Prior to the release of Never Say Never, this spring's documentary about pop sensation Justin Bieber, director Jon M. Chu was best known as the man who turned a single-serving dance movie into a fully-functioning franchise: Step Up 2 surpassed the worldwide grosses of the original film, and Step Up 3D did the same for its predecessor. But after Bieber fever struck, Hollywood recognized that Chu had a gift for making fun ideas into phenomenal successes. In 2010, Chu created The LXD, an innovative, dance-themed web series featuring many of the cast members of his Step Up films; Boxoffice sat down with the filmmaker to talk about the success of Never Say Never, the origins of that film's different iterations, and The LXD, which was released on DVD recently.
For Never Say Never, was the fan cut always part of your plan, or how did that happen?
It was about the week of [release] that we had all of this footage and I started to get feedback from people who had actually seen the movie from different sneak peaks. And it was hard even in the weeks right before that because, our movie was already a little long; if we really wanted to, we could take out ten minutes [of the original theatrical version]. But at the same time I'm like, that's like the best stuff! We want to have fun with the hair; it's extraneous, but it's some of the most fun moments. But at the same time you need the story of him losing his voice, and you want to keep him going to the doctor, to see how vulnerable he is. So we had some painful choices at the end there and as people were start to see they were like, "I wish you had more of the friends, or I wish you had that thing," and that's when we thought of this. We had this footage and we had a conversation about being in 90 percent digital theaters, so we were like theoretically, we could actually do it, and as soon as we said it, they were like "that would be awesome - that would be so cool." They were hesitant at first, but credit to Paramount - they love whenever anyone says "you can't do that," they say "Oh yes we can."
But then we didn't know if we had enough time, because it would cost a decent amount of money to get that stuff in there re-time, re-start, re-mix everything, and if we're going to add new dance or musical numbers, we have to remix all of that stuff in. And so it was just sort of like "alright, we'll try it for a week and if nothing comes out of that trial, then we're going to stop." But I also wanted to prove to people we were doing [the fan cut after the film was released], because no one's going to actually believe we did this, so let's shoot the day people go and see the movie that first weekend. We have cameras, let's go shoot them. And once they got over the hump of, oh my gosh, it costs money, then they were like "that's cool." We could really restore the idea that the story is a living, breathing organism, and that they may give us feedback and we could put that back in the movie. So it was crazy that we were able to do that.
Although Pixar has reissued celluloid reels of their films with outtakes, you are really kind of the first filmmaker to be taking full advantage of digital exhibition. Were you thinking at all about the fact you might be making history?
That really came up when all the distribution guys at Paramount were like "whoa whoa guys—two weeks after it comes out, half of these theaters are already updating. Who is going to update it? Who is not going to update it? And what happens after that week - are they going to switch them back? And then what happens to all the film prints? How do you advertise these? How do you make it clear?" I'm like, "you guys could figure that out, right? And people watching it on film and in 2D are not going to come back anyway, so let's just do it." We were like, this has never been done, so we have to go and talk to the theaters to make sure that they will do it. Then, I wanted to add the LXD short film in front of it, and that caused a whole another layer of stuff—like, are they going to count that as a trailer? Ultimately it was up to the theaters to play the short film or not, and they all chose to do it, so we were like, "we are going to make it a part of this movie." The fact that it's a part of the experience adds value to it, and the biggest thing we wanted to do is to make sure people didn't feel like we're trying to cheat them at another 10 dollars. But my concern was the director's cut was even longer than the original cut, which is why we put the fan cut right in there—"The Director's Fan Cut." But the fans really responded to it—I was surprised, actually, how much they responded to it.
Have you finished the Blu-ray for the Bieber movie?
Is the Blu-ray going to have both versions? And which will be considered the definitive cut?
The primary cut is the cut we originally released; that's the movie that I wanted to release and that we all love and that's what we are releasing. In terms of the Fan Cut, we're working that out right now. I've done both so we'll see what happens, but they do all of their things about how they want to release it. But the hardest part is 4:3—I hate 4:3, it's like torture. I don't understand who has a four-by-three television—I guess overseas, or they have them on airplanes I guess. That one crushes my soul.
I also hate "title safe," because we make titles to be beautiful on this [canvas] and all of a sudden, they're like "it doesn't pass quality control." I'm like, nobody's watching us on an old player, but you have to move it over like four inches, and it looks like shit! But they just changed where title safe is, so there's a little bit more room, but it drives me absolutely nuts. Or reels—I hate reels! We have however many reels we have in the movie, and we have to cut up the movie according to these reels, and I want this moment to continue; but okay, we change the reels at this point, and then it's going to be too long. I just want to make a movie! I'm in a day and age when that isn't [an issue]. I mean, we've run into direct issues; for something like Bieber, we want to keep it moving, we want to keep it going, and we had a version that was like chapters—and I wanted to shoot myself, and it did affect our storytelling to a degree. And this will not happen in the future; we will look back at these and be like, we were idiots! We're already there, but we're still making choices according to stuff like that.
