Jon Chu Talks Justin Bieber: Never Say Never

The director behind this 3D biopic takes us inside the life of today's hottest teen star, in theaters this Friday

Coming to theaters everywhere this Friday is the motion picture event Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, a 3D biopic that interweaves Justin Bieber's sold out Madison Square Garden performance with never-before-seen home videos and all-new scenes shot exclusively for the movie. The story unfolds with Justin's small town upbringing in Ontario, and takes us through his life busking on the streets for change, and to his eventual rise as one of today's leading forces in entertainment.

Director Jon Chu, who most recently wowed audiences with the Walt Disney dance epic Step Up 3D, brings his camera directly into Justin Bieber's world, offering an intimate look at the performer as his dreams start to come true all around him. We recently caught up with Jon Chu to chat about his latest project, and we learned quite a bit about Justin Bieber, creating choreography specifically intended for 3D, and what it was like for the director to take on such a high profile project in the music world.

Here is our conversation:

What can Justin Bieber fans expect from the finished cut of this film? I haven't gotten to see it yet...

Jon Chu: Oh, yes! I can't wait for you to see it. The movie is for fans and non-fans. Whether you've heard the name Justin Bieber, or you have never heard of him, we tried to take a perspective where we are going to guide you through this phenomenon. We show you where and how he got started, and how this crazy thing happened. Its more of an anthological study in the music of our times more than it is about Justin Bieber's life. You are going to get intimate moments of him as a kid, as though you were there with him. You will get moments of him with his mom. And you are going to get crazy awesome moments in 3D during the concert. It will be as though you were in the front row.

It's funny that you say, "those who don't know him." Who doesn't know Justin Bieber at this moment in time? I'm a forty-year-old man, and I almost know too much about Justin Bieber.

Jon Chu: Sure. I was even surprised that my mom knew who he was. If you are on Ellen, my mom knows who you are.

I've never sought out Justin Bieber's music on my own, but I have heard the record quite a few times. I know Baby, Baby, Baby by heart at this point...

Jon Chu: Nice! You will get a new context for that song in our movie. I didn't know a lot about Justin Bieber coming into this. I have been figuring out his story. I had to do a lot of detective work going through all of this old footage. We had hours and hours of footage. Those songs would pop into my head, and I saw a way to fit them into this story. We really integrate the music into the story. It's almost like Chicago, how we inner-cut between the story and the song. We sort of repurpose that particular song back into his life where it has new context.

It's interesting listing to people talk about Justin Bieber. I grew up when bands like New Kids on the Block, and then N'Sync and the Backstreet Boys, were very popular. There has always been this sect of haters who do not like the music no matter what. Even if they have never heard it. They just dislike it on principle. But with Justin, I am starting to see those same folks, who would normally hate something like this, come to Justin's defense. We're seeing a weird reversal of that hate. How has that aspect of this whole thing been for you to experience first hand?

Jon Chu: That is definitely the perspective of the movie. I remember coming in and seeing some of this stuff firsthand, before the movie got started. In emails. This was before Justin Bieber was Justin Bieber. This was 2007. Which wasn't that long ago. I got that video of Justin covering Chris Brown. I was like, "Damn, this kid is covering it better than Chris Brown originally sang it." After that, I heard about him here or there. I then realized years later that this is Justin Bieber. This is that kid! Once you take in that perspective of his old videos, you realize that one does not get hundreds of millions of hits for being a product. You don't get hundreds of millions of hits for being nothing. This is way before he had his actual music videos. He had these Youtube videos of just him and the camera, singing. That is the power of what Justin Bieber is. He, alone, is extremely charming. And he has an amazing talent. I think that is what we try to show in this movie. When you come into this, you may be thinking it's a concert film. This is not a concert film at all. This is the story of how he got here.

I think a lot of people's perceptions changed about him once he appeared on SNL with Tina Fey. Were you able to bring Justin's acting ad comedic chops into Never Say Never?

