There's little doubt when it comes to prolific A-list producers they don't get any better than Lorenzo di Bonaventura. Former head of Warner Bros. Pictures and now one of the busiest producers in town, Di Bonaventura not only has the new Transformers but the much discussed "GI Joe" due out in August.
In this exclusive interview with Paul Fischer, the producer talks about both films and sets the record straight on GI Joe.
Question: When the first Transformers was getting done, what expectations did you have? I mean, this was, after all, a film version of essentially a kid's toy.
di Bonaventura: I think that's one of the misnomers. That, it's not really about a kid's toy. It's about the mythology that the animation series and the comic books had. And if you look at the mythology of it, it's really incredibly extensive. There's like, 1000—I don't know how many – I'm guessing there's 1000 characters in it. So, what attracted us to it was not the toy, although I think this idea – there's something insanely compelling about this idea, a car turns into a robot. A robot turns into a car. The simplicity of that, I think, is awfully compelling. But it was really the mythology of it, is what attracted us to it.
Question: I think Michael Bay turned it down, originally, didn't he?
di Bonaventura: Well, "Turned it down" is the wrong, I think, way of saying it. He was very skeptical at first. He's like, "I don't think I want to do that." And then – you know, Stephen and I persuaded him to go and delve into it. Because his first gut reaction was, "I'm not doing a toy movie." You know? That was his first reaction as well. And then he discovered what this mythology was about. And immediately he saw the possibilities.
Question: What made him the right choice to direct this?
di Bonaventura: I think Michael is the absolute best director in our business at understanding scale. And what I mean by that is, I don't mean just "big." What I mean is, there are these five-foot to six-foot things called humans in this movie. To keep them actively at the forefront of this story, and yet still have the – you know, the immensity of what goes on behind them – keeping both those things going at the same time is an extremely hard and rare skill set.
Question: When you embarked on a sequel – and I think everyone kind of felt that after the first one's incredible success, that a sequel was inevitable – how do you avoid repetition in a business that is full of repetition?
di Bonaventura: Well, we were fortunate in that – two things, I think. The biggest one was, our character is getting older. And Shia's character, Sam, is growing up. So we were able to sort of follow the process of what it's like to go from high school to college. So in a sense, the very fact that our lead is going through that sort of change in his own life, enabled us to escape, I think, the danger that you desperately try to avoid, which is sameness.
Question: How do you make a film like this bigger than its predecessor?
di Bonaventura: Well, we made a decision to take it international to increase the scale of it. So, we went to Jordan, we went to Egypt, we went to Paris. And we gave it both an international flavor, but also these incredible monuments at which to shoot against. The pyramids, and Tetra and Jordan. You know, so – it created, I think, a larger adventure than the first movie.
Question: Because you make films – or, you often make films, many of which are larger than life, how does the current state of the economy reflect your decisions as a producer, in this business?
di Bonaventura: That's interesting. Well, I think we're all conscious of the economic horizons that we're all facing. But I think from a creative point of view, I think in a way, we are trying even harder to make the experience of going to a movie more fulfilling. So that you not only feel that for your ticket you got your money's worth – I think also, that you've been taken out of – really have been transported to another world for a little while. You know, it's a tough world we're all living in right now. And – you know, if we can give people a respite from it for a little while, that's pretty great. And if they can feel like, "You know what? I was surprised, I was entertained, I was moved." And – you know, "Boy, I had good value for my money," I think that's probably the biggest thing that we think about.
Question: Despite your track record and your studio background, are the studios more and more difficult to sell bigger films?
di Bonaventura: No, big films are doing very well right now. So, that's not getting harder. I think it's harder once you try to make them.
Question: Is it harder to sell them?
di Bonaventura: To the audience? No, I don't think so. I think, in fact, the audience is asking us to do more of them.
Question: You've got a couple of films that you're involved with that are interesting. G.I. Joe has been getting a lot of press lately. And I'm wondering if you would be able to set the record straight on what really is going on with that movie. Because I guess there've been a lot of stories about that film.
di Bonaventura: Well, there's really only been one negative story that other people seem to have picked up. I mean, the simple way of saying it is, everything that was said in that story is a lie.
di Bonaventura: We had phenomenal test screenings. And the director and I are going out to promote the movie next month. He has not been fired. And our editor was never fired. There's just nothing – it's unfortunate that the – there's many good things about the Internet. One really unfortunate thing is some anonymous posting that is utter –
Question: Crap. Right.
di Bonaventura: -- malarkey can suddenly be taken as a report.
Question: Is that the down side of the Internet, as far as –
di Bonaventura: Well, creatively, I think actually, there's a big down side for us in the movie business. Which is, entertainment is about surprise. And if you know something's coming, it's not as entertaining. And so spoiling movies is something that I am really unhappy with, and I don't understand why people like to do it. I personally don't want to hear anything about what a movie –
Question: I agree. You know, I don't even read – when I get press notes, I don't even read the synopsis in press notes.
di Bonaventura: Exactly. Because – I want to make up my own – I want to experience the story for the first time. So I think there's a pro and a con to the interaction that filmmakers have with the Internet. One is, the pro is that you get to hear the passion ahead of time, sometimes, about the choices you're going to make, or the choices you're debating. And so you, in a sense, get feedback that before you didn't have the advantage of. And then the negative, I think, the big negative, is that a lot of people seem to talk – they either want to spoil the surprise of the film, or make up things about films that just have no basis in what they are.
