Interview: 'GI Joe: Retaliation' Director Jon M. Chu on Badass Action
by Alex Billington
March 27, 2013
"There's so much action in this movie." At CinemaCon a few weeks ago, we previewed a lot of new footage from Paramount's G.I. Joe: Retaliation (video blog). It's being directed by a filmmaker named Jon M. Chu who, despite his filmography (Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, "The LXD", Justin Bieber: Never Say Never), has always wanted to make movies like this—and has always loved G.I. Joe. After the footage screening, I sat down for an interview with Chu, talking about how he's revamping this version, his approach to action, and plenty more. It's easy to see he's very passionate and not shy on bringing a crapload of weapons and action.
This was originally supposed to be a video interview, but it didn't turn out, so here's the transcription of our discussion in full. I am notorious for disliking Paramount's first G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra live-action movie, but have been turned around by the footage from this. It looks action heavy and incredibly fun, even in a different way than Avengers, but like something to kick back and enjoy popcorn with this summer. When I first started talking with Jon, we were discussing my Flip cam, and started talking about cameras, including the GoPro Hero2, and you can actually see the footage they shot in the latest trailer. Full interview below!
Jon M. Chu: It's amazing we can record audio and video this small and compact. I just got my GoPro Hero2!
Nice! Are you using it?
Jon: I've been playing around with it. Yeah, we used some GoPro in Joe. There's a shot in the trailer where he goes down the well. And literally, we built this well, and he literally had the camera, and I told [Dwayne Johnson]: "Alright. You are going to jump and you are going to drop the camera at the same time you jump. And hopefully it will drop faster than you, so it will be right below you. But try to keep it up so it doesn't flip around."
And he did it a couple times. The one that's in the movie is the first shot that he did. And literally, he jumps and it just falls so perfectly. It's like Alice in Wonderland going into a well. It went way faster than him. You just see him scratching the walls. It's crazy, and really, really cool.
I've loved watching how camera innovations like the Canon 5D and 7D affect the industry, and the way filmmakers shoot, and how it can be used in a feature film to get a certain special shot that you could never get before.
Jon: It's amazing. We did stuff where we were burying cameras in the sand during explosions. We literally would just throw it into like water and things like that, or just at Dwayne. You get some really cool shots. I think that changes so much — it's just another letter in the grammar of filmmaking.
My G.I. Joe question, because I saw this in the trailer and the footage we saw last night. Is it now a prerequisite for the G.I. Joe movies to destroy a European city? Because it was Paris last time and now it's London this time.
Jon: [Laughs] Well I always wanted it so that they were just finishing the Eiffel Tower, and then it comes down and destroys it again. But there wasn't enough time in the space for it to happen like that. You know what? America gets it all the time; it all gets destroyed all the time. And it just felt so cliché. And we just figured, you know, "London hasn't been destroyed in a while. So that's kinda fun."
That's what I mean! So in the next one we're going to have to see some other European city…?
Jon: Italy better be careful. That's all I'm saying. [Laughs]
They're next! [Laughs] I know you probably hear this question a lot, but how did you get here? Why at this point in your career did you decide to make this leap into G.I. Joe?
Jon: It's weird, because I always imagined myself doing movies like this growing up. I learned off of playing with my toys in my backyard. You know, like week-long epic [cinematic] adventures. So, to me it's very natural. I was never a dancer before going into the Step Up world. I just sort of… for some reason, dance and music, I was shooting stuff with it at the time and I got my first gig in there. I was never a Justin Beiber fan before doing Justin Beiber. I loved YouTube. I understood that world, I was there. And this movie came along and I thought it would be fun to do it.
To me, it's always just an adventure about learning, really, about how far I can stretch myself. So when it comes to G.I. Joe, it felt really natural for me. But also, about movement in itself and how you shoot movement, because movement, to me, tells story. Whether it's John Wayne walking out onto that porch and leaning against the thing, or even Julia Roberts, the way she would lift her eyebrow when she looks at something. Like, all those things communicate what a paragraph of dialogue never could. So I loved the idea that we could take action and do those same things, especially when you have The Rock and Bruce Willis.
Yeah, seriously. Do you see yourself continuing down the action movie path, or do you want to explore more genres?
