One of director Jon Chu’s longtime passion projects has been the idea of reinventing “Jem and the Holograms” for the big screen. When Chu began adapting the cartoon to film, he wanted to create a movie that would embrace a new generation while also resonating with diehard fans like himself. His live-action film honors the same underlying messages as the ‘80s animated series — one of female empowerment, honesty and integrity — along with fashion and great music. The big screen adventure stars Aubrey Peeples, Stefanie Scott, Hayley Kiyoko, Aurora Perrineau, Ryan Guzman, Juliette Lewis and Molly Ringwald.
At the film’s recent press day, Chu talked about his vision for reimagining the animated cult classic as a live-action project, the importance of getting the blessings of the people who were involved in the original series, using social media to create an identity for the film that would appeal to a new generation, updating Jem and her sound for today’s audience, casting Peeples in the title role and Lewis as the villain, bringing back some of the original cast in cameos, keeping the themes from the animated series that he felt were important, and his upcoming film “Now You See Me 2.”
Check it all out in the interview below:
QUESTION: I was surprised to see some of the original cast from the animated series in cameos in this film. How important was it to get the blessings of the people who were originally involved?
JON CHU: It was really important. I’m a huge fan of theirs, so making the first call was scary because you don’t know how they’re going to react. They’ve been the most warm, appreciative, beautiful people. They’ve really introduced me to their world of fans, and I got to show them the movie a month or so ago. They were just crying and sobbing, and they gave me a big hug, because they can be polite, but until they see the movie, I don’t think they really know. They had to really trust me on that. Christy (Marx), Samantha (Newark), and Britta (Phillips) all have been the best you could ever ask. I didn’t know Christy’s relationship with Hasbro or what their thing was, so I called her after we had basically gotten Hasbro to say, “Yes, we’re going to make this movie.” She said that she had done other rebrands of other properties so she understood what that process could be like. I walked her through all the stuff. She said, “The one thing I wish I did in the series more that I didn’t get to do that I hope you get to do is focus on the sisterhood of these girls, because they’re sisters. I always kept them a little bit more apart from each other. I’d really like that.” So, that affected us a lot. We really built the story around that idea.
Q: Can you talk about casting Aubrey in the title role? Did she have to go through an audition and what do you think makes her stand out amongst the other actresses that you saw?
CHU: We saw a lot of women and girls out there. We really wanted someone who could sing, so we could be very genuine about that — someone who understood music, someone who understood the idea of coming into a world where you’re dealing with your own identity, someone who is close in age to what Jerrica would be. First and foremost, the thing we really wanted is for this to be a story about Jerrica. This isn’t actually Jem. She becomes Jem. So, this is about her identity, who she is as a girl that is starting to deal with this stuff. It was fun because she loves analog things. She loves Polaroids and old music, and she has this old guitar that she plays. Yet, she is a very modern girl and she was just honest. I think that combination really drew us to her. We found her very last moment. We were going to shut down the movie if we didn’t find the right Jerrica. That was a hard thing to come across. But when we found her, we knew that was exactly the sort of quirky, real, but also girl-who-becomes-a-princess story that we wanted to tell, and she could really carry that.
Q: What I loved about the movie is how you used social media to create an identity for the film that would appeal to a new generation. How did you arrive at that approach?
CHU: Identity was something we really wanted to deal with in this movie. The movie couldn’t get made without social media really, because the idea was, “Oh, our real identity that we’re dealing with is what we’re putting out there. What are we saying to the world? And who are we behind the scenes?” As we saw more and more young people doing YouTube stuff, and I do a lot of YouTube videos as well, I was like, “This is a generation of makers, of creators, whether it’s a painting or cooking or makeup or blogs. We really want to get across that this was a new generation of people.” When I was making “Never Say Never,” the Justin Bieber movie, we told that story a lot through different YouTube videos. I remember thinking back then, “Oh, that would be a really great way to tell a story, a fictional story, if we could.” So when “Jem” came, I thought this could be the perfect vehicle to use that idea. We asked people to send what they thought about Jem as if she were a real person. We asked them to create music and see what we could do. It wasn’t necessarily all planned out. It was, “Let’s see what we get and let’s see how it affects our story.” We did a lot of experimenting. With the drum sequence, we used all different types of things, things that spoke to us from people from all walks of life, all places. In the same way as in “Never Say Never,” where we recontextualized Justin Bieber’s music to tell the story of his life, we made this sort of Greek chorus of the internet to recontextualize that stuff to tell our story of this girl going through it.
