Exclusive Interview: ‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ Director Jon Chu on Why You Should Give The Sequel A Chance
Posted on Wednesday, May 2nd, 2012 by Peter Sciretta
While in Las Vegas for CinemaCon, I got the opportunity to sit down with director Jon Chu and chat about G.I. Joe: Retaliation. We talk about why people who didn’t like the first Stephen Sommers film Rise of Cobra should give the sequel a chance, how his vision of a GI Joe movie is more rooted in the cartoons and toys of his (and my) childhood, reinventing Cobra Commander, how he got the job, what Paramount saw in films like the Step Up series and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never to earn him a chance at a Summer action film, demystifying the movie pitching presentation process and more.
Question: How’s it going?
Jon Chu: I’m good. I’m a little exhausted, but I’m good.
Question: You started early this morning, right?
Jon Chu: We started early this morning, but I just flew in from Miami. We were doing ADR with Dwayne [Johnson] in Miami. So I flew over there and flew right back here and then we are back in the edit tomorrow.
Question: That’s crazy.
Jon Chu: It’s nuts.
Question: Well I’m going to start with the hard questions and then move our way to your favorite color.
Jon Chu: Yes! (Laughs)
Question: I liked the first movie. It’s dumb but fun.
Jon Chu: Me too,
Question: But it seems like there were a lot of people that don’t.
Jon Chu: Yes.
Question: I wanted to know, why should people who hated the first film give this sequel a chance?
Jon Chu: It’s crazy, because as polarizing as that first movie was, people still went and saw it and people still went and saw it over and over and the DVD sold like crazy, so…
Question: And then you made a sequel, so they must have made money.
Jon Chu: Excatly and especially now like hearing the fans say what they want and don’t want and which characters they wish were coming back and which weren’t. I mean it seems like more people like it than people will admit, which is crazy. And we are not trying to compete with that movie, we are trying to make a different movie. To me, the GI JOE product means something very different than the filmmakers of the last movie. To me, GI JOE is this very personal thing. I grew up on GI JOES. I grew up playing GI JOES and so I have a very specific idea and it’s probably really different from people who first knew about GI JOE with the 12 inch action figure, but we really tried to bridge all of those mythologies with everything you know about Joe and put it into one. For instance, Joe Colton, one of the number one questions when I first signed on to the movie everyone would be like “Well who is playing Joe?” I’m like “What are you talking about? There is no “Joe.” Then I remembered Joe Colton and was like “That would be really awesome to give Joe a face and a personality and there’s only one iconic person that could ever play that and that would be Bruce [Willis].”
Question: Yeah, he’s perfect.
Jon Chu: I didn’t know if Bruce would ever do it, but he jumped on board and it was just perfect. So to me I think it’s just… If you loved GI JOE or if you know nothing about GI JOE and you just like a story that has ninjas and lots of things blowing up, you should give our movie a shot.
Question: As much as I liked the first film, it didn’t really feel like the GI JOE I grew up with, which I think is the same GI JOE you grew up with. Can you talk about going more in that direction?
Jon Chu: Yeah, I mean something that Lorenzo [Di Bonaventura] and I talked about very early was we wanted you to feel the power of the punch, something I was missing in the last movie, I wanted to know that these guys were really fighting. I wanted to see the scratches and patterns on patterns. Growing up, when I would play with them in my backyard, I would have these week long epic adventures and I’m convinced that’s where I learned how to tell stories and make movies, because of my toys and in those cases when a guy’s arm fell off, that was even better, because it made the story more interesting and you would lose a guy for a day and then you’d find him again and they’d appear again. So all of those things, to me, is what we tried to build into the movie, that you actually felt the world and the action; each action piece was different from the next with different textures, different fighting style, different shooting style, and so it never felt like a repeat of an action scene and that you actually revealed stuff about each character. So the way someone retreats or the way someone steps up to plate at that moment all reveals stuff about characters and even in my past movies it wasn’t about… I was never a dancer before doing dance movies, it was always about storytelling and that movement, to me, tells more story than words could ever tell and in an action movie you have more opportunities to do that.
Question: Totally. Well that’s one of the questions I wanted to get to, if you look at your credits, you’re not the person most people would expect to take on a GI JOE movie… but after seeing that five minutes I totally get it. What you did for dancing, when Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are going at it, I get it.
Jon Chu: Thank you.
Question: Why do you think they chose you over other directors who probably had an action background? What did they see in you?
Jon Chu: Well I mean I have a relationship with Paramount from when we did the Bieber movie. I didn’t know anything about Bieber. All I knew was I had a YouTube channel, so I knew what was going on online and I loved the… To me the pitch was sort of the everyman’s story, the hero’s story of a boy finding technology and having his destiny sort of fulfilled. It was a fairytale in a lot of ways. It was ROCKY in a lot of ways and we had real footage to back it up, so I think they didn’t know what the Bieber movie would be, they sort of were like “Well we don’t know, it’s just this kid…” I think what we created there they really understood and respected, that we were telling a theatrical story in there.
