As I’ve said many times, while it’s always great to talk to actors, if you really want to find out why certain decisions were made on a film, you always want to talk to the director and the producers. In the case of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, the set of which I visited in 2011, the one who provided the most of the information about the sequel was Lorenzo di Bonaventura (who also produced the first G.I. Joe and a few other movies like the Transformers franchise, Red, Red 2, Salt, , The Last Stand, Side Effects , Jack Ryan, and many more).
During an extended group interview on set, di Bonaventura talked about the differences between Retaliation and the first film, the sequel’s tone, Cobra Commander’s mask, Destro, the action, new castmembers like Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis, director Jon M. Chu, the merchandising, the humor, and so much more. If you’re a Joe fan, it’s a great read. Hit the jump to check it out.
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I think tone is probably the biggest difference. Paramount came to me with John as the way to do it and looking at his past work I wasn’t sure what that meant in terms of what he’s done and how that would apply to what this was. And so we really talked a great deal initially about, one, he grew up with Joe and he really understood it and so I knew immediately that he had an internal grounding in it that was really good. It wasn’t a fantasy to him. It was part of his childhood. So there was this innate understanding and we talked a lot about tone and what he liked and what he liked about Joe growing up and what he would try and apply to it today – versus what we had done originally. And so we kept talking about how do you give this thing as much intensity on a physical level and still play within the boundaries of what it is. The script we had developed prior to him joining on, which pretty much stayed the same, we kept making it better but we played a lot more Kung-Fu in this movie. The storyline between Snake and Storm is… there’s two storylines that are going on: the Joes as well as Snake and Storm and these storylines then converge. So you spend a great deal of time in that world as you can see. It was great to get The RZA to be the Blind Master – one of our favorite casting choices. And I think we had a hell of a lot more time to prepare this movie than the last one and so the costuming and the sets have reflected the amount of time we had.
The title Retaliation is that Cobra retaliating or is that the Joes?
di Bonaventura: It’s actually both. You’ll see in the movie it goes back and forth between who is doing what. I don’t think you could actually pin it on one or the other. More than anything what we liked about it was the attitude about it – it said ‘there’s an aggressive movie going on.’
You’re walking a fine line between rebooting and sequelizing this round – how do you walk that line in terms of trying a different tone this time but you really want people to enjoy the first movie.
di Bonaventura: It is tricky. I was trying to think back when we started first talking about the fact we were going to try to, I’ll say, reenergize the cast – if anybody had really tried that in a way. I think either people abandon everything and start over or hold onto everything. I couldn’t think of one and I’m sure you guys probably know better. There’s probably one you’ll figure out but I think in a way the Jonathan Pryce story grounds the movie. Because having the President of the United States, those of us that saw the first movie, know where he’s starting out in this movie – and those of you who don’t have a good surprise. That’s such a jewel, when have you ever had that opportunity to play the White House that way? So we wanted to hold on to that. Then we also said, you can’t just have one or two of those elements you have to have a few of those elements. So we, by process of elimination or by process of feeling our way through it, came to this sort of balance. It’s interesting because, I’ve watched a lot of the footage, and it doesn’t feel like we’ve stepped away and yet we have. It’s a really interesting thing. I can’t really explain it because it was a sort of ‘feel your way through it.’ One of the things we wanted to do was we wanted to try to bring an uptick of machismo to the cast and with Rock and Bruce we sort of got a lot right there. Boom. But at the same time when you look at some of the secondary characters now, like Walt Goggins who is a great actor and he has a really fun role. Joe [Mazzello] is in there – and the RZA. I think all of those things have brought a different flavor, and at the same time, it’s Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow and we’re fighting the same battle – a new and improved Cobra.
Are there any Cobra characters that are returning?
di Bonaventura: Well you saw Cobra Commander there. That was him.
Can you say who is playing him – because obviously Joseph Gordon-Levitt is not back?
di Bonaventura: A guy names Luke Bracey is playing him. He’s an Australian actor – not very well known.