Jon Chu: Oh, yeah. We have some fun with that. You cannot help but be infected by his mischievous outlook on life. He is always trying to get away with stuff. You tell him no, and he will find a way to do it. You put a rule down, and he will prank you in some way. He called my ex-girlfriend. He's hacked my Twitter account. He has done a lot of things that he can get away with , because he then puts on that smile. You are like, "Oh, crap." We had a good time getting to know each other. He lives in a fun world. He enjoys what he does. He is not one of those kids that got forced into this. This is all his being. He is very ambitious. And he has a good time doing it.

When the clip of Justin playing the drums came out, a lot of naysayers suddenly realized that this kid does, in fact, have a lot of musical talent. There was even some speculation that if his popularity as a singer peters out, he could always join a rock band and be very successful in that line of work. He could be the next frontman drummer, like Tommy Lee...

Jon Chu: He could. That is very possible. He does love it. But he also loves singing. His first phase into music was drumming, and playing the piano. But then he discovered his voice. When he started busking on the streets, his friends didn't know he could sing. They knew he could play instruments, but they didn't know he could sing. It was this evolution of trying new things.

Everytime I see him performing on a new show, The Today Show, or SNL, he eventually jumps on that drum kit...

Jon Chu: Yeah. He kills it. On Late Show with David Letterman, he did a whole show with Paul Shaffer.

Making the statement that you didn't know much about Justin Bieber before making this film begs the question, how did you get involved in this? And why did you want to fully immerse yourself in the life of someone you didn't know, or weren't really a fan of just yet?

Jon Chu: I love technology. I have done 3D movies. I have done some web stuff. I like the new way of storytelling. You can continue to tell the story on Twitter. It doesn't just begin and end in the movie theater now. There are characters everywhere, and the story evolves and moves into everything. Justin Bieber is the epitome of that. He personifies that idea. He is bringing his story through everything he does. Through his music, through his Youtube channel, through his Twitter. I find that fascinating, even without knowing this kid's backstory. This is just a way to tell a story on another level. We are using technology to tell a story that wouldn't have been possible five years ago, because we didn't have this technology. That all fascinated me. Then I started to dig into the facts behind how he got where he is today. That really got me. The idea that this is a boy from Stratford, Ontario, where they are known for their William Shakespeare festival, and he is into soul music. He is singing on the street to pay for a vacation, for him and his mom. The people at home chose him. Not because he was on American Idol. Not for a Disney show. Not for any of those things. But because these kids at home saw him performing on this cheap little web camera. They wanted this kid to be their hero. And they put him where he is. They put him there. I thought that was a really interesting idea. It goes beyond Justin Bieber. It's a story for this generation, and this is the way it's being told. I thought that was really exciting. It is a modern fairytale.

You are bringing in a lot of the footage that his mom and dad shot over the years. His entire life has been captured on video since he was a baby. Did you take that old video and transfer it to 3D? Or is this a movie where we are going to be constantly taking off and putting on our plastic purple glasses?

Jon Chu: (Laughs) We do come in and out of the 3D. But we take that old stuff, and we overlay...We didn't want to touch that original footage. We wanted people to be able to see it the way it was shot. Sometimes we will have labels that come in and out. The area around it is 3D, but the actual images themselves are not dimensionalized. We didn't want to put the audience through that. I wanted it to be pure, as though you put that videocassette into your VHS machine at home and watched it.

Did you look at some of the recent Disney 3D concert movies like Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers to get an idea about what you did and didn't want to do with this particular concert film?

Jon Chu: I love those other movies. I think they are fine. But we really didn't want to make a traditional concert movie. I was like, "I don't do concert movies. I don't like concert movies." Concert movies, to me, feel like they are just for the fans. I don't think that's what a movie is made to do. This is not a concert movie. We wanted to tell a real story about how Justin Bieber got here. We used his music to enhance certain ideas. I love the idea of a musical documentary. That was a new way of thinking about how a documentary can be used. With Justin Bieber, it fit perfectly. With 3D, you could have those great, grand 3D moments of being at Madison Square Garden. You get to see your pop hero from the front row, and there are things flying at you. It comes right to you. Then you cut straight to a nasty, scrappy Hi-8 tape of him playing a drum. He is playing the bongos when he is five years old. That juxtaposition was helping our story a lot. It showed us how to make this emotional jump to: Wow! Can you believe what has happened to this kid? It took that technology to tell this part of the story.

