The California-born son of Chinese immigrants, Jon M. Chu has directed everything from Step Up 2 the Streets to Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. He even helmed that awesome Virgin America preflight music video you’ve probably seen. As his latest film, Jem and the Holograms, hits theaters Oct. 23, Chu, 35, tells EW how his funky filmography came together.
Director and producer (2010-present)
Jem and the Holograms (2015)
Directed a live-action adaptation of the ’80s cartoon with fellow producers Scooter Braun and Jason Blum.
“I met with Hasbro 11 years ago about Jem, but it was too big for the time. Now, a coming-of-age story about a girl figuring out her identity and fame in the YouTube age? That’s fascinating. You deal with identity through [a new lens]: Are you the person you post online, or who you are with your friends?”
The LXD (2010-11)
Created a multivolume Web series about dancers with superhuman abilities.
“After doing Step Up 2, and then 3D was in New York, which in between those I created the LXD, the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, and we did that because YouTube was just starting, and we challenged Miley Cyrus to a dance battle. Miley had a YouTube channel called ‘Miley and Mandy’ and we challenged her to a dance battle because it was a huge viral thing: we had Chris Brown in our video, Adam Sandler, we had Diana Ross, we had all these people in it, and we went back and forth like a digital West Side Story.”
G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Revamped the Hasbro series with a new cast.
“It’s totally not on purpose to be doing all these sequels, but what I found was it was really fun to take something that existed and twisting it, and you actually really find what you are in those films because you know it can’t be what it was. And the balance of trying to maintain what you loved about it but also giving your spin is one of the great exercises in finding your own vision.”
Virgin America Safety Video (2013)
Created a hip-hop-inspired music video for preflight safety instructions; it went viral.
“[Talent manager] Scooter Braun called and said, ‘There’s no money in this, but it seems fun.’ The airline had no idea what the f— we were making and the FAA had no idea. My motivation was, here’s an opportunity for the law to force someone to watch my work. That’s awesome! Like, you’re locked in and you have to watch it.”
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
Directed the documentary about the pop star.
“I’d never done a documentary, but I’ve always loved Michael Jackson, I’d wanted to do a Michael Jackson thing, and I love pop music, I think it’s just fun, so the idea to tell a story through YouTube videos and through the music – it was sort of a musical documentary and I thought that was really interesting.”
Step Up 2: The Streets (2008)
Took over the dance franchise as director.
“I got a script for what started as a direct-to-DVD sequel to Step Up, and I was like, ‘Oh, I don’t do sequels, or straight-to-DVD movies.’ My mom called me a diva. A snob. She said, ‘You haven’t proven yourself yet, so what makes you think you’re better than that?’ So I set out to direct the best damn direct-to-DVD dance- movie sequel ever.”
Summer Intern (2001)
Worked on set at the production company as an assistant on music-video shoots.
“We were filming Nelly Furtado’s ‘Turn Off the Light,’ and there was this giant swamp set with water. They dumped 14 pounds of acorn powder on top and gave me a stick and were like, ‘Stir.’ For 14 hours I stirred this stuff until it was mud, and I promised myself that I would never be a production assistant ever again.”
University of Southern California
Los Angeles; graduated 2002
“My final thesis was a 17-minute short about what mothers do when everyone’s away: They sing and dance! Steven Spielberg saw it. He found me and put me on the map. I wanted to get him a Cuban cigar as a thank-you, because I knew he loved them. So I got him some Cubans, put them in a Ziploc bag. I thought it was so cool. As I was giving them to him, his assistant came by with a suitcase—it had, like, a humidifier—and said, ‘These are from Fidel Castro.’ All these amazing cigars. I was so embarrassed.”
Los Altos, California; graduated 1998
“My parents have a restaurant in Los Altos, but they never let me work there. They always said, ‘America’s the greatest place. Do everything that we couldn’t do.’ So they put us in music classes. They took us to theater, took us to other art classes, animation classes.”