Is he going to be behind the mask the whole movie then?
di Bonaventura: Yah he will be.
Is the hood in there?
di Bonaventura: The hood is not in there. I’m personally opposed to the hood. I think it’s KKK and I don’t think it’s a cool thing to show kids. So, for me, I didn’t grow up with it in the same way that a lot of people did and I understand their feelings about it but, for me, I can’t put that symbolism into it.
A lot of people are doing 3D. Could you talk about the motivation behind not shooting Retaliation in 3D?
di Bonaventura: First it starts with cost. It’s incredibly expensive to do right and I think that it wouldn’t surprise me, if we get lucky enough and we blow out, that the third one would be in 3D. But it’s really expensive, I mean having done it in Transformers, it is tens and tens of millions of dollars to do right and that’s a huge commitment on the studio’s part. And it is also, for the filmmaking team, it is a big hurdle and we have a very short post. So those two things sort of worked against it.
There’s a lot of practical effects in the sizzle reel footage – are you consciously stepping in the direction of practical effects?
di Bonaventura: For sure, it’s part of the attitude notion I was talking about where you ground it. ‘Gravity’ is a favorite word of ours in this movie. How do we give everything a sense of gravity? So there’s a ton of special effects and ton of practical things that are done that we’re not relying on visual effects as much. There will be a couple pretty wild, I can definitely say there’s one action sequence in this that you’ve never seen anything like it and that’s going to be a mixture of practical and visual effects – and it is really nuts. So there are a few, couple, scenes that are going to rely on it but, when we do it, we’re blowing it out. Other than that we’re not going to use it that much.
Can you tell us who some of the characters are in the plane we saw in the sizzle reel?
di Bonaventura: One of those characters is Grunt and… Clutch. The other guys are sort of “Andy” Joes but those two guys are there and you do meet them in the movie – and Mouse, that’s Joe Mazzello.
di Bonaventura: Don’t be so sure. You never know. I think we’ll explain a little bit and I think also the universe is so big you can’t really deal with everybody. So, there’s definitely a move in the movie where we reduce the number of people that we are trying to deal with. But you know for instance, Bruce’s character is the original Joe, Joe Colton. So, that’s another Joe that we’ve added to the mix and it’s really kind of a fun intro you get with him in the movie. And that was one of the things with his character in particular – one of the experiences I had on the first movie was… there are those people who grew up with the 80’s Joe and there’s the people who grew up with the Joe before the 80’s – and the people before the 80’s were, ‘What the hell is this?’ a little bit. You know, they liked the movie but they were kind of like, ‘Where’s my Joe?’ Bruce is their Joe. You know, it’s a very conscious nod to my age group who grew up with it. Bruce did too. He had some funny stories about what he did to his G.I. Joe action figures – as do we all I’m sure. In a way bringing him into the movie and by bringing that sort of, I’ll call ‘down and dirty ethic’ of that simple thing called Joe. It also, again, gave it some gravity. It is kind of fun though. You see his house like, you know, he lifts up the stove and there’s all those guns underneath and basically anything you open in his house or anything you lift up, the cushions on the sofa, anything, there’s guns underneath. So, he may be semi-retired but he’s ready for action.
Does Joe Colton serve the same function as Dennis Quaid’s character from the first film?
di Bonaventura: No he’s not. We don’t really have a character like that in the movie. I mean he plays the most senior guy and they come to him for advice and help but he’s not the commander. He’s retired actually at the beginning of the movie.
