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Known primarily for his work on the dance franchise Step Up and the concert film Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, director Jon M. Chu moves into big-budget action with the premiere today of G.I. Joe: Retaliation.
Speaking by telephone with Spinoff Online, he shared that directing a film that enabled him to play on such a grand scale with real Cobra Hiss Tanks and many of the larger-than life-characters of his childhood, was a dream come true.
“Literally, my head wanted to explode,” Chu laughed. “Every day, I’d come to work, I’d be like, ‘Whoa! We built this crazy prison with Cobra symbols everywhere? […] Just the fact that Snake Eyes — I can take a picture with Snake Eyes for my Facebook profile page — it was awesome! I was definitely living a dream the whole time.”
The director’s enthusiasm for the brand also helped him recognize his responsibility to its legion of fans. “So many people are relying on us to fulfill the ideal of what G.I. Joe meant to them as a kid that we’ve got to — there’s a huge responsibility here,” he said.
Retaliation was originally scheduled to open last summer at the height of blockbuster season, but Paramount Pictures made the costly decision to delay the release in order to convert the film to 3D, a format Chu had experience with from Step Up 3D and Never Say Never.
“Conversion is never easy, but I think my experience with shooting 3D was very helpful in terms of understanding how depth is a part of the story,” he said.
“Shooting in 3D, you actually have to make those creative choices while you’re shooting. So, you learn a lot about what depth means in the emotion of the scene,” he continued, adding he did enjoy the control of 3D conversion. “Post-conversion, you make those choices afterwards and you actually can make those depth decisions based on your edit, not just of the scene itself.”
One of the biggest directing challenges for Chu was that Retaliation is both a sequel to 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and a franchise reboot. “Moving forward, but still explaining things — that was constantly in balance,” he said. “We didn’t want to do too much of either one at one time and I could not foresee that from the very beginning. That was something that we had to discover on our journey.”
Ninja warriors Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow return for the sequel, which delves into the history of the mysterious Arishikage ninja clan. Wu-Tang founder, and a director in his own right, RZA (The Man with the Iron Fists) makes a cameo appearance in the film, playing a theatrical kung-fu version of the character Blind Master.
Having elaborate ninja fight sequences alongside more realistic military battles was something the director felt the G.I. Joe brand had always done and done well. He said he especially appreciated the contemporary take the property had with respect to its many ninja characters. “They had real histories and they weren’t just shadows that popped up and killed people,” he said. “They actually had a sense of humor. They had rage.”
“When you throw someone like the RZA in, it really is like — that’s sort of the spirit of the ninjas and the G.I. Joe,” he continued. “That they can be anyone and it’s okay if it contradicts your ideas of what a ninja Blind Master could be, because that’s kind of what makes it fun. It’s a little rock and roll in that way.”
Finding the right tone was crucial, and Chu and his team worked hard during pre-production to settling on the the balance of humor and heart that has characterized the Hasbro universe. “We always knew that G.I. Joe was fun, that it’s playful and it’s sort of in a Dr. Strangelove way — using contemporary global threats and flipping it on its head and being a little sarcastic with it,” he said.
“Ultimately, what makes G.I. Joe great is not just the big, crazy fantasy, but that these guys were like us,” he continued. “You just wanted to have a beer with them and then turn around, go outside, save the world — and then come back and finish the beer.”
Chu is also attached to direct another film inspired by a mega-popular toy line, Mattel’s Masters of the Universe. “We’ve been designing the world,” he said, “which is kind of the best phase because we get to make a ton of mistakes and to know where not to go, so we can discover the path of where to head.”