[NOTE: The following interview contains MINOR SPOILERS for Transformers: Age of Extinction]
Optimus Prime and his Autobot allies are back for a new big screen adventure in Transformers: Age of Extinction – and while some longtime fans of the “robots in disguise” still feel burned by Michael Bay’s live-action franchise, the film series continues to rake in massive box office returns. Together, Transformers 1-3 have pulled in over $2.6 billion in ticket sales around the world – not to mention the countless toys, t-shirts, video games, and other tie-in memorabilia, that the movies have spawned.
Nevertheless, in spite of all that financial success, the films have not always been a hit with critics and moviegoers that require more than CGI spectacle to be entertained. To that end, the filmmakers made sweeping changes in preparation for their latest installment – adopting a (slightly) more mature tone, swapping out human protagonists, and drastically altering the robot cast. The result isn’t likely to win over skeptics (read our Transformers: Age of Extinction review) but should please returning fans who are eager for another dose of big screen robot vs. robot warfare – delivering another successful box office turn for the property.
While Bay can be credited with capturing the Cybertronians on the big screen, producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura has been instrumental in developing each installment of the franchise. In addition to the Transformers series, di Bonaventura produced the original Constantine film, Stardust, Shooter, Red, and G.I. Joe: Retaliation, among other films – and, as a Warner Bros. executive, secured the rights to both The Matrix and Harry Potter series. As a result, the producer is no stranger to blockbuster franchise filmmaking – both its challenges and its rewards.
Prior to Age of Extinction‘s release, we had a chance to chat with the film’s producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura to discuss the development of the film, along with what the future might hold for the Transformers franchise.
You can hear the full conversation during our Transformers: Age of Extinction podcast episode and we’ll be expanding on several news-worthy topics from this interview in the coming days but, in the mean time, check out the full interview with di Bonaventura below.
Screen Rant: What was the thought process behind resetting the playing field of the franchise in this one? Were you feeling restricted by what was in the first three films?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: Well, I think there’s a lot of different ways to answer that question. I think there’s a combination of things that were occurring. One was Shia was indicating he didn’t want to do anymore, two was Michael was feeling like maybe he had done it enough, now. And three was, we were struggling how to re-imagine or how to take that journey further, that particular one. And so, I always think it’s interesting people ask, “How do you guys come to such and such a decision?” It’s never one thing, it tends to be a cumulative conversation that drives the conversations. I think it was all those things. And then once we thought about it, we thought about the idea of doing something I don’t think has ever been done, as best I can figure because it’s not a reboot, and it really is a continuation of prior stories, yet we’re changing every human character. Then the challenge of that once we started talking about that appealed to us.
Was there ever any discussion of mentioning where Sam Witwicky was in the events of this movie? In the last one you name dropped where Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) was – and that she had dumped Sam.
LdB: No, we definitely debated it and we never found a good place to do it. Our concern in bringing it up was this is a new story and we don’t want to take the audience back out of it, in a sense. We certainly weren’t against it, but we couldn’t find a way to do it in a way that wasn’t distracting.
SR: There were times in the movie when people might wonder where he was but I can see why you guys would want to avoid that for the most part.
LdB: Yeah, it’s tricky.
SR: At this point going in did you guys find that there was audience fatigue with some of the robot characters? Is that why we got a new line-up? Do you ever have a movie where there is no Optimus and Bumblebee in it?
LdB: Honestly, people seem to love the robots in every way. Probably, it’s more us wanting to challenge ourselves and come up with some new and fresh ideas. The audience hasn’t indicated any fatigue about our characters. They just love the Transformers, it’s one of the great things for us, how beloved they are. In every movie so far we’ve introduced new ones and/or used ones less, for instance, Bumblebee in this one is used much less than the previous three movies. And Optimus is used more. I don’t think it’s because we dislike them. It’s an interesting thing when you start going, “What about this character?” It starts feeling a little more fresh when you keep moving around, if you would. Can I imagine without it? I suppose it’s possible, it’s hard to imagine. If you put your minds to these things you can find a way to do it. We certainly have never talked about it, I’ll say it that way.
SR: Was your discussions about bringing the Dinobots in pretty early on? You mentioned that Bay was deciding whether or not he wanted to do another one. Was that a way to tempt him to get excited about it? That he could have these beastly animals, these legendary warriors, in it instead of being limited to cars, trucks, and airplanes?
LdB: What’s interesting- and it’s actually a really good point of discussion. What’s interesting about making these movies is that we talked about the Dinobots from the first movie onward, and how to put them in, can we put them in? Does it seem weird that there are dinosaurs and robots, is that confusing? We had a lot of discussions, all the way through. We never could find an organic way to put them in until this movie when this notion of extinction came up, and how that could play-meaning extinction in the past and extinction today. And that’s how they got locked in. It was like, okay, finally we figured it out. Michael needed to come to his own decision. I don’t think the Dinobots really, frankly had anything to do with whether he was going to do it or not. Once he decided it was one of the elements that could make him feel like, okay, I can go down a fresh path. But, I wouldn’t say it was a deciding factor by any means.
