By Edward Gross
Until it reached theatres, no one knew what to expect from Michael Bay’s adaptation of Transformers. Of course, from today’s perspective – with about $700 million at the global box office and a sequel being put into development – the concept seems like a no-brainer. But prior to its July release, there was some question as to whether or not the audience would embrace it.
Scripting was the writing duo of Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who, of course, have also written the new Star Trek), and what follows is an interview with the duo conducted shortly before the film’s release — presented here just in time for Paramount’s DVD release.
In describing the plotline for Transformers, Orci offers, “It’s about an alien race that’s in a very similar crossroads to where we are in the sense of being technologically advanced yet fighting within itself to the point where they endanger their own planet and existence. They’re fighting over an energy source and that’s why they’re on earth. This boy, who is a normal guy in high school who thinks he’s buying a normal car, actually finds out that his car is there to protect him because this boy is someone who can help this alien race find this energy source.” Thus begins one of the most unique alien invasion stories ever filmed.
SFX: Given what you’re writing, I’m wondering about the challenges of taking an established franchise and translating it to a new medium. You’ve got Transformers going from cartoons and toys to a live action movie, while Star Trek is a prequel to a ‘60s TV show that has to reach today’s audience, which seems to have become decidedly non-Trek friendly as of late.
ALEX KURTZMAN: Each project has different challenges. I think in the case of Transformers, the thing that was challenging was figuring out how to look at this amazing cartoon and this storyline that had a 22-year mythology, take what we loved from it and inspired us as kids, and then figure out what the movie version would be. And in a way it meant stepping back from those things and coming up with a different paradigm for people who hadn’t seen Transformers before. That was a big challenge. How do you make it real? How do you make it not feel like the cartoon?
SFX: Because everyone assumes that it’s a cartoon.
ALEX KURTZMAN: We felt that, in a way, that could work to our benefit, because they literally could not imagine what the movie was going to be. If we gave it to them, it would be something they’d never seen before. And in the case of Star Trek, Star Trek has over 40 years of history and a fan base that’s incredibly intelligent and passionate about what they feel is true or not true to Star Trek. Figuring out how to bring new life to it, while staying true to everything everyone loves about Trek, was, obviously, very challenging. And wonderful, because we’re now in this kind of crazy, miraculous position of getting to make these movies that inspired us as kids for a whole new generation of kids.
BOB ORCI: I wake up every day and realize that we’re the luckiest guys in the world. You figure you might get lucky and get one of them in your life, but to have this particular run has definitely been a blessing. All of that being said, we only jump in to a project when we already feel we’ve got a reason. We don’t just sign on and say, “We’re going to reinvent this today. We don’t have an idea, but we’re going to take the job anyway.” We go into it having an idea of where we’re going to go. And accepting obviously takes into account how much we’re going to have to change things in terms of what the fans expect. It’s definitely challenging, and the fan perspective is definitely something you want to keep in touch with.
SFX: Would you say that Transformers is a little easier because you’re basing it on a cartoon/toy line rather than something that’s had over 600 hours of live action shows and movies?
ALEX KURTZMAN: I would say the opposite. I would say Transformers was much harder, because Trek actually did have series, movies, novels — a world that had been very established and credible as a real universe. Whereas with Transformers, a lot of what the movie was about, and a lot of what we took our time doing at the beginning, was realizing we knew the robots and that we had to stay true to their mythology, and we knew who their characters were, but we didn’t have any human characters. The truth is, in order for this movie to work, we’re going to have to, in a way, come into it from a people point of view. So it was a little daunting to try and figure out which characters position in relation to the series of reveals that happen in the movies.
BOB ORCI: Star Trek was a lot easier, because tonally it was clearer to us what Star Trek was. Tonally it was not clear to us what Transformers should be. We knew that it had to please fans and still have the sense of the cartoon, but it couldn’t feel like a cartoon at all. We knew it had to be fun, but also had to feel real. There were two opposing values that had to be balanced in a much more difficult way than Star Trek, which has very relatable human characters in every incarnation.
SFX: With Transformers, I find myself torn in the same way I was between Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and Jurassic Park in the sense that the character dynamics and the threat of the shark were given equal measure in Jaws. And when Spielberg directed Jurassic Park, you hoped for that same kind of dramatic balance, while at the same time you were itching to get to the dinosaurs already.
