Following the success of the Justin Bieber documentary Never Say Never, that film's distributor, Paramount Pictures, announced that its director - Jon M. Chu, also the shepherd of the last two Step Up films—would be taking the reins of one of 2012's most highly-anticipated sequels: G.I. Joe. Suffice it to say that the announcement was met with mixed reception from fans of the original, much less industry pundits who saw him largely as a purveyor of frivolous dance-themed fun. But Boxoffice sat down with Chu at this year's South by Southwest Festival, where the director answered his critics' objections, detailed a few ideas about the forthcoming sequel, and offered a glimpse of the future for G.I. Joe on film.
How did you get involved with G.I. Joe? Did you pitch the studio an idea, or did they ask you to direct it and ask for your thoughts?
I was always a fan of Joe. I grew up with Joe. I had all the toys and I had epic adventures - they'd be burned, they'd be in mud, they'd be hidden in the couch. I loved them. I'm convinced I learned the beginning of my storytelling from playing with toys, no doubt. And it's hard for me to put down any filmmaker's work because I know how hard it is to make a movie, and I never want to do that; just to be able to get it done is an incredible feat in itself. But there's something about G.I. Joe that has history, that has a soul, and there's very few brands have a soul. Like the Boy Scouts has something to do with America, even Mickey Mouse, even Apple has a soul to it. And Joe has a soul. And I've never felt like I've had a movie of Joe of where I can taste my childhood right there.
So when I found out they were doing a second one, I [told Paramount] you've got to do this one the way we've always wanted to see - and they were like, what do you mean? And there's a reality to Joe, there's like a grittiness to Joe; when I would burn them and their arm would fall off, the story would revolve around the guy whose arm fell off. It was about how each figurine had their own special accessory that was a part of their identity. It wasn't just brushing them aside, like, oh this group of guys, let's go attack that thing, and they have a cool car! It was always that detail, that grittiness that I feel like if Joe had it in there, it would be a totally different movie and have a totally different feel. So I approached them about what that would be like, and they loved the idea. And they had a script that was close, and we're going now in and making it the way it should be. And the script they have is really good, actually, so we now want to build in a few more things that will make it even better.
There were a lot of different reactions when you were announced as the film's director. How important is or was it to transition into something new and show people you can do more than dance-themed movies?
I've never made movies or any projects to have any sort of professional push. Even when I was doing dance movies, I wasn't a dance movie fan before that; I mean, I haven't even watched a lot of dance movies that I probably should have watched before I did the Step Up movies. But I love dance, I love movement, I love the idea that movement can communicate stories. John Wayne on the porch, Cyd Charisse taking off her jacket, each one told a beautiful story. When he put his hands in his pockets, he had an attitude. And even watching Michael Jackson growing up, made me believe in magic, not that I knew how to do his dance moves, but it just had a powerful language. And so when I was doing the Step Up movies, especially when I did Step Up 3, they were like whoa, Jon, you're going to get pigeonholed. But I've never done anything in my life because I'm afraid of getting pigeonholed, and I don't want to live my life like that. Like part of LXD which was really fun was that I got to play in all sorts of genres; even though there's dance in it, I got to play in a western, I got to play in a noir, which no one would have let me do, but it was a fun thing for me. So going into this, of course they're going to have their opinions. But I don't think they've heard my voice yet in movies; these have been like amazing projects and I had a great time, but I still feel like I'm still in school figuring out the language. I'll never claim to be the greatest auteur of all time and I'll never claim to know exactly what I am doing, but I know I love movies. And when people cheer when the hero comes on and boo when the villain comes on, there's an energy that I love about that. And Joe, to me, it's just natural extension of the symbol of a hero.
Joe fits in to that idea of what it means to be a hero, what it means to be a leader in this world when you don't know what a leader means anymore, especially as Americans. And I think Joe can have such an important message about leadership and about being a hero. And I think the iconography of Joe just plays into that, so in my mind it's all connected, even though people outside will never see that, and that's okay with me because I always like to prove it by my work. I embrace the idea that like you're going to be tested with fire on every single choice you make, so you'd better fight your ass off for that because I think it's too easy to be like, "alright - the crew is doing their thing? Cool, just shoot it. The editor's working on it? Perfect—I'll come back later." I don't think that's the way you should be making movies. Sometimes I'll make wrong decisions, and that's just my fault, but as a filmmaker, I'll hopefully grow and grow - and I'm learning a shitload. Lorenzo is like the most amazing producer. He's done so many action movies - again, hits and misses, he could tell you stories for days—and him as a mentor in this has been a really cool adventure. So to me, I'm just trusting my instincts about what I wanted to see as a kid. I'm making this movie for the 10-year-old me back in the day. And if that kid could be like, "Jon, you did a great job, then I'll be really happy."
How far along in the process are you?
We're just beginning it. We just got the deal done, so now I get to get my hands dirty; this is the fun part, where we get to do pre-vis, to design characters, design worlds and literally the things I would create in my backyard.
A little while ago, there was some dispute about who was and wasn't going to be in the film. Have you worked all of that out?
I guess one of the actors tweeted that "oh, a bunch of these people aren't going to be in it," but I just got on the project so I don't know where she is getting her information. I know that I want to give a new attitude to this movie, and I don't know what that entails, but we're in it now so we'll find out, I guess.
