Jem and the Holograms director Jon M. Chu on bringing an '80s cartoon classic into the age of YouTube

In the era of bizarre 1980s children’s cartoons, nothing stood out quite like Jem. A flashy combination of rock musical and superhero soap opera, it followed music executive Jerrica Benton — living a double life as the mysterious rock icon Jem — as she and her band The Holograms battled against the nefarious evil group The Misfits. Providing guidance and some sweet holographic costumes was Synergy, a massive computer / synthesizer housed in a secret Batcave-like facility.

It was pretty weird.

Thirty years after Jem first debuted, it’s getting a big-screen reinvention — only this time Jerrica is a shy singer-songwriter who stumbles upon YouTube fame and is quickly thrust into the Hollywood spotlight. It’s a broad reinvention, leaving behind much of the sci-fi strangeness for a more earnest take that director Jon M. Chu (G.I. Joe: Retaliation; Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) describes as the Batman Begins of what could become a series of Jem films. On the eve of the movie’s release, I chatted with him about the challenges of adapting the show, the influence Justin Bieber had on Jem, and how the internet became a character unto itself.

Bryan Bishop: So one of the first questions I’m sure a lot of people have is: why Jem? What led you to the property and how did you get involved?

Jon M. Chu: Yeah, I grew up in the ’80s. I’m the youngest of five kids, so it was around. It was G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Jem. And since I did a G.I. Joe movie already, then why not just keep going down the line? [Laughs.]

I’d actually pitched Jem about 10 years ago to Hasbro, before I ever made my first feature. I pitched it to Hasbro and Universal, and it was trying to do the cartoon exactly how it was, and there was just something missing. There was no reason for it to exist. So I was sort of discouraged, but for those 10 years I kept thinking about Jem because I loved the property, I loved the idea of this empowerment story. And then social media [started becoming prominent], and I was all, "This is it. This is the thing." We’re focusing on Jem and the Holograms, when we should be focusing on Jerrica. It brings new story to the canon, and we get to establish a real character in the real world that you can root for and cheer for, and as she goes along we can add all the craziness and fantasy and sci-fi that the cartoon has. And let’s use social media as part of the storytelling device, because everybody has a secret identity. Everybody can get fame overnight. It just meant the themes of Jem and Jerrica were very apparent now, and very accessible to a lot of different people, so I thought that was an interesting way to do it. That’s when we sort of cracked it and got them to say yes to make this movie.

You’ve made some mythology changes here that some fans have been worried about. Jem’s now a YouTube star; Synergy is a cute little robot that doesn’t really talk. What elements did you and the team feel like you could reinvent freely, and what was core to it staying Jem, the property?

At a certain point we had to let go and say, "Let’s just make the best movie." What’s the best way to express [the story of] this girl Jerrica, who becomes Jem, and what are the elements we need to do that? And there’s the longer term; to me this was always a longer story than even just one movie. It was a multi-movie idea, that we could establish a character, and then go with those crazy things — but at least you have a character that people can believe and know exists today. It was sort of a point-by-point thing as we went along.

"This our our Batman Begins — our Gotham — to Jem and the Holograms."

The hard part was, in the cartoon she’s Jerrica and Jem, and [her love interest] Rio doesn’t know that. She’s constantly debating whether to tell him or not, and which one is he going to choose? And those type of things just don’t translate to live action. I think you’d be like, "Wait, what, she’s waiting for him to choose her, or the other her?" Some of those things, even though it’s core to the cartoon, we have to make it something that people who don’t know anything about Jem can accept.

So for me, this is our Batman Begins — our Gotham — to Jem and the Holograms. So there’s more secrets to Synergy that we don’t know, more capabilities. Maybe even bigger connections that she can plug into. We know that The Misfits are coming, we know that whole side of it — the more deadly threats to Jem — are yet to come, but we knew we had to build to that.

Jem and the Holograms promotional stills (UNIVERSAL)

Aubrey Peeples (left) and director Jon M. Chu (right) on the set of Jem and the Holograms.

You made two movies with Justin Bieber, and with this story of a young girl who gets discovered on YouTube it’s hard not to see some comparisons. How much was his story in your mind when you were developing this project?

His story is really unique, and is actually very different from what Jerrica’s journey is. But in terms of the tools that we used to tell Never Say Never, that definitely had an influence. And definitely when I was making Never Say Never, watching Justin deal with all the things on the outside world, and then on the inside world, his personal life, it definitely made me sympathize with that kind of life. It’s like, wow, this kid is young to be dealing with all that stuff, and having people wanting everything from him — and everywhere he turns, somebody wants something from him. How does he figure out which one he is? That definitely had a thematic influence on our movie.

