For a guy who allegedly got fired from his latest film, Stephen Sommers shows few signs that he's letting the rumor mill wear him down. "The guys who have been hammering me for the last year have really turned around in the last couple of weeks when they started seeing the movie," Sommers beamed during an interview about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. "I'm pretty happy."
Admittedly, Sommers' commercial track record is almost inversely proportionate to his critical one, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars with the Mummy movies and Van Helsing despite reviews that were, to say the least, often unkind. But speaking to the director via telephone about G.I. Joe, Sommers indicated that he has accepted – if not championed – his spot among Hollywood's purveyors of pure spectacle. "They love to hate the guys who make the movies that they love," he said of the "internet movie haters" calling for his head.
Cinematical spoke to Sommers about his participation in G.I. Joe, which followers of the film know has been highly-contested in press reports as the film moved towards its opening day, August 7. In addition to clarifying his employment status at the helm of the film, he discussed the development of the film's iconic conflict between G.I. Joe and Cobra, reflected on what interests him as a director and storyteller, and perhaps most importantly, explained why some of the costumes were changed en route to the silver screen.
Cinematical: When you started working on G.I. Joe, what did you feel like was essential to preserve about the source material, and what did you know that by necessity would have to change when you adapted and updated it for live-action?
Stephen Sommers: They came to me a couple of times saying, "Paramount would like for you to consider G.I. Joe." I was like, I don't really have an idea for an army man movie, because that was what I grew up with – the 12" doll. In the early '80s I went to university in Spain and hung out in Eurpoe, and somehow missed the whole [phenomenon]; I never read the comic book, so I didn't really know about this version. So I started reading the comic books and went to Pawtucket where Hasbro is based and saw all of the toys, and got really excited about what a cool, visual world this was. Then I read the comic books, and they made 300 cartoons and comic books and they never killed anybody; they kept evolving the characters and evolving the characters. In fact, in the first draft of the script, the first 45 pages are all back story. The studio was like, what are you doing? So that was what initially got me excited – how visual it was and there's all of these great characters that were handed to me. So then I sat down with Larry Hama, who created all of this G.I. Joe thing, and there's a group of guys and girls at the Hasbro factory who are the keepers of the flame, and they just kind of got it.
As we were trying to figure out the story and starting to write, I wanted to make sure all of the fans were pleased. But also I had to contemporize it; we set the movie 15-20 years in the future, in the "not too distant future," because I wanted the weaponry and the gadgets to be science fact, not science fiction. That was a big deal for me, so basically to contemporize the first thing I said was, well, we've got to take out "all-American hero," because there's a lot of people around the world like me who know nothing about this version of G.I. Joe or don't know about G.I. Joe at all. At the beginning of the movie, Duke and Ripcord have never heard of G.I. Joe, and then through their eyes we get to see the whole world, [and] in this day and age, it wouldn't just be the bets of the best from this country, it would be the best of the best from our allies around the world, and that was the idea. Also, when they were drawing those characters in the 1980s, they all had a physical resemblance to Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger, very pumped-up and steroided-out, and I said we can't do that any more. I mean, they should be ripped, but we're going to contemporize this thing, which Larry Hama and the guys at Hasbro were all for it. You can't really redo something you did in the '80s precisely, so that was the main thing: let's just contemporize it, and we'll throw in our own ideas. I'll use my imagination and come up with all kinds of fun set pieces and stuff like that.
Cinematical: I admit I ask this as much as a fan as anything, but in the original series each character had a uniform that was specific to his specialty or area of expertise. Notwithstanding having a guy walk around in a paratrooper outfit the whole time, why did you decide to make their uniforms match instead of preserving their individual looks?
Sommers: Mainly I thought I had to get Snake Eyes right. That was key; I figured if I got Snake Eyes right then I was home free, and we nailed that. We were very careful about that. Larry Hama watched every drawing that we did and he was very helpful. And also Storm Shadow, to put him in all white. I think Ellen Mirojnick, our costume designer, did a brilliant job, because it could have looked silly – he could have looked like an ice cream man or something. So then we got that right. And The Baroness – see, the main outfits, I said we have to keep those. But then some of them I just thought were a little too colorful; a movie is not a comic book or a cartoon, so it just evolved. But with like Scarlett, I liked some of her stuff, but I didn't necessarily think she needed to be in orange.
Cinematical: How difficult or easy was it to create entertainment that would be intense and captivating for adults and yet preserve the sense of story and simplicity that kids responded to when the source material was first conceived?
Sommers: As a writer, I don't tend to think that way. I mean, I kind of know who's my audience, but what I thought was, this is for everybody. Five and six-year-olds are loving it; their eyes are bugging out of their heads, and yet their moms and dads are scoring it even higher. I didn't want to pander to kids, and I didn't want to make a kiddie movie, but I wanted kids to love it. But making these kinds of movies, that's the tightrope walk; you want to get the tone, and that's one thing that's all up to the director, getting the tone right. So I don't know how – when you're writing, you've got that in your head, when you're making the movie you've got that in your head, and we knew it was going to be PG-13. Everybody has different likes and dislikes and tastes or whatever, and I just tried to make a movie that I thought would really be entertaining to me.
Cinematical: Was there anything you had to dial back in terms of that intensity? You lay waste to Paris, for example, and even as a set piece it more than flirts with the idea of real mass destruction.
Sommers: In that specific instance, Heavy Duty calls up and says "start evacuating the tower," and then Scarlett actually has a line that says, "the tower has been evacuated." The idea is that it's bloodless action; we didn't really use blood. I mean, sometimes we put blood on an actor's face, just tap it on, but there's no spurting blood. As a parent, I know what worries me and my nine-year-old and my 14-year-old are going to go crazy when they get to see this. But at the same time, as long as there's no nudity and sex scenes – there is no nudity, people aren't using the f-word – there are certain things kids love, and as a kid I loved to be a little scared. I knew going in, when you say PG-13, you kind of know what you're getting into.
