From the NYTimes:
HOLLYWOOD — The movie industry
loves a comeback, if you’ve achieved stardom once already. But what if
that first big break slipped by unexploited?
Jon M. Chu’s moment arrived when he graduated from film school at the University of Southern California and showed industry executives his final project, a 20-minute original musical titled “When the Kids Are Away.” A richly imagined fantasy of housewives stepping out during school hours, it generated enormous heat for Mr. Chu.
took the young Mr. Chu under his wing. DreamWorks bought his pitch for
a full-length original musical, “Moxie,” a Romeo-and-Juliet tale
pairing a straight boy from a family of drag queens with the daughter
of the mayor of San Francisco. And the producers Lucy Fisher and Doug
Wick of Red Wagon hired him to develop a remake of “Bye Bye Birdie” for Sony Pictures. The assignment landed Mr. Chu on the covers of Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
That was five years ago.
It took two years to get the script for “Bye Bye Birdie” ready, but
Mr. Chu’s plans for big dance numbers had grown so expensive — the
budget topped $70 million — that Sony balked at taking the “leap of
faith” required with an untested director, Mr. Wick said.
The script for “Moxie,” meanwhile, never quite met his own
expectations, said Mr. Chu, now 28. He was hired to direct a romantic
comedy called “The Prom” for Lionsgate, but the financing fell apart at the last minute. A children’s version of “Kung Fu Hustle” for Warner Brothers became stuck in development.
By early last year Mr. Chu, no closer to fulfilling his early
promise, was feeling desperate. “It was hell,” he said. “It was like I
was on the bench for a great N.B.A. team, and I just needed two minutes
to prove myself, but I never got that opportunity. It was a lot of
crazy buzz for nothing, really.”
To regenerate some heat, he did the Hollywood equivalent of rubbing
two sticks together. He conjured an update of his favorite book, “The Great Gatsby,”
with high school students in the Hamptons. He had an aspiring writer,
Amy Andelson, flesh it out with a partner, Emily Berk, and sent their
script out last February with him attached to direct. Ms. Fisher and
Mr. Wick snapped it up. (Actually making the movie depends on first
acquiring the rights to the Fitzgerald novel.)
In May Mr. Chu walked into a meeting with Oren Aviv, president for
production at Walt Disney Studios, and walked out 20 minutes later with
a green light for what became “Step Up 2 the Streets,” the hip-hop
dance movie that opened on Valentine’s Day with $20.3 million in
box-office sales through Saturday night, Mr. Chu said.
If that seems a Hollywood ending to Mr. Chu’s story, the second and third acts were even unlikelier.
Disney and its partner Summit Entertainment made a surprising $65 million in 2006 on the first “Step Up,”
a high school dance movie that catapulted its male lead, Channing
Tatum, to fame. But Summit wanted to spend only $7 million on a
straight-to-DVD sequel, said the producer Jennifer Gibgot, and Disney
didn’t plan to participate.
Mr. Tatum’s fee would have been too large this time around for a
sequel featuring him, Ms. Gibgot explained. And besides, no one knew
how to carry the story forward. “Nobody wanted to make ‘Staying
Alive,’ ” she said.
In stepped Mr. Chu, who checked the impulse to turn up his nose at a
direct-to-video project and instead set about reconceiving it. The
original “Step Up” had only a handful of dance numbers, he said; this
one would have three or four times as many. He pulled together YouTube
clips of the street dancing and music he had in mind and of the
actor-dancer Robert Hoffman, whom he saw as his star. He figured out a
way to have Mr. Tatum appear briefly, early in the film, to pass the
torch to the new ensemble.
Ms. Gibgot and her producing-partner brother, Adam Shankman, the director of last year’s “Hairspray,”
ate it up, but realized it could never happen on a $7 million budget.
“In our first pitch meeting he said he wanted to do a finale in the
rain,” Ms. Gibgot said of Mr. Chu’s vision. “He had ideas about improv
troupes that do pranks through dance. I was just getting more and more
The producers called Mr. Aviv to discuss a theatrical release. As it
happened, Mr. Aviv said in an interview at the sequel’s Hollywood
premiere on Feb. 4, he had a hole to fill in the schedule between “National Treasure: Book of Secrets” in December and “College Road Trip” in March.
Mr. Chu did not have a finished script. But his DVD sampler and his
clear, passionate pitch, Mr. Aviv said, “made it an easy decision” to
go in for 50 percent of the sequel at the same budget as the original
film, $22 million.
“There it was, in the room,” Mr. Aviv said. “I didn’t look at a reel
of his, I didn’t ask around about him, I took a leap of faith because
of him.” Asked if he’d ever given the green light to a film so fast, he
said: “No, and really I shouldn’t. That’s really no way to keep my job.”
Making the release deadline meant going into production in six
weeks, Mr. Aviv told Mr. Chu. “If you can have it in theaters by
February, let’s go,” Ms. Gibgot recalled Mr. Aviv saying. “As we walked
out, I told Jon, ‘That will never happen to you again as long as you
Mr. Aviv said that Mr. Chu “stood over the writers for six weeks”
until his treatment became a shooting script. But Mr. Chu did not make
his task any easier; rather than cast proven actor-dancers, he held
auditions in New York, Baltimore and Los Angeles, seeking what he
called “the 20 best dancers we could find.”
The breakneck schedule wasn’t kind. Briana Evigan, the female lead,
injured her leg and required surgery, forcing Mr. Chu to film around
her; the rain-soaked finale had to be reshot.
Through it all Mr. Chu impressed Mr. Aviv as unflappable and
unusually collaborative. When Mr. Aviv asked him to clean up the
movie’s language because “I’d like to be able to bring my daughter to
it,” Mr. Aviv recalled. “He said, ‘I hear you,’ and took it all out.”
“He really delivered,” Mr. Aviv said. “In fact I would say he overdelivered.”
Finally, it seems, Mr. Chu may have the career he was waiting for.
On Sunday, as he watched the box-office totals come in, he said: “I
can breathe. It feels like I’ve been holding it in for a long time.”