Jon M. Chu directed the last two bonkers, much-beloved installments of the Step Up franchise, but his latest project — the 3-D "musical documentary" Justin Bieber: Never Say Never — promises to land to even more fanfare. In theaters February 11, the movie is part concert footage, part heartwarming rags-to-riches action, and part, of course, perma-shriek. And while some might feel a feature film on the young phenom is a bit premature, Chu respectfully disagrees: "It's a story about this generation more than even Justin Bieber."
When were you approached to direct the movie?
I was finishing up Step Up 3D and got a call from Adam Goodman at Paramount. He said, "What do you know about Justin Bieber?" And so many images immediately popped into my head. I knew, if I can have this many images of this 16-year-old pop star, then there's something there. 'Cause I'd seen him grow as an artist. It's a story that wasn't possible six years ago, about a guy who harnessed a technology that even corporations now don't know how to use. I told them, as long as it wasn't a concert film, as long we can use music to tell the story, I'm down. They said, "Okay, well, he's doing a show at Madison Square Garden in three weeks and we're gonna shoot that show." And I said, "The bigger story is how he got here, how he got to sell out Madison Square Garden." It's a story about this generation more than even Justin Bieber.
Was it tough talking the studio out of doing a concert film?
They knew, coming into this, they wouldn't get a normal movie from me, and I told them that. So they were open. I think they trusted me, it was a good relationship. At the very least they knew they still had a great concert film — they left just enough room.
To where they could reedit your footage as a concert film?
[Laughs.] Yeah, to just come in and go, "Okay, thank you very much, peace!'
What's it like inside the Bieber mania?
It is insane. I understood intellectually what it mean to be out there, but how it would feel emotionally to be surrounded by girls banging on the window, moms chasing you down ... the energy is intense. I think they want to rip his hair out. The intention is very strange. I felt I was that guy in Almost Famous, although I'm older than the actual artist himself. It was a very cool experience, and I play it into the movie: I wanted people to feel what I felt, what it was like being on the bus for the first time.
Did you feel that you were close to physical harm at any point?
Oh yeah. Moms are the most dangerous ones out there. They are the most loving people out there and they have the hardest job in the world, but they would step on feet, pull hair, to get their kids close to him. They have the Bieber fever. They have the Bieber malaria. But they're really loving people, and that's the part that I saw in Justin. He understood his fans. I would be freaked out, and he would say, "No, no, they're fine."
What's your take on why Bieber — and not any number of other similarly marketed teen artists who came before him — managed to reach this particular level of megafame?
I think that it's the day and age. He wasn't chosen by a big corporation; he was chosen by the people, kids at home in their living room who are on the Internet all day long. And he's kept the relationship a one on one, almost sort of a texting relationship with his fans, through Twitter. The story doesn't begin and end in the movie theater: You follow him on Twitter and you can go right into the movie and feel the movie, and you continue the journey to wherever his future may lie in his Twitter again. He understands the narrative.
What's her name — she was a YouTube star, she was a huge YouTube star. Justin Timberlake signed her [Editor's note: Esmée Denters], and all of a sudden she stopped YouTubing. She would only release these commercials of her upcoming album. And she got lost. Her power was YouTube and she got signed and you disappeared. The power of Justin, he didn't disappear, he only made it bigger. There are plenty of YouTube stars, but very few — maybe none except for Justin — who have broken through. There are the one-offs, the Antoine Dodsons, but not a career. Not an iconic career, in the way I think Justin is headed and some would argue has already achieved.
What's he actually like?
He didn't trust me at first. It took a couple of weeks for him to open up to me. But once he opened up, he understood that I was there for good, that I wasn't coming in and out. He understand the crazy world, he understands that people want him to fail, that there are haters, and that the test is really coming next, that it hasn't happened yet. But he has the confidence to know that he has the talent to overcome that if he wants to. He has the ability to get away from all the negativity if he wants to. He understands that he's going to make mistakes and people will judge him on his mistakes. But he understands that he's 16 years old and to become a grown-up person he has to do that. He has good people around him. Usher alone is the the best sort of Yoda in his life. It's gonna be very interesting, the next two years.
He thinks a lot about transitioning to adult stardom?
He's very aware of it. He doesn't talk to a lot of people about it. He knows the deal. But he's also learning about himself. He's testing his own boundaries. He's not trapped in a Toddlers & Tiaras world. He's becoming a man. And it's all sort of colliding.
Did you have a favorite bonding moment with him?
I loved when I was on the bus, just me and a camera. I said, "I don't want a crew making him feel awkward." I got my little mike, literally Almost Famous–style, just three in the morning, on his bus, me and him talking. And I shot a full-on four-minute scene, no cuts, when he was in his trailer before he went onstage. He's getting dressed, and his mike's not working, he's trying to adjust it, and it's like, "You have 30 seconds," the countdown's going off, and he says we're not going on until the mike works, and then finally he gets it to work, and people are rushing out, he's walking calmly to the stage, 20,000 people going nuts, and the pyro's going off, the bass. He gives a fist bump to me, a fist bump to the guy on the stage, the floor rises, the lights go on, and screaming girls go nuts. And at that moment, I was like, Holy shit, that's the life of Justin Bieber.