Cinematical: One of the things that I liked about the movie was that there were no deep-rooted psychological motivations for the characters. I hope that doesn't sound like a back-handed compliment...
Sommers: [Interrupting] Not at all! That was the thing – there were great back stories. In the first draft, the first 45 pages were back story, so you do have to simplify it, because I knew I wanted to make a movie that was very fast-paced. Because every time I come out of a movie, me and my friends are always saying, yeah, it was great, but it was 15 minutes too long, and I wanted to get rid of that. If you watch the movie again, I think you'll see that we packed a lot of character and a lot of story into a very fast-paced action movie.
Cinematical: Do you attribute that decision to preserving the ideas and tone of the original show, or just knowing you needed to have a certain kind of momentum? The bad guys' motivations in the film are to scare people and take over the world, for example.
Sommers: I think both. I was talking to James Cameron, and we were talking about how people have seen a lot of this type of movie, and there's a shorthand; we were talking about way back when in The Great Train Robbery when the guy aimed his gun at the camera and pulled the trigger, everyone screamed. As we go along, audiences, they're just smarter. The audience doesn't need you to explain [everything] and if I did some of that stuff that you're talking about, the audience would be rolling their eyes, saying "get on with it." So my main goal was, because these were such great characters that were given to me, that's why we had the flashback structure. I really wanted to get to know these people and like them, but I don't want to slow the movie down. But I love the little ninjas – they're pretty much my favorite part (laughs).
Cinematical: Suffice it to say there have been a lot of rumors about your participation in and on the film.
Sommers: Oh my God – the internet movie haters are all over me!
Cinematical: Could you clarify what your involvement has been and continued to be? I mean, obviously you're doing promotion for the movie.
Sommers: It's ridiculous. I have final cut. I have to ignore it, because the anonymity of the internet makes people vicious and angry. It's interesting – no matter what, if you go on the internet, whether they're talking about politics or sports, 90 percent of the comments afterwards will be negative. I mean, I love the internet, but I never read the comments on anything because it's so negative. They call them fan sites, but they seem to be internet movie hater sites. I mean, the one thing I got annoyed at was when my nine-year-old was looking at the IMDB and she said, "daddy, did you get fired?" I read this and was like, oh God, so... I don't want to get into it, but here's the thing: contractually, I have final cut. They can't throw me off if they wanted to. And I think if you see the movie, you can see it was never in trouble, it all was fine, I'm here doing the press. Somebody out there started rumors, and who knows. But also what hurt me was somebody said that Stuart Baird came in to re-edit – and that's why none of the real press picked up the story. Because all they had to do was make one phone call and they knew instantly it was all lies. The movie tested great every time it was shown, and I was on the movie every day for the last two years.
Cinematical: Also, I think with directors like yourself, Michael Bay, et cetera, who aim for a more mainstream audience, there seems to be an interest in getting the knives out and deconstructing what you do.
Sommers: They love to hate the guys who make the movies that they love. There's my quote; I don't get it. And we make these movies – well, at least I do – because I love these kinds of movies. I grew up on these kinds of movies: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, James Bond, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars. I love these kinds of movies, and as a filmmaker making these kinds of movies gives me the opportunity to work with the greatest crews, the greatest casts, all of the fun filmmaking tools.
Cinematical: For you does a movie like this need to have deeper resonance or significance? It seems like saying that something is entertaining as an end is sort of taboo in the sense that people believe it has to have a message or deeper meaning.
Sommers: That's because movie critics tend to like things that are dark and depressing and have deep meaning, and my main thing on a movie like this is that it's really important that the characters are great. You have to have that in any movie you make, and that's why this project really appealed to me – because there's so many great characters. And then, it gave me and Stuart [Beattie] the opportunity to come up with a really interesting and fresh story. But as far as me, no – I didn't get into this to espouse my political views; generally when actors start talking about their political views, I roll my eyes and turn the channel. To me, I love watching these kinds of movies, I love making these kinds of movies, and people, they do need entertainment.
Cinematical: If this movie is as successful as you're hoping it will be, have you already considered what you might do in a sequel?
Sommers: Because the mythology is all there, there's a lot of interesting stuff. Like, something you don't know yet is who killed Hard Master. I mean, the hardcore G.I. Joe fans know that it wasn't Storm Shadow. But I hope I get to do a sequel, first of all because I had so much fun with these actors. When you watch the movie or come [to the junket], all of the press can see how much fun we had making the movie. I go into these movies knowing it's a marathon, not a sprint, and I won't work with *ssholes. I always have my A.D.s call up A.D.s from the actors' movies to make sure, because A.D.s will always tell the truth. We had a blast – it was really hard, but we had a lot of fun on the set, so to get to hang out with these people again would be just heaven.
Cinematical: Would you say that both in this film and a potential next one, you would be taking material from the comic books or the cartoon? For example, the Serpentor storyline would be interesting, although you just established the heads of Cobra at the end of this film.
Sommers: Mainly we stick to the comic books. There's a lot of people that don't know anything about G.I. Joe and they say, how did you make a movie based on a toy? And I go, well, it's actually based on a great comic book – one of the most popular comic books of the 1980s. So if we get to do [another] ...even when I was doing the Mummy movies, I would do tons of research, and not to sound like a star or anything, but you do it so that you get all kinds of creative ideas. So when I read the comic books, I've got tons of notes and ideas as I go along because as I read them, I come up with my own ideas, and at the same time, there's a lot of great ideas in the comic books.