‘Now You See Me 2′ Director Jon Chu on Spearheading the Franchise, ‘In the Heights’ Adaptation
Now You See Me 2 is now available on Blu-ray/DVD, and audiences can check out behind-the-scenes featurettes that look at the creation of the magic in the film and learn about how the cast and crew developed and mastered the film’s mind-bending magic tricks. In the sequel, the Four Horseman (played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco and Lizzy Caplan) find themselves in need of clearing their own names by revealing the mastermind behind it all, which means that they must perform one last unprecedented, awe-inspiring stunt.
To promote the release of the film on Blu-ray/DVD, filmmaker Jon M. Chu sat down with Collider at the Magic Castle (where we got to partake in a private magic show and elegant dinner) where he talked about how exciting it’s been to see the movie cross cultural boundaries, his favorite magic sequence and the challenge in pulling it off, being the new guy among this cast, and where he’s at with Now You See Me 3. He also talked about developing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s stage musical In The Heights as a feature film, adapting Crazy Rich Asians from book to screen, delving into television, and how he was able to not let the box office for Jem and the Holograms get him down.
Collider: Congratulations for breaking records with this film, in China and South Korea! As a filmmaker, what’s it like to make a movie that crosses cultural boundaries, in that way?
JON M. CHU: It’s hard to predict those things. I make movies that I enjoy making and tell stories that I want to see, so it’s hard. You never reverse engineer those things and go, “What would appeal to this or that?” Even if I tried, I don’t know. I’m an all-American kid. So, it’s nice to see it when it hits. In fact, in a weird way, I was concerned about China. I was like, “I don’t know. It’s a different movie than the first one.” The first movie did really well in China, but we have different types of magic. We don’t have big shows, like the first one. Although we do big stuff, we don’t have shows, so I wasn’t sure how it was going to translate. So, it was really refreshing and a relief to see that they got it. It was special with China. My parents come from China, and they went to the Beijing premiere with me. It was the first time I’d been to China with them. I’ve gone by myself and they go a lot, but to go together was really special.
What was your favorite magic sequence to pull off and they you were the most proud of?
CHU: The card heist sequence when they get the chip and it’s a card. We knew it was going to be a challenging thing to pull off, and we wanted to do it as practical as possible, so all the actors had to work really hard to do that and learn how to palm. It’s a long scene with intricate little things. It’s not fun to shoot that. It’s very meticulous. We shot it for a week and a half or two weeks, and you’re not moving because you’re focused on these little moments, but everyone came together. Everyone knew the potential of what we could do in the scene, and the actors worked their butts off. The camera department worked their butts off to figure out how we could pull it off. It wasn’t just about doing pre-vis and then shooting it. It was about making it better and having each department elevate it. And it all came together, which was a relief. I was like, “Do people even care about cards?” We’re not moving in a lot of different spaces, so we’re doing an action scene in a six-foot diameter, or whatever it may be. It was a scary endeavor, but I loved it when we showed the audience, for the first time, and you could feel them [hold their breath] when we started that sequence. That’s priceless.
With a movie like this, when you put out a Blu-ray/DVD, everyone wants to know behind-the-scenes secrets of how you pulled everything off. Are you excited to reveal some of that, or do you prefer not to give away the movie magic?
CHU: I’m excited because sometimes people can say, “Oh, that’s just CG.” We did a lot more real practical stuff than people are giving us credit for, and I would love for them to see how the actors are doing it, on an iPhone camera in rehearsals. I’m excited for people to see that the beheading was a real contraption. We had to practice and she had to get it down. It was not a double doing it. I think people will get a kick out of it.
What was it like to come onto a film like this, where you didn’t hire the main cast yourself and you were the new guy on set?
CHU: Yeah, that’s true. Me, Daniel [Radcliffe] and Lizzy [Caplan] definitely bonded over that idea that we were the new people. Honestly, I could not have asked for a better cast to welcome us. It never felt like we were outsiders, at any moment of the whole thing. I was worried that there would be maybe one or two people who would make me feel like that, but there were zero egos. Everyone was there to make a fun, great movie. I think they all genuinely love each other. Lizzy lit up that group. They became so close, so quickly. Sometimes it felt like summer camp and I had to control the campers because they were just having so much fun. There were magicians on set, teaching them new things. And I think you feel that energy when you watch the movie. So, I encouraged it, even though sometimes it was very hard to shoot the scene because everyone was distracted. I think that energy is the appeal of the whole movie.
You have a great cast with no weak links, but you also have a couple of movie icons, with Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.
