Even as a young film student, Jon M. Chu showed an inclination towards using dance in film. His career later took off when he got hired as the director for the second installment of the dance movie franchise Step Up 2: The Streets. Ever since, Jon has thrown himself completely into the world of dance, creating the Adam/Chu Dance Crew (ACDC) with Adam Sevani (who plays Moose in Step Up 2 and 3D, which spawned a slew of YouTube dance videos documenting their online dance battle against Miley Cyrus. ACDC later transformed into the Legion of Extraordinary Dancers (LXD), whose members often play roles in Jon’s films and have also performed for the Oscars, the Glee Live! Tour, and So You Think You Can Dance?
Now with Step Up 3D -- the first 3D dance movie ever, starring Rick Malambri, Adam Sevani, Sharni Vinson, Alyson Stoner, Harry Shum Jr, and many other LXD members -- and LXD -- one of few series made exclusively for online distribution (via Hulu) -- Jon has been exploring new ways to film dance, expanding it to multiple media platforms (trans-media) and challenging common notions not only of what dance can do, but also of how you can tell a story.
Described by Jon as an “online dance adventure,” LXD is something never seen before -- defying genre, story structure and format. LXD tells the story of a broad-sweeping battle between heroes and villains who use dance as their super powers. Though the concept sounds strange at first, after spending a few minutes emerged in LXD’s fantastical world, you’ll be drawn in, entranced with the emotion characters convey through their dances -- whether it be ballet, krumping, tricking, or tap -- and amazed at their abilities which really do make them seem superhuman. The stunning visuals of each themed episode, coupled with music composed specifically for the series, creates a rich new mythology that changes the way story and dance are looked at.
Having filmed for three seasons already, one of which has already been released, LXD stars a veritable league of talented dancers, including Glee’s Harry Shum, Jr., Christopher Scott, Travis Wong, Daniel “Cloud” Campos, Christopher “Lil’ C” Toler, Galen Hooks and Chadd “Madd Chadd” Smith, among many others. Keep an eye on the LXD Hulu site or the official LXD site for the upcoming second season.
The USC School of Cinema-Television (Jon’s alma mater) recently hosted advanced screenings of Jon M. Chu’s Step Up 3D and a rare compilation screening of all of LXD's Season One episodes. APA got a chance during the screenings to sit down with Jon to talk about his current projects.
Interview with Jon M. Chu
Interviewed by Jordan Close
Camera by Lu Lu
Video edit by Ariel Adler
APA: You’ve done two Step Up films now and LXD. So what is it about dance that really attracts you?
Jon: You know, I’m not quite sure what it is. There’s something that I wasn’t conscious about even in film school. All my stuff was music or dance-driven. I didn’t really know it until after doing Step Up 2, when people started to say "Why do all of your films have dance?" I don’t know why. It seems so obvious. But there’s something about the dancers that motivate me the most. I don’t know if it’s just dance, but I do think that the dancers are amazing artists, and every time I meet a new dancer, that triggers something in my brain, and I’m more creative than I could ever be. When I feel that creativity burst, I go with it, so when we had done Step Up 2, when we started working on Step Up 3D, and especially the LXD, it was always about the specific dancers that I had met along the way and trying to tell an interesting story by the craft that they showed me.
APA: At the beginning of Step Up 3D, there’s the camcorder interviews with some of the dancers -- were those true stories?
JMC: I would say 90% of them were for real interviews. It is a dance movie, so we have certain things that we have to do as part of the structure that our audience wants, you know? Our target audience is 12 to 17-year old females, so there’s certain things they want, but I also wanted some other side, the B-side. I wanted it to be through a perspective that I understood and because I’d known the dancers so well, when they’re not dancing, you could actually just talk to them, and every one had a really amazing story. So I got out my little flip cam and would just film them while they were shooting across the way; I would just sit them down and talk to them about their life. A big theme about our movie is that everybody has a different currency of dance -- everybody dances for a different reason -- and we talk about why that is. Some people use it as medicine, some people use it as an escape from their life, some people use it because they love it more than anything, some people use it because it’s the only thing they know and it’s how they make money. So all these different currencies made a very interesting story for me. Everybody dances, everyone has a different reason that they dance, and that’s ok; it doesn't matter why. That’s the sign of a great art.
