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Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura Talks G.I. JOE: RETALIATION, the Release Date Delay, Ninjas, Balancing Humor and Drama, What 3D Adds, and More
by Christina Radish Posted: January 23rd, 2013 at 9:00 am
A four-minute preview of the highly anticipated G.I. Joe: Retaliation will be shown in IMAX, RealD and digital 3D theaters with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, beginning on January 24th. To debut the footage from the sequel and give a glimpse of what audiences can expect from the 3D conversion, Paramount invited a handful of online press, including Collider, over to the studio lot.
Following the footage, we participated in a roundtable interview with producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura who talked about what it’s like to be involved with franchises like G.I. Joe and Transformers that fans are so passionate about, his initial reaction to the news of the delayed release date, why they decided to focus more heavily on the ninjas this time, finding the balance between humor and drama, how he judges whether or not they’ve pushed an established franchise too far, what he feels the 3D adds to the film, why it’s important for the director of a film to love the genre they’re working in, and what his tenure at Warner Bros. taught him about handling a franchise, as a producer. Hit the jump for what he had to say, as well as my thoughts on the footage.
As someone who, more often than not, doesn’t understand what 3D does to enhance the film-going experience, I have to admit that I am always skeptical when something is presented to me in that format, especially when it’s converted quickly without much thought given to anything other than extra money at the box office. However, in the case of G.I. Joe: Retaliation, it is obviously apparent that the release date delay was so that the proper care and time could be devoted to doing the conversion properly, and what has resulted is a depth that adds to the thrill-ride and a vibrancy of color that has me excited to see more.
What we were shown was an abbreviated four-minute version of a larger 10-minute silent fight sequence in the Himalayas, between Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee) and Snake Eyes (Ray Park), that was not only really cool (with ninjas, throwing stars, sword fighting, gun play and zip lines), but also easily illustrated how the filmmakers plan to enhance the experience for audiences. And the small glimpse of the banter from both Bruce Willis and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson showed that, while this film is definitely grittier than the first one, it also isn’t taking itself too seriously.
Question: What’s it like to be a part of big franchise films like this?
LORENZO DI BONAVENTURA: I had a really funny thing happen to me that’s really indicative of how crazy in love people are with these kinds of things. I actually had a heart issue in London, just before the holiday. It turned out fine, but I was on an operating table and they were giving me an angiogram, and the technician started talking to me. He said, “I am the biggest Transformers fan! Are you the producer of Transformers?” I was like, “What are you talking about?!” It went on for awhile, and it was kind of absurd. At one moment, he stopped and said, “Do you want me to stop talking?,” and I said, “No. It’s the first time I haven’t thought about dying in the last few hours. Keep talking.” He took his pants down and he was wearing Bumblebee underwear. That kind of passion that it actually does create for people is awesome.
As a guy who’s been on both sides, having run Warner Bros. for awhile and now being a producer, what was your reaction when you found out about the release date shift?
DI BONAVENTURA: There were a ton of stories that were completely inaccurate, that we shot all this new footage for Channing [Tatum], and all that stuff. We never shot another frame. I’ve been asked about that, over the last few months, I don’t know how many times. My experience is that you can’t possibly win against whatever the tidal wave is that’s coming at you. One of the reasons I wanted to show the first round of footage was to go, “Look, guys, this is what we’re doing,” so you can decide for yourselves about the quality of it and the attitude of it, and you can hear from us about what we’ve been doing. The only way it will get out there is if enough of you all start saying, “Wait a second, they didn’t have new re-shoots or all this stuff.”
But there will be some people who are sad there’s not more Channing Tatum.
DI BONAVENTURA: Yeah, there will be, for sure. But, there will be some people that are really happy that Bruce Willis and The Rock have plenty of time. It’s hard when you have three guys, all of which you want to see be the lead.
Are you deliberately emphasizing the fact that this is a very different film from the first one?
DI BONAVENTURA: I don’t know if deliberate is the right word, but I think it is a consequence of what it became, in a way. I really wanted to make the second film more grounded and give a greater sense of grit. The action pictures I’ve been typically involved with, when somebody gets punched, you really feel the punching, and when somebody gets shot, you really feel the shot. When Jon [Chu] came in, that was one of the things he said to me that made me go, “Okay, I can see why we’re going to do this picture together.” That’s what I wanted to see in the second movie. By casting Bruce and The Rock, they’re both, by definition, grounded characters with who they are, so I think the movie does have a different sensibility.
Why did you decide to focus so heavily on ninjas, this time?
