When I was growing up, I dreamt of the day I’d see “Transformers” on the big screen. Last summer I got my wish, as director Michael Bay delivered a kick-ass movie and the film made buckets of money around the world. In fact, the movie did so well that Michael is currently in pre-production on the sequel, and they’re getting ready to film it this summer.
For me, last summer was amazing. I got that dream project and it turned out great. But for millions of others who also grew up in the 80’s, they were still waiting and dreaming of their wish project…they were waiting on “G.I. Joe.”
So thanks (at least partly) to the success of “Transformers,” director Stephen Sommers is currently hard at work filming a movie version of “G.I Joe” that’ll hit movie screens in August of 2009.
Since I know many of you care about “G.I. Joe” and are curious what’s up with the movie, when I got the opportunity to speak with Lorenzo di Bonaventura – the producer behind “The Matrix,” “Oceans 11,” “Harry Potter,” “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe” – I knew it was going to be something special not only for the site…but for all the fans dying to know what they can expect when “G.I. Joe” hits the big screen.
During my interview with Lorenzo, I tried to ask all the questions a fan of “Joe” would want to know. Of course I’m sure I missed something, but I’m very confident after this interview you’ll know a lot more about the project and will feel more confident that it’s being done with care and love.
Of course a big thank you has to go to Lorenzo for giving me some of his time. And with that, here’s my exclusive interview with the producer of “G.I. Joe.” I hope you like it.
Collider: Since we’re going to have a few minutes, I think a lot of people out there would like to know what it’s really like to produce movies, to be in that position that you’re in. So what exactly is like a typical week for you?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: One of the great things about it is there’s nothing typical and I think that for me that’s one of the great things about being a producer is that you’re sort of a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And you’re constantly running to the next problem, the next idea, the next creative notion, so there is no sort of…the rhythm is continuously changing. And for me that’s really invigorating, I know for some people they find that really destabilizing because there’s no sense of okay, today we do this, tomorrow we do that, a, b, c, d, e you’re a, z, w, f and you keep going and so as a producer what I love is you can stimulate all the different parts of your brain that you want. I mean it’s open to you, particularly on some of these big movies where you’re creative, a businessman, you’re a financial analyst, there’s all these different hats you get to wear for a short period of time before you put the next one on.
Collider: Are there certain movies that are easier to produce or are they all just as challenging?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: You know, I don’t have experience in…I’ve only made a few movies that are in the $20 million—high teens low 20’s—so I can’t say I’m much of an expert on those kinds of movies, but my experience is that every movie has a myriad of problems that you have to solve and it really doesn’t have anything to do with how much it costs or how little it costs because they all have the same problems and sometimes having a lot of money can create a problem because you have sort of an infinite horizon and sometimes having no money forces a creative choice on you that’s fantastic and other times you don’t have the flexibility when you don’t have enough money to do something. You know, you can come up with this great idea but you don’t have it so my guess is that all movies have the exact same thing which is there’s the pros and cons of how big they are. At the end of the day they’re all a lot of problems. They’re good problems, you know?
Collider: I think a lot of people are also curious—myself included—when you have a property, let’s say “GI Joe’ or “Transformers” or whatever property you’d like to talk about, how does it exactly work with getting the studio behind it? How does it all come together for you?
Lorenzo: Well, it’s a 2-step—it’s not a 2-step, it’s a multi-step process. First you have to get excited about it yourself. Depending on the property, you may have to get a director or writer excited about it before it’s capable of being brought to a studio, so they can sort of see more of it than just the germ. Then there’s usually a number of layers that you’re going through in terms of the studio, so you have to be willing to hear no a bunch of times before they finally say yes. I can say that as an executive it was true, trying to get Matrix made in my own company. I’m President of Production and I got said no to all the time by my bosses on the movie to now as a producer whether it be “GI Joe,” or “Transformers,” or “Nowhereland,” which is an Eddie Murphy movie we just finished. You’ve got to go to the studio, you’ve got to convince them of why it has merit and you’ve got to get them emotionally attached to it. That’s the key is getting them emotionally attached to it.
Collider: Is it any easier with the success of Transformers with the studio per say a G.I. Joe? Is it more, you know, they understand now what’s out there?
Lorenzo: Yeah, of course. But you know, they wouldn’t spend this kind of money if they didn’t fundamentally understand it because having been on that side, you’re just not going to roll the dice on well, that guy thinks it’s a good idea. I mean, there’s a few guys that you can look at their track records and say over and over again you’re going to do it, but by and large when you go to this kind of money we’re talking about, $100 million plus, the studio has to be convinced of what it is. Now, are they convinced of all of it? No, and part of our process as filmmakers is they don’t have enough time to spend it to learn it inside and out, we do. So our job is to filter it for them and be able to bring forward the best ideas so that they can gravitate to what we’re gravitating to on a large scale.
Collider: And I guess because you produced Transformers, how would you compare taking another popular 80’s, cartoon toy property, what’s the challenges of this one? And can you…?
