[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.