APA: I found it interesting how the main character, Luke Capoeira, was also an aspiring filmmaker. Was that a reflection of yourself?
JMC: [laughs] Was it a reflection of myself? I mean, obviously there are ties because he’s dealing with dancers as a filmmaker, but I mean... I wish I was that good looking, and unfortunately I’m not. [laughs] But there’s a sense of perspective that I really wanted, to have an outsider’s perspective at dancers, because it would help tell our story in a different way. You know, all the other films, Step Up 1 and 2 were told through dancer’s eyes, and I really wanted to take that step back. And in the end, he doesn’t even stay to be a dancer; he actually goes away to be a filmmaker. So I thought that was an interesting place to start. And I really wanted to do genuine interviews with our dancers and our actors, to get across that they were real people. I knew that was a way to do that.
APA: What was the dynamic between you and the choreographers and scriptwriters? Is the script set or do you adjust it according to how good the dancers are?
JMC: Well it’s a very ebb-and-flow developing process. I come in at first with sort of a general idea that I want to do. In this one, I was like, I want to do Alice in Wonderland, Oliver Twist, Moose coming into this crazy world and getting sucked in. I also wanted to have the Fagin and the Artful Dodger and things like that, and then I started to lay out the pieces. Once we knew we were going to be 3D, which is sort of a prerequisite before doing this movie, we started to plan what it is dance-wise that would be interesting in 3D emotionally. So I started writing different things down, then I got our choreographers -- we have some of the best choreographers in the world, from Hi-Hat, Jamal Sims, Rich & Tone, and Dave Scott -- and we sat them in a room and we talked about what they would do in 3D -- by adding a z-axis to their art, how does that change things? So we started talking about depth, and I started to talk about camera with depth. That process also was another phase that we would talk about, and we’d write those things down, and I’d separate it into different areas of the film. As the script started coming together on the writer’s side, we had tried to make room for all the stuff, so obviously we had to simplify the story a little bit more. There’s always a trade-off between how much dialogue you have and how much dance you have. Our language is dance, so we don’t kid ourselves. We try to weigh it all so the dancing tells the story. So it’s a very collaborative effort, and we all work together to find the right balance between all of them.
APA: Between Step Up 2 and Step Up 3D, adding the 3D element – were there any other differences between those two films?
JMC: Yeah, there’s a lot of differences -- a tonal difference. With 3D comes a tonal difference. We wanted to push fantasy, so we could go crazy; we could take you to a different planet, and every battle we went to, you could have a place that was a different culture and class, with different costumes and environments. And we could throw water at the camera, we could throw lasers at you, we could throw dust at you, we could really play with those planets. I thought that was the fun part of it, and it was going to be like a ride. It wasn’t going to be your typical street dance movie where we’re going to try to be real with you, we’re just going to go on our version of New York City and have fun. So it definitely changed the tone. It also changed where we were gonna shoot, because we needed a place where every crevice of the environment could be beautiful, and New York City gave us that option. We’re not shooting on green screen like other 3D movies; we’re not an animated thing. We’re very different from all of those. We’re taking those cameras out onto the street, beating them up. So it influenced a lot of those things.
APA: For the sidewalk dance sequence in Step Up 3D with Moose and Camille, how did you shoot that? It was all one shot?
JMC: Yeah, it was one shot. It was two and a half minutes in 3D on a real New York street, not a back lot, so we couldn’t necessarily even close down the street. So there’s random extras -- or not extras, real people walking past. We had the 3D rigs, which are huge, and they were wired with heavy wire everywhere, so the choreography of not just what’s within the frame, but of the frame itself was extremely important in that. Technically, we had to be on our game completely. There’s nothing we could mess up in a oner. So the choreography had to be perfect, these 15 and 16 year old kids had to dance the old school Fred Astaire style perfectly, the gags had to be perfect. When they put the trashcans on their feet or when the water sprayed at them or when they flipped over the couch, everything had to be perfect. Then obviously the stereo on our camera had to be perfect, otherwise our audience would throw up.