CHU: Half of the time, the other actors wanted to talk with Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, just to hear stories. That was the best thing. We’d be out in the middle of the night, and it was freezing cold in London with long days, and Michael Caine would be in the corner and the whole cast was like a campfire around him, hearing stories about Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, or whatever it might be. That was cool. Sometimes I was sad because I couldn’t participate all the time. I was like, “Man, they’re having such bonding moments and I want to hear those stories, but I’ve gotta set up this shot!”
You signed on to direct Now You See Me 3 before the second film even came out. Is that still happening?
CHU: Yeah, we’re writing it right now. We’re in the middle of it. I think it’s fun to get people’s feedback and be like, “Are we doing everything right? Do we want to do it? Do we want to flip some things? Is the audience ahead of us on some other things?” We’re just getting it all together right now. It’s all scheduling, really. That’s the hardest part.
The second film went bigger than the first, but was also quite different. Do you worry about taking it another step even further for the third film?
CHU: Yes, I guess I did more before than I am now because I think we have some really fun ideas. There’s a whole other world to magic that we would love to explore, and I think the audience would find it really interesting. We want to continue to push ourselves and change it up, and keep it sharp and fresh. After a second one, you definitely feel like, “Where are we repeating ourselves? How do we not repeat ourselves?” Everybody is aware of it and everyone is strategizing how to come up with fresh idea, in the best way possible.
Is the key then to keep it all based in the characters that you’ve already established?
CHU: Absolutely! The biggest asset is our characters and that cast, so leaning into that helps us, for sure.
You’ve met with Lin-Manuel Miranda about making the In The Heights movie, right?
Is that going to happen? And what is it about that show that appeals to you and made you want to get involved?
CHU: We’ve been working on it. I love the show. I think the immigrant story is more important than ever, especially now when the immigrant story is under attack. I come from a family of immigrants. That idea of that weight on your shoulders from your family and what they are giving to you, and the sacrifices they made to give you the opportunities that you have. My parents were the first generation that came here to give everything to us kids. I’m the youngest of five. And then, I was like, “I’m going to go into movies!” And they were like, “Okay!” And it worked. It’s so weird to be in the most American business in the world and not have resistance to that because other people sacrificed themselves for me. All of that is so important, and the story moved me in that way. So, to be able to tell that in a movie, I’m very excited about. We’re figuring out all the details of the deal, so I can’t necessarily say that I’m on it, but we have been working together for a long time.
Lin-Manuel Miranda has said that he’s not sure if he wants to be in the film, or if somebody else should do it. Are you personally rooting for him to be the one to step in and do it?
CHU: It’s interesting. He’s evolved. He’s Hamilton. This work, he wrote in college. The challenge that we have been talking a lot about is that it has to be elevated to a level of who he is now. So, we’ll see what his involvement is, at that point. Right now, we’re working on the creative on-the-ground stuff for how we turn a Broadway show that he did in college to elevate it and give it reason to be a movie. Not just doing the movie version, but finding a reason it has to be made as a movie. We’re figuring out all of those things.
Some musicals turned movies have been great, and some have really not been great.
CHU: Yes, and I’ve watched those movies and been frustrated, and I’ve been excited when it works really well. It’s all scary, especially with Lin. You want to live up to Lin. But, it’s been great. I’m working with Quiara [Alegría Hudes], who wrote the original book for the Broadway show, and we’re working it out.
Do you know what the next thing is that you’re going to roll cameras on?
CHU: I don’t know. They’re all in that critical stage where we’re an inch away from all of these things. I’m just letting the universe take control of whichever one decides to go first. I’m very excited by Crazy Rich Asians. I think that breaks new ground. It’s an all-Asian cast and an amazing book. I want to break the mold on a movie with an all-Asian cast in Hollywood. It’s an exciting movie. I think it’s so fun. I think that we’ll definitely, at the very least, shake some things up. And I’m going to be playing around in some TV stuff, too. I’ve done seven movies in eight years, so it feels good right now to just take a beat and figure out some of the original stuff that I have. I’ve done a lot of franchise stuff, which has been great and a great learning experience. In a weird way, I feel like it’s my grad school. But I really am excited to tackle stuff that does not have a previous movie, and that include some challenging things that break new ground.
When people are demanding movie diversity in Hollywood, is it cool to be in a position where you can put together an all-Asian cast?
CHU: Yeah. You know, I’m not the most vocal and I’m not a Twitter protest person. I’m not very good at that. I feel uncomfortable. I don’t like talking about race. I never have, growing up. So, it makes me feel uncomfortable and it’s sad that we have to make it a thing. But at the same time, I’m at an age where I look back and realize that people have sacrificed themselves, whether it’s with scholarships or internships, or things along the way that have allowed me to be in the business and allowed me to not have to think about race. So, when I look at my career, I realize that I actually need to give back, in the ways that I have gotten. We can open the doors even more. Everybody has their own role. Some people’s role is to make a big deal on Twitter. Some people’s role is to blog about it and get it out there, so that the door to that conversation opens up, and that’s been very effective. My job is that I make movies. That’s all I do. And the one thing I can do is actually make change in my work and in what I do. That has been a great shift, in the last year and a half or two years. In a weird way, for the first time, I’ve been conscious about that idea and have been looking for the right project to do that. Crazy Rich Asians just seemed to fit all of the right things for that.
