Exclusive: Director Stephen Sommers Says “Yo Joe!”

Of all the people to talk to about G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, hitting theaters this Friday, director Stephen Sommers should probably be anyone’s first choice, because the movie is an astounding achievement for a director far too many people wrote off after his last movie, Van Helsing. Whether or not you’re a “G.I. Joe” fan, Sommers has managed to bring the characters, vehicles and jaw-dropping environments from the G.I. Joe Mythos to life in a way that stays true to their roots but provides an exciting fast-paced action movie experience for those previously unfamiliar with any of it.

Having been interested in talking to Sommers for many years, we were quite surprised by the amount of enthusiasm and excitement Sommers exudes when talking about the movie, clearly showing how much he loves the results of all the hard work that went into realizing it. (We’ve spoken to so many filmmakers who have been so completely worn down by the process of making big FX movies, they could barely muster even an iota of Sommers’ enthusiasm when talking about their movie.)

When we had a chance to speak to the cast–look for those video interviews soon–they said essentially the same thing, that Sommers’ energy was “infectious,” and Superhero Hype! quickly found ourselves pulled into that web of enthusiasm when we sat down for a fast-paced talk with the filmmaker.

Superhero Hype!: It’s been a while since “Van Helsing.” Why did you decide to tackle “G.I. Joe” as your next movie, of all things?

Stephen Sommers: I did all these movies back to back and then I wanted to take a little time off because my kids got to a certain age where they didn’t want to travel as much. They have their own friends and their own life. So I took some time off to write and produce and then I was getting close to a couple of movies, thinking about it. I turned “G.I. Joe” down a couple of times because I grew up with 12-inch doll. I thought, “Well, I didn’t want to have an idea for a movie about an Army man,” then one of my assistants who’s actually my webmaster now, Ryan Landels, he’s like, “You turned it down, but do you know what it is?” I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a 12-inch Army guy.” He goes, “No, don’t you know about Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow?” I was like, “No.” Strangely enough, my agent, he was a rabid G.I. Joe fan and had the entire comic book collection. He gave me his comic collection which I still have–I don’t know if I’ve ever returned it–and I started reading the comic books and I got really excited and I told Lorenzo (di Bonaventura) and said, “This is kind of exciting.” He said, “Oh yeah, we’re working on two scripts simultaneously.” I got a trip to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, the Hasbro factory to really get into it. That’s what opened up my eyes.

SHH!: When you start seeing all those toys, they’re way too cool not to do it.

Sommers: Exactly. I thought, “I love doing big, cool, visual movies. I’ll probably never do a movie about a lawyer or a doctor.” I suddenly realized what a big, cool visual world this is and it really kind of reminded me of the original Sean Connery “James Bonds.” Obviously, Larry Hama and a lot of guys were influenced by that. I just fell in love with the world. Then I realized as I got deeper into the comic books how evolved the characters were. They’re really great and had really great back stories and interweaving relationships. There’s romance and strong female characters. I love in this movie that the girls are smarter than the guys and just as tough. I got a comic romance and a tragic romance. For a director getting that much stuff handed to him, that’s what got me excited.

SHH!: Your movie is actually more of the backstory from before the comic book stories. Was there a lot of stuff in the later comic books which told you how to actually deal with their relationships or origins?

Sommers: Oh yeah. I don’t want to give anything away, but there’s a couple twists in the movie that I think are surprising to the audience. Some of the fans will be ahead of it, but that’s okay, but yeah, there is so much. I’m stepping on a mine field because there is so much. This movie has a beginning, a middle and an end, and it wraps up and it’s really nice, but at the same time, there’s so much more that only fans know about that is yet to come and there’s so much more to do with these characters and so much more to do with the whole world. There’s a lot of characters that I haven’t even used yet.

SHH!: It sounds like you’re very excited. Usually when a director finishes a big movie like this, where they’ve spent a lot of time doing post-production, they’re tired and ready to do something completely different.