Lorenzo: They’re completely different. I mean, to me I don’t look at them as toy properties number 1. I understand why people say that but I don’t look at them that way. I look at them as mythologies. So, G.I. Joe is a really, really in depth mythology and Transformers is a really in depth mythology and for me the reason I gravitated towards both things was because of their storytelling, you know. The characters involved and intertwined nature and G.I. Joe it’s very funny how everybody’s very intertwined. It’s very different than in a lot of the comic book mythologies I’ve run into. The lines between good and evil are drawn differently. I think the Storm Shadow and Snake-Eyes, it’s a great thing and is Storm Shadow evil? Well, some people think so. I don’t. Is Snake-eyes also righteous in this? I’m not so sure, he’s blaming his buddy for something he may or may not have done, you know, so it’s that interesting duality where the characters live in a world that’s good guys and bad guys but it’s also a gray area.
Collider: You have a hell of a cast, but it seems daunting to be able to introduce all of these characters and give back stories? What’s that going to be like?
Lorenzo: Well, it’s a hard question to answer. We think we’re going to deliver on all the characters. We think the script actually delivers really well and sets up each character. You’re going to understand the back-stories of virtually every major character and then you’re going to understand the roles of the ones you don’t. You may not know everything you know if you’ve read the comic book but you’re going to recognize them if you’ve read the comic book and you’re certainly going to want to know more about them by the end of it which is part of the tease. And there’s some character info that will be new to the comic fans.
Collider: A lot of people are curious about the tone of the movie and perhaps the age range that you guys are aiming at. How would you answer that question?
Lorenzo: I’d say…it’s interesting. I don’t really…it would be disingenuous to say you don’t think about that at all but in truth you try to find something that you think is pretty cool and then you sort of say to yourself oh, who’s this going to appeal to, you know? When you try to do it the other way around it never works. Oh, let’s make something for 12 year olds; oh let’s make something for 20 year olds. It just doesn’t work, in my experience. You know for us, we think the people who grew up with the comic book and the animated show are going to be our core audience. We think that the older audience that identifies with the pre-83 Joe is going to have some education to go through but are going to relate to the title because the values of it are the same. The storytelling is different but if you think about the values, they’re very similar, you know? Integrity, honesty, bravery, courage, you know things like that that I think you just associate with both versions of G.I. Joe. It’s an all audience movie. I mean, there are 2 really strong romances. There are a lot of things in there that’s going to appeal to people.
Collider: I wanted to ask you with Joe, a lot of people are curious if it’s going to be PG, PG-13. How are you going to handle the violence? You know, is Cobra Commander going to be really evil?
Lorenzo: It’s going to be PG-13.
Collider: So are we going to see…because I asked Dennis Quaid this and he was talking about the way…he compared it to Spider-Man how it’s a bloodless violence. Is that kind of a similar….?
Lorenzo: Yeah, that’s fair to say. Look I’ve been involved with a lot of R-rated movies and a lot of PG-13. You just sort of begin to understand the difference and Stephen Sommers has no intention of making an R-rated movie and it would be silly to do so because you should appeal down to kids.
Collider: About Stephen Sommers, a lot of people online have really been…there’s been a polarizing kind of thing. What was it about Stephen that you guys as the studio and producer kind of felt he’s the right man for the job?
Lorenzo: He’s just…his enthusiasm, his excitement, his sense of adventure, his embracing of the mythology, his understanding of the characters. So I think that more than anything it was just he immediately got the sort of central precepts of what this mythology offered, embraced them and has such a great sense of adventure and fun about it, you know, when you make a movie like G.I. Joe, we’re not taking ourselves seriously, we take the movie making seriously but it’s a fun movie. And Steve really embraces that notion. It’s like we want to make great action sequences and great romances and all those things that entertain you, but we’re not trying to tell you that we’re going to give the world a message here.
Collider: Speaking of action set pieces, Transformers had a few of them that were pretty daunting. What can fans look forward to with G.I. Joe with those kinds of action set pieces? Are there a lot of little ones or are we going to look forward to a lot of a few really big ones?
Lorenzo: In G.I. Joe, yeah, there’ll be 2 or 3 really big ones and a couple of sort of medium/small ones. It’s very different; it’s hard to describe it actually. I remember in The Matrix, we sold the Matrix to understand it you have to see it. It’s one of those things where the tone and scale and personality are singular to themselves and we hope the audience can connect with that.
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Collider: A lot of people associate Joe as an American kind of thing, like an American mythology. How are you going to make it so it’s or are you going to make it so it’s a world-wide kind of thing?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: One of the aspects that I find when you read the comic book—forget the pre-83 Joe because its clearly what that is—but when you read the comic book, it’s a group of good guys going after a group of bad guys. We have a really interesting international cast and I personally view the world in a very polyglot sort of way, go Barack Obama, and so we wanted the movie to really reflect a modern worldview.
Collider: Actually, not about Joe or Transformers, but you’ve now brought 2 popular properties from the 80’s—Transformers and Joe—you’re bringing them to the big screen. Is there another 80’s property like a Thundercats?
Lorenzo: I wish.
