Director Jon M. Chu: Lessons on Success From Justin Bieber
Justin Bieber is arguably the hottest celebrity right now. His fans can’t get enough of him and he is constantly a target for the press. If you follow the news, you’ve probably been seeing coverage of all his antics and escapades this year. However, like most celebrities, the public really only gets to see what the media shows. Most of us will never have the chance to truly know Justin Bieber for the person he really is. Acclaimed director Jon M. Chu aims to help Justin tell that story to the world in his new concert-documentary “Believe”.
The film is set to hit theaters tomorrow and Beliebers have been clawing to see it. This will be Chu’s second film with the Biebs since he directed “Never Say Never,” which killed it in theaters when it premiered in 2011. Unlike his first film, which mainly focused on Justin’s humble beginnings to his rise as a superstar, “Believe” will be centered around him growing up and transitioning into being an adult. Most importantly, it will be a film where he also addresses a lot of the things that has been written about him publicly in the last year. It’s Jon M. Chu’s goal for viewers to see the real Justin Bieber as opposed to what gets written about in the press.
At 34, Jon M. Chu has quite a resume as a director and entrepreneur. Aside from his successful projects with Justin Bieber, he is also the director behind “Step Up 2,” “Step Up 3D,” “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” and the upcoming “G.I. Joe 3” movie. Apart from being the creative person he is, he also has an entrepreneurial side to him as well. From working in his father’s popular Chinese restaurant in Northern California at a young age, Chu was able to rub shoulders with some of the most notable players in Silicon Valley. With entrepreneurial wisdom combined with his creative talent, Chu has produced some of the most badass content across both traditional and new media.
We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Jon M. Chu (and his adorable dog Monster!) for an exclusive interview where we discuss the launch of his new studio, the future of G.I. Joe, and what it’s like on the road with Justin Bieber filming “Believe,” which is hits theaters tomorrow on Christmas Day.
Back home in Silicon Valley, your father owned a Chinese restaurant that was popular in the tech industry and among entrepreneurs like the late Steve Jobs. How has growing up around success shaped you as a filmmaker and entrepreneur today?
“It was really just a place for engineers and it wasn’t flashy, it wasn’t crazy, even the way it is now is just very different. It was about people wanting to change the world with technology. I remember growing up and thinking that everyone had computers because our whole area had computers, not realizing until I got into college that this was a very very special place. Everyone thought they could change the world; if you had a great idea you could do it. People I was friends with in high school did things like that. So when you are a storyteller there and you realize, “Oh I like filmmaking,” and right at the time computers were getting powerful enough to help edit and do digital video, I was getting beta computers and beta software from engineers that would come into the restaurant and they knew that Chef Chu’s youngest son is a filmmaker, he likes to make movies, so they would give me all their beta stuff. And I had to learn all the software without instructions, I just learned. It was cool and once I went to USC, it was a perfect bridge between because that’s sort of when the digital revolution came to film and I was already a little ahead of the curve. Now in the business when entertainment and technology are converging, I sort of sit in a really amazing place of knowing a lot of the tech people I grew up with or the parents of people I know in the entertainment world when I made a name for myself, so it’s a cool time.”
Growing up around tech startups, do you see any parallels between succeeding in your current industry and the startup world?
“I think being a director is sort of like being an entrepreneur. No one’s going to give you that label, you can’t get hired for that job and suddenly be a director, you sort of are or you aren’t. You are either putting things together and making a movie and getting the resources to make that vision come to life or you are sitting on the side lines waiting for that moment. I think that the discipline I learned from watching the engineers in Silicon Valley, [they] loved the craft of what they were doing, loved making a specific product for a specific purpose, and for a purpose that they wanted themselves. I thought it was always something to grow up in, [it] was an amazing philosophy of life. It think when I’m making movies, I always think of it as what are we creating, why does the world need this thing, and how do we use the brilliant minds of people all around to create this, and everybody adds something that not one individual could have created themselves.”
Aside from being an artist, you are an entrepreneur. You just launched your production company Chu Studios, tell us about that.
“Yeah I’m excited. Growing up, you dream of having your own production studio to make the things that come to your head and bring it to the screen, and you can really create a production company anytime but I sort of waited off to do it right, to do it when I had enough experience in business where I could set up projects that meant something that were actually going to get made. It sort of seems like the right time right now. And because I have experience in both the big temple movies and also musical documentaries like the Justin Bieber movie and web stuff like “The LXD” and D-studio, I feel like I have a good range, and even live show stuff now because we just did the Justin Bieber show and we have some other shows we are putting together. We have a good range of stuff to do so me and my partner Hieu Ho have been setting things up around town and it’s been a fun journey for us and we’ll see. I think the next couple of years will be a good focus to start setting up a bunch of stuff that we actually get to make and put out to the world.”
You and Hieu Ho have done some successful projects together and from an outside perspective, it seems almost safe to say you’ve seen it all. Regarding Chu Studios, what challenges do you think you might have to tackle?
