October 20, 2015

Jem Goes to College

Dowling, Chu, Landels, Brooks, Murankana and Samuelson in Norris

A group of talented young women come together to share their artistic visions, collaborate, hone their craft, and leave a mark on the world. They overcome financial pressures, inner-group fighting, and creative differences, finally becoming stronger as artists and closer as friends in the process. Is it the incoming class of the USC School of Cinematic Arts? No, it’s the new film Jem and the Holograms directed by SCA alumnus Jon Chu, written by alumnus Ryan Landels, photographed by alumnus Alice Brooks, camera operated by alumnus Andy Waruszewski, and gaffed by alumnus Jay Muranaka. The film was screened pre-release on October 18th in Frank Sinatra Hall in the Norris Cinema Complex and was followed by a Q & A moderated by alum Tim Dowling and attended by Chu, Landels, Brooks, Muranaka, and executive producer/head of Blumhouse Productions Couper Samuelson.

Chu and many of the crew from Jem and the Holograms met while students at SCA and have worked together on several projects through the years, including Chu’s award-winning student thesis While the Kids are Away and the web series League of Extraordinary Dancers. Chu said that Jem was an extension of their years of collaboration.


“We had all worked together on different projects but mainly League of Extraordinary Dancers,” said Chu. “Alice [Brooks] produced my student films, and Ryan [Landels] and I have known each other since the very beginning of our time at film school. When we got the opportunity to do Jem what was nice is that we got the chance to come together as a team and make a feature with people we were used to.”


Audience Members dressed as Jem and the Holograms at the screening

Jem and the Holograms is based on the 1980s Saturday Morning Cartoon Produced by Hasbro. It is the second Hasbro cartoon Chu has adapted into a film, having previously directed GI: Joe: the Rise of Cobra in 2009. Chu was very familiar with Jem and had had even tried to get a film developed before. He finally got his chance after the production company Blumhouse got involved. “I grew up with five kids and my sisters taped the cartoon [Jem and the Holograms] and played it all the time,” said Chu. “When we played GI: Joe, Jem would be one of the figures. I pitched a Jem film eleven years ago. Huge. Over the top. A direct translation of the cartoon. In those eleven years, social media had happened which really opened up how to tell the story. Everyone on Earth now has a public and private persona which was a main element of the cartoon.”

Jem and the Holograms uses social media as a storytelling tool and integrates on-screen YouTube, Vine, Instagram, and Twitter videos and posts. “The challenge was to tell a story that hadn’t been done a million times,” said Landels. “You’ve seen bands being put together. I wanted to do something grounded about growing up and how it’s different to grow up today. That was the dance. You do crazy things with the band and a robot but, at the end of the day, it’s grounded in reality.”

Jem and the Holograms was produced by Blumhouse Productions, a low-budget, auteur-based production company mostly known for horror films. For a film of its size, the production budget was only five million, which created some distinct challenges for the crew. “We had limited time and limited budgets,” said Brooks. “We made a decision before filming started that, when cut was called, we moved the camera. We ended up with tons more coverage. It was only a twenty-four day schedule. It helped me as a cinematographer because you had to figure out what was really important. We had to pick and choose our moments.”

Jem fits into Blumhouse’s unique formula of giving filmmakers creativity autonomy in exchange for lower budgets. Blumhouse creates a space where filmmakers can make audience friendly, low-budget films with little to no interference. Their films include Paranormal Activity, Ouija, the Insidious series, the Purge series, and Whiplash. “We always believe that filmmakers love a mainstream audience,” said Samuelson. “What we’ve found at Blumhouse is that, if you leave filmmakers alone, they will make something an audience will like. In a way, Jem is like Paranormal Activity. Paranormal Activity asks, ‘What would happen if Poltergeist actually happened to you?’ Jem is asking, ‘What would happen if a rise to fame actually happened to you?’ With low-budget, you can’t compete with car crashes and explosions, so you have to compete by showing reality.”

Chu also directed Justin Bieber's concert film Never Say Never, which informed the social media aspects woven into the narrative of Jem and the Holograms. “Doing the Beiber film [Never Say Never], I got to see how powerful YouTube and other crowdsourced materials are in telling a story. We had a series of fans telling Justin directly over YouTube how much they loved him. We put that sequence into Jem. Using YouTube was a good challenge and it helped shape the story.”