Transformers Per Spielberg and Bay

I've been one of the biggest fans of Transformers since they first came out,”says executive producer Steven Spielberg. “I'm not talking about buying the toys for my kids. I'm talking about reading the comic books and buying the toys for myself. I'd play with them at home with my kids, but I'm the one who was enthralled with them,” he recalls. “I was a collector and I always thought the Hasbro toy line would one day “transform” into a big summer movie.”

A longtime aficionado of science fiction, Spielberg was recently inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. “The reason I love science fiction so much is because it's the only genre that allows you unlimited access to your imagination.”

Spielberg was not the only one to think so; several of the film's producers had the same impulse. While producer and former studio executive Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Hasbro COO Brian Goldner were talking about possible movies ideas for Transformers and other Hasbro franchises, Tom DeSanto was approaching Don Murphy to form a partnership in hopes of making his own Transformers project.

The core creative force behind the film is impressive: producer Steven Spielberg, director Michael Bay, di Bonaventura (Shooter), DeSanto (the X-Men series), Murphy (Natural Born Killers) and Ian Bryce (Saving Private Ryan).

Honoring Beloved Franchise

From the get-go, all of the producers did their homework and knew that making a Transformers movie meant honoring a beloved franchise backed by a strong base of devotees, many of whom had lifelong ties to the characters.

Transformers has a rich and established history that inspired all of us,” says di Bonaventura. “No wonder we each had the same brainstorm; each of us was attracted to its mythology. “The hardest aspect of overcoming people's assumptions about robots was that until we could show footage, no one could really understand what this particular movie is all about,” he says. “So we focused on the work at hand: developing a human story, finding the best cast and producing the most exciting effects we could. The rest would take care of itself.”

DeSanto swears that he's dreamt of making a movie about Transformers since he was a kid, but it didn't occur to his partner Murphy until he was strolling through the Comic-Con convention in San Diego. “I was walking around, looking at a lot of properties and franchises, and all of a sudden it hit me,” Murphy says. “The kids of the 80s have grown up and now they probably want to see movies based on their beloved characters and stories. This makes perfect sense.”

Murphy also knew that DeSanto was not only a huge fan of the toy franchise, he was a walking encyclopedia of comic book information. DeSanto, who owns over 35,000 comic books, called Murphy to partner on the project as Murphy had a previous relationship with Hasbro.

Says DeSanto. “It's hard to get these movies made, so you better love what you do because otherwise you're in for a few dreary years trying to make the idea a reality.” “When DreamWorks told us that Steven loved the idea, I couldn't believe it,” he recalls. “As a kid from New Jersey, to hear that Spielberg liked the same robots, I just thought, 'how did I get here' The rest is a dream; it's just been great.”

Hasbro and Paramount were very excited about the process of putting another successful product into live-action format,” di Bonaventura says, “and of course Transformers came up because its one of Hasbro's crown jewels and a brand Brian believes has great potential.

Ultimately DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures chose to partner on the film. In previous years their collaborative efforts have yielded such successful films as Dreamgirls, War of the Worlds, Collateral, and Saving Private Ryan.

Write a Human Story

When Spielberg first described the story to Bay, it was simple: It's about a boy and his car that just happens to be an alien robot. A great hook, to be sure, but generating an entertaining, engaging story necessitates more than the kernel of an idea; its success rests in the hands of talented, ingenious writers.

John Rogers, a comic book writer and enthusiast, was asked to put together an initial draft of the script. “The nice folks at DreamWorks know I'm a geek; I make my living as a professional 12-year-old,” jokes Rogers, “So considering I was assembling and disassembling Optimus Prime” in their offices, I really had no defense when they asked me if I was interested. I was very eager; it was a great opportunity. The only real direction I was given was: write a human story.”

In hopes of calming the nerves of fervent Transformers fans, Rogers went online to reassure them that the filmmakers understood the devotion that kept the franchise alive long enough to be worth making into a movie. With that sense of respect and dignity, he approached the story, following DreamWorks' edict to write a human tale.

“I had to start with human characters that could be expanded into larger roles,” Rogers explains, “and at the same time show the global scale of the story in the three or four different plot lines that eventually intersect. The idea was a worldwide conspiracy in the form of an action movie where all these people's lives come together in the middle of the movie. So I started with Sam Witwicky and his love/hate relationship with his beater car; a group of soldiers who find some weird technology; and some scientists who are investigating that technology. That was the basic spine of it.”

Rogers' initial three plot lines eventually evolved into the story that is TRANSFORMERS, crafted by the talented team of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci. Prior to passing the torch, Rogers spent an inordinate amount of time monitoring different Transformers web sites. “When I moved onto another project, I left Alex and Bob to take the heat,” he jokes. “The fan base is so huge you could devote an entire section of your life to answering their questions. These people care. No one knows that more than the writers.” Rogers' favorite Transformer is Sound Wave “just for attitude and sheer crankiness,” with Optimus Prime” running a close second “for moral clarity.”

Michael Bay Perfect Director

For that reason, Spielberg took a special interest in TRANSFORMERS and called director Michael Bay while he was putting the finishing touches on “The Island,” to ask him to helm the film.

“Michael is the perfect director for TRANSFORMERS, says Spielberg. “He really had a feel for this material; he had a focused vision for what this franchise could look like as a movie. Michael had all the freedom he needed to breathe life into the humans, the Decepticons and the Autobots.”

