Film School Alumni Advice: Now You See Me 2 Director Jon M. Chu

Every year, MovieMaker asks a range of successful indie filmmakers to reflect on their time in and after film school for our Summer issue. We’re featuring some of our favorites from this year’s participants on moviemaker.com.

The questions we asked each alum: How did film school prepare you to be a working moviemaker, and what did you do straight outta film school?

This week, Jon M. Chu (USC School of Cinematic Arts, Class of 2003) shares his experience. The director’s latest feature, Now You See Me 2, opens in theaters nationwide on June 10.


1. How did film school prepare you to be a working moviemaker?

Jon M. Chu (JMC): Film school definitely isn’t for everyone, but for me it was vital as a human being, not just as a filmmaker. Growing up, I went to the same school with the same kids all through high school. It was great, but it was my safety net, and I needed to get out and experience the rest of the world. College really allowed me to grow and I knew I needed that experience.

USC isn’t a trade or technical school; it’s much more about theory, history and how to craft a story through an audio-visual medium. Film, animation, sound, editing—it all works together to tell a story, and that’s what USC taught me. Anyone can write a sentence, but how do you write one that is compelling or that has depth to it? There are certain storytelling rules that you learn which really set the foundation for your work.

Before USC, I was already making stuff, but I think college really gave me the knowledge of what was “correct” and when to break those rules or not. Then if I did break those rules—which filmmakers should—it was much more intentional.

At USC, not everyone comes out with a reel. I was lucky enough to do that, but it’s not what got me working in the business. It was more about being around people who loved movies just as much, if not more, than I did; people who were way more talented than myself. Being in an environment around people who all want to pursue the same thing inspires you and pushes you. Also, by working on other people’s projects, I ended up building a strong community and those are the people who helped me succeed. Prior to USC I didn’t have any connections, so that community allowed me to make my short film called “When The Kids Are Away,” and that’s what really launched my career.

Now You See Me 2. Photograph by Jay Maidment

Now You See Me 2. Photograph by Jay Maidment

2. What did you do straight outta film school?

JMC: It was kind of like the series finale of Dawson’s Creek! I got a call from Steven Spielberg after he saw my short film. We then met up and talked about movies and musicals for hours. A few days later, my best friends and I pitched him a musical that we were developing. Our pitch was ridiculous: We brought this giant chest of props with wigs and costumes. We wore them and acted scenes out. I look back and laugh at how extravagant the whole thing was—but it worked! They ended up buying the project, though we never ultimately made the movie.

I ended up getting my first big deal at Sony, where I was attached to direct a remake of Bye Bye Birdie. I worked on that project for a couple of years, but we did not end up making that film either. I was in all the magazines as the next big up-and-coming director, but I still had not made a feature. It wasn’t until five years later that I actually made my first feature: Step Up 2: The Streets. That movie is what truly jump-started my career. It was crazy to wait five years and then be told I only had nine months to complete a feature, but I guess it was meant to be. Since then, I’ve made seven movies in eight years, so I feel very lucky. MM

Now You See Me 2 opens in theaters June 10, 2016, courtesy of Lionsgate.

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