ComingSoon.net has had many opportunities to speak with producer Lorenzo di Bonavenura over the years, because he tends to be involved with movie projects we know CS readers would probably enjoy. After playing a key role at Warner Bros. as President of Worldwide Production during the ’90s, di Bonaventura branched off on his own as a producer, teaming with Paramount and Hasbro for two movies based on their licenses, “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe.” The first one led to two huge summer blockbusters directed by Michael Bay, while G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was a late-summer sleeper hit.
Since then, di Bonaventura has been actively involved in bringing a number of original projects and adaptations to the screen. The new Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger) action movie Salt, starring Angelina Jolie, is clearly more the former, dealing with Soviet sleeper agents hiding in the United States until the day their programming kicks in for a concentrated attack. Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a long-time CIA agent who gets caught up in the middle of it, unsure of which side she’s on.
Di Bonaventura is one of those producers you could talk to for hours since he has so many great anecdotes about his experiences in the business. We got roughly 16 minutes and we made the most of it, not only talking about Salt, but also a few of his other projects, including the third “Transformers” movie (currently in production), the planned “G.I. Joe” sequel, and some of what he learned from making the previous movies in those franchise.
ComingSoon.net: You’ve had this project in development for seven or eight years, and obviously, you’re a producer with many ongoing projects in development so what drives you to stick to something like “Salt” for as long as you did until it got made?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I think that’s the nature of our business. It’s really about pushing the rock up the hill. I happen to have a passion for what I do, so when a script like this captures my imagination I just won’t give up. I’ve had that experience over and over again where not giving up has yielded a good result, not only in getting the movie made, but (making) a good movie. Just because a lot of people say “no”… I mean, I’m not a contrarian. I don’t think to hear a lot of people say “no” means it’s great. Sometimes that may be true. I think when you’re doing something cutting edge like “The Matrix,” it might mean when everybody’s saying “no” that you’re really on the right track. With a project like this, saying “no” was confusing.
CS: If this movie were based on other source material, it may have been easier to get people interested in making it–if they like the book, they’ll be interested in the movie–but it does touch on things that people enjoy, such as similar territory as James Bond, so why do you think this was such a hard sell?
di Bonaventura: As I said, I’m really confused about why it was such a hard sell, because I heard a lotta reasons why. “Spy genres got plenty of movies in it, Bourne and Bond, why do we need another one?” “It’s too fantastical.” “We don’t believe Russians as moles.” I mean, we heard an infinite number of stories, but for me, I kept going back to the simple thing which is it has a great hook and it has a great character and it has great action. That’s usually a recipe for success, so the idea that we couldn’t even get a development deal for it, I really don’t have a good explanation for it.
CS: It’s also interesting you’re doing a movie about Russians 21 years after the Cold War ended, then all of a sudden in the news, we read, “Oh, by the way, we happen to have Russian spies here.”
di Bonaventura: It was pretty fortuitous, but the truth is, we kept asking everybody I’ve talked to who’s former CIA or present, they all believe there’s moles. They all believe there’s a mole in the CIA, so to them, it’s never gone away. The notion is preposterous to them when you say, “Well, really there’s no…” “Oh, yes, it does.”
CS: I wanted to talk about getting Angelina on board, ’cause obviously that played a big factor in the movie rolling forward. Everyone used to talk about how hard it was getting guys into an actor movie when you have a female lead, but “Tomb Raider” changed that mindset a little bit.
di Bonaventura: Yeah, “Resident Evil” changed it a bit too I think. I think you gotta give up the fact that movie’s had multiple sequels. There’s something going on there too, I think. Obviously, not in quite as high profile way, but those are pretty successful movies.
CS: So did making the character a woman, is that what changed people’s minds about making the movie?
di Bonaventura: No, we had already sold it to Sony at that point. Literally, we couldn’t sell the script, so Sony read the script and loved it and bought it, and that’s when they went out to Tom Cruise and Tom attached himself and then detached himself and then on came Angelina. That was all after they’d already sold the script.
CS: It’s interesting that it’s a fairly short movie with a lot of action and very little talking, but when we think of most political thrills, there’s always an hour of talking to set things up it seems, while this doesn’t do that at all. Was that your doing or Phillip’s or was that always the nature of it going back to Kurt Wimmer’s script?
di Bonaventura: I think it’s the nature of the… look, we had a longer script than 93 minutes would’ve indicated. I think we always knew that once he’s outed her, once he said, “You’re the spy,” that the movie needed to move like a freight train. We always thought we had time before that. There’s a bit of talking. There’s a bit of slow set-up if you would, but as we cut the movie, it found this length. It’s possibly that editorial thing that you can’t predict.
CS: You’ve obviously worked within the studio system for so long that you know how to work the ratings board, and to have an action movie with such brutal violence and to still get a PG-13, was it hard to get that rating?
di Bonaventura: Yes and no I think is sorta the answer to that. I think the ratings evolve over time and what I find fascinating about the rating system, it has such an aversion to blood and an aversion to sex. If you avoid those two things…
CS: The word “f*ck,” that’s another thing.
di Bonaventura: Yeah, you know what I mean, it’s oddly puritanical. It’s like it’s okay to kill a lot of people, but don’t make it bloody. It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been in the business.
