Director Jon M. Chu has only been making movies for around eight years, but he’s already had a pretty decent career with plenty of highs and lows, working in a wide mix of different styles and genres.
After taking helming the hit dance movies Step Up 2: The Streets and Step Up 3D, he captured Justin Bieber’s rise to fame in 2011’s Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. Hence when Chu was then attached to direct the action sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation, let’s just say that it didn’t exactly go over swimmingly with the fans. Fortunately, that turned out alright since he gave enhanced roles to Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis. Still, Chu elected not to helm the third G.I. Joe film.
Chu’s latest film is Now You See Me 2, yet another action sequel, this time to the 2013 surprise hit starring Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson as two members of a group of magicians calling themselves the Horsemen who use their act to rob from the rich and give to the poor.
By the end of that movie, we learned there was a secret organization funding the Four Horsemen, and the sequel follows about a year later when the group is in hiding while FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) continues to track them down—even though he is secretly in cahoots with them as the descendant of a great escape artist who died during his act.
The Horsemen’s return is prompted by being called to perform at a tech presentation that isn’t exactly what it seems, and they’re joined by Lizzy Caplan’s unconventional street magician Lula. Pulling their strings this time is an eccentric millionaire played by Daniel Radcliffe, who hires them to steal information from one of his tech rivals, which takes them to first China and then London.
Den of Geek sat down with the infectiously energetic filmmaker when he was in New York for the movie’s junket.
Den of Geek: You’re becoming this director who keeps getting called upon to direct sequels, as this is the third time you’ve directed a follow-up. It has to be a tough gig because if someone loved the first movie, you’re always having to live up to that. What was it about this one specifically?
Jon M. Chu: I definitely wasn’t looking to do a sequel again. I really wanted to do an original and my own thing, but I’m a huge fan of the first movie. I thought Louis [Letterier] did an amazing job. I thought that it was a world that was really unique, and I like original stuff anyway, and when you have a cast like this—I’ve never worked with cast members at this level all in one movie. I had worked with Eric Feig [Head of production at Summit] and [producer] Bobby Cohen before, all the executives there, they gave me my first movie Step Up. So, there were relationships there.
In some ways, coming into a sequel is a really great, fun exercise for a filmmaker, because you really have to be more creative, because they’re handing you this box … Joe was a little bit different because they wanted you to redo it in a whole new way, but in the same way, keep ties, which is difficult in another whole way. But this one, the movie was so beloved. So, how do you bring your own imprint and keep similar elements and elevate the whole thing, and give a reason why this needs to exist? That was a whole challenge in itself, and I’m always up for fun challenges. In a weird way, you find your voice more clearly, because you see what you’re doing and you have to be conscious of what you’re adding or not adding to this to retain its soul.
I think you brought a very different energy to this movie even from your other movies. You mentioned the big cast and you’ve worked with big casts before. I wondered if your dance background makes it easier to juggle such a large cast.
Maybe, maybe. I think that when you have eight people in one scene, and you’ve gotta’ cover everybody, and you can’t just throw one person to the side, it’s a very difficult task. And you know that they’re riffing and their personality is gold, so you want to give them the freedom to do that. With that, comes more difficulty on the editing side of it, but you sort of let them cook. I’m just trying to keep up with them.
We rehearse things enough, so that we knew the template, and then you let them go. Lizzy’s dropping the dirtiest jokes, and then Woody is going to try to top her, and then Jesse’s doing the most clever things. It all works really well together, because they love each other, and they toss [lines] really great to each other. The challenge on my side was just trying to collect, collect, collect, and then figure it out later in editing.
I had to cut out 50 percent of the jokes, because they’re too dirty and it would be an R-rated movie, but I loved that spirit and it made it so fun, and I think you feel that energy in the movie.
All of those actors come from different backgrounds, so it’s not like a Shakespeare play where they’re all trained in a certain way. You have a cast that if you just saw their names on a cast list, you might wonder how they’re going to work together. Lizzy’s kind of a revelation as one of the new additions—she’s hilarious. Did you already have a script and then you molded that character towards her?