Are you guys planning to shoot it in 3D?
I really want to do it in 3D, but the decision hasn't been made yet. A lot of factors that go into that, which I think it's good to have a big discussion about. I think it's going to be perfect for it, but there are other factors that are built into it—how it slows you down, things like that. But I could try some other things if it wasn't in 3D; it would change my whole view of how I would make this movie, so we're trying to figure it out. But if we do it in 3D, there's no way in hell I am dimensionalizing it. I mean, dimensionalizing can work if you have the time and you have the money. But studios don't want to put in the time or the money, so what's the point? There always going to shortcut you, so why put yourself there?
How much do you think your previous experiences have prepared you to shoot the kind of action that G.I. Joe will demand?
That is a big question. Does dance choreography experience actually translate to action? I don't know the answer, to be honest. I'm not going to rely and say yes, [but] what I love as a parallel is that a dance number without a story is just a dance number—it means nothing to people. It's the same thing with action—the best action sequences are the ones that move our character forward, or when you come out of it you learn something new. So obviously those ideas apply to it, but the biggest thing Lorenzo said to me was, "I don't believe the two are connected, so you're going to have to have other excuses why you want to do this movie." He put me through the wringer, like this is no joke—and I agree. What I love about action is that it has a rhythm, a pacing, and I think that will help a lot, but ultimately it comes down to us watching a story unfold in a different form, so we'll see what we have when we're blowing things up. My main goal is to make sure that we're not doing action for action's sake, but each piece is telling a very specific story.
I love working with choreographers and I think that's going to help; when I get in a room with a choreographer and we riff, there's so many things that we can do, and I love that moment when we're just riffing and saying every ridiculous thing that could happen, but at the same time, we're creating moments. And I have done that with choreographers; they may not have been stunt choreographers, but I know how we get those on paper and put it into form—and that has really helped so far. And I know the complicated thing of not getting lost in that, in the extra physicality of getting these things done, keeping your eye on the ball of what you're actually doing with the movie. So I think those will really help. I hope.
How much of your team have you put together at this point?
We're putting the team together now, and these are people I couldn't dream of meeting before—who would scoff at my name before, so it's really fun to get into it with them. I'm looking for guys who obviously who have experience who can really help me on that, but at the same time I do not want the "A connects to B connects to C" guys. I want the guys who have the spark in their eye. And that's why I love 3D too, because when you say 3D to these guys, and they've never done it, suddenly you can see the filmmaker side of them, you see them when they were in film school and hear that excitement in their voices. And coming into to Joe I got concerned about ‘who is the studio going to be comfortable with me working with?' But more than that, who am going like be able to like create new stuff with, and not just have, "Jon, this is the template of making an action movie - go ahead and jump into that template." I don't want that, and we've made that very clear to everybody - do not let my inexperience be the thing that holds this movie back. I'm a collaborator; I know how to deal with all that kind of stuff, and find the best movie in it.
As a director do you tend to take charge of all aspects of the camerawork, or do you leave most of that to your director of photography and cameraman?
Well, I never want to be in a position where I just tell the d.p. what to do and he or she just does it. When I read a script, I already see the movie, [but] I don't share that necessarily; I let the pre-vis guys, the storyboard artists, the d.p. come in and put their thoughts in it, because I know I can always go back to what's in my head. But usually what happens is they come up with better ideas, and I'll take that and internalize it and come up and riff off of that and then I'll release it. And then we'll come up with something that's a synergy thing that no one could have done that on their own.
It also really comes down to also how are you going to shoot it and make the days, within the changes that we get, but then you think, I don't want it to suffer because of that. All of my movies have had very small budgets, so we've always take that into consideration and then try to make the choices as creative as we can, and actually use it to our advantage. So I assume that's how it's going to be like on Joe, where there's never enough money and never enough time. But I can see the whole movie in my head already—I wanted to be an animator when I was growing up so I can draw every frame. But I know that if I did that, everybody would suddenly they stop working - they're like, okay, let's do that guys - that's what they want. That's the worst position I can be in, so I try to let everyone do their work.
Movies now are practically conceived, edited, shot, written, and had their CGI rendered at the same time. How are you planning to move forward with the various aspects of production?
I don't know the actual process of how they're going to want to do it, but I do know that I like to cut while we are shooting. I think its helps as we're going, because I like to pick out things, and we have the ability now to take dailies every day and cut them together and have at least a rough idea of what we're getting. So I think we'll see what our process will be, but I assume that we're going to have stuff as we go anyway because that's the way I like to work.
It sounds pretty exciting, and also challenging.
Whatever people think about my filmmaking, to me I feel like one of the most important things for any project is that the filmmaker cares about it, and that they understand what the soul of what the audience wants from that movie or what they need from that movie to fully [enjoy it]. And Joe I know. With Joe, I know exactly the movie that my friends would want to go and see. And I actually want also open it up to the fans out there and know, who are your favorite characters—who are the characters that you'd want in this movie, and we'll find a way to try to get it in there. And there may be a better idea that they have than we can ever came up with, and we'll suddenly be changing the script for that. Joe is much bigger than me - it's much bigger than a movie even, it's about a bunch of different generations—and that's a cool thing.