Interview: Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation)

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By Simon Miraudo
March 26, 2013

Jon M. Chu’s directorial credentials didn’t necessarily suggest he’d be the best director for G.I. Joe: Retaliation. We suspect it was his enthusiasm for the Hasbro universe that got him the gig. And good thing too: the resulting product is a lot of fun. Having cut his teeth on dance movies like Step Up 3D and popumentary Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (which, we maintain, is great), he makes the transition to the action genre for the sequel to Stephen SommersRise of the Cobra. Eschewing much of what’s come before, he and fellow series newcomers Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, and Adrianne Palicki attempt to breathe new life into a franchise that was once considered dead on arrival.

Check out Simon Miraudo’s review of G.I. Joe: Retaliation here. 

and see our interview with star Adrianne Palicki here.

We spoke to Jon Chu about picking up from where Sommers left off, whether any sequences in the movie were too ambitious for even the $185 million budget, and his reaction to the film’s delayed release (it was meant to come out in June of 2012, but was postponed eight months to accommodate post-conversion to 3D).

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SM: This is your first major film that’s not dance or music related. Were you apprehensive at all about moving away from that genre and into action?

JC: No. I guess I look at it on paper and it’s crazy, but it’s feeling very natural. I grew up with G.I. Joe. It was always a part of my life. I’m convinced that playing with my toys in the backyard and having week long adventures was where I fell in love with filmmaking in the first place. It just felt extremely a part of me; who I am. I love action-adventure movies, so it just sort of fit with me. I was never a dancer or a choreographer, so jumping into Step Up was almost a little more strange for me. Going into Justin Bieber  [Never Say Never] when I didn’t really know who Justin Bieber was, and I’d never done a documentary; that was a little bit weird for me. But for Joe, it feels extremely natural. And of course, for my first action movie, Paramount surrounds you with the best of the best in your crew, so I was very blessed to have a crew that was amazing and that I learned a ton from.

SM: Excellent. I’m glad the natural order has been restored for you professionally. Tell me a little bit about scoring the gig. Did Paramount come to you based on your relationship, or did you have to sort of pitch yourself to them?

JC: We had a relationship from Never Say Never, but at the same time, I had to fight for it. No doubt. I didn’t know [producer] Lorenzo [diBonaventura], so I had to fight for Lorenzo. It came down to, I think, understanding G.I. Joe. Understanding the tone. They didn’t grow up with G.I. Joe, necessarily. They don’t understand the tone. And there’s something about growing up with it, when it’s in your blood. It’s hard to describe what G.I. Joe is, unless you just know it. It’s a mash-up before mash-ups even existed. It’s part 007, it’s part military movie, it’s part ninja movie, it’s part western. It’s all these things, which is what makes it fun. That’s sort of what linked it all together. It took a lot of pushing and convincing to get them to give me the movie.

SM: There is a lot of choreography involved in dance films, but it’s a different type of choreography in action movies. What was it like to make that adjustment, or was there really very little to adjust to?

JC: It helped, and also, it didn’t help at all. The logistics of working with a choreographer, working with a camera, working with actors in the scene and changing; because I had experience with those things, I didn’t get overwhelmed. I think, if it’s the first time you do it, you can, like on my first movie. You get caught up in all those things happening when the reality is it’s just about when that camera turns on and the actors are in front of that camera, and the synergy that happens between the two that the audience will feel. In that respect, when you’re adding explosions to that equation, I didn’t get side-tracked from it. That was very helpful. It’s very different to dance though. Working with fight choreographers; working with the best of the best; working with Dwayne, Bruce. It is a whole other thing. I learned a lot with them. What better way to have a master class in action than with the legend and the icon.

SM: Absolutely. And surely even the shot length. That must be a fairly drastic difference.