Sommers: (Laughs) I just finished the movie two weeks ago right now. I finished the movie at 6:30. I was driven right to the airport and flew out at 10:30. I’ve been traveling around the world for two weeks. I’ve been to Sydney, London, Dubai, Paris, Berlin, Tokyo, Seoul, Washington D.C. and now New York in the last two weeks. The only reason I’m still energized is because all the actors I’m hanging out with are such great people. We get along so well and it’s so much fun hanging out with them. Also so far, we’ve screened the movie in every country and multiple times in some countries and the audiences just dig it.

SHH!: Yeah, the Joe fans definitely seem to love it.

Sommers: The fans are eating it up. People who love “G.I. Joe” are going out of their minds and people who’ve never heard of “G.I. Joe” seem to be equally as excited.

SHH!: When you started developing this, were there any kind of worries about the fact that we were at war? This is definitely not a hyper-realistic movie, but more of a fantasy movie.

Sommers: The comic books were a fantasy, although I did base a lot of the weaponry and the gadgets and vehicles – it’s science fact, not so much science fiction. Going in I just never saw it as a war movie and in fact, a couple of scripts that they’d been writing they went that way just a little bit more, but they were much more serious and they were kind of generic. All the action sequences were things I’d seen before in other movies, every one of them, and I said, “No, we have an opportunity in the action sequences to do things that no one’s ever seen before. These should be things that are very specific to ‘G.I. Joe’ and the ‘G.I. Joe’ world.” That’s why each one of them I think is. You couldn’t take any of these action sequences and just pop them into any other action movie. It would be odd. So that’s the way I went.

SHH!: I don’t know if you keep up with the stuff said online, but a lot of people seemed to be completely down on the accelerator suits when they first started seeing the trailers and commercials.

Sommers: Yeah, they hammered them.

SHH!: And yet, that’s the best part of the movie. That sequence may be remembered as one of the best action sequences of the summer. I think people are going to be surprised.

Sommers: I agree with that actually. That’s the thing. The internet has become such a negative deal and it doesn’t really matter whether you’re looking up entertainment, sports, politics. The comments, when you go and look at the comments, I don’t even bother anymore because they’re 90 percent negative. I think the anonymity of the internet makes people so vicious and negative it’s kind of sad actually.

SHH!: Believe me, I know. I write about movies and even if I say, “This is a great movie, this is a great movie. You should see it,” every comment is like, “It looks bad, I won’t see that crap.”

Sommers: They were hammering on the accelerator suits, and I was just smiling to myself ’cause I’m like, “Just wait until you see it.” Then they see the sequence and of course it blows their minds.

SHH!: Absolutely. I saw a bit of it at ShoWest but that was just a very small part of a much longer sequence. I’m really curious about doing stuff like that. Are you really big on building sets or using models or do you end up doing a lot of it using CG?

Sommers: Everything. When did CG become this terrible thing? I love Ray Harryhausen. Do you want me to go back to claymation? So what we do in all these sequences is we try to shoot as much reality as possible. Take for instance the accelerator suit chase sequence through Paris. We went to Paris. it wasn’t all shot in Paris, but a lot of it was, and we destroyed somewhere between 112 and 120 cars. It was a record. I guess we beat “Blues Brothers” somewhere. So you try to make it as real as possible and then you’ll put in miniatures and models and matte paintings and the CG work. If it’s all CG you can just smell that and they’re getting much better now. In fact, sometimes they don’t want you to put certain things in. They’ll say, “Keep the snow and the rain out. We’ll put that in later,” so we play around with that. In Paris we had cameras in helicopters, we had cameras in trucks, cars, motorcycles. You have to really shoot the sh*t out of it and then you add the layers of CG.

SHH!: Even from when I saw it at ShoWest, it obviously had improved quite a bit since then. When you got the first script, was a lot of that stuff already in there?

Sommers: Well that sequence has been in my head for over a decade. I had the idea for the accelerator suits over a decade ago.

SHH!: Before “G.I. Joe?”

Sommers: Yeah, this is way before I’d even heard of “G.I. Joe.” I actually wrote a script called “Accelerator” which I had one draft and didn’t get to finish. I ended up going onto something else very quickly, but I had this idea. At one point when, now in the movie they jump through a train and when I wrote it they went through a truck. But now, 10 years later I’m like, “Oh, I didn’t make them jump through a truck, let’s make it a train.” In fact, I think it was Stuart Beattie’s idea to make it a train.

