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From “Trumbo” To Chu: The 2015 Film Independent Forum

Jon W. Chu was the keynote speaker at the 2015 Film Independent Forum.

By: Marjorie Galas

The Film Independent Forum kicked off this year with a rousing screening of “Trumbo.” Humbly acknowledging the thunderous applause of the sold out Directors Guild of America auditorium on October 23, 2015, director Jay Roach outlined his process for handing the material. While it wasn’t surprising to learn the director of politically themed and award winning television specials “Recount” and “Game Change” poured through personal letters Dalton Trumbo wrote to family and colleagues during his research period, details of the casting process caught many off guard.

“We had a number of actors in mind to play Dalton Trumbo,” said Roach. “Bryan Cranston was considered much later on. Once we saw him during the audition, we knew there could be no one else.”

Roach further stated that Cranston was instrumental in cementing Helen Mirren (Hedda Hopper). Many other actors including Diane Lane and Louis C.K. fell in line soon after.

Despite a late evening reception following the screening, a majority of the attendees arose early the following morning to hear the Forum’s keynote speaker, Jon M. Chu. A former Film Independent Fellow who was a member of the organization’s “Project Involve” class of 2002, Chu took the stage chuckling over a sizable personal contradiction he was experiencing that very moment.

“This is very awkward for me,” stated Chu. ”Here I am returning to the Film Independent Forum, on stage as an accomplished filmmaker. I was prepared to be speaking about how great the movie business is, but at the moment I’m getting bombard with emails telling me how bad my film was and how much it is bombing in the box office.”

Despite learning of the disappointing opening night of his latest feature – “Jem and the Holograms”, a re-imaging of a classic 80s cartoon – Chu declared that he will always hold fast the feelings he has for the filmmaking medium deep within his heart: “this is the best job in the world.”

To define his progression as a filmmaker, Chu started at the very beginning: with his parents’ arrival to the US from China. The landed in Los Angeles with their only knowledge of English acquired from “Elvis and Beatle albums” and a grand dream of starting a restaurant. His father saved money and eventually opened a tiny store front in a strip mall. While his initial experimentation with fast food failed, he began listening to the desires of the customers who frequented his shop, and created more gourmet food. Over time, the family business became so successful they brought out the entire multi-level strip mall to meet the ever growing customer demand. Throughout the success of his venture, Chu’s father always spent time getting to know his customers and listening to their stories. While his parents discouraged all their children from working in the restaurant (“they sent us to sports and music lessons and all the things they never got to do,” said Chu) he spent hours enjoying the restaurant’s atmosphere. It was here he learned the importance of good narrative.

“Story telling was constantly there,” said Chu. “I grew up around the customers sharing their stories, and I learned its power to transform.”

It was during a family trip when Chu was entering his teens that he discovered he had a natural ability to shoot video and tell stories. In addition to weddings, bar mitzvahs and any other event he could shoot for his neighbors, he would create short films with his siblings. Noticing how alive Chu was with the camera, the early Silicon Valley tech innovators who frequented his parent’s restaurant encouraged Chu to continue exploring his passion by bestowed him with beta versions of hard and software. Chu mastered the art of editing and found creating stories was his life’s true passion.

“I played the mascot in high school and wore a panther costume with a big head,” said Chu. “With this costume on I felt I could do whatever I wanted. That is how I feel when I am behind the camera – completely free.”

After graduating from college Chu stated he moved into the “honeymoon phase” of his career. His early short, “Silent Beats” was widely praised and granted him meetings with major studios heads and directors including Steven Spielberg.

“One month after that I was on the cover of Variety magazine,” said Chu. “I couldn’t believe my dream was coming true.

Slated to direct a theatrical version of “Bye Bye Birdie” Chu found himself heading into his first draught. Waiting for funding for over 2 and 1/2 years (the project was dropped after five), Chu told the audience he found himself, for the first time since his youth, with no projects to work on.

Eager to work, he was approached to direct a straight to video version of “Step Up 2.” Ready to turn it down because it wasn’t theatrical, he received a wake-up call from his mother who asked him why he became such a snob.

“She reminded me that a good story could be told anywhere, including sitting around a campfire,” said Chu. “I decided then and there I was never going to wait anymore to direct something.”

Shortly after accepting the gig, Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures helped lift the project, moving it into theatrical distribution. Before parting, Chu reminded the young producers to value the crew members that help bring the story to life, calling them all storytellers who bring their particular talents to the table. He closed by warning the attendees about getting too comfortable and not taking risks.

“Fear is the death of creativity,” said Chu. “It is OK to fail, that is how you get better. Remember, we are not defined by our results, but by their purpose and pursuits.”

Following Chu’s keynote speech, the Forum split into multiple tracks, including one on one opportunities for Indielink members with representatives from companies as diverse as LightIron and CAA, documentary focused studies, fundraising tutorials, legal advice, and panels such as “The Writers Room” that gathered talent from “American Crime Story”, “Transparent”, “Empire”, “Narcos” and “Doll and Em” to discuss their show’s respective process for breaking stories.

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