Director Jon Chu is known for his work with dance; He directed Step Up 2: The Streets, Step Up 3D, and the series The LXD: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers. It’s a very specific type of storytelling through action that requires a very particular set of skills. It turns out, though, that these skills made him the perfect candidate to helm the new film G.I. Joe: Retaliation, starring Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum, Adrianne Palicki, and Bruce Willis. The film is in theaters today, and we spoke to its director about the challenges of fighting vs. dancing, retooling the franchise more toward the cartoon, and giving the audience a voice.
NERDIST: We love the Step Up films and League of Extraordinary Dancers; when you were approaching the fight choreography, how natural was that progression for you?
JON CHU: It was both helpful and had nothing to do with it at the same time. With the logistics of working with multiple things to tell your story in terms of when you’re shooting, you have to deal with choreographers and movement and people lurking a little bit and extras in the background, and then the camera either enhances or detracts from that, and then listening with how your actors move, that stuff, I’m glad that I had that experience. I’ve made mistakes where you can get caught up in that stuff and forget about whether it actually means anything, which is the relationship between the character and the camera; the only thing the audience is going to experience is that storytelling…. when you throw in explosions and stunt guys and people’s lives at stake, you can get even more distracted, so that really helped.
In terms of it helping with the action, I think that it’s very, very different. I think that I’ve benefited from understanding rhythm a little bit, and what I learned in dance, too, is sometimes, because I work with some of the best dancers, you don’t want to fake stuff, so you don’t get in there and try to cut if off to pieces. Sometimes you do, but sometimes you want to just let the actor do his thing. When Bruce walks into the room, you don’t want to go crazy and push it and spin around him like what he’s doing is everything you needed, so you sometimes just sit back and let him do it. Someone said to me it was like, “The shot never lies, but filmmakers lie, so just get the fuck out of the way.”
N: Working on Step Up 2, you were able to work with Channing Tatum a little bit before; did you guys continue being friends? What was it like catching up with him as you’re now much further along in your careers?
JC: It is pretty awesome. It really was. I didn’t even really connect the two until much later; literally on-set. Didn’t we do this already in that movie? I love him. Channing is the best. We became friends after … we had to meet for Step Up 2 before he’d ever come in and do that transition, too. The franchise got him into the business, so he was down. We connected on the creative level, so he trusted me that we could do this in the right way.
When it came to Joe, again, we were in that same situation, and he came in and was the perfect gentleman and worked hard. We thought it was fun to do something surprising and easy, and nowadays, that’s just a process that being friends helped a ton to do. Yeah, it’s a very unique situation that Channing and I found ourselves in.
N: Let’s talk about working with the cast. You’re working with very established people within the genre and who clearly know these types of characters very well; were you able to get them to take risks that maybe they wouldn’t normally take?
JC: Yeah. One, I had the master class of movie making (and it) was awesome. You have Lorenzo di Bonaventura as your producer. When you have Bruce Willis, Dwayne Johnson, literally the best of the best with you… obviously the studio surrounded me with a great crew, and cast as well, so that I learned a ton and I loved the collaboration of moviemaking. I love that we get to play jazz together, and I just turn on the camera and try to capture the magic that happens on set. Bruce and Dwayne in the same frame, which has never happened before, it was amazing, let alone in 3D.
That was a great experience for me to be a part of. It was intimidating at first coming in, because I didn’t know how people would react to me, but Dwayne set it off because he respected and worked his butt off for the movie. He was a leader on the set. Literally, when he does that, it set the tone for everyone. Actually, when Bruce came in, great, because he would be like, I was like, “So, can you come into this room and attack this guy?” He’s like, “Oh, you know, I’ve done that like three times in the movies. What if I came in this way? I’ve never done that.” I was like, “Go for that.” It was like having the perfect action team for moviemaking. I was very, very lucky to have that.
N: Through some of the other interviews with some of the cast, it seems there are a lot of cast members who have a lot of memories of G.I. Joe and followed the continuity enough to know whether or not their characters would do certain things. What was that like to have so many people that are just like on the page that you were on with where G.I. Joe should be going?
