Director Jon M. Chu is known for putting on a spectacle, whether it's with dancing teenagers, young pop stars, or G.I. Joe. As Chu puts it, he takes the mold, jumps on it, throws glitter all over it, smashes it, kicks it around, and drops the mic.
But everything he does is grounded in authenticity and human emotion. For Chu, it starts and ends with the characters and their common language -- dance, action, music, and now, magic.
His latest film Now You See Me 2 is a follow-up to Louis Letterier’s surprisingly successful caper about vigilante magicians evading law enforcement and their vengeful benefactor. In Chu’s slick sequel, the Four Horsemen — Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, and newcomer Lizzy Caplan (subbing in for Isla Fisher) — find themselves caught in the center of a dangerous magic trick. And this time, someone else is pulling the strings.
Before the release of Now You See Me 2 on Friday (June 10), MTV News spoke with Chu about picking up where Letterier left off in 2013, finding his own unique voice in Hollywood, and Daniel Radcliffe's impressive IRL magic skills.
What did you see in Now You See Me that made you want to sign on for the sequel?
Jon M. Chu: I fell in love with that movie. I liked the actors. I thought it was an interesting world. When they called me with the opportunity to direct the next one, the first question I needed to address was, what are we going to do to make it different? How can I add something to the franchise? If I can’t add anything, then there’s no reason for me to do it. The first movie was onstage — it was a big show for the audience — but in this one, we got to go backstage with them. We get to be with the Horsemen. They get to become more of a family, instead of being forced together.
Yeah, their big performance gets shut down before you can even see them do any magic.
Chu: And that’s the fun part of it! You get to see them be technicians as they debunk the magic trick that they’ve been placed in. That was a big debate. I said, "Listen, we’re going to have less onstage spectacle, but we’re going to bring it all to the ground, which is a lot more interesting." When they steal the card and they’re tossing it to each other — that only happens in one space. That's not on a stage, but it’s going to feel like an action piece because we’re going to go through their shirts and come out the other end and they’re going to be tossing it around.
That was a really cool scene. Your films tend to have a lot of movement in them. How did you incorporate that into a film about magicians?
Chu: That’s why I love film because movement is part of the language. Sometimes not moving is the right thing to do, like in our Step Up movies, you don’t move or you move very slightly because you want their movements to control what we're watching. Same thing with magic. You can ruin a trick by moving too much. You can ruin a trick by cutting too much. You can prove that you’re doing these tricks in real time by not cutting at all and staying wide. These are all elements of it. The first movie had a lot of movement. I think the camera never stops in that movie, so it’s already part of the language of our film.
I feel like you’ve done a lot of sequels. Is there a unique challenge in taking a property that’s been established and building onto it?
Chu: I’m not looking for sequels, but when something comes to you, and you’re already a fan of that world, you have the desire to do it your way. In some ways, you get to find your voice better in [a sequel] because you have to define how you’re doing it differently. I’ve done seven movies in eight years, and with each movie I feel like I’m learning a lot. I’m still young-ish, so I still feel like I’m in the zone of learning and creating. Those are the perfect places to do that. And in a weird way, you have a lot of freedom.
Once Now You See Me proved that that tone could work, which I’m sure was a nightmare for them in post — is this too serious? Do we have to say that magic really does exist or not? — I can take that and have fun with the tone that they established. But mostly, I’m drawn to great characters and great worlds that use weird things for their language -- whether it’s dance, whether it’s pop music with Justin Bieber, or whether it’s magic. This film is almost like a musical with magic. It's like, how do we show their "I Want" song with one magic trick?
You also get to work with Daniel Radcliffe in his first truly villainous role.
Chu: For someone like Daniel, it’s really fun to go against your image. He’s such a goody-two-shoes in Harry Potter. I just wanted him to throw off the gloves and be weird and quirky.
And bad at magic.
Chu: Yes, and bad at magic. He’s actually really good at magic in real life. We didn’t know which way we were going to go with this character at first. Was he going to be good at magic and deny it? Or was he going to be bad at magic and pervert the idea of magic? So we were shooting his opening scene, where he was throwing the cards back and forth, and he was catching the card every time. He was really good! And then on one of the last takes I asked him to miss the catch and be really bad — and the whole crew cracked up. Everyone was like, that’s definitely the way we need to go. So we sort of built this character together. He loosened up as it went along.
Whose idea was it to make him barefoot?
Chu: That was actually Daniel’s idea. We had these slippers. I wish we had more close-ups of the slippers, but they were really strange, bizarre, and expensive slippers. He was like, “I just want to go barefoot. Is that OK?” We built this elaborate set with a sunken pond, and when the Horsemen arrived, we wanted him to have this big "Gotcha!" moment. We had these lights that were going to go off, and we had planned this whole show — like, he had always wanted to be a Horseman and this was his time prove that he pulled the ultimate trick on them. But Daniel said, “I think I would just be reading and listening to music, getting ready for them to arrive.”
