Whether or not one knows who Jon Chu, director of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” is, they’ve likely heard of or seen the second and third installments of the “Step Up” series — both works of Chu’s creation. His name is commonly associated with the musical genre, especially after advancing from the “Step Up” series to work with Justin Bieber on his documentary “Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.”
And yet, in a recent conference call with The Michigan Daily, Chu spilled the beans on his surprising musical background and beginnings in film.
“You know, I just love telling stories,” Chu said. “I wasn’t a dancer, I wasn’t a choreographer. And jumping into the ‘Step Up’ world, I got to work with amazing choreographers, amazing dancers … and I just basically jumped into the dance world.”
With “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” Chu had to make an even loftier leap into the big-budget action film bandwagon. He explained that this transition came with the unfamiliar challenge of having too much — special effects, pyrotechnics and the like — instead of too little.
“One of the biggest challenges was, I think, just the sheer enormity of the production. Sometimes you have 700 people on set. And it’s hard when you are used to smaller movies,” Chu said. “I definitely felt like I tricked the adults in giving me this movie … I did like the biggest con job to make them think that dance and action were exactly the same.”
The new film picks up from its 2009 prequel “G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra,” following the Joes on their efforts to defeat their enemy, Cobra. Despite the prequel’s disappointing reception with critics, Chu believes that fans of G.I. Joe, and those who responded fervently to the prequel, warranted a sequel — a film that both connected the dots, but stood true to Chu’s vision.
“Rise of the Cobra” was a hit, grossing nearly $300 million worldwide. “Did I want to make changes?” Chu said. “Yes, for sure. I think that’s sort of in tradition of G.I. Joe, to reinvent itself every time it changes format — for the toys, or the cartoons or the movie itself.”
An avid fan of G.I. Joe from childhood, Chu was explicit in his excitement for helming the film. But Chu allowed the burden of this large-scale production to be shared with his cast and crew, especially his two lead actors — in his words, his “action-pedia” — Bruce Willis (“A Good Day to Die Hard”) and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (“Snitch”).
Most importantly, with some of the industry’s most seasoned action stars in the world and a vision derived from his own childhood, Chu hopes that his version of G.I. Joe will relate more to the audiences and humanize the story.
“We wanted to feel the power of the punch. You want to feel the grittiness of the fights, you want to feel that they are not cartoon characters, that they are real human beings,” Chu said. “This may be a crazy world, but they are real human beings that are really getting injured.”
A School of Cinema-Television alum from USC, Chu has made a space for himself in a competitive and oft-impenetrable industry by, in Bieber-terms, never saying never.
“I was asking Steven Spielberg, who actually saw my short film and got me into the business,” Chu said, “I asked him, ‘Well, how do I know when I’m a director?’ And he said, ‘Jon, no one’s ever going to give you that title. You either are, or you aren’t … You are what you do every day. If you’re a writer, you write every day, whether you’re getting paid for it or not. If you’re a director, you’re directing every day … ’ And to me, that changed my whole perspective. Because then I stopped waiting. And then I just did it.”