How much of a consideration is it to think about adjusting the dimensionalization of your films for home video, as opposed to their theatrical presentation?
I'm still fairly new and coming into it, and I didn't realize that when you go to home theater stuff it's a different animal and the colors change and the space changes, and how you interpret a certain scene changes, so it's been a real learning curve. I can't just let it go once the movie is out, and with 3D it's even more so, because literally when you are watching at home, the screen is amazing—it actually in some ways works for 3D better because it's bright and you don't have to deal with the darkness of different theaters, and you don't have to adjust to projectors that are not going to be at their full lumens. But for like the Red Hook dance scene [in Step Up 3D] when we had Pandora, who was the one doing her hands right at the screen, it really hurt my eyes when we watched it straight up. So we had to pull her back a lot because there's a certain limit to those screens; stuff like the colors are too bright, so you've got to tone it down a little bit. TV screens, they have settings like "Vivid" and "Cinema," and I'm like, these settings aren't what we color time to! So there's no standard, and we are finding our way of where we want to lie in it. I know when I go home to my 3D television and I watch it, it's a totally different color space. So on Bieber we adjusted accordingly to what we expect people to see.
By the time you got Never Say Never, how much of that was different because you were filming a concert, where presumably you had less control?
We had rehearsal days where we'd do it and be like "okay, everyone just stay a little bit back;" but at a certain point, you lose energy, so on the day of, if you have Mitch Amundsen and all of these great cinematographers operating the camera and they're like, "Jon, we're losing the energy, let's just go, let's just do it," I'd be like, "You're right." It's all about the feeling of that moment, so I was like, "okay guys, go to town. I'll pull you guys back when I want to pull you out." And when we cut it together, there were moments that don't work and we just cut them out, but ultimately it was much better for our movie to feel what it was like to be right there. I mean, we hit Usher; we were in rehearsal and Usher's singing and dancing and the camera gets close to him, and he turns around and boom, it hits him in the face. He gave us the dirtiest look. It is scary when you're in that space with that ginormous camera, but those are the images when you're wide and close, that can have a really interesting effect, and we used a lot of those moves in the movie. I didn't think Justin reaching out would actually be that interesting - I thought it was a little cheesy, to be honest, when we were shooting it. But what happened was he really connected it with it: There's something that happens with Justin when he's looking at a camera - he's more comfortable than not looking at the camera. I guess he was raised like that, so there was an honesty that I was like, holy shit, I didn't realize we were going to get that.
For something like The LXD, how much of that stuff is engineered to be monetized, and how much is it sort of a loss leader for other projects you're developing?
For me it was never something to make money, it was a passion thing. I had my friends who were amazing dancers and I had ideas of how to tell their back stories. And we're like, "maybe we can trick people into giving us money to go and make these." They were looking for original content and we could deliver original content with the highest level of performers that are willing to do this, and we have cameras that I can borrow from my friends. I have a crew that are my friends which will do amazing jobs. I don't have to answer to anybody, not even Paramount has any sort of creative control. So it was always like this is my freeing little side thing, obviously as it gained steam, and we're doing live shows, and getting requests from everywhere. But at the same time it was never meant to be a TV show, it was never meant to be a movie. And in my mind, that's not the endgame anyway. It's not a stepping stone to something, it is what it is. And we may do stuff in the future just because it's fun, but these stories are meant to be short films online in the same way you that watch Nickelodeons back in the day. They are just little fun things.
The monetization part of it, I just sort of put it on Paramount, like "alright, you guys figure out how to make your money back, and I'm just doing this." And then there were things we had to figure out like "alright, Puma's coming in as sponsor then. Does it disrupt to wear their shoes? No it doesn't, half the guys wear their shoes anyway, so let's just do it." And then we can pay dancers and get a bigger crew. So we've had to make little adjustments here and there, but ultimately nothing that disrupts our creative flow and to me, LXD is bigger than the web series; it is a live show thing that we've been doing, and now it's like an "LXD Presents" thing. We want to be the Pixar of dance—we've been training a lot of directors that are amazingly talented, more talented than I will ever be, choreographers who see dance more vibrant than I can ever see dance. Just to create an ecosystem of creative people who understand dance and film, and can take the two and experiment with the two. Because ultimately for LXD, our job is to experiment and fail a lot, so that people can then copy us and use the things that work. That's all it is for me, and I think that's what keeps the pressure off of us and that's what keeps it fun for everybody.
It also seems to combine choreography and dance with something more deeply emotional.
Because to [dancers] it is poetic. To them they are dancing about their life, even though we're like "oh yeah! He's spinning on his head." Yeah, he is spinning on his head, and we've seen a million people do that. But then when we hear about the story about how many times he had to it, how he had to ice his head and like grease the floor and how he broke the world record and then had to get surgery in his intestines because they were all twisted, and then now he's back. These are real stories of them, and you see it in a different light.