Director's Cut: Jon M. Chu on 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' and Working with The Rock's Head Sweat

G.I. JOE: RETALIATION

From the moment that Paramount hired Jon M. Chu to direct "G.I. Joe: Retaliation," it was clear that the film was going to be different. Chu, who broke into the business on the strength of a short film called "When the Kids Are Away" – an original musical about housewives that he made at the end of his time as a grad student at USC – had already saved one movie franchise from oblivion, coming aboard "Step Up 2: The Streets" six weeks before production and transforming the troubled project from an obligatory sequel into an irrepressibly fun orgy of pops and locks, revitalizing the series and making Disney a ridiculous amount of money in the process. He followed that up with the first 3D "Step Up" film, and a Justin Bieber concert doc that was bafflingly better than it needed to be. When Paramount hired Chu to rescue the G.I. Joes, he'd never directed an action movie before, and yet – tasked with making a fun and physically involving film from a brand that might only appeal to a very limited demographic – he was also supremely qualified.

Chu's film definitely fits in line with what you might expect from a G.I Joe movie, but – as you watch a wordless nine-minute sequence in which rival ninja clans spring and zip around the side of a Himalayan mountaintop – you know that this isn't your ordinary comic book adaptation, and knowing is half the battle (adjusting your 3D glasses is the other half). With the film opening in theaters this weekend, we spoke with Chu about how his unique background, the commonalities between Kubrick and Cobra Commander, and the majesty of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's head sweat.

David Ehrlich: Hey, thanks so much for talking with me today. I have to say, I’m a big fan. My girlfriend and I saw "Step Up 2: The Streets" on our first date and we’ve seen all the ones that followed religiously. 

Jon Chu: Nice! Nice. Did it help you get some on your first date?

DE: Uh... I dunno, I'm not sure how well I stack up to Channing Tatum, but since he leaves the movie, maybe that provided an opening for me.

JC: Perfect, perfect. That’s what I try to do with my films, get people to go on dates and get some.

DE: Well, someone has to. Alright, so I’ve always felt that action films, at their core, are really dance movies with a violent veneer. Movies like “Iron Monkey” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are so beautifully choreographed ... even more traditional action films, with those huge set-pieces, are guided by rhythm and flow. Can you talk about how your background in dance and musical theater informed your approach to a movie like “G.I. Joe?”

JC: Yeah, in a weird way it was never sort of a direct influence, but those experiences really helped me understand the dynamic of doing something with a lot of logistical elements. Where you have to contend with things like  playback, choreography, dancers, stunt actors and how the camera works with them ...  How the acting isn’t just the lines, the acting is the whole scene and you as the camera can either enhance it, or defy it, or mess it up.  And to me, even just working on the fly, to figure out ways of working with the performance is what I learned from my previous films. But working with explosions was a whole new world, so there was never a direct link, but [my training] definitely contributed ... learning how to focus, not getting carried away with all the other things that can distract you, but really just focusing in on the other thing that mattered: The actor in front of that camera.

DE: With that in mind, this might be an unfair question, but which is harder for you: doing a fight scene or doing a dance scene?

JC: The thing about doing a fight scene is that peoples' lives are in danger! You have explosions, you have giant machinery and these stunt guys who are everywhere, so doing another take is risky. Obviously you prep a lot, but no matter what there is always a degree of risk. So to do another take is kinda crazy and there’s a lot on your shoulders, whereas with dance you’re just like “Let’s do it again!” It’s a different responsibility.

DE: Gotcha. Were there any action films, or other types of films for that matter, that you used for inspiration to prepare for a film like this? Was there anything you saw in action movies that you wanted to avoid putting in one of your own?

JC: Let me think ... What I love about action movies is that they’re pure escape, just fun adventure. You know, from Indiana Jones where there’s comedy and there’s adventure, and it spurs the imagination. Even Burton's “Batman” from the 1980s, watching that movie and wanting to get the toys – to go home and play and create stories of my own – that’s when I fell in love with storytelling. And I wanted to make sure that this movie was unapologetically fun. G.I. Joe deserves to have ninjas. And to try not to make too many excuses for that. If you try to make too many excuses, you loses that feeling of jumping without looking.

The movie I always watch is “Goodfellas.” The camerawork and the storytelling are amazing and it shows you the potential of what you can do. Our movie is obviously not “Goodfellas” in any way. “Dr. Strangelove” was one of those ones that had the right – you know – fun tone, and we have a scene very much like "Dr. Strangelove" where Jonathan Pryce –

DE: I loved that scene so much! When the North Korean leader gets called out and he’s got this “Why Me!?” moment...

JC: [Laughs]. It was hard to shoot that part, we shot for days and days, maybe a week, and it was like shooting a courtroom drama, where literally everywhere you point the camera looks exactly the same. And Jonathan Pryce just hit it home. He was like “Set up the camera and I’ll do all the work.” It was like watching Picasso paint, he was so amazing.

DE: He really kills it in this movie. And yeah, as far as I’m concerned, you’ve succeeded in creating this live-action cartoon. It felt like Saturday morning, but on horse steroids. But to that point, and this is going to sound like a little bit of a reach ...  This isn't exactly  “In the Loop,” but I think that cartoons are sometimes the best way to deliver satire ...

