After taking his career to new heights as director of Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3-D, John Chu went on to direct Justin Bieber in Never Say Never, which recently became the highest grossing concert documentary of all time. Although Jon Chu was busy last year with Justin Bieber, Chu also found time to create and direct the experimental webseries THE LXD (The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers), which is now available on DVD as of April 12. Taking dance to a whole new level, The LXD became the most viewed original web series on Hulu, with many top publications hailing The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers as a creative masterpiece of modern dance.
Given the passion that Jon Chu has for dance, Chu added the super hero element to create a visually stunning LXD culture of dance battles intertwined with a cinematic narrative to chronicle the journey of seemingly ordinary people who discover they have extraordinary powers. Ultimately, The LXD dance heroes must choose their place in a creative clash between good and evil.
Ahead of the April 12 DVD release of The LXD, TheDeadbolt went one-on-one with Jon Chu to learn more about directing LXD dancers, the passion for dance and super heroes, experimenting with so many dance styles, Chu’s work with Justin Bieber, what Jon Chu has planned for G.I. Joe 2 and how he feels about the notion that he can’t handle an action movie given his dance background.
THE DEADBOLT: Since LXD didn’t rely on dialogue to tell the story, was that a comfort or a challenge as a director?
JON CHU: It was both. It was a give and take. We wanted to push the idea that dance was our main mode of communication in these shorts. In these pieces, when you put them together, when you have a complicated origin story of a super hero, it’s a little more difficult to get some of the plot things out. So you need a little bit of dialogue here and there. Each episode kind of changed it up to how much dance and how much dialogue you use. Some we don’t use any dialogue and some we use a lot. Sometimes you have to read.
We actually play with the idea, because to me the whole thing is an experiment to see how far we can push dance and see where we’ll make mistakes. Sometimes it won’t work and we’ll pull back a little bit. Sometimes it’ll be too long or too short and this is a whole process to find a new voice of how dance and story telling can be together in a more organic way. So it’s like a freeing opportunity to play in different ways and we haven’t dedicated ourselves to one way of doing it.
THE DEADBOLT: The Robot Love Story was just amazing. That was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. What were the keys to making that work so effectively?
CHU: Thank you. Well, that was a process. At first I really wanted to do a film noir. I wanted to do it in a sort of silent movie style but in a modern way. We’d do a silent movie and Mad Chad, our Robot guy, and Pandora who plays Autumn in it, their style is so intricate that you can’t have a lot of movement with their dance. The camera really just has to sit there and let them paint the poetry for you.
Their style really dictated how we were going to tell the story. The fact it was a love story between these two, or sort of a past love story, was something that we saw as kind of balletic in a way. Their style really dictated how we were going to tell the story, which almost every episode it’s the dancer and their style and how they express. A lot of time we’ll put them in the dance room and say, “Okay, we want to tell a story of a husband and wife who don’t remember each other but had a past relationship. How would you guys communicate that?” We turn on music and just let them communicate it and freestyle. From that we’ll write down the things that really move us. That’s how we sort of get into each of those episodes. So that episode actually came from a lot of that.
THE DEADBOLT: Well, when you were making LXD, did you see a connection between the passion people have for super heroes and the passion for dance?
CHU: Yeah. It’s a weird connection because you don’t really connect the two. But there are a lot of similarities because I feel like the general public has a strange idea of what dance is. They know the dance from dance movies, 80s dance movies, or even the Step Up movies. You go to a class, you take dance and that’s the end of dance. Maybe you dance in your living room, but that’s about it. Whereas the dancers that I got to know, dance was a part of every moment of their life.
You’re in an elevator and music turns on and they’re dancing. When they’re angry, they have it out by dancing. There is a very real way that dance bleeds into their normal everyday life. So we wanted to show that in the episodes a lot. That’s how we formed all of these episodes, was to show and try to express that in the best way we could.
THE DEADBOLT: What was the most challenging episode to film in either season of LXD?
CHU: The Western was really tough because we had so many dancers and different styles. Each episode we shot in a day and a half because we didn’t have a lot of money and we wanted to have a high quality to it. So we had the best crew, the best talent, and we had to do it quickly. So the Western was tough because we had a lot of people and a lot of things going on and we had to do it very quickly.
Robot Love Story was tough for me because it was one of those things that it came in the little moments. It was always hard to gauge whether those little moments were right enough or had we got it yet. That was tough to do in a day because we wanted it to look beautiful in this old hospital, which had electricity that would come in and out [laughs].
The duet – I didn’t direct Duet but Scott Speer head-directed Duet – that was one where they had to shoot two places doing the same thing with the same choreography interpreted in different ways. That I know was a logistical nightmare because we had to figure out all of that stuff beforehand and then execute it. But all of these things, that’s why everybody loves it. We were all there because we love dance. We saw the opportunity and we love story and we love the opportunity to see how dance and story telling can be integrated in a more organic way.
THE DEADBOLT: Well, how were you able to tell the right story for Justin Bieber without getting lost in the magnitude of his popularity?
