When I was an undergraduate in film school at USC, there was a kid a year younger than me (class of 2002) named Jon Chu.
I never knew him well, but it was clear from a distance that he was a smart guy, very approachable, and diligent about his work. And, by the time he graduated he had cultivated a certain aura of inevitable success – a golden boy kind of thing. Even in our highly competitive program, which featured a higher than average amount of resentment and gossip, it seemed like nobody had a bad word to say about him.
My senior year I was chosen to be the student representative on the panel that was deciding who would get to direct an advanced project the following semester – kind of an undergraduate thesis film, a coveted role given to only four out of 50 students per semester.
As the panel of professors discussed the 15-20 proposals that had been submitted, I was struck by the impression that there seemed to be a tacit agreement at the outset of the whole process that Jon would be one of the four directors we would choose.
When we came to his proposal we didn’t even talk about it very much. He was one of the shining stars of the program, he had earned it – the assumption was in place. I think he would’ve had to work hard at screwing up his proposal or pitch to seriously jeopardize his chances.
After graduation Jon went on to win some awards and get a lot of attention, including an agent and a manager – he was living the film school dream. And, he was working his ass off the whole time – as far as I know, it was still rare for his peers to begrudge him his success. Moreover, the aura of inevitability was still intact and paying dividends.
I interviewed him on video four years after graduation, in 2006. Excerpts from that interview are here, and it’s highly worth watching, I think.
His journey was far from a smooth ride – there were some pretty epic disappointments and setbacks along the way. But of course he persevered, and soon he directed his first feature film, and his second, and third.
What impresses me most about him is his clear vision of what he wants, what’s missing from the system, and how he can fit into it.
He was a dancer, and he loved the kind of hip-hop dancing that was going on in the world but that wasn’t especially reflected in mainstream film culture, and he saw this resource – all these underappreciated dancers around the world who were using youtube to create a community for themselves. It seems obvious in retrospect, but at the time it was a career-making inspiration (we’re talking about 2005 here): he decided that he would be the one to tap into that resource and make a movie celebrating those dancers.
His first film, which was originally intended to be a direct-to-DVD, throwaway sequel (you can hear all about it in the interview link above) – opened the door to all of these opportunities, a web-based dance serial called the LXD, of course Mr. Bieber… and throughout all of it, there was Jon, working diligently, being golden.
And in short, that’s what I want from my Fine Arts MFA experience. I don’t know if I can achieve the level of success that Jon has achieved / is achieving / will achieve… but he remains a model for me of how to fit your own passion into the bigger picture: how to find a synthesis between what you do and what the world needs (or at least, what the world wants). That’s what I’m looking for… I’m no Jon M. Chu, and the world of media art isn’t Hollywood, but it seems like the basic equation is the same.
I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out…