It took 18 takes for that take that you saw in the movie. Then I think we ended up doing it 22 times, but completed it probably only four times. So it was a long day, and it got really nerve-racking. By five o’clock that afternoon, we hadn’t gotten one yet, but it’s just one of those things as a filmmaker: you choose, we’re gonna go this way, and I was prepared to break it down and change it if it didn’t work. We were on our last legs, and the planets aligned and we got to do this great, great beautiful shot.
APA: I felt like you use a pretty good mixture of racial groups in your films, [Jon laughs] and I want to be careful how I say this -- don’t feel like I’m trying to corner you or anything. One Step Up character in particular, Jenny Kido’s accent is made fun of in the films. Is there any reason why?
JMC: The character was written totally with no accent. The character was just the character. We base our characters off of who they really are -- that just makes it more interesting for us. She [actress Mari Koda] came in, and she was so funny. She’s a comedian, so we couldn’t hide the fact that she was funny, doing her thing, and making snide remarks under the smile. I think that’s part of her humor. So we built it into the story, because every time we gave her a line, people could not stop laughing. She plays it up, and that’s just who she is. Even in Step Up 3D, we have some Argentinean guys and the robot guy and whether it’s an accent or not an accent, they all bring their own personality. I would never manufacture that, are you kidding me? I would get shot by my family. But you know to me, that’s who she is, and it was a great spirit to have. And we celebrate it in every single way.
APA: Moving on to LXD -- you created it and wrote the script yourself for the story. [Jon nods] I felt like it had a bit of a comic book feel to it: there’s the good side and the bad side; then in episode three with the “Robot Love Story,” you have captions instead of dialogue; then there’s also a connection in the title with Alan Moore’s Legion of Extraordinary Gentleman. Were you inspired by comic books?
JMC: Yeah, I mean it’s comic books, fairy tales, fables. We wanted to tell simple, iconic stories. We thought that would be a good framework to experiment with dance, because people kind of know those stories. The archetypes are already built-in, so you don’t have to take the time to get into those. People know the hero, the unassuming hero, the reluctant hero, the mentor. So we wanted to play on those things: OK you know this character, well we’re going to build on it and show the struggle through the dance. And to make it fun for us as filmmakers, we wanted each episode to be a different sort of genre of film, and even though it didn’t have anything to do with each other in terms of the series as a whole, playing in different genres would be part of the experiment.
So the first one was sort of an Amblin-esque fairy tale, “Trevor Drift.” The second one a sort of action-packed one, even though it’s just guys flipping in a warehouse, sort of Michael Bay style. And then the third one, the “Robot Love Story” was our film noir, silent film type thing. We were able to play with that. We’re going to go Western in season two, [laughs] we go really silent film in another one, we go horror, we go comedy. There’s a lot that we get to later, and our audience doesn’t necessarily know that yet, but hopefully as they go along, they’ll discover that it’s all sort of playing with these things that you know in super hero comics already. Even with the name [Legion of Extraordinary Dancers], we get to play with that so you come in to it with an expectation, but we twist it so that it’s all dance. And these things are real; there’s no wires, no special effects in here. What you see is what you can actually do in your living room.
APA: You like to use a lot of the same people in your various projects, like Adam Sevani, Harry Shum Jr., Madd Chadd. So do you recruit LXD members for your films?
JMC: Well we definitely used a lot of LXD members in Step Up 3D. That was just because we were forming LXD at the time, we were writing things, we were shooting, and obviously when we have Step Up 3D, we need to have the best dancers. We actually had auditions for everybody, but then we had members of LXD audition for Step Up 3D, and all those people were just really much better than anyone else you saw. We just started using them. There is a cross-over. I mean, I think that to be able to use people, both crew and cast-wise, there’s a relationship there and you really build off of, and you actually get better. I think that’s a cool thing. I mean, we don’t use everybody, but there’s certain aspects that I already know each dancer can do. And we’re here to create dance heroes -- you know, the Michael Jordan of breaking, the Kobe Bryant of popping, and so we’re looking for that all the time. I think of Harry Shum as my Tom Hanks, I guess [laughs], and Madd Chadd as, I don’t know, my Pacino.
