‘G.I. Joe: Retaliation’ director on nimble ninjas, pseudo-reboots, and his He-Man movie

gi-joe-retaliation-image04G.I. Joe: Retaliation opened earlier this week, bringing America’s favorite team of toy soldiers back to the big screen for another live-action adventure. A sequel to 2009’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of the Cobra – which fell short of expectations at the box office and failed to impress critics – Retaliation serves as a reboot of sorts for the franchise, introducing a new cast of characters and a very different dynamic for the G.I. Joe team. Check out our review for more details.

Jon_M._Chu_2013The second live-action G.I. Joe movie also has a new director in Jon Chu, who surprised a lot of people when he made the leap from dance and music-centric projects like the Step Up franchise and the Justin Bieber: Never Say Never documentary, to the action-filled world of G.I. Joe.

With early reviews indicating that Retaliation may indeed be just what the G.I. Joe franchise needed, Digital Trends spoke to Chu about the new movie, team-building in the G.I. Joe universe, thinking in 3-D, and the possibility of yet another sequel. We also got an update on the Grayskull movie he’s directing, which aims to bring He-Man and the Masters of the Universe back to the big screen.

When you join a project like Retaliation, with all of the background there and the baggage from The Rise of Cobra, what’s your first step? How to decide what to do differently?

I couldn’t think about how to reinvent a franchise. I just had to go back to how G.I. Joe survived this long, through all of the different iterations. I think it’s part of the tradition of G.I. Joe, that everyone has their own interpretation – from the 12-inch, original action figures, to the cartoon, to the comic book, and on through the other toys. I had to go back to my 10-year-old self and ask, “Why did I love it?”

It was so much fun to be able to do that, though. G.I. Joe was a mash-up before mash-ups were popular. There were ninjas and military guys in there, and there was a sense of humor to it, and sci-fi, too. It was part Dr. Strangelove, part Star Wars. We tried to keep that insanity embedded into our G.I. Joe, and obviously when you cast people like Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis you’re halfway there in the tone, too. I was very, very lucky to have some pieces in there already that set things up according to what we needed to do.

This is such a different sort of project from what we’re used to seeing you do. What prompted such a major shift in genres for you?

This is what I loved growing up. It’s why I love movies. I was never a dancer or a choreographer, so jumping into the dance movies, I just took the things I loved about movies and tried to see what I could do with them. I learned a lot about dancing and immersed myself in that world to the point where people thought I was a choreographer, and it was fun to be in that world and tell the fairytales I could tell there. And then to go into the world of Justin Bieber, having never done a documentary and not knowing who he was, I took what I knew about storytelling and applied it to that project.

gijoe2_image2Jumping into G.I. Joe actually felt the most natural, because I was already a G.I. Joe fan. In fact, I’m convinced that’s why I fell in love with storytelling. I would have week-long adventures playing with G.I. Joe toys when I was a kid. I would go to school and come back and continue those adventures, and make up all sorts of crazy stories. So to have Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and Lady Jaye in front of me with a giant HISS Tank, it felt incredible. As crazy as it sounds, it felt like this was 20 years in the making.

There were some big changes to the dynamic of the team and the tone of their adventures in this movie. Where did all of that come from?

Well, there was a script before I came on, and the script set up a lot of those things. But there was no Joe Colton or a few other things like that until I after I came on — stuff like making Roadblock the main guy and passing the torch in this movie. It was always a challenge for us to decide how much to hang onto from the last movie. We always knew we wanted it to be a sequel. So many people went and saw The Rise of Cobra that we couldn’t just abandon it. At the same time, that movie wasn’t my G.I. Joe from when I grew up, so I wanted to get those characters back and instill that. It was a challenge. We definitely had to shuffle the pieces around a lot to make sure everything was in the right place and figure out how we were going to communicate it. We wanted people who had no idea about G.I. Joe to come in and watch this movie and say they wanted to see more of these characters.

GIJoe_RetaliationWe also had to push these stories forward and connect every single G.I. Joe idea into one. The guys who like the original 12-inch action figures didn’t understand anything about ninjas or guys in silver masks, so how do we connect that? Tone way is to have the voice of that guy, Joe Colton, come in and say, “I don’t understand this stuff. We had him in there to show that it isn’t the hovercrafts and the laser guns, it’s what you have inside and what you stand for.

One of the most amazing set pieces in the movie is a mountainside chase sequence with Snake Eyes and Jinx fleeing a bunch of ninjas. It’s the one everyone is talking about already, so how did you film it?

