Director Jon M. Chu has provided has provided one of the all-time greatest gateway drugs for 3-D movie addiction: the dance movie “Step Up 3D.” His newest challenge: giving Justin Bieber the 3-D treatment in the new film “Never Say Never.”
Speakeasy caught up with Chu earlier this week by phone to talk about finding the tough balance between marketing and true magic in “Never Say Never.” Additionally, the young filmmaker offered observations about “Bieber fever,” his own feelings about the depths of teen fandom, and addressed rumors about his possible involvement in the next installment of the “G.I. Joe” movie series.
Speakeasy: I assume that you’d heard some of Justin’s music before you started work on this. How convinced or skeptical were you that his story could successfully be transformed into a movie?
I’ve done a lot of YouTube videos, so at the beginning of the movie when it’s all of the computer stuff, that’s my experience of how I saw him for the first time. I remember clicking on that link, I remember watching the Chris Brown video, and I remember thinking, that guy is singing it better than Chris Brown. And then I would keep seeing videos throughout the year until finally I saw him at the VMAs. I remembered, oh, that’s that YouTube kid; he signed with Usher? That’s crazy! So I knew there was something interesting in that story, [but] how would it work with a concert? I had no idea. But because I was fresh to his music, every time I found something new about his story, this music would sort of pop into my head – oh, that part of that song reminds me of this feeling, like going into Atlanta for the first time. So I would just make marks, and eventually it became just very natural to build the story.
How easy was the choice what to shoot in 3D? The archival footage obviously would have to be converted.
I knew that because I’d done “Step Up 3D,” we’d kind of experimented a lot to kind of find things that worked for 3D; I don’t think 3D’s for every movie, but I do feel like there is a synergy with 3D, if it’s paired even with 2D, that creates some kind of emotional reaction. So starting with that idea, I was like, I don’t want to dimensionalize the old hi-8 footage; and then we started cutting between the big, crazy 3D of the concert with the hi-8 stuff of him as a two-year-old, and it created this sort of spark of like, whoa – an emotional, “he’s come a long way” feeling. You could be with his mom, peeking in his room, and all of a sudden you were engulfed in 20,000 people yelling and you were almost on stage with him – and then he could pull you up on stage, and you could feel that. So that back and forth just went along with the idea that we had three different layers to this story – we had his childhood story, we had his 10-day countdown story, and the concert itself that was laid on top of it.
I can only imagine that you did a lot of planning to shoot the concert footage, but unlike the dancing in “Step Up 2” and “3” you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. How easy was that to prepare for and then to adjust to as different things came up?
We were scrambling (laughs). Obviously, when we came in, he had a show, but it wasn’t a big, crazy show. We wanted to make it a little more present, so we expanded it as much as we could, and then we added seven new dancers, and because I knew them and I knew their style, I knew what they were going to do and where they were going to do it. But Justin does what he feels on that stage, so we can’t really control that. And we had one show to do it at, the Madison Square Garden show, and it was very scary. So we were in the back room basically calling it live as they were going, and I had everybody on mics; we had 11 3D cameras, and it was a little nuts.
How do you feel about the idea of this being looked at maybe as much as a big piece of marketing as a film? It seems like it was probably never going to be some shocking expose of Justin Bieber, but where do you draw the line between telling a story and packaging all of the things people love about Justin and selling the crap out of them?
There was never a conscious choice to sell anything about him. I sort of was recording my own experience with him: at first I was skeptical about him going into it, then I got to meet the people around him – and I got to know them first, really. And then I literally slept on his bus and traveled with him so I could have conversations with him at two in the morning while he was playing video games, or doing his vocal warm-ups when he usually kicked everyone out. That’s when it felt very real to me. He wasn’t like a Jonas brother where he was pretending to be some character and doing it for the cameras. And he was very cold until there was one night on the bus and it was just me and him, and he turns to me and says, “check out this Youtube video.” I showed him one, and he laughed, we just started sharing Youtube videos, and that’s when I knew he trusts me and we’re in this together. So the movie to me was very honest about how I got to know Justin, and why I do ultimately respect him and what he’s going through.
How much attention did you give to the idea that people who might not be fans of Justin would be watching the film – or what that might require of you in terms of telling the best story?