SR: Early on when we were reporting on the development of the film, it was reported or speculated that Michael Bay would come back, do this installment, but set up the franchise to hand off to possibly another director or creative team – to kind of take it for the next two installments. Is that still the plan or are you guys kind of rethinking that? Where are you in the stages of development for Transformers 5?
LdB: I think it’s one of those classic things where somebody reported that and suddenly it became our plan. We have never discussed the idea of how to hand it off, honestly. It’s not like we don’t think, well what happens if Michael doesn’t do it, of course you do. But we want to keep Michael on this, so we’re not spending any time worrying about who could come in. We’re trying to figure out how to keep him going and keep him excited.
SR: Recently we learned there’s a potential 2016 release window that you’re eyeing for the next one. Where are you guys in preparing that film?
LdB: No, that’s not accurate. Somehow that gets reported, it’s made up by somebody and then everybody thinks it’s true. No, I think we’ve been doing these on different cycles. I think the same thing is going to happen this time. It’s an exhausting process to make these movies. The scale of them is so enormous. It really does tax everybody and our tendency is to finish one at a time, recover, and then begin talking. And we’ll do the same thing this time.
SR: What made you settle on Lockdown as the main villain this round? Someone who isn’t a Decepticon and isn’t an Autobot. I know you said it’s a process, but when did you guys feel that was the right guy to kick off this new phase for the series?
LdB: Well, I think we all felt that we needed to introduce a new character, a new villain. I don’t think when we first decide on any of these things that we know exactly how cool they’re going to be, but in the development of the character, its look, etc., it started looking cooler and cooler. So, it appealed to us more and more as a character and these characters take on a life of their own when you’re developing them. I don’t think there was any one moment where we said, okay, he’s definitely that guy. But, there was definitely, we feel very strongly that this can’t be Megatron again as the primary villain, and we need to add an element that’s just different than what we’ve seen before. I personally find him as maybe our best villain. If nothing else because they way he walks, and it’s so cool and so utterly mean-spirited. I really have come to favor him a great deal.
SR: I was sorry to see him go, he was great. I know the film leaves us with some open-ended mysteries that are going to be introduced in future installments – such as “The Creators.” Have you guys sketched that out yet? Even though you can’t reveal it, do you know who Lockdown works for or where we’re headed for all this and what kind of direction you would go in the next film?
LdB: Honestly, we don’t. We have a sense of the possibilities of where we can go with this, probably the best way to say it. But how much of the film will play out, how far do we think we need to get into the mythology of that, is hard to say. Anything can happen. What’s great is that when we leave it open-ended it allows a space to think about different things. I was thinking last night after the New York premiere, I was realizing, up until then I was always thinking, well what happens when Optimus goes out there and what’s going to happen? And I’m asking myself the question and then I thought, well, you know something? He can come back at the beginning of the next movie having been out there, we never went with him and he can tell us what happened.
SR: Now that’s how good producing happens. That’s how you save money. (laughter)
LdB: Yeah, actually, it’s interesting. From the very beginning Steven and Michael and I have really resisted the idea of taking this to space because all of our feeling was that the earthbound nature of the story has served the story so well, and would serve. This is before we made the first movie, we talked about not being tempted into space for too big a reason because we wanted to keep it earthbound. I don’t know that any of us have shifted that sort of bias. So it will be interesting to see where it goes. I’m not being coy. We really don’t know where that will go. We’re so happy to have done with this one, and to have finished.
SR: So there haven’t been too many conversations about who “The Creators” are then?
LdB: No, actually there have been very few. But I think there’s a lot of opportunity to it. And what we tend to do is collect all these different ideas, then once you sit down to start talking about them you start weighing them to see which ones win out and we’ve had ideas, as I’ve said, we’ve debating the Dinobots from the first movie onward. There’s been other elements that we’ve debated that we couldn’t get in one that we get into another.
LdB: Funny, everybody loves Unicron. I’m not a personal favorite of it because cinematically it’s so big that it’s very hard, I think, to make it interesting. Michael’s talented enough, maybe he’ll figure it out. I can’t remember the name of the one in Fantastic Four.
SR: Galactus. The cloud Galactus.
LdB: You know, when you saw it, it’s kind of boring because it’s so big, in a way, and it’s so unanimated in the sense of a personality.
SR: Come on, if we see a big planet sized Transformer transform into a big robot and reach out like it’s going to grab planet Earth in the palm of its hand? And, then just boom Transformers.
LdB: Maybe you’ve just solved it for us. (laughter)
SR: If I see that teaser I’ll throw my money down right there on the counter. I’ll be like, “I’m signing up for this.”
LdB: I’m not saying I’m right, I’m not saying I’m right. That’s just my reaction because I worry about that.
SR: I see what you mean though, it’s hard for the characters to directly interact with a character like that. You would have to make them flying inside of him.
LdB: I think so, or some disembodied voice talking to them. I don’t know. I’m not really sure. It has never really appealed to me because of the fear of that, but Michael tends to think big, so he might have a way to approach that that will make it very interesting.