CS: Yeah, so it has evolved, but you feel it’s still the same thing?
di Bonaventura: It’s still essentially the same thing. I think certain ratings sort of flex out and then flex in, and flex out and flex in. What I actually find the most interesting, and I cannot get my head around it why, is for the first 12 years that I was in the business, the audience felt it was uncool to go to a PG-13 movie, right? Anybody from 15 to 25, you said, “PG-13,” they said, “No way.” How that reversed itself, I know the key moment was when Congress called all the heads of the studios here and everybody got afraid that they were gonna piss off Congress and bring a larger censorship down on us. But, I don’t really understand why the audience said, “Okay.” Do you know what I mean? That’s the thing I can’t figure out.
CS: “The Matrix” probably could’ve been PG-13.
di Bonaventura: There’s two things in “The Matrix” that prevented that.
CS: Was it having people get kicked in the head?
di Bonaventura: No, that was okay. It was the, “Dodge this.” It was that and there was one other piece and I’ve forgotten. I think it’s the one of the agents in the helicopter, when he got shot. He got shot in a pretty heavy way I think, but there’s almost no blood. There’s very little body count really. No, I think we didn’t know how to fix, “Dodge this,” and we didn’t really want to. It’s one of the great moments in that movie. At that time period, PG-13 wasn’t cool. So, you know, we debated it and we thought, “It might open us to a broader audience. It might also turn off some of our audience.”
CS: It know it keeps going back and forth. I know Warner Bros. was really riding high on making “R” rated movies until “Watchmen” didn’t do as well as they hoped, and now everything is back to PG-13 again.
di Bonaventura: “300” did pretty well. You know what I mean? What I can’t figure out is why we’re not making more R-rated movies actually.
CS: As a producer, you’re doing so much juggling all the time, and I know you’re most active project is “Transformers 3,” but how many projects do you have right now where you’re working on them in one week?
di Bonaventura: I’m probably working on eight to 10 projects a week in different phases. Three or four that are demanding a lot of time, three or four that are demanding some and one or two that are a phone call, a conversation, a meeting.
CS: Let’s talk about the Jack Ryan movie, “Moscow,” because it does tie into this since Phillip Noyce directed the first two movies.
di Bonaventura: Yeah, I know. That’s one of the reasons why we picked him for this.
CS: Have you talked to him at all about directing that prequel as well?
di Bonaventura: You know what? I don’t think he’s interested. I sorta got the sense of that, so I’ve never really pressed. You know he did his time, if you would, you know?
CS: I was a fan of “Casino Royale” and Martin Campbell basically went back and reinvented the character he had worked on earlier.
di Bonaventura: Yeah, it’s very cool.
CS: “Transformers 3” we already know is well into production at this point. I was curious about the Megan Fox thing because it seemed like it happened so recently that it was announced she wasn’t in it. Obviously you must’ve had a script going already at that point.
di Bonaventura: We did, we did. It’s one of those things that just built to a pressure point. I think she knew and we did. I think we all tried really hard to make it work together, just it wasn’t working.
CS: Did you suddenly have to do a lot of script changes to make that decision work?
di Bonaventura: Definitely some script changes, for sure, yeah. I wouldn’t say a tremendous number, but yeah, absolutely there’s some changes. I think as we’re going along, we’re discovering new ones we have to make as a result of it.
CS: I was curious about that because someone asked earlier about the pressures of making another sequel, a three-quel in this case. I don’t know if you read reviews…
di Bonaventura: I try not to anymore, because actually, there’s so few reviewers who really help me understand why films I’m making are working or not working. They’re sort of thumbs up or thumbs down as opposed to, I’ll say, go back to Vincent Canby or even Maslin and you think about the way they analyzed a film, you got to learn something about the film even if you didn’t agree with their analysis. I find so little of it that it doesn’t help me anymore understand why I like something and why I don’t. I think the audiences actually kind of outwardly rejected critics.
CS: Yeah, that’s happening constantly. Whether or not they’ve already seen the movie or not, moviegoers will go see a movie if they want to see it, regardless of what is said.
di Bonaventura: On “The Last Airbender,” it had some of the worst reviews imaginable and it did just fine.
CS: Yeah, absolutely. I can probably get into a much longer conversation about this, being a critic myself and being in all those circles, I do tend to analyze from within.
di Bonaventura: Yeah, and the problem is, is that I find is they’ve gotten personal.
CS: Oh, of course.
di Bonaventura: So when you read a thing and it’s basically telling you what a moron you are, it’s really hard to read it.
CS: Right, of course.
di Bonaventura: As opposed to, I felt like a lotta critics used to want to, and I think there are some still for sure, I think Roger Ebert is probably one of ’em who still is a fan of movies and is still trying to say, “Okay, this movie might not work, but this worked in it.” You know what I mean? That, to me, is where you go, “Okay, all right, fine.” It just seems like it’s either all bad or all good.