BOB ORCI: Some of the die-hard fans wonder why we have to have humans in the movie at all, but they’re robots in disguise, so there’s got to be someone to hide from. The Transformers have to be discovered from the point of view of people we can relate to, otherwise you lose more than meets the eye and you lose robots in disguise.
SFX: Man, you are good at working in those Transformers catch phrases.
BOB ORCI: It’s weird to find that the toy mottos actually make an excellent theme. If you take them seriously, they really do become central to the film.
ALEX KURTZMAN: Both Jaws and Jurassic Park, in a way, were our key inspiration for how we approached the paradigm of this movie in that we would talk to fans and a lot of the fans would say, “I think you need to start with Optimus and the gang flying through space in the ark.” We kind of knew, as much as that did speak to a fan’s instinct and as fans we understood it, that if you didn’t know anything about Transformers, it would be a very abrupt and jarring way into the world. Steven Spielberg did the best thing ever when he made Jurassic Park in that he teased you just a little bit at the beginning of the movie and whetted your appetite so much so that by the time the dinosaurs started showing up, you were so primed and excited for it. We took that same approach here.
SFX: I think people have two reactions when they hear Michael Bay is directing the Transformers movie. One is that he’s a perfect match for an action movie about battling giant robots, and the other is that there will be no genuine human emotion. Is that a fair response?
ALEX KURTZMAN: When we started thinking about what the movie was going to be, we figured there were three or four directors who could maybe pull it off in the world, just given the scope of what the movie would become. Having just worked with Michael and having seen the amazing facility he has for just the technical side of moviemaking, he truly is an animal in production. We knew he was greatly suited for making these robots real, which was first and foremost the biggest question we all had: can we make them real? When we sat down with Michael, the first thing he said to us was, “Why should I do this movie? I get the action scenes and that would be cool, but what is in this movie that’s going to make me care?” So his first question was very much based on character. When we pitched him the story, which is the focal point of the movie – which is this teenage kid buying his first car and not realizing that it is, in fact, a Transformer — his eyes lit up. He very much related to the experience of when he got his first car and what that first car represents to you, which is adulthood, and you transitioning from being a child into a man, and sexuality and everything inherent in that.
BOB ORCI: That was the access point to the movie for us. That was something that came before we discussed anything about what the robots would be doing. And Michael responded favourably to it.
SFX: Which must have been encouraging.
ALEX KURTZMAN: That was a great sign for us, because we kind of realized that he really was approaching it from a character point of view. We started developing the script, he talked to us a lot about the different characters we were putting in the movie and we absolutely trust him with action. This is a good match. Believe me, you’ve never seen action like this ever. As much as we hoped it would be really cool, we were blown away by the effects once they started coming in. As far as the spectacle and fun of it, you will not be disappointed. In a way, that was secondary to our job. Our job was to make sure the characters were seen and the story was telling itself correctly. In a way, maybe we were instinctively going to your exact concern, which is this movie can’t just be for one group of people, it has to be for everybody. But we also want everyone to feel like we’re not pandering. That we’re actually telling cool stories about each character. Hopefully it all works.
BOB ORCI: I think it’s become so fashionable to attack Michael Bay. There are pop songs written about his style of moviemaking. People criticize Michael Bay for whatever he’s trying, and here, finally, is a movie about giant robots, which spend a lot of time as vehicles. Who is perfect to direct that if not Michael Bay? People complain if he tries to do Shakespeare in Pearl Harbor, but then they complain when he does Transformers. You can’t have it both ways. I also think that’s why his partnership on Spielberg on this movie is key, because I do understand – getting away from whether or not it’s fashionable to criticize Michael Bay – the idea of the criticism that perhaps he’s going to skimp on what could be the reality of human relationships. But that’s definitely not what happened.
SFX: How would you describe the appeal of this movie?
BOB ORCI: In a summer where 20 of the 25 movies are parts two, three, four or five of something, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t go see the only original, truly groundbreaking effects movie — the totally new paradigm for an alien invasion movie that Transformers is. People felt they’d really seen dinosaurs for the first time come to life in Jurassic Park, and I think it’s going to be the same thing with Transformers: it will be the first time that people really see the idea of artificial intelligence in sentient robots. Giant sentient robots.
Read more about Transformers, and its special effects, in issue 164 of SFX on sale Wednesday 21 November. Read more from Ed Gross regularly in SFX magazine and online at www.sfx.co.uk .