Jon: Right now I'm definitely addicted to action/adventure type stuff. It has been a really fun experience. When you get to the point where you have designers and you are creating a world, and you are doing pre-viz, and you are working with fight coordinators, you are working with people like The Rock and Bruce, there's an energy that you get really, really addicted to. It's crazy, but it's really fun. Of course I love to explore all genres, but there's something about action/adventure right now, I'm just here, I love it.
That's why I'm here, too, because I love action/adventure. It seems like, with the footage we saw, that you are ramping things up in terms of action, in terms of guns, and in terms of just how much shit is happening in this new one. And I wanted to ask specifically—how much you tried to ramp this up and how much you tried to make it as action packed as you could?
Jon: We tried to put a lot of it… I mean, we're taking action sequences out! There's so much action in this movie. It's definitely a lot. But each one's different. That's what's the most painful part, because I don't want to take anything because they're different. If I had a repeat, I'd, "Ah, get that thing out of there." And each one has a great character, whether it's Byung-hun Lee fighting with a sword, which is amazing to watch, or Elodie Yung [as Jinx] who's doing amazing sword work as well, or The Rock kicking some guys ass with his fist, or Firefly sending these crazy firefly robots out and they blow up. Each one is—a lot—in it. It's just finding that balance, really, in our movie. We tried to build in as much storytelling in that action so that it didn't feel like, "Oh story, then action, story, then action." So we tried to do as much as that as we could.
One of the things I always hear when talking action is how much it's choreographed, almost like a dance, anyway. How has your experience in the dance world and with choreography helped your work on G.I. Joe, in connection with what you were saying before about how movement is so key?
Jon: Well, one thing I've learned when doing a dance thing is that, when shooting a movie, it's always — the moments, the real magic moment that you can't be distracted from, is the moment the camera turns on and light is hitting that piece of film. The energy, the synergy between the actor and that light is everything… that's the only thing you're going to have in the editing room. Nothing else. That light beam not being there, that extra not… it doesn't matter. It's all about that moment. And so, a lot of the times when you're doing an action scene where you're dealing with things blowing up, and choreography, and you have to have certain things hitting certain marks, you can get distracted in those details and forget about…
I learned that lesson early in the dance movies, that you couldn't get distracted by all those other things. When you are doing action, it's even more so. I think to me that was the biggest advantage that I had. I didn't have to go in and suddenly juggle a million things and forget the reality. I understood the process.
In terms of the actual storytelling part of it, working with fight choreographers is very similar, to me, with dance choreographers of getting what story we're trying to tell in the scene, how to use this couch, this pillow, to use the button in the pillow to stab the guy and rip the thing. I mean that's stuff that we just riff on. It's like playing creative jazz with somebody else; you can riff off them. And also, then put it with the person, the actor, and their body type and how they can fight. So there's a lot of combinations in that.
I can't wait to see all of it play out. The cliff scene with all the ninjas — it looks badass. What was the inspiration behind that specific scene and how did you guys come up with it? And how did you put it together for the movie?
Jon: Well, the writers had talked about this issue of G.I. Joe that I loved. I believe it was Issue 21: Silent Interlude of Joe. And in the history of Joe, everyone… to what I understand, because at the time, I don't remember reading it at the time that it came out—I forget how old I would have been at the time…
But I know in the mythology this issue came out when everyone sort of thought Joe was silly, it was a toy, and they were making a comic book out of a toy, which was this sort of merchandising thing. But that issue with no words in it blew everyone away because it had no dialogue. And it was just Snake Eyes fighting these red ninjas and Storm Shadow saving Scarlett or something. It was beautiful and it put it on another level. So we wanted to do that in the movie. We have about 9-10 minutes of this in the movie, it's no dialogue. It's just these ninjas fighting on this cliff. It's beautiful, it's graceful, it's violent, it's full of rage. It's everything that, to me, ninjas are, what you would want a ninja fight to be.
Good. Good! Last question. What was the most fun thing you shot in this that you just can't wait for audiences to see?
Jon: Well, the most fun thing I would say is I really love… we had this big tank battle, the Hiss tanks. There's some really fun stuff in there. There's some "gun-fu" style stuff that we have, Dwayne versus Firefly, is in. And we have a little prison escape that I think people will really dig… That's a sorta fun thing there.
A big thank you to Jon M. Chu (@jonmchu) for his time and Paramount for arranging the opportunity. I'm looking forward to seeing the entire, finished film this summer, and I hope it's as entertaining as it looks so far. Paramount has Chu's G.I. Joe: Retaliation set to hit theaters on June 29th next month. Retaliation!
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