Q: This has been a passion project for you for a very long time. Can you talk about what the experience was like reimagining this as a live-action movie?
CHU: I pitched it 11 years ago, but it was a very different version and it never got made. It was to Hasbro and to Universal, but it was really about Jem, and it was just the live-action cartoon version of it, which was fine, but it wasn’t anything new. What I think happened 10 years later was social media happened. I’d gone through a lot of different things that had happened and we came down to the idea that we needed to tell the story about Jerrica. For me, in order to make it into a live-action movie, you needed to have a character that you really cared about. And, as crazy as the world gets, and I think this is just the beginning of how crazy the world can get, we needed someone that we could care about, root for, be fearful for. That was our vehicle in. The one thing we wanted to do was just make a great movie. We wanted you to laugh. We wanted you to cry. We wanted you to move your feet. If we could get that out of a “Jem and the Holograms” movie, then we won. But it’s difficult, because you want to pay homage to the original and you have to let some things go as well. It’s like when someone like Juliette Lewis comes to your table, and you’re like, “She’s such a great villain for this!” It was always Eric Raymond, a man, playing that role. But when she came in and she was so great, how could you not make this character into a woman? We took that leap of faith that the audience would go with us for that fun. Again, this is sort of our “Batman Begins” to “Jem and the Holograms.” So, even 5IN3RGY will evolve eventually. I always saw this as a first step of getting us into the world, and then knowing, as you see in the end, that things are about to hit the fan.
Q: How did you avoid the pitfalls of the other toy-turned-cartoon movie properties like “Masters of the Universe,” “Transformers,” “G.I. Joe,” “Josie and the Pussycats,” and others?
CHU: In terms of other cartoons that turned live action, what’s interesting about those things is there are many different versions of “G.I. Joe.” There’s many different versions of “Transformers” that exist at the same time. There’s the Nickelodeon cartoon version, or there’s the toy versions, and there’s still the old 80’s version that exists. I think that these brands can exist on those multi-layers in those different versions. I don’t think it ruins that audience for that particular one. Jem continues to live in that 80s cartoon, and people will continue to watch it and be inspired by that version. A different audience may be inspired by this version. Maybe some people from that version will see their Jem in this version. For me, that’s certainly what I tried to bring over – the things that I thought were at its core and were essential to it, especially as this was sort of an origin to get there. I don’t quite know how to avoid pleasing everybody, but I do know there will be more Jem ideas, whether it’s in the other comic book that exists, or from a cartoon that they may make, or whatever it may be. That’s the great thing about art, and what we do is everybody gets their take, and it either lives or dies by the people who are affected by it.
Q: Rock ‘n Roll has changed so much, especially the glam rock/pop of Jem, to what it is now. How did you manage to update Jem and what were some of the biggest challenges of guiding her sound in a modern world?
CHU: That’s a hard one, too, because music has changed. Access to music has changed. I’m not even sure what is rock ‘n roll anymore this day and age. It was less about how do we bring rock ‘n roll to this day and age and more about who are these girls first and foremost and how would they communicate their sound best. We had many different versions of all those songs that are in the movie. We went to Scooter Braun’s well of great music writers and said, “Here’s the point in the movie that we need a song. We’re trying to tell this story within this song. Give us some options.” We got tons and tons, and we got to pick the ones that fit right. We did not give them a genre. We did not give them any template to follow. We just said, “Give us what communicates this best.” Actually, if you listen to the movie, we jump genres a little bit. Yeah, it’s a little poppier. It’s on the poppier side, I guess, but many of those songs are very different from each other. We just went with the ones that felt right, to be honest.
Q: I was curious what themes from the animated series were most important for you to bring into your own movie. Clearly, it’s your own vision of this world, but what themes from that were important for you to keep?
