Lorenzo di Bonaventura, for those who don’t know, is the driving force behind the Transformers and G.I. Joe movies. (And a lot of other stuff, but these are our topics today.) For these two properties, someone like Kevin Feige’s role at Marvel – at least as far as the person who makes a lot of the big decisions and being the spokesperson about where things are headed – is a fair comparison.
The approach I had with this interview was pretty much, “So where are we?” We know we have Snake Eyes coming out this weekend, which, after only two G.I. Joe movies, is a complete reboot of the franchise. And next year we have Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which comes after the Transformers franchise didn’t do a complete reboot with Bumblebee, but certainly rebooted its tone. So, again, where are we? What does Lorenzo di Bonaventura want to accomplish with future G.I. Joe movies? (He goes into a surprising amount of detail on future G.I. Joe projects that are in development.) And why is G.I. Joe such a tough nut to crack?
But, first, we start with Cobra Commander. A fan-favorite character that got a pretty unusual treatment in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra and now di Bonaventura explains why that character inherently rubs him the wrong way.
When do I get my Cobra Commander origin story movie?
It’s so funny. You know what? I have this funny reaction about Cobra Commander, which is he kind of looks like he’s from the KKK.
Not with that helmet.
Not with that helmet, you’re absolutely right.
The hood, I agree with you. Not a good look. But you can do the helmet and visor.
Yeah. You can do the visor for sure. I don’t know what the next one’s going to be.
Is that why you changed his look so drastically for the Joseph Gordon-Levitt version in The Rise of Cobra?
A little bit. Yeah. A little bit. I probably was the first person who went, “Are you guys sure? Doesn’t he look a little, like from the KKK?” And everybody’s looking at me like, “How dare you say that.” Some of the Hasbro guys were horrified. It was one of the reasons. The idea of why did you want to cover up his face was also interesting to us. What does he look like?
I’ve noticed Hasbro hasn’t put out a hooded version in the Classified series. It’s all the face shield. Maybe you influenced that.
Yeah. I think I might’ve affected that because I’m just like “Guys, it’s pretty obvious to me.” They kept saying, “You have to put it in, you have to put it in.” I’m like, “I will not put it in, whatever the vibe of that is.”
Every time I see marketing for ‘Snake Eyes’ it’s calling it a spinoff. Why isn’t the fact it’s a complete reboot put more out there?
I don’t know how to answer that one. Because I guess, I don’t know. I don’t know why that hasn’t gotten out there.
Because you’re “spinning it off.” I think that makes people think it’s spinning off from the other movies as opposed to starting something new.
Well, it’s probably too late for our messaging, but it’s never too late. We’ll work on that.
Why did you want to reboot after two movies?
I think, first of all, as you know, really as a fan, Snake Eyes is the most popular character and the dynamic between him and Storm Shadow is just too rich. And we thought that for the people who’ve grown up with it and know it, it’s such an interesting experience. Actually see Snake Eyes and hear him talk. And so we felt like that was really a lot of new news for the fan base.
Speaking of the fan base, do you worry they won’t like Snake Eyes talking? To be fair, when I was a kid, before I read the comics, my Snake Eyes action figure had a lot to say.
What’s great about having fans is they are so passionate, and what can be a burden is that they have a very strict interpretation of things at times. I just thought, first of all, it was really hard when he was in the G.I. Joe movies. He’s really a hard character because he doesn’t say anything. You know what I mean? And you can’t see him. I thought that was the interesting part. What is going on under that helmet? And who is that guy?
He worked well in the comics with Larry Hama writing him. But even in the cartoon, he didn’t do much. It was all Duke and Shipwreck and that parrot.
That parrot cracks me up.
I’m going to take that as a hint that the parrot is the next origin story.
Yeah. That would be funny. No, we actually wrote a script now that I’m remembering it. I’ll think about it while we’re talking. Because we did try a G.I. Joe script. Let me think. I’ve a distant memory coming, but I don’t have it…
It sounds like an interesting statement. I want to hear it.