“Well we definitely haven’t seen it all for sure. We’ve seen a bit, we’ve cut our teeth, got a few bruises and thickened our skin a bit here and there, but I sure hope we haven’t seen it all. I think it’s a fun thing to go through with a friend, to go through a crazy town. The town is changing as well and we think this is our time, a time when we are thirty-something years old now and the adults are getting older and were becoming the adults, or maybe we are the adults and I’m just in denial, but now it’s our time to make an impact in the business and story telling and so that’s our goal, to continue to do those things and tell stories that will be timeless, not just popcorn movies- which I love by the way, I’m obviously a huge fan of them. But also things that will ultimately stick around and when people get older they’ll be like, “Oh that movie, I remember that movie, I remember that web series. I watched that every day of my life! Oh “The LXD,” that inspired me to do this or that.” To me that’s the ultimate gift because I was inspired myself by people like Micheal Jackson or Walt Disney or Steve Jobs and they were all very different in all different fields but they all made me believe in magic. They all made me believe in a hero and doing something good and that’s sort of what the purpose of the stuff that we want to make and we want to do that to others as well.”
You mentioned L.A. has is changing rapidly in the last couple of years. Does it seem like it’s becoming a lot more techy? A lot of startups are trying to make their mark here.
“Yeah, it’s very interesting. I think its a culture clash, growing up in the valley and being in L.A., there are very different types of people. I feel like sometimes in L.A. you have people that like the idea of being an entrepreneur or love the idea of being a filmmaker, but don’t actually like the work because really the jobs are not glamorous. You don’t really have a life, it is making that thing all day, all night, missing the parties, missing events going late night so you don’t get sleep, it’s all the stuff that in highschool like “oh those are the nerds, they don’t go to the dances, they don’t go to the things”, but because you are making stuff, you are busy working on your craft. I think that it’s important to recognize the people who came before you in the business, because they had to fight for it, they had to get there, obviously there are a lot of people who paved the path for myself in many different ways so that I could get into the business as an Asian American, as someone not in the business, have no connection, and to be able to sort of learn from that as well I think is big.”
Let’s talk about Justin Bieber and the “Believe” movie. Congratulations! You mentioned in multiple interviews that this movie is really about the concert, Justin as an artist, and growing up and seeing the more human side of him. What’s it been like watching him grow over the years into an adult?
“It’s been pretty amazing. I don’t have a younger sibling, I never had a younger brother or sister, so I don’t know that feeling of watching someone grow up, I don’t have a kid. So in a way it feels like a younger brother and it’s really crazy to watch someone go through that especially at his level where he realizes the power he has. He suddenly has the world at his fingertips, literally the world at his fingertips, he can do anything he wants, he can get away with whatever he wants, and all of a sudden the foundation of whether he’s going to use it for good or bad comes down to how he was raised or what he believes in. And so I’ve been able to be an observer to that. I’ve been close to him over the years from making the movies but I’m not necessarily such a close friend that I see him every day. Obviously he’s on the road a lot, he has those kinds of people around him, but its really cool to see a kid grow and take control of his empire, and the fact that we get cameras to be around him for this moment is unlike anything we’ve ever witnessed in a pop star’s history. The transition year, the most important year that defines who he is, we were there with cameras. I think it’s such a fascinating look and we don’t necessarily give the answers in this movie, we don’t say “He makes it!” We say he’s aware of all the roads that are ahead of him and in a way the movie is a letter to him saying, look at your life, look at all the people who love you and support you, forget all the news reports, those are people who are out to hate. But look at all the people who support you from Usher, to Scooter, to your parents, and they all want the best for you and the choices are now yours, in your hands. Even when I ask him the question about what’s going to make you survive all of this, to prevent you from becoming a train wreck, he defends that he won’t be a train wreck and the reasons why, so he’s going to have to answer to himself one day too, and I think that’s an important thing for him to see and recognize, that he has a purpose to survive this and we are rooting for him for that.”
You obviously have an incredible and candid relationship with Justin who you relate to as a brother. Can you tell us any funny or annoying stories of you and Justin?
“Its funny because Justin, I say hes a little brother, but he’s not little anymore for sure and hell probably hate that I call him a little brother which is awesome, but I earned that because he does do things that… He loves to tease people. He loves to play around, that’s why he’s charming. In the best possible way, some of my best friends are the ones who are the trouble makers because you want to be around those people. They are excited about life and they find all the rules to break and they’ll do it. I think that’s what makes him successful, that’s what makes him different. He’s not just going to fall into line. One of the things when we were shooting the movie that sort of exemplified all of this was when we were doing the big interview. I was interviewing him, I’m not Oprah or anything, I’m not the best interviewer, I’m just going to talk to him as a friend but I’m going to ask him the tough questions. I’m going to ask him about all these different paparazzi incidents, why he did this or that, I want him to be honest and real and he’s like, “Okay I’m ready,” and he goes and does his makeup and hes growing this little mustache and I’m like, “Okay so shave this mustache” and he’s like, “Yeah, no. I’m going to keep the mustache.”
