Director Jon M. Chu has a varied resume – films that feature dancing teenagers, Justin Bieber, and G.I. Joes. Though his work is a seemingly random assortment of projects, Chu believes they are all connected in a fundamental way.
“They’re about families,” he told Inverse in late May while reclining on the love seat of a four-star midtown hotel. “They all have a different dialect. One is dance, one was music, one was action. This one is magic.”
Chu isn’t being romantic; he really means magic. His newest film, Now You See Me 2 is a follow-up to Louis Letterier’s 2013 summer caper about vigilante magicians evading law enforcement and their vengeful benefactor. In Chu’s sequel, the illusionists — including Mark Ruffalo, Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco — reunite (sans Isla Fisher, with Masters of Sex’s Lizzy Caplan subbing in) across Macau and London to ID a mysterious rival who might expose their secrets.
The film also stars Jay Chou, a Taiwanese pop star whose only other film role was in 2010’s The Green Hornet. As a prominent Asian-American filmmaker when Hollywood is criticized for keeping Asian from prime roles, Chu tells Inverse he hasn’t had many chances to diversify projects. “Subject matters I’ve been doing, dance, Justin Bieber, G.I. Joe, I’ve never come across that.”
It hasn’t stopped him from trying: Chu’s Step Up featured Asian talent in large part because of urban dance’s appeal to Asian millennials (Cornell University had an entire class on the phenomenon), while in G.I. Joe: Retaliation, Korean sensation Byung-Hun Lee reprised his Storm Shadow to fulfill the template set by the retro cartoon.
Before the release of Now You See Me 2 on June 10, John M. Chu spoke to Inverse about making magic on screen, the enchanting dynamic of his ensemble cast, and the voodoo it takes to elevate a movie into a franchise.
The first surprised many as an original idea that could become a franchise. What did you want to do in Now You See Me 2 that wasn’t there the first time?
It was a question of, “Does there deserve to be another movie?” We discussed the idea that you could be with the Horsemen. The first, the Horsemen were doing the trick to the audience, you couldn’t hang out [with them]. We were like, “Let’s change perspective and go behind the curtain, be with the Horsemen and figure the way out.” To me, [that was] a really interesting shift. We could show how magic tricks were done on a bigger scale. Also, new elements like Daniel Radcliffe and Lizzy Caplan stirring the pot was fun to do.
What tricks were performed for real? Or was the magic “movie magic”?
We wanted all tricks as live as possible. It makes my life easier, I don’t have to cut away. Dave Franco’s three-card monte, all real. If you watch that, we are not cutting away. We hold because we want you to know there is no pan out, he is doing that trick. It took more work on his part to learn how to present a trick like that, it took work on our crew to learn how to pull off, and any time anyone messed up [it] would be unusable.
Lizzy Caplan’s head chopped off, any other movie I would’ve done a CG head and a really easy shoot. This, every trick needs to feel with us. We had to build a real magic couch her head came off on. We spent God knows how much on R&D, magicians teach our people how to build these things. They should make a movie about magicians working with movies to create tricks for movies.
You cast a major Asian star in Jay Chou. Now You See Me 2 is his first Hollywood picture since The Green Hornet. Was it hard to get him involved? Is that hard with Asian stars in general?
People loved Now You See Me in China. I’m not in the dealings but I don’t think there was an issue. He was the coolest dude on set. He shot five music videos in London, got married at Leeds Castle while shooting. Everyone was like, “This guy is doing everything here.” It was cool and special to have him.
You’re attached to Crazy Rich Asians, a TV show based on Kevin Kwan’s novel. It’s big news, especially given the discussions about Hollywood’s whitewashing. What trouble do you expect bringing that subject to life?
Something like Crazy Rich Asians I’m attached to feels natural for me. It’s not some statement, it’s just reality. I love certain actors we are going to be recruiting, creating sort of an all-star Asian cast. For me, it’s just a way of what life is, not some sort big thing but I know how important that is to continue to expose people to the great talent that’s out there. I know it’s in the conversation. The more movies I do reminds me we still have a lot of work to open doors for talent to have Asian representation done fairly.
Lizzy Caplan had to replace Isla Fisher. What was that dynamic like with her coming aboard?
She did not skip a beat. As soon as she came in, she was as loud, rambunctious, dirtier than they were, fearless. Woody would always be up for the challenge. Like, you are going to try and out-dirty Woody? It sparked energy. When you work like they did on two movies, the banter can get stale. But when Lizzy was there, the whole thing spiced in an instant. That energy, that fun, the way they love each other on screen is how they are, which made making the movie a pleasure.
Level with me: How much did you joke about Daniel Radcliffe, ex-Harry Potter, doing magic here?
The jokes we made [were] ridiculous. This is a different character, and playing with that was fun. He’s actually a good magician, if you’ve seen him do stuff, he’s superb, so for him to do “bad” magic was even more fun. The first day, you could see him showing off. Everyone had been training, but he [did] often. His entrance, when he throws a card and misses everyone was cracking up because I’m not sure they knew he was going to play this “bad” magician.
You’re doing Now You See Me 3. How do you expect to raise the stakes after this film, which was considerably huge?
I don’t think it’s about being bigger. I think magic is a very interesting subject. The first movie tackled what magic is, and the second is how magic works because you see the inner workings, how it gets pulled off.
There’s so many other questions like, why magic works. Why we love magic? Because we want to believe in something. We value something that doesn’t actually have value, like paper with a dead president on it. The way a politician makes you believe something, the way a commercial makes you think you are going to be the most popular person. All those things are magic manipulation. When you have a crew that is the best basically liars in the world, how do you expose the bigger trick? Rather than thinking the movie itself, the idea of what magic is and why magic works is a very interesting subject.
Now You See Me 2 is out in theaters June 10.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.