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  • Interview: 'Step Up 2' director Jon Chu

    Thu, 17 Jul 2008 14:30:59

    Interview: 'Step Up 2' director Jon Chu - The Northern California native finds fairy tale magic in an urban story

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    Jon Chu is recovering from last night's extracurricular activities. It's the day after the DVD release party for his debut flick, Step Up 2: The Streets, a dance film set in an urban landscape which carries subtle fairytale undertones. Needless to say, the Northern California-born Chu was out late celebrating (with good reason), but he's not hung-over. He's just tired from dancing the night away, appropriately. Despite operating in post-party mode, Chu graciously submitted to a friendly ARTISTdirect interrogation about his film, the lost art of tap dancing, teenage angst, how he's planning to reimagine The Great Gatsby, the universal language of dance, and how street kids and pampered suburbanites are inevitably linked, whether they like it or not.

    You said you were up late, dancing at your DVD release party for a dance movie. Is it safe to assume that you are a dancer or that you like to dance?

    I'm not a dancer, per se. I don't call myself a dancer. I'd get laughed off the floor, but when it’s your party, you can do whatever you want, right? It definitely was a good time.

    Well, I hope you were able to follow the old adage and "dance like no one is watching."

    I knew you were going to say that. But yes, I was able to do that.

    Let's get into the movie that you were dancing about. What about the script for Step Up 2 made you want to direct it?

    When I got the original script, it wasn't a masterpiece, for sure! It's not now, either, but the finished film's script is way better than the original that was submitted. The original version had a crack whore mother and the daughter was stealing. I couldn't help but think, "What kid would want to watch this?" It felt like a miniseries or a soap opera. When I got a hold of it, I said, "Let's make it more about dancing and let's have fun and not take it too seriously and make it a fairy tale." It's the streets, yes, but it's also fairytale driven. Think about it. You have the prince and the princess. You have kingdoms falling apart and you see that two people have the power to change when they meet each other. The crew, the battle, the kiss in the tree… we stole all those things from Disney animated films. We definitely wanted to make it different from the first Step Up, which was very angsty and real. We wanted to triple the dance numbers for our film. I think it's something like, every six-and-a-half minutes, there is s dance sequence.

    The film is equal parts teen dramedy and dance parts.

    Exactly. A lot of the actors are dancers without any experience in acting and their language is in their bodies, so we wanted to play to their strengths and use their dancing. All these people blew my mind. We saw them on the web and on the street. We went all over the country to find the most unique dancers, namely people we had not seen on the big screen before. If there was a dancer who had weird bone structure, we wanted that since the desire was to hire people who would stand out.

    It appears that you really got your hands dirty with this film and immersed yourself fully into the experience, from the casting to the script. Was it ever too much for you?

    No way! This is my first movie and for some of the actors, it was their first movie. We were all in the same boat. We're all hungry and we're building off a giant movie that came before us and that gave us momentum, in addition to having a giant studio behind us to market us. We had that whole summer camp mentality. We had nothing to lose and we could do whatever we wanted. I want people to feel like they are watching a summer camp video when they see this film.

    I was just thinking the other day, that as an adult, there is no such thing as summer vacation anymore. It's just a change of seasons, but you don't get that long stretch of time off to do whatever you want, and I agree, your film revisits that vibe of a time when you could do whatever you wanted. Ah, the wonders of youth. That definitely drives your film.

    Yes. It's the youth and their energy. And there are kids out there learning dance and they can be on YouTube and build off the evolution of dance. No time period in the history of dance been buzzing like it is now. I just got a copy of the DVD for myself. I got the box in the mail and it was a total Back to the Future moment for me. You know that scene when Marty McFly's dad gets the novels and he smells the case? That was my experience today with holding this film's box in my hands. All the movies that celebrate dance and inspired this film, like Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo, Singing in the Rain, were films I'd watch on video with my family in my living room. Our movie gets to live in that format and people can watch and that's exciting for me!

    Do you have any sort of dance background?

    Growing up, I took instruments at school and played drums, saxophone, guitar. I grew up with music and I am the youngest of five kids and my sister would dance, and I was the youngest so I was around dancers. I actually took tap for 14 years.

    Tap dancing, huh? Now that's a lost art, that type of dance! It doesn't seem to be popular anymore, and it looks so hard.

    It really is. There are amazing hoofers out there and there are so many different styles of tap that people don't even know about. There are tons of cool, soulful styles that are being lost but that's what I loved growing up. When I got to film school, it was all about music and dance for me. All of my teachers at the time were like, "You can never sell anything musical!" This was before Moulin Rouge and Chicago took off. Back then, it was only music videos that were successful, not musical films. Musical have made a comeback and now it's music videos that are dead just five years later.

    Has the reception to Step Up 2 propelled more movies your way?

    Yes, since I would love to do more films. I want to do different things that have some dance or music bend to them. I love the format and the people who inspire me every day. We're working on something right now where we're going to contemporize The Great Gatsby, which is my favorite book. The script we're working with is amazing. It won't be a dance film, but there will be those legendary Gatsby parties, so there will be sequences of dance, but not a full-blown dance movie. There's other secret stuff that people who like Step Up 2 will like.

    Finally, what do you think teens relate to most about Step Up 2, other than the dancing?

    The fairytale aspect. You expect this movie to be an angsty teen film, but it's positive and it constantly reiterates the theme that it's not where you're from, it's where you are at, and it's not referencing the ghetto or being in a dark place, either. To me, it means wherever you are, whether it’s in the suburbs or an urban world or anywhere overseas, the people who are true artists take what little they have and make the best of it. You have the B-boys using cardboard and old mattresses to dance on, or artists taking spray cans and making art with that. That's amazing. You can't count suburbanites out, either. Even if they have been blessed to have formal training, they also embark on the journey to find the soul in their art. So we flipped those constructs and played with them. We forced the characters to look at who they were, where they were. At the end of the day, everyone feels out of place at one point or another and has to journey to find where they truly fit it. We tied it all together through dance, which is a language that everyone can understand.

    — Amy Sciarretto

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    Tags: Jon M. Chu, Briana Evigan, Robert Hoffman, Step Up 2: The Streets

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