That was there from the beginning for sure. He has so much baggage, and you never know where people’s baggage of Justin Bieber comes from, so that’s sort of why I brought him in from left field with the YouTube stuff – because I wanted to start like it was a mundane Tuesday when you’re at work and you’re sitting and you’re just surfing the web. The way I discovered him and the way any normal person would discover him. And once you see that video, that this is the story of that kid, and we’re going to show you from ground zero what it was, we had such interesting videos coming in from his mother who literally would find videos every time she went back to their home. It was CSI for us, going through this stuff and watching it – like, “oh, that’s how he got that scar,” or “that’s how he learned how to play that thing.” I think they were very surprised when they saw the movie, because I know Justin hadn’t seen a lot of that stuff.
You’re a young guy and obviously have your finger on the pulse of contemporary pop or r&b because of the Step Up movies. But was there anything that you’ve ever loved as much as these fans seem to love him? A childhood obsession?
Michael Jackson was one of those where I wasn’t a dancer, but he made me fall in love with the form of dance as a storytelling device. I remember when “Black or White” premiered after “The Simpsons,” and my whole family would sit there and wait for it. I don’t think I would be shrieking and screaming if I saw him, but I definitely wouldn’t know what to say to him – I would freeze up. It was either him or Steve Jobs – I love Steve Jobs. I actually do have to admit I did meet him last year at the Oscars, and I was talking to Zac Efron and he passed by and I freaked out. I ignored Zac, and I walked over to Steve – Steve Jobs, I don’t know why I call him Steve, like we’re pals – and I was like, “I love you…?” He was like, “that’s cool.” And I said, “even your commercial, I recite it all of the time.” So I started saying, “here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in square holes.” He leaned in and put his ear towards me, so I kept going with the commercial, and he sort of finished one of my sentences for me, and it was just awesome. But he was like, “thank you so much – that means a lot to me,” and we shook hands. So I did have a fan moment for sure.
Is there a way some context or way to depict that kind of fan adulation without judging it? Or encouraging the audience to judge it? Because some people might think there is something unhealthy about it, but most of the kids who grew up loving boy bands turned out just fine.
For sure. We painted that line very close, and there were things where we thought maybe we went too far. We didn’t want to make fun of the fans, but we wanted to show how crazy it is; like the girl who says, “I will marry Justin Bieber – we will be husband and wife,” that was definitely a clip that was in question, because fans are watching this. But he’s very real with them and they can laugh at themselves and it’s okay and they’re not going to go crazy – we decided to just go for it. Because that’s the reality, and so far the reaction’s been good. But we treated them with respect that this is a craziness, but we all feel that at some point about something in our lives.
In the making of this movie, was there anything that you discovered or caught you off guard about Justin, or fandom, or the making of these pop idols in general?
I honestly think it was his real, genuine connectedness to his fans. I understood that intellectually; I got that he uses Twitter and they all follow him and they made him who he is, and then he signed with a record label. But he could shrug his shoulders at us and the cameras and everybody else, but when that fan comes in, he is listening, and he is there with them. That was surprising to me because I thought at some point by the time we came in, he would be so sick of these fans, but he’s closer to them than a lot of people in his real life, and I thought that was very interesting. We went to an interview in Toronto recently, and they showed a clip of a crazy fan crying at one of the appearances. It was like, ha ha, the whole audience was laughing and I’m laughing, and he was like, “wow – she was so adorable and cute. What a sweetheart.” And I remember thinking, whoa, that’s right – he’s not like me. He does know these fans and he has a lot of gratitude for them. It’s not fake.
This week stories appeared on the web about you discussing the possibility of being one of the candidates to take over directing “G.I. Joe 2.” Can you confirm if that is something that’s a possibility for you?
Well, there’s a bunch of movies that I’m circling right now. I’m not quite sure about the Joe thing, but I love Joe, and I grew up with Joe. I was part of that generation with Transformers and G.I. Joe and all of those things. I just always loved those things, so that would be awesome if it was, but we’d have to see.
Is there a specific eagerness you have to transition into other kinds of material?
I’m in no rush to force myself to be in any sort of genre professionally in any way. I’ve never been scared of any pigeonholing in my life, because I love storytelling and I love all different stories. I’ve done it all through my life, so I’m in no rush; I hope I can make all types of movies as I grow older and my taste changes. But right now, I just love the process of making a fun movie that we can all share in, and that when I go to a movie, all of the fans have their glowsticks in the air, and they’re dancing in the aisles. That communal experience is so fun, and it’s not like watching TV at your home. So the one thing I would love to do is to continue to tell stories that grandparents, parents, teenagers and kids can all share in. [Wednesday] night, watching “Never Say Never” with people on Twitter, all around the country taking pictures of the theater they’re in while they’re watching the movie, that is unlike any other time, and I think that’s really exciting. And whatever genre that may be in, I’m down to do.