May 5, 2008

CU: Jon M. Chu

Stepping Up from SCA to The Industry

By Mel Cowan

Foreground, left to right, director Jon M. Chu with actors Danielle Polanco, Briana Evigan and Robert Hoffman.
’SC filmmaker Jon M. Chu, B.A. Production ’03, has blazed onto the scene with the smash hit Step Up 2: The Streets that captivated audiences with a blend of naturalistic acting and mind-bending dance numbers. His success wasn’t overnight; dubbed a wunderkind before he graduated, he had a number of high-profile projects come and go, including an $80 million version of Bye Bye Birdie that fizzled in development.

But having helmed a debut movie with a box office total of $145 million and counting, Chu is in a unique position to be the voice of a new generation of viewers, who despite being raised on Youtube and Myspace, still love going to the movies.

In Motion sat down with Chu to ask him about USC, making a dance extravaganza in five weeks and the power of Miley Cyrus.

How did you land Step Up 2: The Streets? It was supposed to be a straight-to-DVD project. And I said, “I’m not doing direct-to-DVD.”  But then I looked at myself in the mirror and said, “You’ve wanted to be a filmmaker all your life. If you’re a real story-teller, it doesn’t matter what format you’re working with. Don’t be a snob!”

I put together a presentation of dance videos I’d collected that showed what I wanted to do with the film, which was take it out of the dance studio and into the streets. Oren Aviv [president of production, Walt Disney Pictures] bought it in the room without a script, based on the presentation. That was on May 9th of last year and by August, we were shooting. It came out Valentine’s Day weekend.
Step Up 2: The Streets theatrical trailer

How did music and dance become such a big part of your filmmaking? I tap danced for 14 years, and I played sax, drums, violin, piano and guitar. I’ve always been around it, so when I came to USC, it was natural that I’d make films with dance and music in them. When the Kids Are Away came out a couple months before Chicago came out, so it was great timing in terms of people’s interest in movie musicals.

How did you end up at USC? Well, obviously USC is the best film school in the world. When you’re a kid growing up, loving film, that’s where you want to be. When it came time to pick a film school, as soon as I came to the USC campus, I was like, “Done.” It was the first time I saw my kind; people like me.

Talk about the important classes you had at USC. Drew Casper’s 190 [Introduction to Cinema] class was so important: you realize that there’s a grammar to audiovisual story-telling. It’s not just cutting it together and seeing how it feels. There’s an art to it.

My 290 [Cinematic Communication] class with Woody Omens was awesome because it was people from all different divisions, and we all helped each other to do the best work we could. The fact that it was coming from all these different perspectives made everybody’s work that much better.

I had 310 [Intermediate Film Production] with Everett Lewis, which was a class full of people who are so much more talented than I will ever be, who constantly pushed me to do better. And Lewis was amazing: if you don’t do something different and outside the box, he gets mad at you.

Step Up 2's dancers in action.
What were the challenges of creating a film like this?
Time. I had to cut my schedule from 10 weeks down to five to get it done. But as hard as it was, I always felt like my student films were harder. As a student, you’re dealing with not having money, getting arrested, not getting the shot. On a studio film, I only had to worry about somebody yelling at me on the phone. Everett Lewis yelling at you is way scarier.

How has technology changed what you do as a filmmaker?
I think we’re at a fascinating time in terms of communication, which has changed so much and so quickly, even in the time since I graduated. Instant messaging, text messaging, blogging, Myspace, Facebook. All these things change relationships, which changes storytelling, which changes movies.

What about the dance battle?
Adam Sevani, [Moose from Step Up 2], and I were watching the Miley [Cyrus] and Mandy show, and thought it would be fun to challenge them on our blog to a dance battle through Youtube. We said, no rules, recruit whoever you want…and they did. They got Channing Tatum from my movie!

For our response, we’re retaliating big, with a lot of amazing cameos like Adam Sandler and Lindsay Lohan, but my agent is starting to get mad at me for not working on my real job.

What’s amazed me is the number of people who have seen and really enjoyed the movie. They’ll see it six, seven times, they know all the lines. There’s a spoof version of the movie that features a lot of our dancers, and there’s even a sock puppet version online, so it’s made an impact. People love dancing.

The DVD for Step Up 2: The Streets will be released on July 15, and will feature dance numbers cut from the movie, along with some of Chu’s short student work.