CS: But is there anything you learned from the second “Transformers” that you want to try to avoid for this third movie?
di Bonaventura: Yeah, you learn a lot I think from going online and listening to the fans too. But, you know what’s confusing is because the fans are split. There are some people who swear the second movie’s better and there are some people who swear the first movie’s better. So you sorta go, “Okay, I’m just gonna take what I think are the negatives and try to either eliminate them or go in a different direction.”
CS: Is Michael on the same page as that? Or is he just going to do what he thinks is right and hope for the best?
di Bonaventura: No, absolutely, yeah. I mean, look, the thing you cannot do as a filmmaker is if you respond to what they believe means you have no belief, so you’re lost. If you start doing that, you’re dead. So, Michael has very strong convictions. I have very strong convictions, but if we hear a ton of strong convictions about a piece of it, this aspect, “I don’t like this character, this didn’t lie,” all right, you go, “Okay, I see the criticism. I understand the criticism. I can absorb that.” But if everybody says, “It should’ve been a romantic comedy,” we go, “Well, I don’t know how to do that.” So if we taste that notion, I’m being absurd, but the truth is, sometimes you read these things and you go, “Really? If we went that way we wouldn’t know what to do.”
CS: I was curious about “G.I. Joe” because that’s another one where I was one of the people who did like it. I’m not a diehard “G.I. Joe” fan or anything, but I just thought it was a fun movie.
di Bonaventura: The audience liked the movie a lot. It got a bad buzz before anybody had seen it. It was really a strange…
CS: I think partially it was the early trailers which didn’t look great. I saw the footage they showed at ShoWest and thought it looked pretty cool.
di Bonaventura: No, it was a weird experience because it got this negative online buzz, but it was like, “What are you guys talking about? Nobody’s seen the movie.” The first time we screened the movie it screened fantastically, really well. We came back from it and people said, “I heard the movie screened badly,” and you’re going, “What?”
CS: I remember that, yeah.
di Bonaventura: There’s lots of times when you’re trying to cover up a bad screening. We had a good screening and we were being told it’s bad, so it was like, “What?”
CS: It’s funny because sometimes it turns personal. Like, people want it to be bad so they say it is even if they haven’t seen it.
di Bonaventura: Maybe “G.I. Joe” got tagged with something, I don’t know. Maybe it was the anti-war feeling. I don’t know what it was.
CS: So what will take to get the sequel greenlit and get that going? Is it just working on the script?
di Bonaventura: Yeah, I think getting a script that they believe in enough because it did $300 million. It was successful. Paramount does want to make a sequel, so it’s an interesting thing. It was actually one of the strangest experiences of my career because Amy Pascal, the head of Sony, kept saying to me, “So, really, tell me the truth about the ‘G.I. Joe’ experience,” when we were early on in this thing. I was like, “No, the truth is we went and we had this score and this rap,” and she goes, “Come on.” She goes, “How did it all get that negative?” I was like, “I don’t know.”
CS: Nobody knows, but somebody’s going to have to write a book about that eventually.
di Bonaventura: That one has a lotta interesting lessons which I would not talk about, but maybe sometime I will.
CS: I wanted to talk about “Asteroids” because out of all the movies you have on your slate, it’s maybe the oddest. Once in a while, a movie is announced like Ridley Scott’s “Monopoly,” or “Stretch Armstrong” where you go like, “What are they gonna do with this?” “Asteroids” is one of those things where you think, “How are they going to make a movie about blowing up asteroids?”
di Bonaventura: I’ll tell you what my thought process was. When I was called about the property–I was called because of what I had done with “Transformers” and “G.I. Joe”–and Atari reached out to me and said, “We have an ‘Asteroids.'” I said, I had an immediate reaction, “Yes.” The reason it was, it’s not because playing the game, somehow that game could be translated into a movie, it can’t. The word asteroids connotates a large scale experience. So, the challenge, which was great, was, “Okay, so how do you get a mythology that will support that?” So, we really went after a mythology on the level of “Star Wars.” We’ll see if we succeeded or not, but it’s not a simple like, the asteroid’s gonna hit the we never come to Earth. The entire movie takes place in the asteroid field.
CS: We’ll find out who those little aliens in the little spaceships are hopefully?
di Bonaventura: (Laughs) There are gonna be a few of ’em, yeah. But seriously, it’s like, really, when you hear the word asteroids, forget about the game. Doesn’t it feel like it’s big?
CS: I feel like I’m gonna be in a little spaceship surrounded by these huge asteroids.
di Bonaventura: Okay, well, we do some homages to the game for sure, but I like the sense of scale of it.
Salt opens on Friday, July 2. You can read our exclusive interview with director Phillip Noyce here and an awesome interview with Angelina Jolie here. Also, both Salt and di Bonaventura’s next movie Red will be at the San Diego Comic-Con this weekend.