CHU: The sisterhood part of it. I think the dealing with identity. She’s constantly [dealing with who she is]. It’s a different thing because she’s literally changing forms, but even that we had a debate about because she looks exactly the same. She just has makeup on. But technically, it’s a hologram that changes her appearance, even though she looks exactly the same. We had to figure out those specific things, like when you make something live action, what’s actually happening in those moments. I think the identity of who she was, was a big one for us. Ultimately, it was the family though, to be honest. That’s why we wanted to make that dealing with fame a bit in there. But, fame has also changed because now anyone can be famous anytime. When we were talking about it and going over it, we were saying, “What does that mean? What does fame even mean anymore?” We can’t actually say that glitter and fashion and fame is everything. So, what are we actually saying? We went the opposite way. We said actually fame is an illusion. Fame is sort of our hologram. So, how do we paint that picture in the best of things? And yes, you’ve heard that story, the rise to fame, many times as she says even in the movie, or bands breaking up. It happens. But we wanted to tell it in a way with the YouTube videos, through her journey with a weird robot that beatboxes with all these strange elements, and tell that story in the Jem-unique way of it. When it comes down to it, for herself, Jem is anything you want it to be. Jem is not ours to say. In a weird way, it’s us saying, “This is our version of Jem, but it’s not Jem. Jem is whatever you want your Jem to be and what you want.” We found so many fans that create their own cartoon or they have their own Jem band, and we wanted to say, “Jem is for everybody.” I thought that was a powerful thing for us.
Q: When adapting something that’s a cult classic to a lot of people, what’s the biggest challenge for you to pay homage to the original but then create your own space?
CHU: I couldn’t think too much about that. Of all the things, from “G.I. Joe” to even the “Step Up” movies, when I first came on the “Step Up” movies, I would say, “Oh you can’t do another ‘Step Up’ movie. It was just one!” And then you do it, and then they do five more. There’s a different audience maybe that follows it, but it adjusts and changes. It’s the same thing with the “G.I. Joe” stuff. Same thing with even the Bieber stuff. My movies have been so different from one another that Bieber fans were really mad that I was doing something with guns in “G.I. Joe.” Then, the “G.I. Joe” fans were really mad that I went back to do a Justin Bieber movie. Then, I went to go do a “Jem and the Holograms” movie. It was very confusing. I think I confused people, but the thing is, I’m a fan of things as well. I feel those same things when I see that. So, I don’t call them haters. I hate when people go, “Oh those haters.” They actually have good points and they have their thing. I wish they would judge the movie first and see the movie before they jump to those things. Then, they can say those things and there’s a debate there. For me, I just have to stay focused on I need to make a great movie, a movie that if you know everything about Jem and you know nothing about Jem, it works. It’s the same thing when I went into “Justin Bieber,” I didn’t know who Justin Bieber was. But, I knew I had to make a movie that I could bring my friends and they’d be like, “I hate Justin Bieber,” and by the end, they’re like, “I may not love Justin Bieber, but I really understand Justin Bieber.” I wanted to do that with “Jem” and say, “We can do that.” I’m the youngest of five kids. All my sisters watched it. I pretended not to watch it, but it was always on. I wanted to make sure that we could communicate how that affected me or the people around me that I know in a unique way, and that was first and foremost a character that we loved and could root for and go with. If we got that right, then the world is sort of our oyster as we build in all the other things.
Q: Have you ever attended JemCon?
CHU: I would have loved to attend JemCon, but I was doing two movies at the same time, so it’s been a little hard. I’ve never gone before, but when I got the movie, I was like, I should probably go for sure because I want to see what it’s all about. I honestly didn’t know JemCon existed before that. I’ve been doing two movies, so I couldn’t make it last year and I couldn’t make it this year, but I would love to attend.
Q: Have you decided on your next project?
CHU: “Now You See Me 2” is what I’m working on now. It’s been a lot of fun. That’s the magic movie with Mark Ruffalo and Jesse Eisenberg. We’re editing it now. It’ll be out next summer. It’s not 3D.
“Jem and the Holograms” opens in theaters on October 23rd.