CHU: I think part of it was that I came in not really knowing a lot about him. I knew him from YouTube because we’d done a bunch of YouTube videos and I’d seen him on YouTube. So when Paramount came to me about that movie, I was like, “I don’t know a lot, but I do know that his story is really interesting.” The fact that teenagers in their homes were empowered by technology to choose their next hero and that they have this relationship, I thought that was really fascinating. So I kind of followed that.
Listening to his music for the first time and really getting to know him as I learned his story, and learned about him and his world, I knew that’s the journey I wanted the audience to experience as well. So I kind of marked the things that I saw that helped me understand who he was and we tried to include that in the movie. When his fans text him when he’s sick and down and how it heals him and how it pushes him to get better, we wanted to include that in the movie.
When he’s alone and no one’s around and he’s eating cereal, and he’s just a little boy, you realize, “Holy crap! This guy is just a kid.” We wanted that in the movie. So all of those things from my own personal experience of getting to understand who he was is what we tried to communicate.
THE DEADBOLT: After coming out of that experience, do you understand the passion fans have for Justin Bieber?
CHU: [laughs] Yeah. Some say I would have “Bieber fever,” but I think I love the kid. I think he’s such a good kid. He’s sixteen years old and he’s trying to figure it all out. I feel for the kid on what he is going to be learning and what he’s trying to learn now. You know, he doesn’t apologize. He’s going to make mistakes and he knows that. But I know that deep down he will also correct those mistakes and he’s always trying to be a better person.
I think he has a great team around him that protects him. They don’t just work for him but actually protect him and talk back to him and make sure he never feels like all of these people just serve him. I think that can be poison. So I think the opportunity is in his own hands to become who he will be in the future. The choices that he makes, and everyone makes, it’s very clear to him that those choices will reflect what he is in history. I know he just wants to be a good person.
THE DEADBOLT: I noticed the transition text for Never Say Never is almost the same as LXD. Was that intentional, or just practical?
CHU: Well, there’s a little bit of a difference. In Bieber we used Lead Gothic and in LXD we used Deco, something Deco. What I love about both of those fonts actually is that they’re simple and sort of classy but have a little bit of fantasy to them. But it’s clear, you don’t have to find the words.
THE DEADBOLT: With G.I. Joe 2, how will you approach it to maximize the potential of that project?
CHU: Well, for Joe, I grew up playing with G.I. Joes and watching Joe and reading the comics of Joe. It means so much to me. To me, it’s one of the few brands that has a soul, a multi-generational soul, where it’s about what it means to be a leader in the community, in your home, with your friends, and what it means to be a leader and a hero. I think that’s an important message right now in the world when everyone’s kind of questioning what it means to be the leader of the world.
I think it’s not just another action movie. Maybe the first one was that, but we’re really trying to break it down and take the shine off and show that my Joes were the ones in the mud, the sand and the trees and in the epic worldwide adventures. Each one had individual talents. So we really want to bring the experience of what I grew up with playing with these toys. What it feels like so that kids now can be reintroduced to the Joes and experience it in a different way. This is like down and dirty Joe for me.
THE DEADBOLT: I also have a G.I. Joe question as related to LXD. I’ve been reading online that some people think that because you have a dance background, you won’t be able to handle the action. But given how you handled certain action in LXD in such a unique manner, that kind of goes against what they think. How do you see it?
CHU: I mean, I can’t ever change what people think. Throughout my whole life it’s been, “Oh, how can this guy who’s not a dancer do a dance movie? How can this guy who has never done a movie do a movie? How can this guy who has never done 3D do a 3D dance movie? Isn’t that cheeseball? How can this guy who has never done a documentary do a documentary? How can a Justin Bieber concert movie not be a concert movie? And how can it actually be successful when Jonas and all of those others have fallen?” Every step of the way, it’s always been that. But even the message in Never Say Never is [how] we like to be the underdog. It gives us something to work for.
To me, I hope it’s always like this in my life to where I always need to be pushed, because it always makes me better. But yeah, I’ve worked with choreographers before and of course it’s very different. It’s dance and dance has a rhythm. Dance has a movement and all of this stuff. But what I love is that movement can tell stories, whether it’s John Wayne on the porch leaning against that pole or Cyd Charisse taking off her jacket. Any movement can communicate what a paragraph can never communicate. Movement is a big part of visual story telling.
In action, obviously it’s different, you’re doing a bunch of stuff. But the best action is action that’s telling your story, action that’s actually evolving your character. To me, I have a big challenge ahead of me. I want to do a really kick-ass movie, action that’s fun, big, crazy. But at the same time, at it’s core, the action is telling an emotional story about our heroes. I think that my experience with LXD and the experiments of LXD only help prepare me for the mini-things I want to tell within the action.
Have people really seen LXD? I don’t know. That’s why I’m excited for the DVD to come out so a lot more people can be exposed to it. But I just let my work speak for itself. When it comes out, I hope people enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed creating the stuff, because it’s really, really fun. That’s all movies are about really. For me, it is to be able to experience a story – a fantasy with a group of friends, your family, a date – and go home and talk about it and let it inform your life and bring joy to your life. I think that’s what all of my projects have in common, that they try to do that.
The LXD is available on DVD as of April 12.