you with Step Up, and hopefully G.I. Joe. Do you feel like that increased access is just a byproduct of making successful films before then, or is Hollywood is becoming more receptive to filmmakers of color?
Chu: I don’t know the answer. I just know that in my own – and I don’t know Justin Lin in terms of how he got [Fast and Furious], but in my world, I never felt cut out of anything because of who I am, other than through my work. Is that to say XXY? No, I’m sure there are. But maybe I’m coming into a time where it’s at its least, and where technology is changing all of that. Talent comes from so many different places, ad studios are hungry for that, and I was very lucky to be at the right place at the right time when they were looking for a new voice in the dance world, and then when I came in to Paramount to work on their sequel, they needed a person who understood that brand intrinsically, who would commit to a tone and not be confused every time they actually think about it and look at it on paper. I think I’m the right age for that, I was there, and I had the right experience that fit right.
So I can’t say what kind of era we’re in other than I think the opportunities are there, and talent is more apparent than ever, which pushes everyone to try to be better and get better. But I think it’s more of a testament to technology and access that we get to work on things. I would not have got these jobs if I hadn’t done my short. I would not have gotten my short if I had not gotten a camera from Panavision, one of their first digital cameras, that they lent me that I could go use and shoot without film, and I could cut it in my living room. All of those things led up to where I am.
Movies.com: Is there a story from the comic books or cartoon series you would love to translate into live action, if they made a third film?
Chu: Lots of stories.Throughout the whole process, we kept finding stories where we’d say, ‘can we incorporate this?’ and most of it was just too much. We can’t keep adding things. And then other times it was like, can we plant the seed to get this character to this place where we could fulfill that story? Snake Eyes, his love story with Scarlett, is one of my favorites – I mean, that is an epic, epic tale of their love. And the first movie had Scarlett in love with Marlon Wayans’ character, of course, so we would have to reset that and then start the love story and recast and all of this stuff, and it was just too much work to get the foundations for what G.I. Joe needed to be next.
But COBRA island, Serpentor, bringing Destro back – all of these things to me. There’s so much that, do I think there could be spin-off movies? I think that would be amazing. Have we had discussions for those? Absolutely not. And we’ll have to wait to see how the audience reacts, and what they want, but if they do react and they do want more, then the possibilities are endless.
Movies.com: We put up a list of crazy characters we’d like to see in G.I. Joe – Psyche-Out, Sgt. Slaughter, Crystal Ball. Were there Joes or COBRA soldiers that you would like to see in another film?
Chu: Serpentor’s one where you’re like, that’s a crazy character – did they jump the shark? Maybe. But in terms of interesting characters, him maybe, seeing how he came to be. And then COBRA Commander still isn’t fully realized – I mean, we have so much we could do with COBRA Commander. He is the ultimate villain, and we just set him up, really. To see what he’s up to, to see what kind of fighter he is – he’s in a mask, so you could have multiple fighters inside his costume so he could do every single type of fighting you could imagine, and he could be the ultimate guy. We couldn’t do it on the first movie – it was built into a lot of things that we couldn’t hand off that we need to get him there. I tried, I really tried, but there was just too much other stuff. So I would love the opportunity to do that, and I think there’s stuff that we did with the characters that we have now, to get them to the point that fulfills their potential.
Movies.com: How far into the process of making Masters of the Universe are you, and what is the aesthetic you’re going for given the fact that it’s a purely fantasy-based world?
Chu: It’s harder for sure. Even doing G.I. Joe, we benefited from having a first movie completely. I could see what worked, what didn’t work – there was history there. There were things to play off of – they created back stories that I could then pick from and move forward. For Masters of the Universe, one, it’s a crazy idea. Two, there are ideas other things stole from Masters of the Universe, or Masters of the Universe stole from back in the day that have been made that didn’t do great and didn’t paint the world well. So we have a lot of obstacles in finding the tone and the world. But the best part of making a movie like that is that we can’t fail in finding that world – so we’re doing everything we can to paint the picture, the tone, the feel and the environment. Make sure that the characters, colorwise, look right, right now. So we’re still early in the process, designing the heck out of it right now. We’re making as many mistakes as we can so that we know where not to go.
Because when we make a mistake on a piece paper, that’s easy to erase and go back. We can even let it sit there for several months and then look back and go, what were we thinking? But it’s a great script, and it’s being worked on now again to update it, but the characters, we’ve been designing version after version after version. We don’t have a date yet, we don’t have a lot of things, but we’re sort of showing the studio what this looks like, what it feels like. We’re building languages. We’re building a world, and so that’s really exciting to me. And the key to that to me is that it’s not theatrical; like in G.I. Joe world, it is a farce, and we get to play and have fun with that. But in the He-Man world, it is an operatic feel, there is a passion that you have to feel in their relationships. It’s not just funny, spoofy stuff, and I don’t think you can be tongue-in-cheek so much that it loses that impact. So it’s a lot more tough to go in that direction where we’re not making fun of it, but we’re actually in it.