Interview: Director Jon M. Chu On 'Extraordinary Dancers', 'G.I. Joe 2', and 'Masters of the Universe'

Jon M. Chu probably isn’t the first guy you’d think of as a geek, but that’s about to change. The Director of "Step Up 2: The Streets" and "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never" is not only directing the ever-so-slightly delayed "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," but he’s also officially signed on to direct the big screen revamp of "Masters of the Universe." Oh, and he’s also just released a “secret” episode of his superhero/dance series "The League of Extraordinary Dancers" on his increasingly popular YouTube channel DS2DIO (“D-Studio”). So lay off: he may not have his geek card yet, but it’s in the mail.

“We shot it a long time ago, before I went off to go shoot 'G.I. Joe,'” said Chu over the phone, in reference to the secret episode of "LXD." “It was supposed to be in the second season, we wanted to do an evil ballet! But when we edited the second season, what we found was it didn’t propel the story forward that much in our arc that we had to do this season. So at the time, we just pulled it.”

Despite all the time and effort put into the episode, and with no idea whether it would ever “see the light of day,” it got swept under the rug. Then came Chu’s channel, DS2DIO, where LXD ran after it’s initial run on Hulu, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity… And so Chu and company put up the ep as a Halloween treat to fans, which you can watch right here:

Moving on, we chatted a bit about the development of the show, and how things had changed with LXD from its conception until now. Interestingly, the show started as a pitch for YouTube, before getting picked up for Hulu. The plan – in those early stages – was to make a show that was two or three minutes long. “When we actually needed the money and support, we went to Hulu,” said Chu. “Hulu said, listen two or three minutes doesn’t cut it. People want ten minute, twenty minute, thirty minute episodes. We were like, we don’t think dance on the Internet can exist like that. We had a big fight about it, compromised that we’d do these six minute versions.”

Turns out? Bad choice, as they got “reamed” by the Hulu viewers, who wanted way more show. “There are different cultures of people who watch YouTube and Hulu,” said Chu. They extended the episodes to fifteen minutes or so, which was perfect for the Hulu audience; but clearly, it was a steep learning curve.

“You could have the same person watching a Hulu video and a YouTube video, but their mentality is different,” added Chu. And bringing this full circle, DS2DIO is part of YouTube’s current initiative to push videos longer, and more professional than the traditional YouTube videos, making the extended LXD episodes a perfect fit.

Coming soon, Chu is expanding the programming available on DS2DIO from simple (well, not SO simple) dance based programs, to more off the beaten path fare, including a show intriguingly titled “FIGHT.”

“FIGHT started when I was on the set of G.I. Joe, and meeting the fight coordinators, and stunt coordinators,” said Chu. “When I was around them, I felt like I was around dance choreographers, and dancers. The way they talked about what they wanted to do, the way they saw storytelling in movement and fighting… It was just these intriguing conversations we’d have on set.”

Meeting and talking to them on set, Chu decided to follow up on some of the ideas they wanted to try out… But online, as part of this new show. “It’s not dance persay,” continued Chu. “But it’s about movement, storytelling, and that’s what our channel is really about.”

So the show throws these stunt coordinators into unexpected places, and shows what Chu called “bite-sized” fight scenes. “Whether you’re at a paint shop, a church, or the back of a truck, these giant fight scenes take place,” said Chu. “It’s a melding of what I’ve just learned on G.I. Joe, and bringing it back to DS2DIO.”

Continuing, Chu gave us a little bit of a scoop about how close this particular project hits to home. “In fact, in order to get G.I. Joe – and I haven’t told anyone this before - when I was first interviewing for the job, Lorenzo di Bonaventura – our producer, and the studio said, “Look, we think shooting dance helps action, but we’re not sure.” And Lorenzo was definitely like, “I don’t think dance has anything to do with shooting action.” So then I brought out some of the LXD episodes and showed them. You get some hints of how the camera moves, the choreography of the frame itself matches what’s in the frame. That was my reel to get the job, and they were like, “Okay, we get it.””

“In a weird way, doing the online dance videos that everyone thought was crazy at first helped me get G.I. Joe,” said Chu. “It’s nice to bring it home.”