DI BONAVENTURA: One of the big complaints about the first movie was that there were not enough ninjas. That’s one of the reasons why there’s a major storyline that goes on, that’s only about ninjas. It’s really fun. It’s a great sense of fantasy, when you go into that world.
Is the 10-minute silent scene your homage to “Silent Interlude”?
DI BONAVENTURA: That was our whole motivation. There was actually a sound in the middle of it, which we took out. It’s really fun! I think the comic book fan who grew up with that is going to love the homage to that, and the fan that has no idea about that will find it a cool sequence.
Where do you lie, between the comic book fan, the cartoon and the action figures?
DI BONAVENTURA: I’m an original Joe guy. I’m too old, unfortunately. Another complaint we had after the first movie was that the people who grew up with the original Joe felt a little bit like, “What world did I enter, here?” Bruce Willis plays Joe Colton, who is the original Joe. So, anybody who grew up with that, now has a bellwether in the movie. Bruce dresses, acts like and says things that sound like the guy that I grew up with, but he’s now existing within a larger mythology that the comic books brought to life. In a way, The Rock does a little bit of the grounding too, in the sense that, if you can imagine the ideal soldier, you think of him. He’s a little bit like the guy I grew up with, but he’s a character of this mythology. One of the things we were trying to do with the movie was to bridge those two things. Bruce Willis and I traded stories about what awful things we did to our G.I. Joe, growing up. So, for those guys, like me, who grew up with that, now we have a character that anchors the movie.
How did you find the balance between the humor and the drama?
DI BONAVENTURA: Somebody I know once said, “Funny is money.” When these big action pictures don’t have a sense of humor, they’re just too dry and they take themselves way too seriously. I guess, every once in awhile, there are certain ones where that works. But for me, I think the audience is coming to this kind of picture to have fun. They want to be wowed, they want to laugh, and they want to relate to the characters. Bruce and The Rock have great comedic timing. There’s some very organic simple humor that goes on within the picture that the writers scripted, and there was some that the writers didn’t script, that happened just because of who they are. And Bruce is always a guy who comes up with great one-liners, for himself and for other characters. It’s really interesting. So, I’m always trying to pick his brain for some ideas ‘cause he’s always got a couple of great ones. There’s a fair amount of humor in the picture. It’s that fine line where you want to take yourself seriously, but not too seriously. If you take yourself too seriously, then it gets a little brittle. The ninjas are flying around, so you can’t be serious. But, if you take yourself not seriously enough, it loses its gravity. What I keep searching for in movies, more and more, is the right gravity. When you don’t take it seriously enough, then why is the audience supposed to invest in the drama? If a character dies, you should feel that. If a character accomplishes something, you should feel that. That’s where you try to find that balance. It’s impossible to articulate, as you go through it. You just have to recognize it.
You’ve worked on a couple of big Hasbro franchises and been entrusted with these huge properties that mean so much to people, over generations. What have you learned about how far you can take things without hurting the thing that it was originally?
DI BONAVENTURA: I have a very simple measure of it, for me. The first thing I believe is, if you don’t change it a bit, it’s not going to work. You don’t want it to be exactly what you remember it as. I remember with Transformers 1 and G.I. Joe 1, you could hear people go, “They screwed it up! Oh, my god, they’ve destroyed my childhood!” And then, you look back at those cartoons and they were great when you were a kid, but when you look at them now, they’re clunky as hell. You’re like, “Really?! You want the robots to look like that?! You want the Joes to really talk like that and be like that?! No, I don’t think so!” If you’re not evolving it forward, it’s not going to work. It’s going to piss a few people off, but the vast majority are either going to come along, if they were fans, or they’re going to suddenly become fans, if they weren’t fans. Part of our responsibility is to bring new people to the table. They may have dismissed G.I. Joe when they were young, but now they can take away things that Joe stands for, like loyalty, responsibility, valor, comradery, and those sorts of things. I don’t take those things lightly. So, you have to take it with great seriousness, and you have to take it with a great sense of evolution. I always consult five to ten people who are hardcore fans, to see how far I can push it. When they go, “Wait a second, you can’t do that! That’s a sin!,” you go, “Okay, fine, we’re not going to do that. We tried too far.”
So, no PSAs from The Rock?
DI BONAVENTURA: We debated the PSAs. We tried it in the movie, but every time you read it, it was so self-conscious that it didn’t stick. But in the marketing, you may see some nods to the PSAs, for sure.
Was there a conversation at the beginning of this, where you talked about doing the film in 3D, or did that only come later on?
