Interview: Jon M. Chu’s Insights Into the World of Justin Bieber

ON has spoken to director Jon M. Chu quite a number of times over the past couple of years, but that’s because he had spent much of that time working on the action sequel G.I. Joe: Retaliation, starring Dwayne Johnson, Channing Tatum and Bruce Willis, a movie that’s right up our alley. Chu seemed like an odd choice at the times since he had just come off the massive hit music doc Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and didn’t seem like someone who could take on the gritty military action required of G.I. Joe.

The reaction to the movie was generally favorable from the fans, and the results proved successful enough–with a $375 million worldwide gross–for Chu to be asked to return to direct the sequel, but before that, the filmmaker reunited with Justin Bieber to act as creative director for his latest tour and that evolved into a second movie, Justin Bieber’s Believe.

“Believe” shows Justin Bieber growing up and branching out on his own to make his decisions and while much of it focuses on his 2012-13 concert tour backing his latest album, it gives us a lot of behind-the-scenes about what was involved with making the show as well as allowing us to continue watching the young musician growing up around his fans.

In an attempt for this old writer to understand the sensation and phenomenon that is Justin Bieber, I decided it was a good time to talk to one of his tour and filmmaking collaborators and Chu gave us some great insights into what makes Bieber tick. We’ve spoken quite a bit over the last couple years, mainly about G.I. Joe, and I don’t think at any time during those conversations did you say, “Oh, by the way, I’m the creative director on Justin Bieber’s new tour and I’m going to make another movie about it.” Because you were kind of doing that while finishing up “G.I. Joe” so I’m puzzled why you wouldn’t have mentioned it.
Jon M. Chu:
No, it was definitely therapy in a weird way. It helped me not think about G.I. Joe for a little bit, but at the same time, try to keep working and doing new things I hadn’t done before, so I love that. It really helped me during that crazy time where we were pushing and trying to figure things out.

CS: We never spoke about your relationship with Justin and how that first movie came about, but how did you guys first meet and how did you hook up for that first movie and continue the relationship for “Believe”?
I didn’t really know Justin Bieber. I’d heard of him at that time and I knew Adam Goodman, head of Paramount for a while. He was working for Spielberg when I was discovered when Spielberg saw my short film in college, so I knew Adam for a long, long time and we’ve always tried to figure what to do together. I had just finished “Step Up 3D” and he was like, “Hey, you know 3D, we’ve always wanted to work together. Come do this little movie that I don’t know what I’m going to do with. It’s only going to take six months and then let’s figure out what we’re going to do together after that.” I looked him up and I did my research and I thought it was fascinating what he had been doing on the internet and I could see his growth, literally, so I decided to do it. I had a chance to meet Justin, only literally a few days later after I was hired, “Okay, let me meet him and see how it goes” and we were making the movie right away. It was one of those crazy things. I didn’t want to do a concert movie. I wanted to do a blend of documentary musical and go from there, so it’s been a fun last several years’ journey, both figuring out him and getting to know him, but also working on this sort of weird mixed blend of documentary and concert film.

CS: “Believe” definitely seems a little more like a concert film. You were actually creative director of the tour, so what is it like doing double duties on this one and were you trying to figure out camera angles and how things could be shot while working out the logistics of the actual show?
Not quite. By the time we were doing the show, we hadn’t had a full-on plan to make a movie of it. I knew there was probably a possibility of shooting this thing, so I kept everything forward and moving into the audience. I wanted to make it really immersive, shot a lot of extra stuff for the screen that were beyond just what’s on the stage just so that we could have it on the big screen. We really started it as a concert film, this movie, and said that we’re not going to be like “Never Say Never.” It would be completely different and not even try to compete with it. There’s no story here. Little did I know that last year would be the most interesting year for Justin, one that was so fascinating that you actually wanted to see what was happening, so it evolved as much as he was evolving.