We knew that we had to change the character, and we were like, “How do you shake up this boy’s club?” Because [there’s] Woody, Jesse, Dave, Mark, and all the bad guys, and you needed someone strong that would just shake them out of their boots. I’m a huge fan of Lizzy’s, so we wrote that type of character in, thinking of her in mind but not knowing if she’s available or if she’d be interested. Luckily, she was, and she came in and just tore it apart.
As soon as we brought her into the room with the other characters, she was head and shoulders more than all of them, and it only pushed them to be just as raw and crazy. I didn’t know Jesse was this funny, to be honest. He’s hilarious and he’s so sharp, and they’re all really, really smart, so their references get deeper and deeper and deeper as our movie goes along. Sometimes, I can’t keep up. I don’t know why that’s funny, but it’s funny, and I learned a lot about comedy doing this movie. I haven’t done comedy-comedies before, and a lot of times I would not edit their timing. I would let them do the timing of it, because they’re so good. It’s to this very specific rhythm, and I learned a lot. It was an honor to be in the presence of them, actually.
Do you shoot multiple cameras so you can capture all that interaction?
Yes, we definitely increased cameras as their riffing increased. [Laughs] We Judd Apatow’d that shit. It’s funny because Judd actually shoots with one camera.
Oh, does he? How does he do that then?
I don’t know. He just does enough takes that he has a lot to work with in editing, and he shoots on film, too, which is crazy. I was curious about having the actors perform magic. I visited the set of the first movie and talked to the magical consultant David Kwong, but Dave Franco seems like he could really do some of those tricks. I used to do magic and I know how hard it is to palm cards, let alone fling them across the room like he does.
He’s really good. That whole opening stuff where he’s hiding it behind him? That’s all real. I didn’t know if he’s actually good, and I told him that our goal was to shoot this as practical as possible. Maybe some of the transitions we’d fake here or there, but we want as much real card stuff, and he took that to heart. It was doing it like an athlete would—every day. It got so good that him and Woody would toss back and forth, and I would bet them in the middle of the shot, “Can you do it 10 times passing it back and forth without dropping it, I’ll give you a hundred bucks?”
They would do 50 times, so I lost a lot of money basically. [Laughs] I kept upping the number. Once I could see how far would they go, I would increase the odds, and I think they were playing me the whole time, because they would always get it. Or they’re just really good competitors.
Whenever you do magic in movies, especially these days, people assume it’s all done with CG and movie magic. When the Horsemen are doing the performances in front of an audience at the end, did you want them to be able to perform actual tricks?
That’s something we talked about very early. Do as much practical magic as we can, which means we’re going to have to spend money on contraptions and R and D’ing [researching and developing] stuff, which is always scary for producers, but we know it’s part of our movie. Magic is tough to shoot, because if you can make a dinosaur come to life, you can do anything in magic. So, let’s make the audience know that this is real stuff. Even Lizzy’s head getting cut off, we could have done that in CG. Any other movie, I would have been like, “Okay, this is a real easy shot, just shoot it with green screen.”
Here, we built a real couch that her head can get cut off in. There’s no CG. We’re watching it happen and she had to learn how to do it herself, we had to create three different couches, some that didn’t work. Dave Franco at the end doing the three-card monte, he had to do that one live, and we didn’t want to cut away. So, even the rhythm of our editing. We’re like, “cutting here, cutting there, cross town”… but when we land on him, we have to sit there for a minute and not cut, because we want you to know that we’re not painting things out. We’re not cutting and cheating, so even when we were editing it together, it was so weird because we’re fast and then we sit on it, but we had to do that, so that you know that we’re not cheating. That’s the fun part about magic.
That was always the issue having magic on TV, because people would just assume that they’re cheating because they’re so used to movies and television doing that, basically.
It’s similar to dance where in old dance movies, you could use doubles and do all this stuff. In Step Up, we never wanted to do doubles, so for me, it was a lot more freeing to shoot dance when your actors are doing it, because you can do the close-up and you can have a shot going longer. In a similar way in this, when our cast went to do magic school, it made my life way easier, and it makes them feel better to perform and tell more story through these moments. It was just a choice that we all purposefully made.