Are you holding onto any of the fantastical elements from the last film or the cartoon? Like The Pit?
di Bonaventura: Well we pay homage to The Pit – would be the right way of saying it. We make a kind of fun homage towards it. It’s not the same as in the first movie. It was abandoned at the end of the first movie, if you remember. So, there’s a little bit of a funny nod to it later in the movie.
di Bonaventura: I guess that’s probably because of Bruce and Rock but that sort of goes [Boom]. You know, at the same time Elodie Yung, who plays Jinx is the woman from District 13 Ultimatum, remember her? Pretty badass, she’s doing all that. Pretty awesome. You know, Ray Stevenson comes with all his… you know. I don’t think it was a conscious thing one way or another. I think we were just trying to find the best cast for Firefly, for Jinx, for Joe Colton. So I think there wasn’t really real purposeful intent.
In terms of the dynamic, how has it been for Channing Tatum, who was the center of the last film, to introduce guys as gigantic as Dwayne and Bruce into the mix who are such huge forces of charisma when they come into a film.
di Bonaventura: I think it’s been pretty seamless actually. He’s got a lot of stuff on his plate so it sort of took a little bit of the pressure off of him and put the pressure on a few other guys’ shoulders at the same time. So I think it’s actually kind of a fun thing for him. He was like, ‘I’m a fan of Bruce Willis. This is great.’ So I think it has turned into a fun thing for him.
Did SAG pass a rule that Dwayne has to be in sequels to every other franchise?
di Bonaventura: We’ll have to ask them. Not so bad huh? If you can get ‘em, board ‘em.
This one looks like it’s heavy on the vehicles as well.
di Bonaventura: The difference really between the two movies is, because we didn’t have a lot of time almost every vehicle was either very simple or it was CG. This movie we had time to sit down and say, ‘Alright, what would his fan boat look like and how many guns does it have on it? What’s its armor like?’ All the things you do when you have enough time. So I think we were able to build a lot more, I know we were able to build a lot more things, so we were probably able to get a lot more variety in the vehicle and a lot more detail in particular.
Do you guys have a few really big action set pieces or a lot of little ones throughout the movie?
di Bonaventura: I think we have two really big ones and we have another couple that are pretty big and there’s a lot of little ones. There’s a lot of action in this movie – we’re not short of it. That’s for sure. I think because we swung, I’ll say more Kung Fu, it tends to be a little bit smaller but not necessarily less spectacular – because we can do some wild stuff with the people. Byung-hun is an awesome marshal artist as is Elodie as is Ray. So you’re able to do a lot more things – so we have actually more people who know what they’re doing.
How has the development of the story changed overtime or has it been pretty constant – given that you’ve been developing this for some time?
di Bonaventura: It’s actually been a staggeringly constant arrow. We sat down and said, you know, ‘What was the feedback from the first movie that people liked? What were they missing’ and we sort of put all that stuff into a basket and go, ‘Alright, what can we pull out of that?’ And one of the things that we had always thought was interesting was the Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow relationship and what happened in the backstory and why are they such archenemies and is there in fact a reason? Is there betrayal? What is that? So we actually seized on that very early and we explore both the backstory and the result of the backstory in this movie a lot. The movie akin to it the most is probably Empire Strikes Back in that Luke’s off with Yoda and our guys are fighting the battle. This movie does that for quite a period of time actually. Snake Eyes/Storm Shadow’s story goes on down one track and the Joe’s story goes down another track – and I’m guessing around the end of the second act is when the two tracks hit each other.
How soon after the other film does this one take place?
di Bonaventura: A couple years – because the President is still in office. We actually had to sort of think that through, ‘Let’s see, let’s see, because I think we said it was in the second term.’ So we had a lot of thinking, but roughly two years later.
How organized is their scope in this movie? Are we going to see thousands of Cobra troops like in the comics?
di Bonaventura: No you won’t see thousands but you may see hundreds but you won’t see thousands. We’re not doing a battle scene in the way that… I think in a way Cobra at the end of the first movie is imprisoned, so this movie is a lot about regaining form if you would. And rebuilding. So, at the same time, they have infiltrated the White House and that gives you a certain amount of resources you never could have had in the first movie. So, it’s sort of that balance that we’re trying to play of it. He’s not at full power at the beginning of the movie if you would but, by the end of the movie, he’s pretty close to full power – short of doing that kind of gigantic scene.
