On Set Interview: Producer Tom De Santo On Transformers
Date: February 21, 2007
By: Kellvin Chavez
Source: Latino Review
Tom DeSanto has had his fair share of internet backlash and vindication. He helped revive the comic to film business by producing the highly successful Bryan Singer directed "X-Men" movies.
So you can thank him for just about every good comic book movie since then and throw crap at him for having a hand in the crap fest that is "Ghost Rider."
Now he's back with another holy fan boy project, "Transformers."
I caught up with him on the downtown Los Angeles set during filming of the movies climax.
So you're a fellow geek?
DeSanto: I am a geek. I was the kid rushing home from football practice to play Dungeons & Dragons. So I've had that sort of existence.
I don't think that most geeks had football practice.
DeSanto: Well, I was an in the closet geek. I mean, between this and 'X-Men' and 'Galactica' all of my action figures have become real. So that's a good thing.
What clicked in your head that made you think that 'Transformers' could be a live action movie because it seems so complicated?
DeSanto: You know what, it does, but the thing that attracted me to 'Transformers' at first was the great characters. Like 'X-Men,' I would wait for Thursday because Thursday was comic book day and then there was this cartoon that came on when I was in high school. So I was a little old for 'Transformers,' but I was still checking it out and then I read the mini-series and then I just got pulled into the mythology. I mean, Optimus Prime and Megatron weren't robots. These were almost Shakespearean type characters that had all this drama and all this background and that is the great thing about this world, that it's not just about robots and robots are great. When you see this stuff you're going to go, 'I have never seen that before ever in my life.' And you're going to believe it. You're going to believe that that truck or that car is actually standing there, but you're going to care too and that is the key. It's like with Wolverine we had to do changes. We couldn't put him in the yellow and blue spandex and the mask – I fought for that mask tooth and nail, but it looked like Wolverine was ready for Mardi Gras. So in order to adapt properties like this you do need to make changes, but you need to stay true to the soul of what it is and the spirit of what it is.
And how would you describe the soldiers aside from being Shakespearean?
DeSanto: I think that it's really all about – one, I think that there is a huge environmental allegory in the 'Transformers' because it's the Decepticons abuse of what was the key in the cartoon. Energon. It was just needing to survive and sort of draining the planet, but Optimus Prime was selfless. If it was a choice between him taking the bullet or some stranger that he's never met before taking that bullet he'll jump in front of that person. And that's the great thing about the Auto-bots and the Decepticons because it really gets down to the classic good versus evil.
Will the film address Optimus Prime's Jewish heritage?
DeSanto: Yes it does. We are at Optimus' briss. [Laughs] It's in a flashback sequence and there is a special appearance by Stewie who is actually the Moyle. I'm kidding. No. That's the great thing though, all of the people who love pop culture are putting all of these 'Transformer' references in their work. I'm buddies with Seth Green who does 'Robot Chicken' and they get more mail about the 'Transformer' stuff than anything else that they do which is great. There is a reason that twenty something years later we're talking about these characters. There is a lot of pop culture stuff from that time that we're not talking about, but these characters are special and this movie is going to be special too. It's one of those things where catching lightening in a bottle is pretty good.
We know that Optimus Prime of old had that sort of John Wayne spirit. How will the new Optimus Prime reflect that sort of spirit?
DeSanto: See, it's interesting to me. I think that John Wayne is more Ironhide. Not to fanboy geek out on anyone here, but Ironhide is sort of this old crusty, old school shoot first ask questions later type character. I've always seen Optimus as more of an almost Xavier type figure and I think that there is something about that odd selflessness. There is a lot of swagger and a big gun and he knows how to use it and it's also the rivalry. You have this sort of thing that like Xavier and Magneto you have the classic Optimus versus Megatron. It's one person who doesn't see biological – I called him a person, but he doesn't see biological life as significant. If it means wiping out this whole planet then so be it. It doesn't matter to him. But Optimus sees anything that has sentience and free will, anything that has a soul as being worthy of fighting for.
Are there going to be some real emotional scenes that look back to some of the stuff like when Optimus died in this mythology?
DeSanto: I get misty thinking about it. I think that's the key to any good film, you have to care. You're going to care at the end of this movie. You're going to care about the robots whether it's Optimus Prime or Megatron who maybe you can't stand. Any great movie franchise, when they accomplish that they've done their job. So hopefully we've done our job.
Are the cars going to talk while they are in car form?
DeSanto: We're not going to have the little light on the front [Laughs]. Scatman Crothers as the voice. No. Scatman Crothers is great. You go from 'Hong Kong Fooey' to 'Sandford and Son' to 'The Shinning.' I mean, who has that range. It's shocking. What was the question again?
The cars talking?
DeSanto: They will talk in their vehicle form, but it's like Superman – you will believe that a man can fly. You will believe that a car can talk. What's even more special is when they're in the robot form. I know when the guys from ILM get impressed and they're a jaded bunch, but they're like, 'Whoa, this is going to be one movie where you're going to be seeing some stuff for the first time onscreen.' There's stuff that's never been done before.
In terms of changing Optimus Prime's look, how important is it to something realistic when you have forty foot tall robots rampaging the city? When do you need to be realistic and when can you just go with the fantasy?