That was months and months of work. It wasn’t something we went and shot in a week and then came back and edited. It was a culmination of live-action stuff, green-screen stuff, and on-set stuff. We built the ziplines in Vancouver and had stunt guys gliding along a thousand feet in the air in skintight ninja outfits. They were freezing cold and couldn’t breathe because the atmosphere was too thin for them up there. It was very difficult. There’d even be a storm every now and then, and we’d have to camp out for the night.


We also had a giant green screen – the biggest one I’ve ever seen. And we had these set pieces of the rocks that we had to latch onto and do certain things. Then you had [effects studio] Industrial Light & Magic there to connect all the pieces together. It was more collaborative than anything I’ve done in my life. And it was nine minutes without any dialogue. We had no idea if it was going to be entertaining enough to retain those nine minutes until we saw it. It was a lot of trust.

In fact, we set all of it up by having toys in a room with couches and chairs set up with lamps and everything,. I’d show a pre-vis scene how I wanted characters to jump onto one ledge and launch off another. The stunt guys and everyone else would say, “Okay, we can do that practical, and we’ll have to set that one up another way,” and so on.

How did the 3-D element factor into production for you? You’re no stranger to 3-D shooting, but did Retaliation teach you anything new?

Cobra_CommanderDimensionalizing is a whole other part of my brain. Shooting two 3-D movies was a great experience, because I learned what depth means in a scene. You’re making your depth choices on the fly, while you’re shooting, so you have your actor dictating some of that because it depends on what they do and how they move and how the camera moves. So you’re conscious of what depth does to the feeling of a line or a scene or a relationship that changes in a scene. When you dimensionalize, though, you don’t make that decision until much, much later — so you can make depth decisions based on your edit and how scenes piece together. That’s a very interesting control that I didn’t experience before working with 3D. But because I’ve done this before, I can communicate to the artists what I want from a particular scene.

We were lucky to be subconsciously using depth in the story beforehand, though. If we didn’t have a hallway scene with Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow in which depth plays a piece of it, or the scene in the Himalayas, or the prison escape with the long hallway, I think we wouldn’t have made the 3-D choice. But because those scenes were already there, we were able to do so.

Any thoughts about where the franchise could go next? Would you be interested in staying onboard for another film if all goes well with this one?

GI Joe Retaliation

I feel so honored to be a part of the G.I. Joe tradition. Just to be included in that world and be creative in it is so amazing and freeing, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget. And if the fans love it and Hasbro is willing and Paramount is willing, I would be more than honored to continue what we set up. I think we set up a lot of stuff. We had a lot of characters to serve in Retaliation, so we couldn’t do everything we wanted to do necessarily. We left little bread crumbs along the way that we could pick up and roll with later. There are a lot of things we could do.

Now that you’ve done G.I. Joe, it makes sense that you’re moving on to He-Man. Where are things at with the Grayskull movie you’re attached to direct?

We’re working on Masters of the Universe right now. The script is awesome. I love it. It’s a really interesting approach – a really character-based approach, but still fun. But we’re still very early in the stages of design and things like that. It’s an important stage right now and the most fun. We get to make a lot of mistakes and throw everything against the wall so we can see what we shouldn’t do and know what we need to have. We haven’t even started casting yet or talking about how we can make this movie, so we’re in that beginning phase right now of, “Okay, this can be a great movie.” We’re trying to find that tone so we know how to proceed and actually go make the movie.

What sort of tone are you envisioning for the movie? Will it tend to be more fantastic and cartoon-like, or are you going for the grim-and-gritty spin on He-Man?

It definitely goes fantastic, because we’re in a lush, thick world — but at the same time, there is a humanity to it. You want these characters to feel like they have flaws, and sometimes He-Man can be very theatrical and over-the-top in that way, and while we have some over-the-top stuff, He-Man himself and some of the other characters – like Man-at-Arms – they come from a very real place. We’re looking at what it means to become a hero when you don’t quite know how to yet. Those are some interesting themes we’re playing with in it. So yes, we go crazy, but at the same time we have some very human moments and stories that we serve throughout the film.

When do you think it will go into production? Are there any dates you’re counting down to with this one?

No, not right now – because we’re in the early stages. We don’t have a start date, and you never know in this business what might be next. When it’s ready and when it’s right, that’s when I’ll know if it’s ready to go.

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