Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Director Jon M. Chu has lent his vision to many film franchises in recent years, beginning with the STEP UP series back in 2008. Since then, he’s put his creative stamp on two Justin Bieber documentaries, G.I. JOE: RETALIATION and the upcoming NOW YOU SEE ME sequel. But before Chu immerses us in the world of magicians and illusions, we see him tackle a much beloved fan franchise – the glam-pop-rock world of JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS. While the glamour, glitter, fashion and fame are all elements from the 80’s animated series that have carried over, blessedly so has the show’s narrative themes dealing with female empowerment, confidence and sisterhood. It’s excitement! It’s adventure! It’s truly outrageous!
Recently, I spoke with Chu over the phone about a host of topics about the film – everything from his personal connection to the series, to his reaction to the first trailer, to how fandom factored into this film’s creation.
FreshFiction.tv: Having been a fan of the series, I was excited to see what you did with the property.
It was the scariest part but also the most fun part was what we needed to keep but also knowing it was going to be different and we needed to, first and foremost, make a movie that people would care about – if they knew about Jem or knew nothing about Jem.
FreshFiction.Tv: So take me back when you first got the gig to direct. Had you already been in the Hasbro system?
I knew Hasbro actually because of JEM, before I did G.I. JOE. I pitched JEM maybe 11 years ago. It was a very different type of JEM. I think they weren’t quite ready for that version. It was literally the cartoon in live-action. When you actually look at those things, it makes for kind of a crazy movie that, if you don’t know anything about JEM, that you would actually get. Over those years, I kept thinking about it. The identity thing was the biggest thing. HANNAH MONTANA stole a lot of those things already. How do you even do something new like that? Then social media happened. I was doing NEVER SAY NEVER and working with those YouTube videos and seeing this world, it hit me that this would be a really cool tool to reinvent the JEM story in a way MTV was using JEM – something of that time. This seemed like something that could be of our time. We needed to have the story of Jerrica first – that’s our BATMAN BEGINS. If she’s going to go through all this crazy stuff, we needed to make sure there was a character we could follow through that – and that was honest in it. We talked to Hasbro after G.I. JOE where it was like, ‘Do you really want to go from JEM to G.I. JOE?’
FreshFiction.tv: Right! How dare you want to do girl stuff after your boy movie!
[laughs] Exactly! I thought this was a very interesting, compelling approach. That we could use YouTube videos as part of the story really made me want to make it and take a shot. All the pieces lined up. For me it was a very personal movie to tell – even though it’s a franchise.
FreshFiction.tv: Was the series fandom ever something that posed a challenge or something that had to be factored into creative decisions?
It’s always a thing for sure. Even when I took over the STEP UP series and I came into the G.I. JOE series and Justin Bieber world, it’s par for the course you’ll have to deal with a great fandom that loves every piece of it. You have to get to the essence of what is it that resonates completely so you can then put your own stamp on it. But at the same time, it wasn’t about putting our own stamp on it. It was just making it about how do you make a great movie out of it? We started with character, first and foremost. Who is this girl? She’s our vehicle into this whole world. You can see all the seeds we planed that people don’t know that will come into play as it develops – if we get that chance.
FreshFiction.tv: Casting this ensemble was a challenge. You’ve spoken about Aubrey Peeples being the last person cast. Were the girls who got their parts, the original parts they auditioned for?
Yeah. We saw everybody. We saw a bunch of the most interesting actors out there. We wanted to see who could be together and who could be a genuine young person – not just playing a part. We cast the girls together. When they got together it was very clear – we had no doubt. Aubrey we had to pay close attention to since she’s carrying the movie. She had this edge about her that felt vintage. The way she sings is interesting – it’s not poppy pop.
FreshFiction.tv: What was it like seeing your squad during their first performance? Was it next level for them, feeding off of the crowd’s energy?
Absolutely! When the girls came out, I’d never seen them like that in rehearsal. We only had a couple of weeks to get up to speed. Luckily they are amazing actors and performers and have stage presence where they can pull it off. All their instinct came out. It was awesome to capture.
FreshFiction.tv: How helpful was it to have the advantage that most of the cast are musicians and singers?
We couldn’t have done it if they didn’t have that musicality. Aurora [Perrineau] had to learn the drums. It came naturally for her.
FreshFiction.tv: Also Juliette Lewis is rock goddess…
We wanted to do it in this movie so badly, but we’re holding off.
FreshFiction.tv: How happy were you with the first trailer? I would imagine it must’ve been difficult to keep some of that mid-credits tease under wraps if the studio maybe wanted it in.
It’s a hard movie to sell no matter what because if you serve too much of the fans, non-fans are confused. If you serve too much of new fans, then the other fans don’t know what’s going on. You don’t want to confuse people who will be new to the franchise. We knew we had to evolve how we would lay it out. I wish we framed it a little better early – so they knew what to expect that this is . This is our Gotham. They would have not been so surprised at that first trailer of seeing not as much ‘Jem stuff’ as we do in the movie.
FreshFiction.tv: In your research, were there any episodes that impacted you the most to help focus in on the tone and themes?
Definitely. When I talked to Christy [Marx], I wanted to make sure she knew we were there to add to the universe and that we weren’t here to take over and make it super commercial – even though the cartoon was a commercial for a toy. What we were trying to get to was the heart of why Jem has continued to survive through all these years. Not the exact storyline but the essence of fearless storytelling of that time. That it was this female empowerment at a moment where it was filled with G.I. JOEs and TRANSFORMERS. I thought that was so courageous. She’s like, “What I wished I focused on in the series was the sisterhood of the girls. I concentrated a lot on Jem and Kimber, but it was really about the whole family.” We took that to heart.
FreshFiction.tv: So are you just now Mr. Franchise? You’ve got the STEP UP series, G.I. JOE, now JEM and NOW YOU SEE ME. Have you been approached for other franchises? Any talk of FURIOUS 8?
[laughs] I’ve been approached for a lot of different things. I just like to do things that are fun and what you wouldn’t expect from me. I like storytelling – that one day it could be a horror film, the next day it could be a mystery, the next day a magic movie. I love playing around and becoming a better filmmaker by doing all these things. It’s not a conscious thing of how I want to brand myself. When you’re approached with a cast of actors, you think, ‘Great! I want to work with them! I know where I can take this to another level.’ I like weird and challenging things. There’s a lot of franchise movies being made so it’s hard not to avoid being brought into a different franchise, but I don’t consciously choose a franchise.
JEM AND THE HOLOGRAMS opens on October 23. Read our review here.