Question: I've done interviews with actors who are in G.I. Joe. And Dennis Quaid, for example, was very tongue-in-cheek about this character, this general that he was playing. And it's not supposed to be – this film is not supposed to be taking seriously. That is my understanding.
di Bonaventura: Well, you know – I mean, it's a fantasy. So, you're supposed to have fun in this movie.
Question: Right. I mean, I don't understand why people seem to take this movie so seriously. I mean, that's what I think really is astonishing to me.
di Bonaventura: Well – I mean, look. I think if you grow up with something like G.I. Joe, or like Transformers, or – you know, I'm sure kids who grew up with Harry Potter – I know they are. I worked on Potter. People feel very fanatical and protective of these things that they have this relationship with. But that's okay. That's great. But G.I. Joe, essentially, was a lot of fun. I mean, if you look at the animated series and the comic book, they had a lot of fun. There were a lot of jokes. It never took itself seriously.
Question: I spoke to a friend of mine the other day, Phil Noyce, about Salt. We've known each other since 1982, so we go way back.
di Bonaventura: Ah, you're dating yourself.
Question: I know, it's terrible. He insisted on reminding me on how old –
di Bonaventura: Ah, fantastic.
Question: And he was very impassioned about this project. How excited are you about it, and how different is it from the original Tom Cruise version?
di Bonaventura: Well, I mean, it's a really exciting project, in part because Philip did such a great job. And the other part is Angelina's commitment to it, and her willingness to push the character in very bold ways, make it a very exciting project to have been part of. You know, it was weird, because when we set out to change the script from a male lead to a female lead, we really thought the challenge was, "Okay, how do you make Salt, the character, female?" And the answer is, that was a bit of work. But what was surprised to all of us was, there was at least as much if not more work on all the other characters around the character. Because people react completely differently to a woman than they do a man. Or a man to a woman. So actually, it was a much harder job than we originally anticipated, because we suddenly realized, "We have to change all the character's reactions." The plot has a lot of similarity, so that wasn't really the challenge of it. Although even there, you know, there are movie conventions that we are all familiar with – and frankly, they're novel conventions. You know, the night in shining armor comes in to save the damsel in distress. In many male action pictures, that's what happens.
di Bonaventura: But when you change it to a woman coming in to save the man in distress, it's such an utter dynamic difference. Because we're not used to seeing men get rescued by women. And it puts a real pressure on the man character to feel manly enough, if you understand what I'm saying.
Question: Right. And Phil, who'd worked with Angelina before, many years ago, was raving about her performance in this movie.
di Bonaventura: Yeah. It really was – it was amazing to watch. Her commitment to her character was so thorough. It was so exciting. And it so elevated what the movie could be.
Question: Now, you're obviously not a very busy man. Because according to IMDB, you have 29 films in development.
di Bonaventura: I love that they say that. It's so not true. But – you know, listen. I have a few things in development. But – you know, I'm fortunate, that I was trained by two of the best people ever in the movie business, Bob Daly and Terry Semel. And I ran Warner Brothers for a period of time, and we had 25 films a year at that time. And I'm used to working on a lot of things, and I get excited by it.
Question: Do you miss running a studio?
di Bonaventura: I miss the camaraderie of it. You know, there's – there's a lot of fun things about being part of a big organization. There's a lot of not-so-fun things, as well.
Question: What are you excited about, beyond the two films we've talked about, and Transformers, that you have – almost, go pictures?
di Bonaventura: Well, I think the next film up for me is a thing called – hopefully. We're dancing around a film right now called Red, which is based on something that Warren Ellis created, a graphic novel. And that's the most immediate thing, hopefully. I'm working on trying to bring back Jack Ryan as a character to the screen, and that's a great challenge, because there were a lot of good movies already made.
Question: Are you talking with Noyce about this?
di Bonaventura: No, we were just – we've been working – I mean, yes. We did talk about it, actually, prior to Salt. And we've been so focused on Salt that neither of us has really had time to think about talking about Jack Ryan. So, he's going away on vacation now, for a week – or -- vacation's the wrong way. You know, he worked like crazy. He needed to take a week and breathe, so that's what he's doing right now.
Question: The Jack Ryan franchise – have you thought about just rebooting it, like they did with Casino Royale, et cetera?
di Bonaventura: I think we will go with a younger actor, for sure.
Question: Are you still as impassioned about the movie business as you were when you were running Warner Brothers?
di Bonaventura: Fortunately, I haven't lost my passion for it. There are a lot of things that challenge one's passion. But fundamentally, when I get to talk about story, I find it a really – you know, I just get excited when I start talking about what these things can be, and who these characters are, you know? When you start getting into some of the business aspects, it gets to be a little more cumbersome and tiring. But in the creative world, I haven't lost a bit of my enthusiasm.
Question: What about going further behind the camera and directing. Have you ever held those ambitions? Or do you think you're quite happy being a producer?
di Bonaventura: I couldn't write to save my life. I don't think I could direct. The truth is, I think I would have to be so passionate about a piece – I'd have to believe that I am the best person to deliver a movie. You know? And I can't imagine ever feeling that way. There's got to be a better director out there than me. So, I doubt that I would ever – it's not something I hold great ambition for. You know, I've learned one thing, which is never say never about anything. Actually, I can say – there will never be a script written by me. There is not a chance. But – you know, I like my job, and I like watching – you know, a producer gets to work on more things than a director.
Question: Well, apparently that's certainly the case with you.
di Bonaventura: Well, I think it's true with any producer. You know, a director, you have to spent 18 months, two years of your life focused on one thing, and one thing only.