From director Jon M. Chu, Jem and the Holograms is the origin story of small-town girl Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) who is catapulted from underground video sensation to the global superstar Jem, and she and her band of sisters begin a journey that they’ll never forget. With the same underlying messages of female empowerment, honesty and integrity that made the ’80s animated series so beloved, the cool fashion and great music are also part of the package with these pop-culture icons.
Collider met up with filmmaker Jon M. Chu at The Redbury Hollywood for this exclusive interview about why he felt so deeply connected to Jem, getting such a huge variety of fan video submissions, cutting the film down to what it is now, deleted scenes, why he likes the process of friends and family and test screenings, and whether he’d want to do a sequel. He also talked about how Now You See Me 2 is different from the first film, the biggest challenges this time around, and screening it for friends and family.
Collider: This is a project you’ve wanted to get made for many years now. What was it that kept you connected to it?
JON M. CHU: When I pitched it 11 years ago, I was told no, and that motivates you a little bit. But the cartoon was a part of my growing up, with this weird, fearless storytelling. People keep asking me, “What is it about Jem?,” and I can’t quite put my finger on it. There wasn’t a specific moment, other than that it showed you could tell stories in weird, wild ways, and it was okay. That was a fun element. Clearly, whoever made it – Christy Marx and her team – didn’t have that fear in them, and I thought that was really cool. So, when I started to re-envision it, 30 years later, it was a fun challenge. It didn’t seem like it could work, but we had initial conversations about identity and how we were going to do it, and I just started going through things online and realizing that’s the secret identity. Everyone deals with that, and that made it a real movie to me. It was a story that we had to tell. And after using videos and interviews to tell the story of Justin Bieber’s life and recontextualize the songs in Never Say Never, I always thought that would be a fun way to tell a story about someone growing up. This property fit the way to tell that kind of story, and that got me really excited. I was like, “This is very different from what people would expect from a Jem and the Holograms movie, but I think it’s also exactly in line with what a Jem and the Holograms movie would be.”
Once you asked for video submissions from Jem fans, did you get more than you ever could have imagined you would?
CHU: We got a lot! We got more of a variety than I thought we would. I’ve asked people for videos for Step Up movies, and I’ve asked for Bieber. We could be very specific and they would deliver in spades, in the most creative ways. We know that the Jem community is really creative, so we knew they would submit stuff, but the range of stuff they submitted was really amazing. There were people that were really genuine and real about it. Some of the videos at the end are talking about the ‘80s Jem and how it inspired them, and it works in our movie for both the people who know Jem from back then and for the people who don’t know Jem and are just watching the movie. I love that duality. To me, that’s exactly what our movie is. It’s a love letter to the old show for people who know, and for people who don’t know, it works as a movie. Our biggest challenge was always, how do you do both? It’s a crazy concept. I think the biggest satisfaction, coming out of making this movie, was that we could do that and that all families could take their kids.
How challenging was it to figure out where and how to weave the video submissions in and have them feel balanced with the story you’re telling?
CHU: That was always a challenge, up to the mix. We knew that was going to be a challenge when we wrote stuff into the script. We had to write the concept for what would happen in a scene, and then see what we would get. We had to trust the process and trust our instincts that when we started cutting it in, it would either work or not work at all, or we would have to find another way for it to work, and that’s what we did. We would find different performances from people on the internet, try it in there and see if it worked, and if it didn’t, we dumped it. It was never really planned out exactly as it ended up. There are only two or three moments like that. And then, when we got our first cut, we could see where to put more. We put very little in our first cut because we weren’t sure. The only one we had put in was the drum battle sequence, and we got such a big reaction to that, that we knew it had to be a part of the movie because it made it so unique. In the same way that music videos were so unique to that cartoon, this could be that translation to now. We knew that we had to be as creative with this movie as the original was, at that time, especially because we’ve seen a rise to fame story. That story has been told. She even says it in the movie. But, how it’s been told and the generation that it’s told in is very different now.
How long was your first cut of the film?
CHU: Usually, our first cut is very long, and then it gets way too short. It’s like an accordion. Our first cut was long. We had to serve a lot of things in this movie. We had to not only ground it with a girl that we meet, so that we can relate to her, but then we had to establish why she wears pink and calls herself Jem, and then we had to establish this robot that comes to life, and then we had to establish what happens when she becomes famous, and then we had to establish this new guy in her life and how she deals with that, and then we had to establish what this journey was to find the pieces of this robot, and then we had to get to how her band comes out of this craziness. There was a lot of balancing that we had to do, but when it came down to it, how we got to streamline our movie was that it’s really just a coming of age story of this girl, told through her relationship with her sisters, her relationship with the public, and her relationship with her past. It all just says, “Appreciate what you have right in front of you.” Your past and your future come down to who you are, at that moment. Ultimately, Jem isn’t for her to define, in the same way that Jem isn’t for us, as filmmakers, to define. Jem is who you are and what you make of your Jem. That was important for us to get across.
Are there a lot of deleted scenes?
CHU: A lot! (Producer) Scooter Braun was in one that got deleted. We had Ariana Grande do a cameo, but we deleted that part, only because it pops out of the world of the movie a bit, even though I would have loved to have that because it’s fun to see a cameo. We had to make some tough choices. There are some scenes that we combined because we had to get into the story faster. It used to be a slower burn. But ultimately, we had to get her to L.A. and started on her journey faster while still letting you know who they were before they ever left. That’s an important part of not just this movie, but of future movies, if we get the opportunity. I always saw this as a bigger off of just one movie. That’s why we have a kicker at the end. The tone shifts, and I think that’s what’s really fun about this world that we’re creating.
