The L.A.-based nonprofit Film Independent put on the three-day conference for independent moviemakers. This year’s forum featured a screening of Trumbo and discussion with director Jay Roach, panels on arriving at the perfect budget and marketing to your target audience, in-depth case studies that dissected the year’s most successful indies features, and an executive conversation with Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions team. For this attendee, though, the highlight of this year’s forum was the inspirational keynote address from director Jon M. Chu.
Saturday, October 24 was not an easy morning for Chu. His latest film, the Blumhouse-producedJem and the Holograms (a live-action musical feature based on an ’80s animated TV series), had opened the night before and flopped both commercially and critically. He immediately addressed the elephant in the room. “This is a bit awkward, as I’m supposed to be here this morning talking about how great it is to be in the movie business… but this morning specifically hasn’t been the greatest. So you might get some real shit today.”
At first, Chu sounded as if he was going to justify his decisions and tend to his wounds, but this wasn’t the case. Chu was not cynical—on the contrary, he leveraged his recent setback and shared some lessons about being an indie filmmaker and storyteller.
1. “You are what you do every day.”
Shortly after graduating from USC film school, and learning that Bye Bye Birdie, a musical project he’d been trying to bring to life, wasn’t going to happen, Chu entered a period that he termed “his five-year drought.”
“This idea, ‘you’re going to make a movie,’ eluded me,” Chu said. “I didn’t fulfill that part of my body. It was the longest time of my life that I wasn’t making stuff, physically.”
At this stage, Chu’s own pride was his enemy. Offered the chance to direct 2008’s Step Up 2, sequel to the 2006 Channing Tatum dance hit Step Up, Chu’s first instinct was that the franchise installment, sans the star power of the original film, was beneath him. At the Forum, he sarcastically mocked his younger self: “‘I don’t do direct-to-DVD. You know, Steven Spielberg saw my short. He loved it.’”
Around this time, his mother told him, “You trained to be a storyteller and a storyteller can use anything… so what makes you think you’re so good?” Chu asked himself why he was sitting around and waiting. Instead, he entered a “new age of no excuses,” one that didn’t involve asking for permission. He tried to pick up the camera with the same fundamental enthusiasm he’d had as a child, filming family vacations and weddings in his community. “You are what you do everyday. If you’re a director, you direct everyday. No one is going to give you that label.”