There’s a couple things we have in development right now for G.I. Joe, which is not really origin stories. It is and it isn’t. But what is interesting is it takes a G.I. Joe and essentially brands him a traitor, and then the story is, how does he prove he’s not? And what I liked about that idea was how personal it was. I think that was the goal of Snake Eyes, to find a size of a movie that made you go, okay, we have time to develop the character. The burden of spending a lot of money is that it demands a different kind of movie. In this case, relatively speaking in Hollywood terms, it’s a middle-priced movie that allows you to spend time with the character and really explore what’s driving this guy.
Do you feel that was a problem in the first two movies? That there are so many characters?
I think it’s the problem with, frankly, almost any group, when you actually go to a group movie it splits the narrative so much that it’s tricky. I’ve done movies in the past where you pull the gang together and do the recruitment and go for the mission.
Obviously, in the world of this Snake Eyes movie, G.I. Joe already exists. But is the goal to do a few origin movies, then make a team movie?
I’m a little antithetical to this idea of planning the universe. I find there’s a certain rigidity to that, that doesn’t appeal to me at all.
I would counter that by saying you did two the other way and you are rebooting already. So that tells me you weren’t satisfied with how those went. If that strategy didn’t turn out the way you wanted for the first two, then why not maybe look into that a little bit?
Well, you’re giving me too much credit. I think I would say about the first two movies: I struggled sometimes with the tones of them. I think one of the things I was hoping to find here, and I think Robert Schwentke did a great job with it, is that it has a very unified tone and it takes itself seriously, but not too seriously. That’s what really appealed to me in terms of Snake Eyes: unveiling the character that people don’t know that much about.
I know you’re always going to have your fans who are like, “No, Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow fought in Vietnam together with Stalker, and Snake Eyes got blown up and lost his voice.”Look, I’m the whitest guy ever from the Midwest and I was disappointed that Snake Eyes was just some blonde white guy.
I always think the trick of any of these properties that people have some kind of really hard one allegiance to is the trick of the filmmakers, how do you move the story forward and make it fresh? I remember Transformers one, I don’t know how many times I read, “Michael Bay’s going to ruin my childhood.”
I remember the flames on Optimus Prime was the big problem.
It worked okay, didn’t it? And brought a whole new generation of fans.
Every time I talk to you, and you did it again just now, you’re basically like, “Hey, the Transformers movies worked.” But with G.I. Joe you always have this look on your face that’s it’s a tough nut to crack for movies. Why is that?
I think the hard part about G.I. Joe is that the very name still calls up that little green soldier that I grew up with. And there is a rub between that and the fantasy that was created. It fights it. The very name of it fights what the audience is expecting from it.
I know people who are not from the United States originally who will say, “No, I was never a fan of a toy series based on the U.S. Military.” And I’m like, “Oh, but the Larry Hama stuff.” And it’s still, “It’s not for me.”
I think that is part of the rub of it. That’s why I said, tonally, I think there’s some issues with the first two movies that either are too serious or too fantastic. And when we thought about doing this, there was a grounding effect about going infiltrating a Ninja clan that has a philosophy that our hero – which is hard to do in this time and age, to give a hero the amount of awards we give Henry – has to learn to be righteous, if you would. And switch. I think there’s a total thing with G.I. Joe that’s very tricky.
I asked Henry this, but if he winds up doing 10 of these movies, is eventually he going to be wearing a mask and not speaking?
Yeah. I would think so. Yeah, for sure.
Because he seemed into that idea. Still being paid and not having to say dialogue.
He might not like wearing that helmet all the time. I remember Ray Park, several times, taking that thing off and he was all sweat when he took it off. I think you want to get to that place where you see the helicopter crash – and we’ll pick a more modern war and see that transformation. I don’t know where, but I guess if we’re successful enough and I don’t know how to measure success right now, that’s what’s so tricky. I would have guessed that in the third movie, that’s when we would have done that.