SR: The business is kind of changing, people are getting into building these brands that are entire sandboxes to play in. I know you’ve spoken about this before. Will we ever see a day where we see Snake-eyes riding Optimus Prime into battle? I mean, we’re having robots ride robot dinosaurs. Ninjas riding robots seems like the next eventual, logical step. Plus, you could pay one cast for two movies. What’s not to like? (laugh). But, seriously will we see a cross between GI Joe and Transformers?
LdB: I’m sure the studios would love that idea. I don’t think either story has run out of its own momentum. I think when they start to run out of their own momentum is when some conversation like that could happen. It’s definitely not in the short term. None of us are talking about that.
SR: Are there any updates on Beverly Hills Copy 4? It sounds like the ball has started rolling on that, a little bit.
LdB: That’s really Jerry Bruckheimer.
SR: You’re still attached on that one, aren’t you, though?
LdB: I was at one point in time, I’ll have a very backseat roll. Really, that’s Jerry, coming back to Paramount, that was his franchise. He was very generous and supportive of me taking it on at one point. Now that he’s back he wants to jump into it and I think Paramount is interested, but I’m the wrong person to ask about that.
SR: One of our editors is a big Beverly Hills Cop fan, so we had to ask.
LdB: I am too and I hope they do it, and I hope it’s great.
SR: Speaking of properties that were stolen from you (laughs), what do you think about Universal putting Constantine up as a TV show this fall?
LdB: I’m a huge fan of Constantine, I love the character. I find it hard to believe that tonally they’ll be able to accomplish the proper version of that, but I’m going to keep an open mind until I see it.
SR: You haven’t seen the pilot yet?
LdB: I haven’t seen it yet and I like to give people the benefit of the doubt. One of the cool things about Constantine is attitudinally, what does it represent in a sense? I don’t know if cynicism is the right word, but world-weariness is probably better. There’s an aspect to it-a really dark aspect to that. I don’t know how you do that on television.
SR: We noticed there’s a My Little Pony on the monitor in the science center in Age of Extinction, and were wondering if there are any other Easter Eggs or references that you knew were included that you wanted to point out to fans – fun nods to the production, Hasbro, or Transformers lore?
LdB: I can’t think of any right now. My Little Pony was an obvious one for us. I can’t think of one. I’m a little brain dead though. We just got back from Shanghai, landed, went to our premiere here. I’m still recovering.
SR: Mark, Stanley, Nicola, Jack – are they all signed for just this film or are they signed for some of the possible future installments as well?
LdB: That’s a good question. I’m not sure. I know Mark wants to do, he’d love to do a trilogy and I know we’ve spoken about that and he’s been very clear with me about that. I would imagine that we have deals in place with Nicola and Jack. I don’t know about Stanley and I’m not sure.
SR: We enjoyed their story in this one. It was fun to see Mark Wahlberg get a little bit more to do, a little more hands on, maybe than Shia was in some of the other ones in terms of his role.
LdB: I actually think it’s one of the most interesting things that happened because when we cast him we definitely had the conversation, what’s it like to have a male action star, let’s call it that for lack of a better phrase. It’s a little too simplistic but let’s call it that for a second. I think the really surprising thing, I think it was for me, was how much it integrated the whole movie by doing that. And what I mean is, and I know this from my action experience, with the audience, what I will call the decision making process of being the moral arbiter of an action movie, because all action movies are basically, when you boil them down, morality tales of good versus evil. And you will invest in an adult, in an action guy, and give him over, if you will, the right to save the day and to make the decisions about whose the bad guy and how they’re going to be punished. You won’t do it for a kid in his early 20’s. And, so Shia, who did a great job, was never able to pick up a gun, frankly, and fight the battle. And I think what the result of that, and I’m surprised at how big the result is-but one of the results that I noticed was that the movie action was able to stay more contained and more focused on the humans because we didn’t have to keep introducing other humans to help take the fight or other humans to carry certain story points where Mark could. Because we’re okay with a guy his age making those decisions for us and believing. I don’t think it would have been easy to get the audience to accept Shia picking up a gun and fighting. Whereas with Mark you don’t even ask yourself the question in a sense. I actually think that had a very profound effect on the movie that went past anything I thought it was going to do.
SR: You had great parallels there with Optimus Prime talking about raising Bumblebee and Mark Wahlberg talking about his daughter. In that last sequence it’s like the kids kind of come to save the parents. There are some great parallels to the story that you’re telling, even beyond just his ability to do action.
LdB: I think you’re right. That’s one of the great things I love in film that can happen, suddenly a decision that you make, even very consciously, sometimes not consciously, but we made consciously and then you see it play out far more profoundly than your expectation was.
SR: Yeah, we enjoyed the movie and we appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. Good luck with whatever is next with the Transformers series and whatever else is on your plate. We’re looking forward to seeing what happens with G.I. Joe 3.
LdB: I have to say I’m really excited about what we’ve come up with on G.I. Joe 3. I think it’s one of the best ideas for a sequel I’ve ever run into, and I think the audience is going to be really, really happy with us.
Transformers: Age of Extinction is now playing in 2D, 3D, and 3D IMAX theaters.
Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for further updates on the Transformers series, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.