Taking a little step back, we talked about Chu’s intro into the world of dance, with the Director noting that he didn’t start off knowing anything about the discipline. But hanging around dancers, and seeing what they can do, he felt like he needed to bring his filmmaking prowess to bear. “If I just shot what they do,” said Chu, “People would be amazed. It wasn’t a conscious thing, other than people needed to see this.”

Getting back to "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," Chu noted that the sequel hit a significant hitch earlier this year, when the studio delayed the impending Summer release in order to post-convert the movie to 3-D. “I really want to push how we use the 3-D,” said Chu. “Especially since we pushed the movie date, I want to fulfill the promise to the fans that the 3-D will be great, and enhances the experience of the movie. So every step of the way, I’m in that room, watching… It’s hurting my eyes, but we’re getting it better, and pushing it further.”

Continuing, Chu added that most post-conversions simply sink the background, and allow that to stand in for the 3-D experience. Not so for the director of Step Up 3D. “I shot two 3-D movies,” said Chu. “So being around that, I know what we are actually capable of doing. If we had shot it in 3-D, there’s a lot of things that we would shot in a 3D way.

“Fortunately, a lot of our shots, I guess it was in my brain anyway,” continued Chu, laughing. “We had a lot of depth in our shots, or let our shots play longer. For me, if we’re going to do this, we have to make sure it enhances the experience. That’s where we are right now, and it’s a slow painful process, to be honest!”

Even though the movie is technically done, and with no natively shot 3-D footage, all the shots need to be post-converted, that doesn’t mean Chu has given up on making some tweaks. “I’m trying to convince them to give me a couple days to do a couple of enhancements,” said Chu. “But as of right now, we’ll see what they let me do. I really want to shoot some of the sections in 3-D to give it that edge… But we’ll see if time permits, and they’re down to do that.”

While Chu finishes off G.I. Joe, he’s also spending his time working on another, hotly anticipated toy to TV to movie adaptation, "Masters of the Universe." While it’s still early going, Chu is still eager to jump right into the world of Eternia. “I’m really excited about that one!” said Chu. “We’re really early in the process… We’re working on the script, to make it better and stronger. We’re designing a bunch of stuff. I learned on Joe that to make it right, you have to do a lot of experimenting first, and you have to trust that during the process you’ll find where the tonal line is… It’s so delicate.

“'Masters of the Universe' means so much to a lot of people out there – and myself as well. I don’t want to disappoint my friends!” continued Chu. “We all grew up with Masters, played with the toys… I had a Castle Grayskull, played with the toys, I had a Battle Cat. We’re just designing now, going to far on some things, pulling back on others… Making it more real, or more fantastic. We’re trying to find that line as we go.

“A lot of people ask, who are you going to cast? We’re not even there yet, we’re just trying to get the character of the movie down. This is one of the most fun parts, where all the possibilities are open, and we’re just playing in the sandbox.”

So given Chu is early in the process, will he aim to shoot in 3-D so he doesn’t end up in the same situation that led to "G.I. Joe’s" delay? “It’s not always my choice!” said Chu, laughing. “I love 3-D, and for certain movies it can be really great, and for certain movies it can be poison. As we figure out the character of the movie, I think we’ll have a better feel for it. Of course, I love 3-D – a movie like Masters in 3-D would be amazing… To be in that world would be a crazy, crazy experience. We’ll see what Sony decides.”

We also asked whether Chu would be pulling at all from the recent DC Comics reboot of Masters of the Universe. He did say that he’s looked at the comics, and spent a lot of time at Mattel reviewing all iterations of the franchise – but right now, there’s no one source he’s drawing on for the movie. Instead, the Director said he’s immersing himself in the world, same as he did for the "Step Up" movies, and "G.I. Joe".

“Going into 'Masters of the Universe' is the same experience,” said Chu. “Right now, I’m just soaking it all in. Learning, watching, listening, reading a lot. Any blogs that are out there, or people who have opinions. I’m just soaking it in, and feeling what the environment is in this world. I know what I personally feel about Masters, but there is something to be said for experiencing what other people experience in the world.”

You can check out more about DS2DIO on their YouTube channel, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation hits theaters in March, 2013.