I also wanted to ask about Daniel Radcliffe. He plays a great villain in this, and I don’t think we’ve seen him play a real villain. There was also a great joke about him doing magic, which obviously if anyone else played the role it wouldn’t be as funny. Was that added after he was cast?
Absolutely. Ed [Solomon, the screenwriter] is very funny, and he added all these things to it. Daniel Radcliffe is an amazing magician actually, in real life. He is really good at magic, and we went back and forth. “How good with magic is this guy?” He wanted to show off his magic stuff, too, but when we first introduced his character, one of the first shots we did with him, I think, we were just talking and said, “Why don’t you just miss it? Maybe it’s funny that he’s really bad.” He missed it, and did this thing like, “Oh, oh… Ta da!” and the whole crew was laughing and we were like, “That’s what it is. That’s what it’s gotta’ be.” We just stayed the course…
That he was going to be a bad magician. I guess you had to have one in the movie.
One of the amazing things about the movie is that a lot of this takes place in China. I assume you actually shot some of the street scenes there?
Yeah, we shot all of that there.
But the London scenes, that was a lot of extras. Like I said, I went to the set of the first movie and at the 5 Points performance, they had maybe a few hundred extras, but this one seemed much bigger.
Yeah, we had a lot.
How do you manage that with all these different things going on?
You have a really good A.D. In China, we were worried—in Macao especially. It’s an island and it’s an hour, two hours away from Hong Kong, so you’re not sure who is going to show up to be an extra in a movie, but we had lines down the block. We had thousands of people lining up, so we got our pick, which was great. And they were great, because we’d be in the casino scene and we’d fill all the tables with our extras. It was in the middle of the night and they were all cool. They were so excited to be there. In London, we both did our own where we had thousands of people for us, but also, we shot later on New Year’s where we had hundreds of thousands of people just out and we could shoot all those things with the fireworks and that stuff.
It was a combination of different things, but when you have someone like Dave Franco, everyone’s showing up for that. We got all these young girls coming out, all dressed to the nines to impress him, and it becomes a whole show. Every hotel we were staying at, it was like being with Justin Bieber—he had his fans everywhere.
I understand that you’re already signed on for another Now You See Me movie and I hate to ask you about this, because I know after G.I. Joe 2 you were originally going to direct G.I. Joe 3. What was the interest in doing another movie this time—did you just like the characters?
Yeah, you never know. Sometimes you like to be prepared for whatever might happen. It’s up to the audience. If they come out and see the movie and they demand another one, we’ll be ready for that. I think the world is big enough. I think when you have an original world like this that doesn’t have any sort of book or world it’s based on, and you’re breaking down magic. The first movie was what magic is, and the second movie is how magic works by being behind the scenes.
I think there’s other questions about magic, like why magic exists, why do we need to believe? Why do we love to believe in stuff that we don’t understand? Why are we always searching for something greater than our physical selves? Why do we believe that this piece of paper with a dead president on it has value?
Magic is everywhere, and I think those questions are very interesting, and to have a group like the Horsemen, a group of professional liars, who know how to manipulate people, that have a moral code and are trying to expose what is happening all around, and that magic is actually everywhere, not just in a magic show. I think it was a really interesting world, so I think there’s a lot to explore and we’ll see if the audience gives us permission to go back for more.
It’s one of those things that if they do another movie, you can say, “Yeah, I’ll do it” but if they don’t do the movie, I’m sure you’ll find other work.
Yeah, exactly, and the script has to be right. Everything has to be right. Everybody’s very discerning about doing this correctly, and when you have a cast like this, they have standards, we have standards, the studio has standards, so everybody wants to do it in the right way.
[Note: At this point, we began to talk about the disastrous Jem and the Holograms movie Chu directed, which you can read about here if you missed it, but then jump back for the rest of this interview.]
Movies like Jem and the Holograms have an afterlife. A movie doesn’t go away once it’s done. It might get seen on cable or DVD.