JC: Yes and no. I think that what I learned from dance, too, was that I had such amazing dancers that sometimes the best way to communicate was to get the f*** out of the way and let the dancer dance, and just let the camera sit there, which sometimes filmmakers hate, because it feels like you’re doing nothing. The same thing with action. When you want to see The Rock do his thing, sometimes filmmakers lie. Let the shot tell the truth, and just back away and try to keep up. That’s something we tried to do a lot in this movie, with the ninjas, and Bruce, and Dwayne. Something that I did learn from dance, actually, was when you had talent that’s good enough, and you don’t have to fake it, then make sure the audience knows you’re not faking it.

SM: Well, there are bad days on every set. Was there one in particular here where you thought, “I’ve made a mistake.” One scene, or one shot, that you really struggled to get right?

JC: [Laughs] That happened almost every three days. You never quite feel comfortable, because there’s so much going on. You sort of have to trust your instincts on things like that. Even when it comes down to costumes, and you’re making a guy with a silver face, or you’re doing a guy all in black, and you hope the people who love Snake Eyes don’t kill you. But I do know that physical challenges were always difficult, only because we had a lot of physicality in this movie. That was a point we always wanted to do. We wanted to feel the punch. If you’re in the alley, you want to feel they’re getting hit. If they’re in the desert, you wanted to feel their feet sinking into their hot sand. We had to go to those actual places. When we’re in the Himalayas, we wanted to feel the zip-lines really happening, so we had to go to the mountains, 1000 feet in the air, and have ninjas zip-lining in skin-tight outfits, and it’s freezing cold, and they can’t breathe because the atmosphere is so thin up there, and they have a mask on. All those things are very difficult. At any point you feel, as a director, the responsibility to pull the plug and say, “Okay, let’s do it the easy way.” At the same time, you have actors who expect that kind of level of intensity. If you’re not pushing yourself, then you’re not making a great movie. That always helped to push through those moments.

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SM: Now, you’re taking over from Stephen Sommers on this, following on from Rise of the Cobra. For the most part, it’s a complete do-over. Were there any elements that you particularly wanted to give greater prominence this time around, as a G.I. Joe fan?

JC: Definitely the ninja story. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow. I loved them in the last one. They were my favourite part of the last movie, and there was more to do with them. The story, the mythology; there’s a lot. To have Byung-hun Lee back to give us that raw rage now – instead of the pristine ninja story – was really great. To have Ray Park, who gives so much comedy and fun to Snake Eyes. That was an honour to have them there. We just wanted everything to feel more physical. We didn’t want green screen everywhere, so we built everything. We built the prison in the middle of a golf course. We built the road and the trees; we had to create fake bark to make sure it could blow up. All those things we wanted. To have The Rock there to shoot and tackle someone down, and shoot a giant gun – that no one on the set could carry except him – was a pretty cool element to add into the movie. Already that changes the tone of the film, without me doing one thing.

SM: I don’t want to get into spoilers for obvious reasons. Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes are two of the few returning characters. There is, sort of, a reset point early on in the film, if you will. I was wondering, was the studio nervous about some of the things that take place early on, or were they pushing to really start fresh in terms of establishing a new bunch of characters this time around?

JC: I think we were all down to start fresh. Even before I signed on. It was, “This is a sequel, but not.” That was a challenge. That was a hard thing. I don’t know if a movie has ever done that before; I can’t quite think of one that really just resets the cast, resets all the stuff, but continues the story. It was a constant dialogue between how much, where we push, where we don’t, how much we don’t, how much we can sustain or not. There was a constant struggle, even in the editing room, of how far can we go, how much of a nod, how much do we need to describe to the audience, how much have they kept up with us. We wanted to make sure if you knew everything about Joe, you could watch this movie. If you knew nothing about Joe, you could watch the movie and enjoy. That was a challenge in itself.

SM: There’s some great, economic storytelling in that first fifteen minutes, which I really appreciated.

JC: [Laughs]

SM: No, in all seriousness. I think it conveys quite a lot and that’s not something I thought of the first film.

JC: Yes.

SM: There are some big, bombastic action sequences, and I’m sure you had a hefty budget to work with. Was there anything in the original script that eventually you had to nix because it was just too much?