DeSanto: I think that you need to be able to believe that it's there. The job of the filmmaker is to hypnotize the audience. If for one second you think that it's an effect then we have failed. So if something is maybe too flat and it can't catch all of that three-d texture that you want to make it look like it's really there you need to modify it and change it and say, 'Look, why isn't this working? Lets try this. Okay, now I believe that it's there.' So there are compromises that are made. Look, there is always going to be the cartoon and there is always going to be the comic. It's the same thing that's similar to 'X-Men.' The continuity in the comic is different than the continuity in the cartoon which is different than the continuity in the movie. It's the same thing here, but we're going to stay true to the heart and soul.
One of the risks with a movie like this getting too campy. There's no way to get around the fact it's a forty foot robot turning into a Camero. How do you not make that campy?
DeSanto: ILM. That's part of the hypnotism. It's like you - there was 'Jurassic Park.' Were you going to really believe that? Up to that point dinosaur movies were like 'Land of the Lost' which I loved and grew up on and there was a certain campiness to that, but when you see that T-Rex you were like, 'Oh my God.' It's the same thing here.
Now there's not a hundred percent CGI in this. What all was done with CGI?
DeSanto: Right. We did a real full size Bumblebee which looks amazing and the thing that I love about Bumblebee is when you stand next to it, it makes you feel like you're ten years old. There is something that's magical about having that thing right there. I love models. When we were trying to get 'Galactica' started up I tracked down the original Galactica and we would shoot with the models and do all of that. There is something magic about having it there and Bumblebee is pretty cool to stand next to.
Did you ever consider a story that was just the Transformers without the human element to it?
DeSanto: Well, there are two problems with that. The number one problem is that you need a human element in order to have the audience who isn't familiar with Transformers introduce them into the world. That's why Wolverine wasn't a part of the team in the first 'X-Men.' He was the eyes and ears of the audience. You needed to explain the school and all of that. It's the same things here with the humans. You have to explain what Auto-bots are, what Decepticons are and Spike or Sam is from the comic and he is the audience. So you definitely need to have him and you also need to take into account that there is a certain realism with budgets and you've got to figure out a story that is still going to get made. I mean, the writers could have written a big crazy 'Transformers Transformer' movie, but it would never get made. It would just be a four hundred and fifty million dollar movie, but with this the humans are the key because they're the audience. And for the uninitiated walking in you have to introduce them to all of these characters and the good versus evil of it all.
With 'X-Men' you experience the beauty of the internet fan backlash and so on. Are you bringing that experience here to everyone and saying, 'Look, I've been through this. Don't worry.'
DeSanto: Yeah. It's funny because at least for us on the first 'X-Men,' we felt that we were like the first movie ever really under a microscope. I remember the first image that we had that leaked out was a Polaroid of a stuntman in a stunt Wolverine costume, and it's hideous. It just looks awful and fans were upset and they were like, 'Why aren't they using the traditional costumes?' That's actually where Bryan came up with that line, 'What do you want? Yellow spandex?' He was saying, 'Look, we get it. We tried it. It's not working, but you need to trust us.' Some thing aren't going to work too. There are some things in 'The X-Men' that I would love to change, but then there are other things that we're like, 'Okay, we got that right.' There are so many variables when you're doing a movie like this, but everyone is giving a hundred and ten percent.
Getting back to the original film, there is that thing about Orson Wells and his last job being the 'Transformers.'
DeSanto: Yes, three weeks after he finished his voice work on 'Transformers' Orson Wells died.
Has it been easy to approach people in Hollywood about this idea and get them to take it seriously?
DeSanto: It was really difficult to setup. When I approached Don and said that I wanted to do 'Transformers,' and he wasn't of that generation, but he trusted me and sort of saw that this might be cool when I was pitching the storyline. We went in together to Hasbro and they said, 'Okay, here are the rights. Go and try and set it up.' But there were two other attempts to get this movie set up that producers previous to us couldn't get done. I think that our journey on that was really difficult because you're dealing with a lot of people who aren't of this generation. So you have to say, 'Look, don't gage this by whether or not you get it or not, but go asks your junior execs and your assistants and walk down the street and show your kids.' Fortunately we were able to get it restarted over at DreamWorks and Mike DeLuca had asked me to write up a treatment to send off to Steven [Spielberg]. I did that and the rest is history.
Are there other Transformers that you're hoping to see in the sequels to this?
DeSanto: That depends on how many 'Transformers' fans – here is a challenge that I'm going to give to the 'Transformers' fan. 'The X-Men' fans were few in number, but they brought five and ten people with them to the theater. I want the 'Transformers' fans to outdo the 'X-Men' fans. So if you have friends who aren't fans bring them out and your question I think will be determined by how well they get into that.
There's not one that you wished you could've gotten into this film?
DeSanto: Well, definitely because of the mythology there is an arch here, but I don't want to tip my hat. It was like setting up Phoenix in 'X-Men' one. You didn't want us to give that away.
Will there be a Voltron movie?
DeSanto: Yes, but I don't have the rights so I'm not going to talk about it.
What about Teen Titans Movie?
DeSanto: Yes. He just turned in a draft, a beat sheet, a treatment. I'm working with Mark Wolfman on that. So it's awesome.
Did you ever think about making Megatron a gun?
DeSanto: We'll talk about that later, but yes.
TRANSFORMERS OPENS JULY 4TH