CS: When we first see Justin the movie, he has tattoos and he’s growing some facial hair. Between YouTube and music videos and other appearances, we’ve watched him grow up on screen so to see him like this, it’s immediately obvious, “Okay, he’s 20 years old now and no longer a kid.”
Yeah, we only shot that literally two or three months ago and again, the movie was evolving. Every month something would happen or he would change his mind about something or how he would be and we kind of had to follow that ball because that’s what this movie is about, his movement to become a man, to take over his empire. That stuff, we wanted to show. When we actually shot the concert, that was in January. He maybe had two tattoos, one on each arm. By the time our movie’s coming out, he has a full sleeve and so we did this interview with him and we gotta see if he has perspective of last year. He did and it was really fascinating to see how he had changed and you immediately get that visually without saying one word. You get to see his arms, you get to see his moustache, you see the shape of the interview. You get to see all those things right up front and I thought that was a powerful image to say, “This is where we’re going to end up. You’re going to see how this kid got here.”

CS: It’s amazing to me, because I’d never paid much attention to Bieber or his music and I felt the movie gives a lot of interesting insights into his work ethic and I actually liked quite a few of his songs.
I wanted to make the movie to show who he really is, because I know him as a person, as a friend, and not what the media portrays to him be or what even he portrays himself to me. He plays music every second of the day, writing music. If you closed him in a room, he would start playing music and writing. There’s no doubt in my mind that he will be making music for the rest of his life, whether someone is paying for it or not. That, to me, is a sign that at the very least he will be okay, because he loves the craft. I don’t know if everyone else will like his music in the future or not, but that’s not up to me, but I know that he loves it and Mike Posner said something really interesting, he said, “If you’re a musician and your goal is to become rich and famous, your journey is done, that’s it. If you’re a musician and your goal is to be a better musician and to be a better artist then that journey never ends.” I think that’s really true about what I see in Justin that with all his antics, with all his stuff about growing up, beyond that, with his career and what he’s going to be doing, how he’s going to be doing it, his love of music, his love of the actual craft of making stuff is different than so many other artists out there.

CS: I expect that’s what why Justin Timberlake has remained popular over the years, and I imagine that would be a great career path for Justin B. to follow. It will be interesting to see if his fans grow up with him and he ends up getting older fans who like his new music. The movie’s interesting in that you assume it’s catering to his existing fans, but I feel that people who don’t know Justin’s music should probably see the movie, because they’ll be seeing a different Justin Bieber than what we’ve seen from him before. He actually has some pretty decent songs, which I’m not sure people can get from the way news reports on him.
We don’t try to give the answers in our movie because we really don’t now how he’s going to end up. I think this is a movie about transition, it’s about the choices. The way we made it show him, like here’s your life, here are the people who love you and support you and want you to make the right choices and here’s you saying, “I’m not going to go down that path.” This is you saying how much you love and appreciate your life right now. In the next few years, you’re going to make decisions that make you who you are and how you are as a grown human being. I hope that he makes the right choices, and knowing him, he is that boy that we know from “Never Say Never” and I did want to show that he’s not just a product that we get to tear down for fun and entertainment, which we often do. That there’s a person on the other side, growing up and trying to figure (things) out and we have a responsibility to that person to not be bullies ourselves. We should be rooting for him to survive. How often would that be to have a young star to survive all this, that would be great, like Justin Timberlake, or like Usher, or like some of these others that have survived it. That’s what we should be rooting for.

CS: It seems like he has a really good support system, both musically and his family, so that’s good to see in the movie, as well.
Yeah, but it’s ultimately up to him. He’s the one that’s now the boss. He’s the one that now has to go left or go right, go up or go down. I think by just the fact that he gets to hear us ask those questions, just the fact that he let me ask those questions, that he let me push his buttons says a lot about him already. Most people in that position or most people going through that, wouldn’t even want to hear it. People who get “Yes” all the time would never want to hear the opposition like that, so I think that says a lot.

CS: I’m curious about the differences in making this movie compared to “Never Say Never.” I’m not sure if Paramount is still involved in any way, but was it a little more independent where you and Justin could do what you wanted to do? When I talked to Morgan Spurlock, he had five or six producers and the studio and the record company and a lot of people giving notes.
(chuckles) Yeah, yeah. You know, for me, I’d done it before with Justin and Scooter so they really trusted me. They never gave me any notes. It was not about that, it was about “Hey, if I come back, I really want to be able do this creatively and I want to show the real Justin that I know,” because I think if they know him then I think they’ll be able to judge what he does in a different way than just what they read in the headlines. They honored that completely and I think if I didn’t know them, they would not have had the trust to trust me like that. They could not have the relationship to know what I wanted to say in this movie, which is not making him perfect, like the way he wants it to be, and not making him evil, the way some of the paparazzi want him to be. He’s just human. Warts and all, he’s just struggling through the journey that we all are.