Without much thought, Bay initially dismissed Spielberg's offer, but when he realized that Spielberg was serious about the project and wanted to act as a hands-on producer, Bay relented and agreed to take a trip to Rhode Island to visit Hasbro's home base. After meeting with Goldner, Bay caught the bug and he swears it took him all of three seconds to change his mind.

“Walking down the hallway where they created the Monopoly game, Mr. Potato Head, and G.I. Joe, everything from my childhood, I knew this was a company that took their toys seriously,” Bay says. “Meeting with Brian, who's probably more manic than I am, if that's possible, really started me thinking. He's wild, he's an absolute zealot about these action figures and he loves his business; his enthusiasm was infectious.”

Bay along with producers di Bonaventura and Ian Bryce were put through their paces and attended Transformers School. (DeSanto and Murphy had taken the course on a previous excursion to Hasbro.) “That's actually what they call it,” Bay explains. “They take you through the lore and the different incarnations of the comic books and the toys, kind of an overview of Transformers history, the brand, and the characters. The scope of it just blows you away, and the first thing that struck me was the idea of robots transforming at 80 miles an hour on a freeway. Right then and there I was sold on making this idea work.”

Bay has been offered many super hero projects over the years, but has turned them down for the same reason many aficionados of original fantasy characters dislike their interpretation on celluloid. So when Spielberg tapped him to direct an action picture bringing to life a 20-year-old iconic toy line that had already been immortalized with lunch boxes, comic books, games and its own cartoon series, Bay realized he would be confronting an outspoken army of die-hard fans who were dedicated to the original action figures.

An admirer of Japanese anim, Bay knew he and his production designer, Jeff Mann, would do justice to the Transformers franchise, but neither of them was prepared for the onslaught of harsh criticism they would face even before a single frame of film was shot.

“You have to respect the guys who created these phenomenal toys,” says Bay, “but I was set on taking them into a real world where they'd have to be more intricate to fit in. The Generation One robots were very blocky which would have been like using the unarticulated marshmallow man from Ghostbusters. “Our Optimus Prime” has 10,108 parts, each of which move.

“It was a big leap of faith for me to sign onto a movie like this,” he continues, “because I only wanted to make something that was as photorealistic as possible. These robots are the most complex modules ILM has ever made. We couldn't have accomplished this two years ago. I guess that's my answer to people who complain that the robots will look a bit different from the originals. Sometimes it's best not to answer your critics and just let the work stand for itself.”

“Our goal was always to be true to the original spirit behind the Transformers,” says di Bonaventura. “You never want to disappoint the people who really care about the franchise if only because it translates to a larger audience and negativity spreads. Besides, we would never want to alienate our core fan base; it's like alienating your family.”

Writing Partners

Next up were writing partners Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, both of whom are the perfect age to remember playing with the toys as kids, watching the television series, which ran from 1984 to 1987, and seeing the animated 1986 movie, The Transformers: The Movie, written by Ron Friedman and directed by Nelson Shin. Alex and Roberto are very skilled at drawing strong characters, says di Bonventura. “Once they came aboard, the project quickly found its feet.”

Orci likens playing with the toys as “the ultimate peek-a-boo” game for eight-year-olds. “What is it, a truck” he says, “No, it's not a truck. Oh my God, it talks! It's a robot. It's the ultimate jack-in-the-box with a constant surprise. And from a more sophisticated approach, you'd imagine all your toys coming to life. You imagine befriending all the technology around you. That was a cool concept in 1984, and it still is now.”

Kurtzman agrees. “The idea behind the toy is that everything around us, our cars, and all technology, are sentient,” he explains. “Every thing has emotions and feelings but we don't know it because they are in disguise. This seemed like a good jumping off point for a movie.”

The Transformers may be robots on the outside but they all have very human souls,” says DeSanto. “It's important not to lose that in the translation. As always it comes down to the classic good (the Autobots) versus evil (the Decepticons) with the future of humanity at stake.”

Narrowing the Favorite Toys

“The writers really helped narrow the choice of robots,” says Bay. “At the beginning I had some very elaborate plans for these newer robots called Combiners, but ultimately it became too cost prohibitive to create them just in terms of manpower, let alone the technology to make them look real.” “Steven wanted to make it an even five against five,” Bay continues, “so that's where it took off.”

The filmmakers spent time watching the 1980s The Transformers TV show as well as the animated movie until they were very familiar with the first generations of robots. “It became obvious that we couldn't make a movie without Bumblebee, Optimus Prime, and Megatron, says di Bonaventura. “After that we took a poll amongst ourselves, found out who were our favorites and then asked fans who their favorites were. From there we put a list together that encompasses most peoples' favorite Transformers. We know that people are going to feel, 'Oh I wish they'd have put in that one or that other one,' but there were only so many robots we could deal with in one movie.”

Utmost Secrecy

All of the actors were amazed by the secrecy surrounding the project. Most of them only received script pages with their own scenes rather than the entire script.
“This is as tight as it's gotten for me,” says Jon Voight. “I never know what I can say, so I just don't say much. But when I walked onto some of the sets and saw how amazing they were, I understood why Michael and Steven wanted to keep it under wraps.” It became a joke with cast members how many people would ask them which Transformer they were playing when friends and family found out they were starring in the film.