JC: I was lucky to have that because even the studio, I don’t think, really understands what G.I. Joe is. I think that they were like, “Okay, the first one we did great,” and I was like, “I loved the first movie, but it’s not, let’s say, what I remember about G.I. Joe, so I should gear it more towards there.” The studio would constantly be like, “Wait, why is the good ninja black and the bad ninja white?” That’s Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes, like that’s just the way it is. I can’t explain that. “Well, maybe we need to explain why that happened?” I’m like, “No, it’s yin and yang, it’s good. Don’t worry.” And so to have other people on set who understood the essence of G.I. Joe, even Bruce, was great, because everyone has a different idea about the G.I. Joe brand.
Every generation, whether it was the original 12-inch action figure or the action man or the cartoon or the comic book, has very different fans. Everyone has their idea about the franchise. With this movie, what was difficult, but I also think what is unique about it, is (that) we try to bridge all those things to say that anyone who looked at the G.I. Joe brand in that era can relate to this movie. You have Bruce Willis, the legend, to come in… the only guy that can look Dwayne in the face and say, “You’re not man enough yet.” It’s not a hover board or the hovercraft and the laser guns that make you a soldier; It’s what’s inside. It’s what you stand for. It’s what you’re willing to fight for, what you’re willing to stand up for.
To me that’s the essence of G.I. Joe. That ultimately, with all the ninjas and all the things that we do, it’s actually about the average Joe being able to be the hero, because it’s what they stand for. Once we’ve covered that feed, it could bleed into our whole movie and literally dictate our whole tone, and that allowed us to go as crazy as a mountain fight with ninjas. We had, I suppose, a human center to it.
N: This could be completely unintentional, but I feel like you gave the fans a bit of a voice with Walton Goggins’ small role as the prison warden. Was that conscious?
JC: Yes. That’s a tribute to our writers. The day when I read the script at first, I knew that they were lovers of the comic book and the series because they had the DNA of the sense of humor and just the placement of the sarcasm of the show. When they wrote in Walton Goggins’ character, it was only like two pages of stuff, but literally you finish the script and you’re like, “Damn, that prison guy was awesome.” It was consummate. Even when agents would read it, they’d be like, read it for Dwayne or read it for whoever, they’d be like, “That was very cool, the prison guy.” We knew that we had to find someone who could have that kind of pop in that, because it was actually written really well and added a whole sadistic air to it, so it was fun.
N: It’s almost like you found your Agent Coulson in that character a bit.
N: You’ve post-converted a film to 3D and you’ve now shot specifically for 3D; is there any chance of you going back and with the popularity of 3D home television, maybe seeing LXD get a post-conversion? What do you have coming next?
JC: Actually, post-converting was so different than shooting in 3D. I’m really glad I had the experience of shooting 3D, because it forces you to make depth decisions in your shooting, which means whatever the actor is giving you, you can relate to your depth and have it be a part of storytelling in a way. After working like three or four years in that space, I think when we shot G.I. Joe, even though we were shooting on film in 2D, depth was already a part of how I see things now, because I’ve done it twice. Even if it wasn’t in 3D, depth would still factor in. When the ninjas were fighting in the hallway, it’s a simple hallway. They’re far away from each other, that depth meant something to their relationship and again in the Himalayas you feel the mountain and the wide-open space that meant something to it. The fact that we got to dimensionalize it meant you get actually more control. It’s a different type of control, but you have to think about it after the fact. You actually get to take your edit in consideration for how you do the depth relationship, and that was really a powerful tool.
I actually think the future is in the hybrid where now I know the power of each one. I could go in there and shoot what I need to shoot in 3D, and shoot with one camera stuff I want to dimensionalize later.
Would LXD ever be? That would be really fun. We have never had a discussion, never even thought about it. I’m not sure anyone would ever put the money into doing it, but it would be really… that would be really fun. In fact, LXD is weird because it’s always a side experiment for me. It was just fun and crazy and we got full creative control so we do whatever we wanted. It actually helped me get G.I. Joe. It was one of the things where Lorenzo is like, “I don’t know how dance and action are related in any sort of way.” We would talk about it, talk about movement, talk about storytelling and movement and these things. I would show him clips from Westerns and stuff like that where there is actually, like, dance fighting. I said, “This is dance, but they’re still like… you can tell a little bit about rhythm and feeling,” and it wasn’t until I showed some of that stuff where he’s like, “Okay, I get it.”