Collider: A big question with fans that have seen the costumes is, are the people in the movie wearing the same outfits the entire time?
Lorenzo: I would say each character has more than one outfit, by in large, other than of course Snake Eyes, but everybody else has multiple looks. So, yeah, they’re always in costume but there are multiple looks.
Collider: Fandom seems to think that everyone’s wearing black all the time. So what do you want to tell fandom that they can look forward to? What are they going to be impressed with the costumes and with the look of the film?
Lorenzo: Well, I think our costume designer’s phenomenal and she’s just done a great job in delivering a very varied look. You know, Snake Eyes is a character in black so he would be in black and you know we looked through all the comic books and The Baroness and unless we’re missing something she’s always in black. Every character in the movie is not in black all the way through including – other than Snake Eyes – who has to be in black all the way through. So, you know, there’s multiple looks that for each of those characters that you’ll see them in different color schemes and in different attitudes I’d say.
Collider: So the next thing, with the movie version of Joe, how would you describe the movie of Joe as compared to say the comic book, the cartoon, what are fans of the original stuff—even back in the 60’s—what do you think the movie is closest to in terms of tone or the feel of the film?
Lorenzo: That’s an interesting question. I guess it’s definitely a comic book movie and it’s definitely has a great sense of humor, so there’s a lot of humor and a lot of drama and a lot of action. It’s a hard one to pin down. All movies tones are hard until you see them. I would say there’s an equal measure of all 3 of those things in the movie.
Collider: So how has filming been going so far? Where are you in the schedule and when do you leave for Prague?
We’re at day 50, I think, today and we’re doing great. Stephen is on schedule and delivering some great footage. We leave for Prague May 8th—or…yeah, May 8th.
Collider: And what is exactly being filmed in Prague?
Ah, there’s a series of things being filmed in Prague, but part of the movie takes place in Paris and part of the movie takes place in…well, there’s multiple locations around the world and Prague is serving for 2 or 3 of them.
Collider: And are you bringing the whole cast over there? Is it selected?
I think it’s almost 100% but not quite 100% because I think a couple of them are done, like General Hawk is done and I think Joseph Gordon-Levitt is done, but I think other than those 2 everybody’s there.
Collider: So you’ve been filming in Downey. Was there a specific reason for shooting there and I heard they have a rather large soundstage there?
Yeah, they have a gigantic soundstage. Paramount was so aggressive to get the movie going that we needed stage space right away and we needed large stage space and Downey fit the bill on both counts, so we were able to locate most of the production in one location.
Collider: And I know “G.I. Joe” is famous for having The Pit. How was it working in that…did you guys build The Pit in like a full-size kind of thing? I’m just curious what you did.
Lorenzo: We built a couple of the levels of The Pit as Stephen has imagined it and Ed Verreaux, our designer, is really gigantic so you couldn’t really build all of it, but so some of it. But we built a full floor of it which is gigantic. I think everybody’s going to be really happy that we took The Pit very seriously and built it to fulfill anybody’s sense of fantasy of what it could be.
Collider: So for fans of Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes which go back a long, long time, what can they look forward to about their involvement in the film and have you already filmed a battle with them and how did it turn out?
Lorenzo: We’re really exploring the mythology and we hope that the mythology, if we’re lucky enough to get to a 2nd film, we want to continue to explore the mythology of the two characters. It’s very rich and this movie explores a lot about how they met at first and how they fell apart. And yes we have shot a fight between the 2 of them and we hope that everybody’s going to agree with us that it’s going to be one of those great battles.
Collider: And so I think a lot of fans out there are curious, how is the movie going to enter the world of Joe? How are we going to become familiar with their universe?
Lorenzo: You know we treated—like a lot of movies—that it exists and therefore we don’t try to explain its existence, we treat it as though it is a part of our world.
Collider: Which cast member did the most work researching their role?
Lorenzo: You know, I’m not sure. The good news is that everybody got really excited about the origin story of their character and everybody did a lot of research so I don’t know that anybody did more than other to tell you the truth.
Collider: Does it get any easier making a big budget movie now that you’ve done a few of them?
Collider: Do you ever get sinus infections from doing them?
Lorenzo: (laughter) Yeah, sadly yes.
Collider: You’ve been on-set almost every day. What’s that like? Is it an enjoyable challenge, you know, what’s the experience like?
Lorenzo: It’s totally enjoyable. It is a challenge every single day and if you like challenges then it gives you…it’s sort of an adrenalin rush to try to deal with all the things that come at you. The particular challenge that this movie presented itself was how quickly we got it off the ground and that brings with it exciting decision making which is you’ve got to make your decision and keep moving…each decision is very important so we spent a lot of time and effort on each one but once made we have to keep moving, so that’s an advantage and in terms of you have to be decisive and it’s an added amount of pressure because you’re having to do it in a limited time frame.
Collider: As the producer, was there ever any thought of doing “G.I. Joe” in 3-D or is it still too soon for a big, big property like this?
Lorenzo: To be honest with you, we’re so crazy trying to focus on getting this movie made. Haven’t thought a bit about it.