CS: You’ve had an interesting career yourself because you’ve been jumping between doing music and dance-related stuff then doing an action franchise movie. I remember there was a lot of pushback from fans when you got the gig directing “G.I. Joe” and you overcame that and showed you could do it. Where is your heart at right now in terms of what to do next?
I love being active in world-building, so we’re working on “G.I. Joe 3” right now. We’re designing tons of stuff, which takes a little bit, but to me, that’s obviously where I like to push myself and where I want to be for a long time and get to know better. To be honest, I just did the in-flight safety video for Virgin America, so to me, those things… I like storytelling, I like the idea of making stuff that’s a challenge, so if you can’t make a safety video that’s interesting and I say, “Yeah, watch this.” You can’t make a documentary about Justin Bieber and have it make money and have people watch it. “Oh, yeah, watch that we can do that.” Or “Oh you can’t make a sequel to that…after you just did G.I. Joe?” When someone says that you’re going to be pigeonholed–and that sounds ridiculous–that’s mostly a motivation for me to be like if you’re a good storyteller, you can tell anything and make it more interesting and I love that challenge. I think that’s what’s as much fun about it, and really, in a selfish way, it changes me. Doing these things that are outside of my wheelhouse or just a little different or something that just makes it a challenge, it makes me more interested. It makes me learn about something that I don’t know and that’s the fun part about making movies.

CS: In all the time you’ve been following Justin around and especially the year making this movie, have you noticed the fans changing?
Yes, completely. They’re growing up. The other day at the premiere, they literally knocked down the door and burst into the lobby where we had to delay the playing of the movie for an hour in one of the theaters. Not in my theater, but the theater next door because they literally are getting bigger and stronger and more motivated and more creative than ever. They figure things out, but you know what hasn’t changed is their loyalty to him. It’s an incredible relationship. I’ve been with a lot of stars out amongst their fans and I’ve never seen a dedicated fan group like this over the years that will figure out how to help you to help him. They’re the most active participants in it. I don’t know how he does it. I think it’s the way he talks to them, the way he listens to them, that’s very, very real and they understand that, but it’s pretty incredible to do that. By the way, have you seen the video? Our movie opened in Spain yesterday and these girls – there’s a part where he’s crying and literally everyone is sobbing in the theater. It’s the funniest video. It’s hilarious, you gotta check it out. I tweeted it and I think Justin tweeted it yesterday as well. It’s pretty funny.

CS: I saw the One Direction movie in a theater full of young, screaming girls, but this one I watched quietly at home, so I didn’t get the full experience I guess.

CS: I’ve heard rumors that you’re trying to figure out how to bring Channing Tatum to “G.I. Joe,” which may be tough, considering he’s dead.
It all gets carried away again. They asked me about Channing and I don’t know. You never know in these movies, and that’s all I said, and suddenly it became “Channing Tatum might be back.” To me, every possibility is open and we’re writing the script right now and we’re figuring everything out. It’s an extremely low possibility when you kill somebody like that, it’s pretty much it, but you never know with “G.I. Joe.” We did that with Storm Shadow, too.

CS: Well, when you have a movie with Bruce Willis and Dwayne Johnson, how do you top that? Unless you go the “Fast and Furious” or “Expendables” route where you keep bringing bigger name stars in. It’s a tough act to follow, really.
Yeah. I’m excited to bring in new characters and fun things beyond Bruce and Dwayne that we’re working on and some great villains, but we’re forming those ideas now. I’m really excited – it’s going to be a whole ‘nother level.

CS: Is that something you might be far enough along on that you’ll be shooting next year? Or is it too early to tell?
I think we’re going to be shooting next year. We’re pretty motivated to get that up.

CS: Great talking to you again and next time I do karaoke, I’ll probably have to pull out a Justin Bieber song or two, because it would be quite perverse for someone my age to be singing one of his songs.
(laughs) Perfect! Record it and post it! (laughs)

Justin Bieber’s Believe opens on Christmas Day, December 25.

(Photo Credit: Nikki Nelson/