And then the tool of using YouTube videos [from fans in the film] — yes, we’re telling a rise to fame story, which we’ve heard a million times. But with this tool we can tell it in a way where the internet is a greek chorus. We have kids from all around the world who are creating and making things as part of our tapestry. And that is just as much of this time as music videos were of the ‘80s, when Jem would have music videos plopped into their cartoon. I thought that was such an interesting device to use, and one of the main reasons I wanted to do the movie in the first place.

Last year you, and producers Jason Blum and Scooter Braun put out a YouTube video asking people to submit auditions and designs. Are those the people that ended up in those YouTube scenes in the film?

Yeah, we got thousands and thousands. We asked for people who did fashion design, people who write music, people who acted, and we got tons of submissions. Some of the people we cast directly. Like Zipper [a record label bodyguard character], a lot of the fans in the crowd; there was a little girl in the movie. If they were in LA, we hired them in and actually cast them. And other ones, like the poster designs and things you see in the movie, were fan-designed stuff, which is really fun to use. And as we collected it, we’d sort of put it in the movie and play around with it. And eventually we found the most interesting ones, and it became built into our movie.

There is a version of the movie with no YouTube movies, just in case it was more distracting than anything else. We knew there was a danger in that, so we had to find that line. But it was a very organic way of having these videos fit into our movie. They had to tell a story; in a way they were a musical in itself. They had to push the story forward, or say something about the internet, or what she’s going through.

Jem and the Holograms promotional stills (UNIVERSAL)

At one point Juliette Lewis’ character says Jem is both talent and mystery, because nobody knows who she is. With social media such a vital tool for artists to promote themselves, it does feel like that mystery element is something we don’t see lot of anymore. Do you feel that trend has hurt the mystique of musical artists, or even filmmakers?

Oh, absolutely. I just think it’s a different era of icon. Icons used to be untouchable, so you’d only see Michael Jackson when he comes out at night, and you only see him when he does that one show — and everyone shows up to that show, because you never see him otherwise. Or when he shows up in Vegas; you get these crazy, blurry pictures of him. That mystique was a part of celebrity that has really gone the opposite way now. With Justin or other people, you have to be the most accessible person. The Kardashians are on every day, so they become part of your life. I’m not sure it’s better or worse; it’s just a different thing.

"Mystique was a part of celebrity that has really gone the opposite way now."

But then when you see something like Star Wars, they’re seeping it to us. They’re not giving us everything. J.J. Abrams knows exactly how to put just enough for us to want more, and you see that it is possible to still create mystery. WIth Jem, when we were doing the story, that was a big deal to us. How does this type of thing exist in this day and age? It was very difficult for us to make some sort of logic around how you could prevent someone from knowing your identity today. So we had to figure out a lot of runarounds to sell that idea, and make it part of her campaign that she was a mystery.

Jem seems to be saying that the only way it can really be pulled off is if there’s some sort of huge corporate entity backing and orchestrating the whole thing.

Yes, exactly.

Jem is now looked back on as having been a pretty empowering series for young girls. But there were some early criticisms of the movie from the original show’s creator, Christy Marx — who pointed out that the movie was written, directed, and produced by four men. I understand that you ended up reaching out and speaking with her. What was that conversation like, and did her thoughts end up impacting the film?

It was great. Her beef wasn’t with a male director and a male producer. Her thing was she had a history with Hasbro, and had pitched a bunch of things to them. I don’t exactly know, but I think there’s a lot of history with the company that I was not involved with, so I really wanted to reach out and be like, "Hey, I just want you to know who I am, so you know that I’m protecting what you created, and that I’m respectful to it." I’m not just doing this to burn the property; I’m really trying to build on the canon and create a different version, and update it. And she said, "I totally get that. I’ve written for many things that I’ve had to rebrand, and I understand that struggle of what the original person may think. I don’t have any issues, and I’m glad you called." The one thing she asked is what she wished she’d done in the series itself: pay more attention to the girls as sisters, and pay more attention to that sisterhood. I took that to heart, and our movie was about that sisterhood and family anyway, so it definitely helped. And she was kind enough to come and be in the movie, and she’s been a great supporter since then.

I’m sure it’s not easy whenever you make something 30 years ago and watch it redone, but I think we purposely used fans in the movie itself taking about how Jem affected them as a love letter and nod to what that original cartoon did and continues to do. And it doesn’t go away. This is just one version; our interpretation of the idea of what Jem is. And that was our message to [Christy] and all of the people who were involved in that first series. I hope people can see that. When you see these fans talk — and these are real fans, they’re not actors — talking about how it changed their life, I think you feel that as a real, genuine thing.

Jem and the Holograms is now playing nationwide.