Is Cobra a known organization to the public in this film?
di Bonaventura: They will be.
This is a different movie for Jon (Chu) and action can be really daunting with giant sequences like this. How has he adapted to it and how are you feeling as producer?
di Bonaventura: Look, it was my biggest question when I sat down with him – it’s like, there’s a certain sort of intuitive understanding of action that, if you’ve done a lot of action movies, you either build it or you have it and you recognize it in others. I think Jon had some intuition on it, he just hasn’t had a lot of opportunity on it. We surrounded him with a lot of people who have done a lot of action and he’s got great ideas about action. So he may not have had the full skillset to deal with everything – but he was given the tools to deal with it. Our second unit guy, George Ruge, is awesome. We have a great fight coordinator, we brought in Byung-hun’s double, we call him Doo, Doo-Hong Jung, he’s like Korea’s open-handed fighting champion. So there’s a lot of people on this movie, Herb Gains, our executive producer, has done a lot of action, I’ve done a lot of action. So, I think if you have the instincts, which he does, we as professionals can give him the means to achieve the end.
di Bonaventura: Absolutely, they know how to conduct themselves and, you know, Byung-hun has a very clear idea about what he wants to do. Jon has a strength that I haven’t seen in a lot of directors… he actually listens to everybody. He has a really uncanny ability to get everything out of everybody around him and the result is, hopefully, that the stew is a little bit better as a result of that. Steve Windon shot Fast Five – so he’s got some really great instincts about where cameras should move and that’s one of the things I liked about Fast Five was I thought the camera work had a lot of energy and intent to it – and that’s why we picked him actually was to give that sort of energy to the DP and make sure it’s not scenic.
What’s the shooting schedule like on this one and how does it compare to the first film?
di Bonaventura: It’s roughly the same number of days. It might be the exact same number of days. I can’t remember the first one. I want to say the first one was 72 or 73 days and we’re 72 or 73 days
Herb Gains: With 61 days second unit.
di Bonaventura: There’s a little more second unit on this.
That’s a lot of second unit.
di Bonaventura: There’s an amazing amount of time-consuming action in this – especially when you start getting into Kung-Fu pieces. They take a long time, to do them right. This movie does mimic the other movie in a way that it starts in South Korea and goes into the DMZ (Korean Demilitarized Zone), it goes to Islamabad, it goes to Washington D.C., it goes to Germany, it goes to South Carolina, Tokyo, and there’s brief stop in India, very brief. So there’s a big sort of scale to it that all that stuff happens more at the end of the shoot than at the beginning. So that’s why you’re not seeing Tokyo and all that [in the footage].
Obviously merchandising is a big component of a franchise like this, how far out have you guys been planning what you want to see merchandising wise? Do you have a video game planned? What kind of talks with Hasbro have you had about new toys?
di Bonaventura: You know Hasbro is really in charge of the merchandising and we participate with them and we’ve been planning it for quite a while. I think the biggest change is there are more vehicles, there are more details for them to take advantage of. There’s a very funny Nerf gun thing in the movie. It’s actually in the movie – whether Hasbro had been or not we would have done the gag. It’s a very funny gag. I think it’s a little more evolved because we were able to spend more time getting ready for it. So Hasbro is better prepared as well. The last time was such a rocket ship from – they greenlit us October 31st and we were shooting February 10th or something, February 2nd – so we never even got a rewrite on the script. So we got one draft and then we were going. So that didn’t give much preparation for them or for us.
How many days have you been on the shoot? You’re producing a number of different things, so what is your schedule like?
di Bonaventura: I’m here most of the time is how I’d describe it. We just started ‘The Last Stand’ last week, so that got a little more complicated. And that director [Jee-woon Kim] is doing a great job too. He’s amazingly talented.