APA: How many LXD members are there all together?
JMC: Well it’s confusing because people sometimes think we’re a dance crew when we’re actually not. We’re a cast, and in our series, the cast comes and goes. We go up to 50, 60 people if you think of us as that. We have a live group that does stuff for Glee, the Glee Live! Tour, for the Oscars, but even for that, we swap out.
APA: Because in some of the interviews it says, LXD member number…
JMC: Oh yeah they all have numbers [laughs], but they’re all fake numbers; they’re fun numbers. We try to bring people to this fantasy, and part of that fantasy is creating this mythology. We’ve built in a lot of mythology from the year 1920 to the year 3000, and we’re giving hints throughout, whether it’s an interview or a website or someone else’s website that you have to discover yourself or a phone number we may give out. We think it’s funny. We want you to put it together by yourself as the story goes. That’s why we call it an interactive adventure, that’s why we call it trans-media, because I think it’s more than just the series, it’s more than just watching the series; you actually have to experience it, and it goes across the board from our live shows to our web series.
APA: With LXD you didn’t use hip-hop songs, the popular ones; it was more instrumental music. Was that composed specifically for LXD?
JMC: Yeah, all the music, all the orchestration was done by Nathan Lanier. He composed it personally for us. You know, he writes stuff that inspires us, and then we do stuff that inspires him, so it’s a really nice relationship that we have. We really wanted to take the dance style and lift it and put it in another place, so you can really watch it. Sometimes the other music can be distracting for it; sometimes it enhances it. Dance comes from a musicality, from where the music comes from. The music should come through the dance, so a guy doing a head spin and a flip, if he’s hearing one song, shouldn’t do a head spin and a flip to another song -- hopefully it’ll change if they’re listening to the music. That’s a test of a great dancer. So when we change the music up, it changes the mentality of our dances, because they have musicality, and that’s where it gets really interesting, because we take them out of their comfort zone.
APA: What’s the difference for you seeing the LXD series on the web, then seeing all the episodes together at this screening?
JMC: There’s two very different experiences, to see LXD on the web and to see LXD on the big screen. At first, it was all written as short stories. It was supposed to be amazing stories. Every week you come and go on a different adventure somewhere else. The stories connected, though, and they were having some consistent themes, so we started to write them together, and obviously we have a bigger story where they do actually come together and battle the villain side, which you’ll see in Season 2, which is really fun. But the experience is very different because you watch individual things, you take a week to register what just happened, you talk about it, you debate about it, and then you come back and you see the next part of it. Whereas here, you get to see it all together; you feel the arc, you feel a little bit more of the transition into a bigger story than the individual stories, so that’s a fun experience in itself. Initially, they merged together. But when we decided to release it as a full thing as well, it just started to make sense for us. We started to see that actually, even though it’s episodic, it flowed really well together, so that was a fun thing that we discovered along the way.
APA: Do you have any future projects you’re working on? I had read something about the Great Gatsby. Is that still on?
JMC: Yeah, I was working on the Great Gatsby, but right now there’s some rights issues, so we’re figuring it out now as we go. I’m seeing what I want to do next. I’ve got a bunch of scripts; we’re kinda going through it. But we’ve worked on Step Up 3D for like two and a half years, and then LXD for about that long as well, so the fact that they’re both coming at the same time is a great release. We’re still working on Season Two for LXD, and we’re gonna push that forward. I think we have a lot more to do in the LXD world, and we’ll see what comes out. I’m just excited for the world to get a sense for what may be the next step in dance and storytelling. And I can’t wait to figure out more stuff.
Stay in touch with Jon M. Chu’s current and future projects via his official YouTube channel.