When that Jonas Brothers 3D movie came out, it was took to task for having overtly adult and sexual themes and metaphors. Even maybe accidentally, like the scene where they are shooting foam onto the heads of this mostly pre-teen female audience. Did you consider some of those concerns when crafting some of the 3D elements for this? Especially since it is G rated?

Jon Chu: (Laughs) I honestly didn't think about that. We just wanted to tell what was really happening. I don't know if there is anything that slipped by me. We'll find out soon enough. But there wasn't anything that might be considered controversial. I don't think you'll be questioning anything.

You did Step Up 3D, and now you are going into this. You are on the cusp of this 3D movement, and you are doing stuff that is a little different from the CGI cartoons and the action movies. How do you feel you are pushing this technology forward with Never Say Never, and how did you evolve the 3D choreography from Step Up 3D to this?

Jon Chu: I love 3D. It's obviously not for every movie. It's not going to be just 3D movies in the future. I do think there is a place for 3D movies. I think it's a new paint color in the palate for filmmakers in the future. We are at the very beginning of what you can do with this. I can't wait to see what some of the masters do with it. I can't wait to see what Martin Scorsese does with it. I can't wait to see what Sylvester Stallone does with it. Because I think there is a lot of grammar to be done with it. I have played around and experimented with it a lot. I am still learning. We are still in the learning process of 3D development. Learning where to feel something in 3D. We did this test where it is raining, and there is a couple inside the car. They are arguing. In 2D, you can't see them because the rain is so heavy. In 3D, you can suddenly make them out through the rain. And it is the most intimate, beautiful scene. Its those little shifts that 3D has the ability to change. In the Justin Bieber movie, you have the juxtaposition of 3D craziness. Then suddenly, you are in his world, back through the mom's perspective. You are watching it through this little viewfinder, and it has an emotional impact. Those things, I am still playing with. We love to find how those things fit in and work. How the dimension changes how you feel about an image. We are also looking at how sound affects 3D, and how the 3D affects sound when you are watching a movie with it. Movement is in everything, whether it is a movement scene or an acting scene. I think we are just utilizing it more when it comes to dance.

You directed Step Up 2 and Step Up 3, are you going to continue directing those sequels in the future? Are you coming back for Step Up 4?

Jon Chu: I am not actually directing part four. But I am executive producing number four with Wade Robson directing. We had such a huge demand on that. I think Step Up 3Dhas made over one hundred and sixty-five million dollars worldwide. So they want another one. To have a new filmmaker like Wade Robson come in will make it very fun and interesting. I can't wait to see what he is going to do.

I have always been a fan of dance movies. Back in the day you had Breakin' and Crush Groove. Is there any chance you'll bring back some of those guys, like Lucinda Dickey, or Adolofo Quinones and Michael Chambers? When are you going to pit Boogaloo Shrimp against some of these new guys? I want that dance off in a film...

Jon Chu: I would love to do that. We were trying to get Poppin' Pete to be in the last one. We wanted Mr. Wiggles. Scheduling didn't make it possible. But I am sure it will happen. We are in a weird time when the people who originated a lot of these styles are still around, and they can still do it. I want to see that happen. I think it would be very awesome.

A lot of these guys don't look a day older than they did back in the 80s. It's the drug free lifestyle most of them lead. They are all healthy. I would love to see one massive dance off between the young guys and the old guys. The genre is owed that.

Jon Chu: That would be awesome! We are doing this thing online called The League of Extraordinary Dancers. They are superheroes that dance. We just introduced our LXD elders. They are the old school originals. We have some B-Boys. We have some poppers in there that are original dancers. It's on the Internet. If you go to Youtube and type in LXD, you will see the trailer. And if you go on HULU, you'll see entire episodes. Its pretty cool stuff.