“You are going to keep the mustache for the biggest interview of the movie and we are going to be this close to you in this closeup and you are going to have a mustache? People are going to laugh the whole time!” and he’s like, “Yeah, but I like it,” and hes like, “It just makes me feel older. It’s delusional, but it makes me feel older.” And it was at that point I think when I realized this could be either a disaster because the whole movie is going to have a mustache, “Justin Bieber the Mustache Movie,” or it’s going to be a great symbol of him as the rebellious kid. It’s a simple playful thing but that’s exactly how he feels and the fact that he recognizes himself that it’s delusional, it’s so relatable because I did that. Even now I can’t really grow a mustache. I just grow it as long as it can and it gets about that long, but I know that feeling and it’s so relatable- not like some pop star that thinks he’s too cool, it’s just a guy that’s having fun with it and is like one of your friends.”
Right, that makes him more human in a sense.
“Completely, and you don’t get to see a lot of that all the time of Justin when he’s doing the publicity rounds or doing those interviews. He’s very good at that stuff, he knows his stuff and he knows how he wants to present himself but this time we get to go deeper with him with the cameras, when there’s no crew around, just me and a camera and luckily he trusts me to be able to be that open with me, and in fact, with all his fans. He knows that his “Beliebers” are going to watch it and they are going see the truth and understand he doesn’t have to hide anything from them like that.”
So you and Justin have this really interesting dynamic. Are there moments when you guys teach each other something new? What have you learned from Justin?
“[It] has always been the case that he has taught me stuff. I don’t think he’s ever learned anything from me. Our relationship is that I’m there to observe, I’m there on the outside, I come in and for some reason he trusts me to be in those places, even when he didn’t know he could trust me. I think I’ve proved that he can trust me and that I see him as a human being, not as a product to get out there and market, so we’ve gained this nice little relationship. I watch him, how he deals with the crowd, with the paparazzi, with the pressure, with a staff that basically looks to him but also treats him like a little boy one day and then he has to earn their respect another as their boss in other ways. So every step of the way I watch him and I really don’t know how he does it, day in and day out performs and then has to deal with not having a private life. Then hes getting on a bus, going to the next city- how boring would that be to do the same thing over and over? But he actually genuinely loves it. He was built for it. It’s a part of who he is and he’s never going to stop. He writes music all the time and I hope people get that from the movie, that he is a craftsman, not just a musician whos’ in it for the fame. He’s done it when you watch all his old Youtube videos. You see it inside him and his soul. He has the rhythm and the beat and the music that he needs to let out of his body. It’s never stopped. Every day on the road he writes songs and nobody ever sees it. You never advertise that but I’ve seen it, so I know who that person is. So when I see reports on different websites and things about, “Oh hes evil,” he’s doing all these things, he’s breaking and cracking and doing all this stuff, he’s just a product- I know that’s absolutely not true. So it sort of makes me sad about pop culture because I love pop culture, I eat that stuff up, but it makes me sad that we can just believe these lies and never even try to see him as a human being. We should be rooting for his success, not rooting his demise. I think that’s irresponsible.”
Have you ever felt the intense pressure that Justin feels while you’ve travelled with him? What is it like living on the road for Justin and what have you learned from it all?
”The best thing that I get on the road with him is an escape path. I could leave anytime and I’m back to my normal life. I can walk down the street. He has this energy force field around him, I don’t know what or how, it’s like this energy wherever he goes and things are just drawn to him. It’s like Magneto, and it can get really dangerous or it can be really powerful if directed in the right way. I get to leave and I feel that when I’m there it starts to drive me crazy. If I was in that position, I would be crazy for sure, but like I said, he’s sort of built for it. He knows how to deal with it. Sometimes as he grows older, he tries to check his boundaries a little bit, how much he can push it, but it’s a really hard life. In terms if what lessons he’s taught me, that’s one of the biggest ones. He taught me how to breathe and focus, how to focus on the people around you that are actually emotionally engaged with you, with his fans. He can be in paparazzi, not paying attention and then he’ll see a fan and his eyes go right to them and he’ll look them right in the eyes. There’s a reason why the Beliebers have been with him for so many years. There’s a reason why thousands of people show up to his premier because they know he’s genuine about that relationship rather than an icon, a pop star on the stage that you can’t touch. He’s the first one that is the most touchable, that’s texting you everyday on your tweets, that is your friend and has inside jokes that nobody else in the world gets. I think that’s the power of the Biebs and I love being around that and seeing how he maneuvers and molds like a sculpture this energy around him. I don’t think I could be ever capable of that.”
Do you ever tell Justin to slow down or moderate? What can you tell us about his plans?
“It’s not really my place. I don’t have that kind of relationship where I give him career advice. I kind of look at him and I’m like, “I should be working harder. I should be working faster. Dang! I’m like fourteen years behind.” But no, he has his own timeline. I think he’s really wise; he’s an old soul and he knew this way before. He knew this was going to happen, there was no doubt. He’s not fearful it’s going away because he always thought he was going to be here. His plans are big and he likes big plans.”
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