JC: Yes. Things got adjusted. We had this whole firefly fight, where these fireflies are chasing [Dwayne Johnson] through this warehouse and Roadblock is ducking and hitting them with all these things and bats. He’s in a room full of equipment. It got really shortened down in ours, to where he’s just running through a warehouse and running out, because it just felt like there was too much stuff going on there. It was more annoying than anything else. But that sequence was supposed to be really cool. It’s supposed to be like Top Gun, but with these bugs chasing The Rock around this place, which would have been really fun. We had a bunch more, but that was one that stood out to me, because I always loved that one and was bummed that we couldn’t actually pull it off.

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SM: The film was meant to originally hit cinemas in June of 2012. Can you tell me a little bit about how the news was broken to you? Or, what involvement you had in that decision?

JC: [Laughs] It was a decision a long time in the making, but one I never thought would actually be made. When I got hired, I thought we were going to shoot the movie in 3D, and [the studio] came to me and said, “We don’t have the time or money to do it.” So I was like, “Okay, let’s shoot film then.” So we shot Super 35 film. In the middle of shooting, they were like, “Wow, this looks really great. This would be awesome in 3D. Let’s switch all the cameras to 3D.” I was like, “You can’t just switch all the cameras to 3D. We’d have to change some crew, we’d have to do this and this. It would just be a disaster in waiting. And you’re not going to give us the time to do it right anyway.” “Yeah, you’re right, just keep going.” Then when we got in the edit room, and we had the movie together, and they’re watching it, it was very, very clear that our movie would be better in 3D. It just elevates it. Our whole theory about our movie was to bring the audience in; to feel these environments all around the world and this adventure. And we knew that 3D would enhance that. We had to all look each other in the eye and say, “Can we make this movie better?” And the answer was, “Yes we could,” but again, we needed time and resources to do it. Credit to Paramount, they said, “Look, we don’t have to release this movie now. We will give you the time; we will give you the resources. We have a slot in March, which is way more time than you really actually need, but it’s a good slot, and you could make the movie better, and that’s more important to us right now than just rushing something out.” It was a hard, hard decision, and ultimately it is the studio’s decision, but it was a hard emotional decision. Ultimately, we all knew it was better. We just had to give a couple weeks to calm down from it, when you’re rushing towards the finish line, and realise that you’re only halfway through the marathon.

SM: Absolutely, and like you said, you feel it’s the right decision now. On a personal level, you have your baby and you’re weeks away from release, and then you’re asked to sit on it for eight months. How did that feel?

JC: Oh yeah. It hurt. They were like, “Jon, go on vacation. We’ll pay for it.” [Laughs]

SM: Oh, geez, that’s alright. I’ve stopped feeling sorry for you.

JC: I went on vacation, came back, and then we went on this journey of turning this movie 3D which was over 3000 shots, 700 artists, turning each frame, at 24 frame per second. Cutting it up, dimensionalising it, painting it in. We probably did 15/20 versions of those things. It was a technical, logistical algorithm, basically, that we had to do for eight months. And then we had to be creative, once we’ve got it all in place, to say, “Where does the depth mean something in what scene?” It was a long tedious process.

SM: Of course. A nice way to wrap up the film, I’m sure. Are you still working on Masters of the Universe?

JC: Yeah, we’ve been designing a ton of stuff. I’ve been doing a ton of pre-vis. We’re still early, early in that process. We don’t have a start date, or anything like that. But this is the fun part, where we get to make all the mistakes we can. We know where the tone lies. It’s a very important process for me to know what me as a fanboy but also me as a filmmaker can pull off, or should be trying to pursue, or how far we should push it. All these things. We’re working with Sony. It’s been really nice to try out and experiment.

SM: Will that be the next thing for you, or are you looking at some other projects that may go before it starts production?

JC: I hope it’s my next thing, but you never know. I’m always looking for stuff, and I have a couple of things I’m circling. If that could be my next one, that’d be awesome.

G.I. Joe Retaliation: arrives in Australian cinemas March 28, 2013.

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