Question: I feel like that movie a lot of people kind of mocked and then when they saw it they were like “Wow, this is a good movie.”
Jon Chu: Even me going into it, I was like “What the heck?” Then I was like “Well let me go hang out for a second and see what the story could be before I commit” and hanging out there with him I saw the everyman, even though he’s this pop star and he can be this way or that way. He had a mom, he had a manager that was basically his brother, and his father, and all of this stuff that was really, as a storyteller, really interesting. I thought people had no idea what was actually happening, so I thought that was cool. I think my relationship with Paramount, when they saw that and we would talk about other movies and we started talking about JOE and I told them how much I loved JOE and what I thought that the JOE franchise could be in an era when we are trying to figure out what it means to be a hero and a leader in the world, for America to be a hero and a leader. What a perfect moment to redefine a brand that is along those same lines, that can help us find our way of what it means to be a hero and what it means to be a leader.
Question: Did you have to like edit a package together of what your [vision was]?
Jon Chu: I did edit some stuff together. I mean any pitch that I go into, I use images, I use music, I use video. We shoot stuff and we edit stuff together, just to communicate tone and what we would do.
Question: I feel like that’s the biggest part of the process that people that read the website don’t know anything about. I’ve recently seen a lot of that kind of stuff and these packages that are put together, really a lot of work goes into them, and no one sees it besides a few executives.
Jon Chu: It’s getting crazier and crazier, because when I first started there wasn’t like Keynote and all of this. I mean there was Power Point, but that was kind of cheesy and whatever and not everybody had a screen that you could plug into and all of that stuff, so I would do giant binders. I still have collections of folders and folders like when I see an image in a magazine I cut it out or if I see something online I put it to the side. So I have these banks of images, so when I’m going into a project, I think about what those images are and draw them out. I used to put them in these binders, so I have a shelf full of these binders for every project I’ve pitched for, things I never got and things that I did get, and now it’s just on a file, on a drive and I can just present it. Every studio has a 50 inch screen that I can just start talking and Steve Jobs it a little bit.
Question: Yeah, you can hook your iPhone right into it…
Jon Chu: And I could cut something in a night. I have a bunch of videos that I keep on file with things that I like aesthetically and then I can cut things together and communicate a lot better.
Question: Can you talk a little bit about reinventing Cobra Commander? This is the Cobra Commander I grew up with and it’s very different than the first film, so how did we get from what we saw in the first film to this?
Jon Chu: We tell that story in the movie, so you’re going to have to see the movie to fully know how that transformation is and it was difficult to find how. (Laughs)
Question: So it’s not like it just starts out like that?
Jon Chu: No, we don’t start there. We actually see how it all sort of unfolds, but it definitely is fun. That was one of the most fun challenges to figure out. I want Cobra… I freaking follow Cobra Commander on Twitter and I love all of those things and that’s iconic. There are very few villains that are as iconic as Cobra Commander, so I wanted him to be a presence in this movie. In fact, I can’t wait to see more of him in future things and what he can become, because I still think this is just the beginning of Cobra and we had a lot of fun designing the costume. Both he and Snake Eyes took months of designing, redesigning, going too far one way, then coming back, then going too far that way, so…
Question: It’s cool, because he looks like what I imagine Cobra Commander looked like in my childhood, but he doesn’t. He looks so much cooler.
Jon Chu: Yes. We had a great… Louise Mingenback, who was our costume designer, she was amazing. She doesn’t know a lot about JOE necessarily… She did all of the X MEN stuff and things like that, but she is like super high fashion, like she knows what looks good. There was always a thing back and froth between us of like what fit the comic and what she brought to the table.
Question: I have one last question for you. What’s next? What’s after GI JOE?
Jon Chu: You know, I don’t know. We are still finishing the movie right now. All of my focus is there and I’m excited. I think it will be interesting to see how the audience reacts, how they like what we do. I love action now. I’m stuck in this action adventure world, which was really fun. I love designing a world. I love creating the red ninjas and Snake Eyes and designing the vehicles and all of that. To work with a team like that was just one of the best experiences of my life, so I hope I can build another world.
Question: I hope so, too. When they were talking about the TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES short list I was expecting your name to pop up on that. I just saw that and was like “That’s the next…”
Jon Chu: (Laughs) I love TURTLES. I had the blimp with the helium in it and all of that stuff, but I know the stuff they are doing for TURTLES is really, really incredible. I can’t wait for that and to see what they do with that.
Question: Well thank you very much, Jon.
Jon Chu: Thank you. I appreciate it.