If you got your way, what would you want the next chapter to be? Not of Snake Eyes, but just the next time you see G.I. Joe in general as a movie?
It’s funny, there’s 10 pages of one draft that got the tone exactly where I thought it should be. And I gave it to every director and every writer, and then they rejected it.
What was it?
The short version of it it was, one of the Joes is taken. The command says, “Nothing we could do.” Four or five of them band to say, “All right, we’re taking our leave.” They dress up in civies. And they go into a territory, let’s call it…
[Laughs] There you go, Val Verde, right. An environment in South America, the three borders, do you know what I’m thinking of? A triple frontier? The scene is they arrive, they have no money. They walk into a police station. They look at the most wanted posters on the wall. The police, the captain says, “What are you doing?” And they go, “Well, we’ll be back. We’re going to get this guy.” And our guys are smart enough. They’ve tapped into the phone line. So now they know where this wanted guy is and then there’s a hard cut. The end of the day, they walk in, they’ve got their guy and the police captain is like, “What?” So it’s clever. It’s fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, but it shows great competence actually. And it doesn’t require firepower to show the ingenuity of the team.
As you said, the Transformers worked. But, but by the fifth one, The Last Knight, it didn’t do as well. Then you did a dramatic tonal shift to Bumblebee. Will the next one, Rise of the Beasts, have the Bumblebee tone?
I think it was really because of the character. The character was so lovable and just so endearing that it led us to that, in a sense. I think it’s very hard to maintain a series over a long period of time, especially one where we’re carving it out each time. I think the audience, to some extent, just started to feel like we were a little bit of a one-trick pony. What we did was we switched it up and said, “Let’s do a really emotional heartwarming story with Bumblebee.” Christina Hodson did a great job with the script. It was almost like in the first draft you knew this was a really good idea. One of the hard things about that movie is that some of the fans really didn’t feel satisfied because there wasn’t enough, wham, smashing and crashing, et cetera. Where’s all the action?
Like that early Cybertron scene? Which is basically straight out of the cartoon.
Yeah. And on purpose. One of the reasons we picked Travis Knight to direct it was because he was a guy who grew up with it and really had this sort of intrinsic DNA in him. I think that’s really helpful.
When are the Transformers and G.I. Joe going to team up? They did this all the time in the comics.
You know, the truth of matter is, the studio has always been against that. Every regime that’s been at Paramount is against it because it’s taking two franchises and making them one, but I think it’s inevitable.
Universal is all but certain to do the Jurassic Park, Fast and Furious stunt. Once that makes like $7 billion, I think everyone’s going to change their mind on combining the two.
If they’re actually going to do something like that and it works, yes. Or maybe the audience will think that’s a little too cynical. I don’t know.
Do you really think there’s any human being out there that wouldn’t be there the first day for Fast and Furious and Jurassic Park? That would be the biggest movie of all time.
The dinosaurs are chasing the cars.
Or maybe the opposite, we don’t know. We’ve got to watch it to find out who’s chasing who.
Yeah, that’s true. That’s funny. I do think it’s inevitable. I just think that we haven’t run out of storytelling yet to require us to put them together in a sense. I don’t know about you, but Alien vs. Predator, in a way, besmirched both of them.
Okay, but that was a long time ago.
I’m an old-timer. I learned the lessons. Yeah, I think it’s a possibility, there’s no doubt about it. It comes up almost every single time we start to debate what the next script is in either one of them. Then it gets pushed aside and then it’ll come up again.
I’m imagining that one person in the room every time, “What if we…”
Well, it’s funny, Steven Caple, who’s directing Transformers right now, is a huge G.I. Joe fan, too. And he was like, “Why aren’t you doing that?” Everyone was like, “Well, try to make a Transformers movie really good. Then we’ll talk about that.” Maybe Steven will be the one to crack through because he loves them both so much.
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