Exactly. And me as a filmmaker, I love jumping genres. I love trying things. Am I a 12-year-old girl? I’m none of those things, and I love jumping into it and surrounding myself in it, and becoming that. Was I a dancer or choreographer? No, but people think I’m a choreographer because I did the Step Up movies.
Oh, I always thought you had that background.
No, I took a class when I was a kid, but I was always a film guy, I just always had a lot of dance friends, so for me, that’s a compliment when they say, “Oh, you’re a choreographer.” No, actually I work with choreographers, I don’t have anything to do with the moves, but I know who to go to and how to get it and how to shoot those things. Or going into G.I. Joe, obviously a huge fan of it, but never did an action film. I love jumping into all these different things, and I will continue to do that, and maybe some I’ll miss and maybe many I’ll miss but as a storyteller, I think it’s a dream job to be able to say, “Okay, let’s see if you can do a horror film.”
Would that be something you’d want to do? What’s your dream project if someone says, “Okay, here’s $60 million. Go make a movie that you want to make.” Is there some genre where you would say, “This is the one I wanted to make this whole time?”
I wouldn’t say genre. All the stuff I do are sort of fairy tales in a way, but maybe have different languages, whether it’s dance or action, or magic, or pop music, so I love changing what the language is, but having a little bit of magic or extraordinary thing in each one, but also a human base to it all. I love not knowing. I don’t like saying, “If I did Jurassic Park 6, that would be the end-all be-all.”
As I grow, too, my taste changes, so definitely things I would have wanted to do three years ago, I definitely have shifted to different worlds.
If we talk in two years and you’ve just done the sequel to Fantastic Beasts I’m going to say, “What the hell, Jon? When are you going to do your own movie?”
[Laughs] Literally, for the past several years [I said,] “I’m going to do my own movie, I don’t want to do a sequel,” but when you get an opportunity like this one where you have these actors, and you have the people who gave you your first opportunity coming to you. I was just in the middle of Jem, and you’re taking a risk with Jem because you know the audience is not going to be huge and you‘re doing it for very little money in terms of the budget and all that stuff, it was a good moment to go do something like this and continue to grow.
Have you had a chance to see Popstar yet?
No, I want to see it so badly, but… I haven’t seen it, but I’m so excited. It’s really fun to see the trailers, because there are literally shots directly from our movie, and that’s always fun.
Now You See Me 2 opens nationwide on Friday, June 10.
SPOILER WARNING: The next question and answer deals with a pretty big part of the plot that hasn’t been revealed as of yet.
There are a lot of surprises in the movie that aren’t in the trailer. You didn’t have people on the streets filming or taking pictures of everything. One of the most brilliant things is the other character Woody plays. How is it possible that you can make a movie these days without all this stuff being out there?
I think it’s so nice that the marketing people will respect some of those wishes. I went back and forth whether our audience wants to know about the double or not. I think it’s a fun element, and if you know about it before, it doesn’t really ruin it. I’m not sure it does, but it’s real fun when you get to come into a movie and not know the ending and continue to twist it.
He went crazy doing it. I didn’t know what it would turn into. With Woody, I want to just put on the stuff and see what happens, and you’re like, “Okay, but when are we going to put on the stuff?” It’s the day of the shoot, and I don’t know what’s going to come out of his mouth, I have no idea. I kept thinking of Johnny Depp in Pirates, and he’s going to create a character and it might be weird, and we might be, “What the fuck is happening?” or I’m going to trust his instincts and trust that the weirder it is, the more interesting it will be. We’ve seen Woody in so many different characters. Let’s let him just paint, so he put on that prosthetic nose, perfect teeth, full head of curly hair, the tan, and he just became this thing. I think the studio was a little bit scared at first. “What is Chase?” “Let’s just trust him and move, let’s go, and let’s not discuss it.”
And he found this weird character Chase. None of his delivery of any lines goes to any normal speaking pattern, so it makes it hard to edit because you’re like, “Is that the punchline or not?” But that’s kind of the fun part of his brilliance.