Does it feel strange to tell a smaller story like that, when you’re so used to doing big spectacle movies?
CHU: No, I feel like it’s a big story. Yes, it’s this romantic comedy that’s a fun family story, but at the same time, I think the context is bigger than that. In the story, Rachel is going through the identity crisis of, “Who am I?” She’s American, through and through, but she feels this draw to Chinese people, and yet she’s not that either, so which one is she? It’s the struggle between cultures and tradition. That identity is something that I struggled with, growing up, and that makes it very personal and, in a weird way, even bigger than a magic movie about fictional characters with fictional things. Of course, Now You See Me is also about family, which I have a big personal draw to. But this, in terms of an American-born Chinese identity, is not about her trying to win over a boy, but about trying to figure out who she is and being okay with what that is. That feels epic to me. So, we’re going to try to present it in the most fun way, but keep that truth in there.
You mentioned also working on some TV. What are you looking to do, in that regard?
CHU: There’s a thing, in particular, that we’re going to announce soon. I can’t really talk about that now, until I’m officially allowed to, but it’s right up my alley. It’s daring and I’m honestly surprised they’re allowing me to do it. I love television, but it’s not because of that. It was a project that I wanted to do as a movie that I had the opportunity to do as something in TV. It’s very different than anything else I’ve done. So, anytime those opportunities come, I’m like, “Let’s go! Let’s try some new things!”
Does it feel like there are so many more creative opportunities for a director in television?
CHU: With movies now, it’s so hard because there are franchises, remakes and reboots. Some of the most daring stuff is happening in television, which I love, and the format is different. Whether it’s a series or one of these live shows, like Grease Live, it’s interesting. It has an old school feel. I remember watching David Copperfield perform live, walking through the Great Wall of China, or when Michael Jackson premiered his video after The Simpsons. I love that immediacy. All of these different formats are very interesting and only shake us up a bit, as storytellers. It pushes us.
Every filmmaker has successes and failures, and for whatever reason Jem and the Holograms didn’t connect with people. How did you not let that stop you and how did you stay focused through that?
CHU: It wasn’t easy. You talk a certain way when you’re making movies. I always say that I’m not in this to know how much my box office is. Of course, I want to know how my audience reacts, and reviewers are different than the audience.
And so much of the negativity directed toward that film came from people who never even saw it.
CHU: Exactly! Clearly, people didn’t go see it! I’m really proud of the movie. I think if I wasn’t proud of what we did, it would have been a different evolution for me. We made the movie for a specific purpose and a specific audience, and I’m so proud of what we did. I love seeing people discover it know. Young kids are throwing birthday parties with it and they’re obsessed with the music. But, what it did was really test why I make movies. You basically give up your personal life. I gave up my personal life, back in college and high school, to do this. Do I do this for the reviews? Do I do this for the numbers? No. Ultimately, I may not get the opportunity to make movies for my whole life, but I’m going to make movies for the rest of my life. Maybe studios won’t pay for it, but I’m going to do it because I love it. So, I just have to be proud of what I make, and what I’m trying to say in what I make. If people don’t like it or people don’t see it, that’s beyond what I can control. I’m a storyteller, and people are going to listen or not and like it or not. That’s only solidified over time. And Twitter is hard because you have a direct button to read hate tweets. No matter how much you’re like, “Well, this person is an idiot,” and you go to their Twitter and see that all they do is hate stuff, it still really affects you. It will ruin my day. So, it was just about choosing when I want to read things and when I don’t. It’s a discipline, and I had to learn to be disciplined. I had to also learn to appreciate the people around me who were always there and have supported me, no matter what. It’s not why I make these movies, so I can’t let fear kill my creative brain. Fear is the killer. To me, a lot of studio notes come from fear. Your bad choices come from fear. And I’m constantly combating fear. I’m one of the most fearful people, which may be why I’m so sensitive about it. I combat fear, constantly. So, when something like this happens, it only makes us stronger, but it reminds you that your strength is by being able to fight that stuff off and being okay with failure. If I get everything I wish and I get to make movies for the rest of my life, I’m going to have many failures and I need to be okay with that.
Now You See Me 2 is available on Blu-ray/DVD on September 6th.