I don't know if you saw, but someone snapped a photo of the film's poster in a New York City subway station, which features a cast of eight men and one woman, Lizzy Caplan, and she tweeted, "Where did women get this idea that they're all competing for one slot lol women are so random?" Are there plans to introduce more female characters in Now You See Me 3?
Chu: I haven’t seen it, no, but even when I was on set, I was like, “There’s a lot of dudes in this movie, guys." It’s hard because I’m coming into a franchise that has built-in characters, other than Sanaa [Lathan] and Lizzy. Lizzy is great, and I think she shakes it up and adds an entirely new dynamic to the film. She actually draws attention to the fact that she’s the only female Horseman. I didn't know about the backlash, but we are definitely aware that a sausage fest is only so much fun. I can’t say what happens in the next one, but we have some fun elements coming up.
It's pretty common knowledge that white men run Hollywood. Being a director of color, how easy is it to work with studios, to walk in and fight for the story you want to tell?
Chu: Every situation is different. A director is what a director wants to be. If you want to force something, you can fight to the death and maybe get fired, but it’s your job to help push things along. It’s interesting for myself, growing up as an Asian-American filmmaker. Coming into the industry, my parents always said, "No one’s going to give you the opportunity. You just have to do the work. Be better than everyone else, so they can’t deny it."
So I’ve always had that philosophy, which has been really helpful for me, getting into the business. I didn’t have any connections. I didn’t know anyone. It was just about my work. But as I got older and moved forward in my career, the reason things may have felt like they were falling into place was because other people had fallen on the sword and created this path for me. The more movies I do, the more I realize that I need to open up more doors and pave the way for more voices.
It’s not about award shows. Fuck whatever happens at the Oscars. It’s really about the work. Who are the executives, and what are the stories that are being released? Not just in movie theaters but online. When you watch Master of None, you're like, yes, this is real life to me. These are refreshing types of stories. As an artist, you have a path that you’re on that evolves with the kinds of stories you want to tell. It has to come from a real, genuine place. So I feel like my evolution has come to a place where now I'm attached to Crazy Rich Asians.
How did that come about?
Chu: For the last year I had been thinking and going through this maze of figuring out what I want to say. Sequels are great, but what are the other things I really want to say? Now that I’m in a position of power, what can I get through this ringer that I know two years ago I couldn’t? Crazy Rich Asians fits perfectly into what I love, so there’s no forcing anything. I love the book.
Speaking of Crazy Rich Asians, I love that you already said every major role in the film will be played by an Asian actor.
Chu: I think that's an important statement to make. To have someone like Nina Jacobson defend that choice is also important. In Kevin [Kwan]'s book, there's no gray area. It's pretty Asian. It's fun to see people react to that idea that honestly felt so natural for me. It's complicated in a way because you never want to be told what to do. That's the opposite of what art is. You never want to be forced to do something. But the world around you starts to influence you in ways you never expected. I've had meetings these last several months, ever since the Oscars controversy, and those conversations are happening.
It's interesting you say that because there's also been a lot of recent controversy surrounding Hollywood’s whitewashing. Do you sense that studios are becoming wiser to the need for diversity?
Chu: Yes, I think that their eyes are open. There's a lot of work that needs to be done, and there's a difference between talking the talk and walking the walk. I think it has to happen on the other end. Once they do stick their neck out for original material, not just franchise stuff, and have diversity in these films, the audience will show up. If the audience doesn't show up, there's only more excuses for them to close that door again. But it only takes people doing risks, and sometimes failing and sometimes succeeding, that gets us there.
It's one thing if the audience doesn't show up to a film like Jem and the Holograms because Hollywood will continue to make coming-of-age films until the end of time. But when it's a female-led film or a film starring an ensemble cast of POCs like Crazy Rich Asians, there's more at stake. For that reason, do you feel pressure to make the film a success?
Chu: That is an important part of the dialogue — if they show up and it becomes a commercial success, there will be more. But at the same time, for me, my challenge is that I don't want people to show up just to show up. We have to make a great product. People aren't just going to show up over and over again to make the film a success. It is my job to make sure that thing is kick-ass — takes the mold, jumps on it, throws glitter all over it, smashes it, kicks it around, and drops the mic. If we don't do that, then we deserve not to have a hit. But we know it's a lot bigger than just one movie, so we're going to do everything in our power to make it right and to make it a really fun world with the best Asian actors out there.