Would you personally like to direct more Jem movies, or would you like to see what someone else does with it?
CHU: Well, it’s up to the audience, if we get a chance to do another one. But for me, I wouldn’t have gone from G.I. Joe to Jem and the Holograms, if I didn’t have a bigger vision for what this could be. And I knew we had to start with step one and build the blocks, especially with a storyline that’s so complicated. Making the live-action version of that, you have to have the right foundation. I had to restrain myself and say, “Let’s just build the foundation first.” I wish we had initially presented that to the fans, a little bit more, and said, “This is our Batman Begins to Batman,” so they understood that and the right expectations for what we’re doing. But when they see the movie, they’ll see what our actual plan is.
Do you like the process of friends and family screenings and test screenings?
CHU: Absolutely! It doesn’t dictate what we do, but sometimes you get too close to a project. We make these movies for people, so I want to see how they’re taking the information. Sometimes I misfire on giving too much information or not giving enough information. You’re never going to satisfy everybody, but I like to know the range we’re in. It’s a really important part of my process, as I go through it. And each movie is different because each audience is different. You’re not dictated by what they tell you to do. You’re more dictated by seeing symptoms of things you didn’t intend, and how you can fix those symptoms.
Did that process affect this movie in any specific way?
CHU: When we first had our cut with very little YouTube stuff, I knew we were going to put more in it, but I wanted to get a sense of whether the movie was working by itself, without that stuff. And it was, but it needed that extra element to get into their heads a bit. As we started to cut it down a little bit more, and it was probably 10 minutes longer than it is now, and the audience that we showed helped hone in where we needed to cut out the fat. There were great scenes that we cut out, but there’s a certain point where you’ve gotta make it consumable.
Have you started the test screening process yet for Now You See Me 2?
CHU: We haven’t gotten to previewing yet, but I’m really excited about that movie. The cast is so amazing, and we have some really fun tricks. I just showed it to some family and friends, the other day. Because it’s a magic trick in itself, I wanted them to see it cold. Hopefully, they tell me the truth about what they felt because it was such a great reaction. I’m really excited to show it to an audience.
That first movie was so cool because it was so slick and the tricks were amazing, but now there’s a certain level of expectation for the sequel. Did that feel like a big challenge for you?
CHU: Going into the Step Up movies was the same thing. Going into the Bieber movie, all of his fans were very skeptical. Same with going into the G.I. Joe movie and Jem. That’s par for the course. But, what I love about that challenge is that you get to really define who you are and what you bring to the table when there is already something in place because any changes are yours and your vision. You also get to cherry pick the best parts of the previous stuff and elevate it in another way, in your own thing. So, I don’t usually get held back by those things. That pushes me harder. There’s no point in making the movie and spending a year and a half to two years of your life on something, if it’s not going to define something about you. When you’re working with big actors like Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo and Woody Harrelson, they also put the pressure on you because it’s their career. But they’re so great, and I’m really proud of what we’ve built there.
How does the sequel feel different from the first film?
CHU: You get to be with the Horsemen a lot more. In the other movie, their presentation was for the audience, so you didn’t get to see what they were doing behind the scenes. For this one, you’re with them. The other challenge is that you want to make sure they’re doing actual magic. You don’t want to use so many special effects that it kills the magic. So, we do make a big effort to show real physical magic and don’t cut away, and we try to show you some of the theories of magic. They use the magic to pull off what they need to pull off. And really, magicians are storytellers, so in a lot of ways, we use the theories we use in movies to help them figure out things and uncover things.
And you shot Jem and Now You See Me 2 back to back, right?
CHU: Yeah, I finished shooting Jem about five weeks before leaving for London to shoot Now You See Me. I had my first cut of Jem, by the time I left for London. Luckily, we scored really big with the audience, so we put a pin in it while I went to shoot the other movie. I shut down editing and we shot for eight months, and then I came back and we finished. It’s been a challenge. I don’t recommend doing two movies at the same time, but they’re so different. The end of the world in one movie is a victory on the other. It balances out your emotions. The 13-year-old girl side of me [the loves Jem] and the 35-year-old male side of me that loves magic were very balanced. It was fun. I’d totally do it again, but you get your scars and your wrinkles from it, for sure.
Do you know what you’re going to do next, or are you going to take a break?
CHU: I love making movies. I don’t love sitting around. We just did the Virgin America safety video last year, and we’re doing commercials. That’s really fun. I never want to stop making stuff. To me, that is my vacation. I don’t feel like I need to be on an island to be enjoying myself and relaxing. Since I was in third grade, I’ve always been making stuff. I can’t wait to figure out what that next thing is, but I’ve cleared my slate to pick what that may be. It would be fun to continue with the Jem saga. It would be fun to continue the Now You See Me saga. And there’s a lot of other things I’ve been getting. I wait until the last second before I decide. I love finding the thing that surprises me, that other people would be like, “Why would you do that movie right now?” Usually, that’s my sign to go do that movie. It depends on what I’m compelled to say, at that exact moment.
Jem and the Holograms is now playing in theaters.