“So this is a bit awkward,” began director Jon M. Chu as he stepped up to the podium to give the 2015 Film Independent Forum keynote address. A day earlier his latest film, Jem and The Holograms, was released and that morning’s box office news was disappointing.
“I’ll probably get some texts along the way today saying it’s not going well… So this morning isn’t the best kind of day,” he said.
And so began Chu’s brutally honest talk on his journey as a filmmaker. But the morning wasn’t all doom and gloom. The 2002 Project Involve Fellow made sure to point out some positives.
“From the bottom of my heart and wounded soul, I am so lucky,” said Chu. “We all are. Because we have the best job in the world: we are storytellers.”
Chu told how being the youngest of five children and the son of Chinese immigrants shaped his interests. His father dreamed of opening a restaurant in Palo Alto. When his first venture, a fast food Chinese restaurant, failed, Chu’s mother wouldn’t let him give up. So he opened a sit-down restaurant called Chef Chu’s.
“He started to know the customers by name, he started to talk to them, he started to tell stories.” The personable approach worked and the restaurant eventually expanded to take up the entire lot of its strip mall location.
Chu grew up with everything his parents couldn’t have: he learned to play music, learned to dance, attended musicals and operas. His parents wouldn’t even let him work in the restaurant.
And then one day, his mother handed him a video camera, saying, “Jon, you are in charge of the video camera. In this tool, you will find your destiny.”
Of course, Chu was only joking. She didn’t say those words, but the moment felt that significant.
“I started to learn how to use [the camera]. I started shooting our vacations. I’d get my brothers and sisters to act. It was a blast,” he said. “Suddenly the things in my head had a way out.”
Chu attended The USC School of Cinematic Arts. He gained notoriety for a number of his shorts, including the one he made as part of Project Involve, When the Kids Were Away. “It sort of became my calling card in the business,” said Chu. He was 21 years old and his professional journey was about to begin.
The film earned him an agent, who advised him not to put it online and instead hold screenings at the studios. After a few screenings, the film started developing an audience. Soon he was attached to a remake of Bye, Bye, Birdie, after selling the idea in a pitch to Steven Spielberg at Dreamworks.
“Then comes the phase I call the five-year drought,” said Chu.
After two and a half years of development, Sony pulled the plug on Bye, Bye, Birdie. In the years that followed, Chu tried to stay afloat and get his own projects off the ground. If not for the support of his friends and family, he wouldn’t have been able to stick with it.
“I think that’s one of the barriers a lot of minority artists face,” said Chu, referring to the lack of access to financial support during the inevitable hard times.
When he got the script for Step Up 2: The Streets, a direct-to-DVD sequel, Chu told the studio, “I don’t do direct-to-DVD.” A phone conversation with his mother changed his mind.
“When did you become a snob?” she said. It was just the reminder Chu needed. A real storyteller can take anything and elevate it.
“So I said ‘Yeah, I’m going to make the best damn direct-to-DVD dance sequel ever.’”
Two weeks later he got a call from Disney. Having heard Chu was attached, they wanted to consider it for theatrical release. Chu went in, pitched the film with his notes and got the green light.
About 8 weeks later, they were shooting in Baltimore. Chu emerged from the project a career filmmaker. In the last seven years, Chu has directed seven films.
As he neared the end of his speech, Chu returned to his latest effort: “What I find is, that I am the same person I was 36 hours ago. I am the same person that grew up in a family that loved to tell stories. I’m still here. And [Jem and the Holograms] is the same movie I’m proud of making 36 hours ago. I’m still excited for people to discover it, somehow, some way.”
“Ultimately,” said Chu, “we are not defined by our results; we are defined by the purpose of our pursuits. It’s about the whole journey—the collection of stories that define what you stand for.”
“We are storytellers, in every sense of the word. We’re here because we love it.”
Daniel Larios / Film Independent Blogger