DI BONAVENTURA: Yes, in the beginning of it, when Paramount first greenlit it, they said they wanted to shoot it in 3D, and we did, too. But, we couldn’t mount the movie in 12 weeks and shoot it in 3D, and they said we didn’t have anymore time, so we all agreed on shooting it in 2D. When the news came that we were going to get pushed, it was shocking, at first. You gear your life to that thing, and then, suddenly, that thing is not there anymore. But then, you go, “You’re going to spend more money to make our movie better? Great!”
Did the studio just drop the change in release date on you, one day?
DI BONAVENTURA: Yeah, pretty much. It was shocking, at first, not because you’re like, “Oh, my god, what a horrible thing?,” but your life, your vacations, your kids and your work flow are going right towards there. You plan your whole life around that thing, and then, suddenly, you’re changing a date. When they gave us the reason, Jon and I both looked at each other and said, “Let’s go!” It probably helps me a bit, having been a head of a studio ‘cause there are a lot of different reasons why you move a film. There are plenty of examples where it’s been indicative of a movie that’s not good, and there are plenty of examples where that has nothing to do with it. You’ve just got to be willing to brace yourself a little bit for the initial outbreak of, “Oh, the movie sucks! They didn’t believe in it!” That’s pretty short-lived though, in its duration.
Were you concerned with retailers having already gotten the toys and merchandise?
DI BONAVENTURA: That was hard for them. That’s different than for the filmmakers. For us, we thought, “Okay, great!” I look at the 3D and I’m like, “Wow, this looks really cool!” I’m happy that we’ve done it. I didn’t have to mount stuff in my store, and then take it down and grumble about stock.
How do you counter people who feel like 3D is just gimmicky and doesn’t really add anything to a story, especially when it’s not actually shot that way? What do you think converting this film to 3D brought to it, that it didn’t have in 2D?
DI BONAVENTURA: I think there’s a freshness to it. Knowing the film so well, I see a scene now and I’m like, “Wow, that’s totally different.” It’s almost like seeing the film again, for the first time. For those people who haven’t seen it yet, 3D is very dynamic and, when you get it right, it’s visually appealing. I don’t know if everyone will love it, or even like it, but I look at it and say that it adds a whole [new layer]. There’s the element that 3D adds that’s playful and fun, and then there are things where, as a filmmaker, you look and go, “Wow, that scene felt like a normal scene, but because of the depth of it, it just feels different.” I think two, three or four years from now, when we’re so used to 3D, it won’t have that effect. But right now, it feels different.
What was it about Jon M. Chu’s take on the film that appealed to you?
DI BONAVENTURA: Jon has a really strong sense of aesthetic. From the beginning, he aligned with me about how to make this as gritty as it could feel, but also as comic booky as it could feel. It was about trying to find the duality of that, which I thought was so successful with The Joker. That was very comic booky, but it was very gritty. That’s the pinnacle of it, in that character and the way Chris Nolan did that. That’s what we tried to accomplish here. Some filmmakers want to make apologies about the kinds of movies they make, genre wise, but he wasn’t making any apologies about making a comic book movie. He was really excited to make a comic book movie. The hardest thing, as a producer, is to find a director who does the picture for all the right reasons, and not just because they know it’s successful or that they can do a good job, but in their bones, they love that genre. Jon loved the genre.
What did your tenure at Warner Bros. include, franchise wise, and what did that teach you about how to handle it now, as a producer?
DI BONAVENTURA: The touchstones for me would be The Matrix, which I pushed through, and Harry Potter, which I bought. Those two franchises taught me a lot about quality of effects, quality of execution, and the retail side of it and how mammoth that is. A lot of people say, “Oh, you’re just making toys and sheets,” but I’m always amazed. That guy had Bumblebee underwear on! A lot of people look at that and go, “It’s so commercial,” but that’s nonsense. It’s part of our world. It means people are passionate about it. How great is it that they had Star Wars sheets? It doesn’t make me turn my nose up at the movie because there are things like that. I think it can go a little too far sometimes. I remember being petitioned for the Harry Potter toilet paper, and I thought that might be a little far. There are certain times where people take it too far. But, one of the great things about movies is that people get that excited about what you’re doing. I just shot two movies in England and the Harry Potter tour is this huge thing there. I love that that occurred. I love it for [J.K. Rowling], I love it for all the filmmakers, and I love it for all of us who got to be a part of it. We did something right.
G.I. Joe: Retaliation opens in theaters on March 29th. Click here to read our interview with director Jon M. Chu.