JC: Yes.

DE: And one of the levels on which I enjoyed the movie – and maybe this is only in my head – but it sort of felt to me like a parody of the whole “Truther” movement ... you have this impostor president, and the villains are so ridiculous that the people who take that sort of thing seriously in real life might watch this and feel ridiculous by extension. Was any of that intentional or discussed?

JC: [Laughs] I mean, listen, it’s just GI Joe, so no matter what it’s always a fantasy. Did we discuss how political things were trying to say? No, not really. But what’s in the DNA of GI Joe is that we’re always using contemporary ideas and things that are actually happening. The idea that there’s a Blackwater-type group called COBRA that the government is supporting is very interesting, and not saying anything about that situation other than, those things happen in our world and it could go as far as this. It’s funny, going back to "Dr. Strangelove" as a satire about the ridiculousness of our world, and what we can believe or choose to believe or not believe is a fun thing to make fun of, and have a crazy badass adventure in the middle of it all. Everyone was throwing ideas the whole time, but it was never a consensus of “What are we trying to say?” “The Rock and Bruce Willis are f**king kick-ass” is what we’re trying to say.

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DE: [laughs] Okay, well I have a somewhat inevitable question about the 3D conversion.  I’m curious as to when in the process you learned that it was going to be converted, and the film looks like – to me – it was composed for 3D, and I know you shot "Step Up 3D" knowing that process was going to happen, so I’m just wondering how much this idea informed your compositions, and if you were able to tinker with it at all before they took the film away from you and began that process? 

JC: Well this was my first time dimensionalizing. I’ve shot all my other 3D films in 3D, so it’s definitely a different process. When you’re shooting a 3D film you’re making depth choices while you’re shooting, so it’s a part of your focus, it’s a part of your lighting, it’s a part of your design of the scene. When an actor does something differently, depth changes... you can make depth be a part of the performance. So I was very aware of how depth can be a part of the scene.

What’s interesting about dimensionalizing is that you don’t make those kinds of choices until you’re edited, until you’re done. So we were making our choices according to each scene, making depth choices knowing what order these things were, and that’s an amazing amount of control. It’s also an amazing amount of time that you have to spend cutting out every single frame with 700 artists, and make sure that it’s not a technical process that they’re doing, but an artistic process, they’re taking depth into account. When we shot it in 2D, I did not know that were going 3D, it was never part of the plan, we had talked about it but we never had the time to do it right, so we were never going to. But since I had shot two 3D movies, depth was a part of how I see movies now, whether I’m shooting in 3D or not. Storm Shadow fighting Snake Eyes was always going to have depth and play that long hallway, to play that showdown, as a part of their storytelling, and it was always going to be big and wide and expansive even if it wasn’t going to be in 3D. So they would not have made it into 3D movie if they didn’t already have those elements built in ... I think. And I didn’t know we were going to officially do that until basically when the world knew. I sat down with the studio and we all looked each other in the eye and said, ya know, we’re up against a lot of crazy movies right now, we’re rushing to get this movie done, and we’re at a crazy breakneck speed... We could make this movie better by turning this movie 3D, it will enhance everything that we’ve been pushing to make this movie. And credit to Paramount to give us the time and resources to do this right.

DE: Yeah, watching your short, “When the Kids Are Away,” I wonder if that use of film space is built into the genre of musical-theater, and whether it’s so intrinsic to your approach that any film you’ve shot could be readily converted into 3D.

JC: I never looked at my other movies to see if it would work like that. Maybe, I’ve never really analyzed what I do. But space and movement, I do love that stuff. When John Wayne walked onto a porch, he said so much in the way he walked, in the way he leaves, the way the camera just pushes out of that doorframe. And I love that it says more than a paragraph of dialogue ever could. When Bruce Willis walks into our scene and he’s holding a gun like it’s an apple, like it’s nothing, it says more about who his character is than anything else. I love those things. Going back to “Goodfellas,” Scorsese is saying so much in the frame, in the space that he’s using, so I try to do as much as I can to communicate, especially in an action movie where action is your dialogue, you better use it to express who these characters are.

DE: Okay, so... let’s get down to business. The Rock’s head sweat. It’s almost a character unto itself. It’s a remarkable phenomenon, and the 3D does amazing things with it in this movie. I wonder, how does that happen? Is this something that you have to focus on? Do you have a crew person who has to add beads of sweat or dabble them off? Is it a continuity problem? 

JC: Well ya know, it’s not my place to give away the secrets of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but I will say... he does sweat a lot. There’s no getting around it. So you’re either going to fight it, and try to dry him every five seconds, especially in New Orleans, or you’re going to make it part of his character, make it part of his arc. Make it shiny and really work it. So there is a certain point where you’re like, “You know what? He’s going to be wet the entire time.”

DE: It’s a special effect you get for free.

JC: [Laughs] I’m sure the dimensionalizing people were not happy with having to dimensionalize beads of sweat on his head every frame.