Justin Bieber's 'Believe': Director Jon Chu on the Singer's Challenging Year (Q&A)
Jon Chu has seen Justin Bieber reach his greatest heights and lowest lows. As the director of Never Say Never, the pop star's 2011 documentary that grossed nearly $100 million, Chu tracked Bieber's career from obscurity to superstardom. In helming its follow-up, Believe, (out Christmas Day), he not only got to witness Bieber Fever become an even more massive global phenomenon, he also was the one asking the questions, interviewing Bieber at a vulnerable moment in his life and in the midst of trying to transition from kid to adult, pop star to artist.
The age-old saying, "With great power (or in this case, fame) comes great responsibility," is very much alive in the mind and heart of Justin Bieber, even if he sometimes veers off course -- as teenagers are wont to do. But with those detours come heaps of negative attention that color his every move.
Does Bieber dispute the tabloids, fight the paparazzi and insist on his privacy by forcing houseguests to sign confidentiality agreements? Yes to all of the above -- but Bieber is also shining a light on that struggle.
With Chu behind the lens, Believe, like Never Say Never, combines concert footage (the production value upped significantly since 2010), interviews with Bieber's inner circle and family members, and rarely seen video of the future superstar during his earliest days of touring. The central narrative, provided by the singer himself, is perhaps the most engrossing, but getting at it took the guiding hand of Chu, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about how the film came together.
The concert doc started out more concert than documentary. How did it end up flipping the other way around?
We shot his concert in Miami, but more footage came in from his videographers of him traveling around, along with stuff that I shot behind the scenes, and it started to get a bit more interesting. It had these mini-stories because it was a very interesting year for him. At a certain point, we looked at the movie and were like, "This movie can take another step, to let people look at how we know Justin" -- that he's a kid, that he was struggling with these things. If you knew how he saw it, it would be a lot more interesting.
How revealing is the film in terms of where he's at emotionally?
It's not necessarily giving any answers. I think we present a situation to people, and show that he's a kid who's figuring it all out, and that's OK. I love Justin, he's a really good kid. So when I see him struggle, it hurts me, too, and I just wanted to share that experience of our relationship with the audience. ... I actually always envisioned these movies as a trilogy, where we check back with him and see where he's at.
You're the one interviewing Justin in the movie. How was it to have to ask those difficult questions?
We're close so I wasn't nervous about it. When you're behind closed doors, Justin is very open about what's going on. Sometimes he makes excuses and you can see through it and then he'll fess up to it right after. All those little things are what make him a kid, like your nephew or your cousin, and I think that's a compelling thing to see: to see him not as an object for us to judge, harp on and destroy, but somebody whom we have responsibility for because we ultimately put him [where he is].
A big part of the film is the footage from the tour, which you also directed. For someone who's never seen Justin live, how would you describe the show?
It's fun! When we first started, he was like, "I want to take my audience on an adventure -- to a place that they can escape to, a magical place where they can believe that anything is possible." He said that from the very beginning. He was also concerned about making it too grown-up. He'd say, "I don't want to outgrow my audience. I want them to be with me as I go through it, too." He literally would say to me, "Don't make it too sexy and edgy. I want this to be accessible -- that we all go on a fantasy together."
Is he aware that, for a lot of those girls in the crowd, it's their first concert?
Oh yes, very much so. So it was a matter of, let's find iconic images that they're going to hold on to. They may not remember every little detail of every song, but they'll remember the wings, the water, the lasers. Whether it's snow in one scene and glitter in another, it's stuff that you can actually touch and feel. In fact, early on we had air modules that would shoot air into the audience way back in the house. It got a little too hard to bring around everywhere, but for the first 30 or 40 shows we had these effects pods that were really fun. He wanted to be physical. He wanted to be able to go out into the audience.
THR had written previously about the unexpected Phish-Justin Bieber connection, where musical director Dan Kanter had essentially recruited Phish lighting maestro Chris Kuroda to design the visuals for the Believe tour. In retrospect, was there an appreciation of the light show by this very young audience?
Chris is an artist and that was actually a big thing for Justin, also. He said, "I want my lights to be way better than last time. I want it to feel like the music itself -- to hit beats. When you're way back in the back seats, you feel like you're a part of it." Chris took that on very seriously, and he created this amazing show. I don't even know how he does it. There are so many complicated things that he's doing in each number. And if you watch Chris in the back [at the lighting board], he's dancing to the music. He's like a mad scientist. We actually made a whole section about Chris in the movie, which I'm so bummed we had to take out. But I'm sure it'll be in the extras somewhere.
What a curious mix of people -- Justin and Scooter, Chris and Dan ...
(Laughs.) We're definitely like a group of misfits all thrown together with different specialties, but that's what makes it awesome -- that we can create together. Everyone is confident in their own way. When someone comes up with something new, everyone jumps on it. That's why I did it. I don't do concerts. I never even directed a high school play before. But when they said that there's this team, that we could do whatever and make an adventure, it basically made for a Disneyland ride.
The tone of Believe is very different from Never Say Never -- much more reflective than celebratory.
It is different. Believe is a little bit more grown-up. The first movie was about showing the world around him, what he's actually building here. And this time, we came to the realization that Justin's voice had to be in it. That's actually what is happening: His voice is rising, and we do sort of pivot, where the second half of the movie is his answer to all the questions in his own way. That's what changed the tone of our movie.
And there's the fact that he was dealing with a lot of negativity, from fights with the paparazzi to a recent breakup ...
Exactly. We can't explain everything so we just tried to get to the heart of what happened to him in the past year. He's gone through heartbreak, which for a kid at his age is huge. He's writing his own music and getting the label to put it out. Those are the things we really wanted to focus on. And life -- the pressures of trying to keep the momentum up. And dealing with how you live a normal life.