SHH!: It was cool that you had that idea and that it worked in this setting.

Sommers: A lot of the ideas I’ve had, like the Mole Pods. I’ve had that in my head since I was a little kid about being able to burrow under the earth. So, what was great about this movie is that they gave me this fantastic world, these great characters, and I got to come up with a story and throw a lot of my imagination and creativity into it, things I’d been thinking about for a long time.

SHH!: Were there a lot of ideas that got cut out and didn’t make it into the movie?

Sommers: Not really. We’re really good. Over my career, my editors, two of my editors have been with me since film school. So, I don’t have a bunch of yes men. I have the best people surrounding me and even in the script writing stage we don’t want to waste money or time. So we’ve been very good, over the years I’ve never lost a big action sequence or a big special effects sequence. It’s always usually just, “Oh, this little talkie scene here, or this moment there.” Usually our first cuts are only 12 to 15 minutes longer than the final version and that’s just a matter of massaging down.

SHH!: I think that’s a lot of why people are getting excited about your movie. There’s been a lot of movies this summer that are two and a half hours long, but there’s a lot of talking scenes and you don’t do so much of that and just really keep the action going.

Sommers: Me and my friends and I, my wife, we come out of theaters and even if we like the movie we go, “Oh, that was great but man, that was a half hour too long or an hour too long.” Part of it is that, like I’ve said, I’ve been with my editors, two of them, Bob and Kelly, since film school and they get in there and they really go for it. We want to get rid of that criticism immediately.

SHH!: Well, no one’s gonna say that this movie is too long.

Sommers: (Laughs) No one’s gonna say that. I guarantee that.

SHH!: If the movie does well and Monday comes and Paramount wants to make another one, are you ready to jump into doing a sequel?

Sommers: I’ll take August off, but then sure, I’m right back in there.

SHH!: Wow. Have you already figured out where you want to go next?

Sommers: Well, the mythology of it, Larry Hama who gave me the comic books gave me a lot of the mythology of it that there’s so much more to tell just about these characters and where their relationships go. I think that even though this movie has a beginning, a middle and an end, you still want to know what’s going to happen to them. You want to know more about these characters which is the best thing about it. As great as the action is and all the special effects, I think people really fall in love with these characters. The key is that I have a lot of ideas and there’s a “G.I. Joe” mythology. If we get to do a sequel, there’s a lot more to tell.

SHH!: Have you had any other projects in development you’ve been sitting on while you’re working on this?

Sommers: There’s a couple, but mainly I’m getting very excited about doing “G.I. Joe 2.” I’m working on “Tarzan” at Warner Brothers and they’re a bunch of great people. (It will be) live action but we’ll contemporize it. It’ll still be a period movie, but it’s almost like “The Mummy,” it took place in Ancient Egypt and the ’20s and ’30s, but it felt more contemporary, that sort of deal.

SHH!: Will it be taking anything from the Disney animated movie?

Sommers: No, because it’s at Warner Brothers. (Laughs) No, we’ll just stick with the book. What I want to make is our idealized version of a “Tarzan” movie. Seeing a guy talking to apes didn’t work 30 years ago with “Greystoke” so it won’t work now.

SHH!: Cool, hopefully one of these two things will be the next thing, so it won’t be another five years before we see you again.

Sommers: No, I’m raring to go.

SHH!: It’s funny, I talked to David Twohy yesterday, whose last movie was I think the same summer as “Van Helsing” and he seems happy to be back, too.

Sommers: What’s he doing now?

SHH!: He has a movie opening against yours. It’s called “A Perfect Getaway.” It’s a serial killer thriller set in Hawaii.

Sommers: It’s opening the same weekend?

SHH!: Yeah, they just moved it, I think to get away from “District 9″ but I think it’s kind of being dumped.

Sommers: Really? I just know about “Julie & Julia.” Oh my God. I’d hate to work so hard to make movies and… (trails off)

SHH!: What do you want people who aren’t “G.I. Joe” fans to get out of this? Are you hoping they’ll go back and read the comics and find stuff like that to enjoy?

Sommers: No. I mean, sure, yes, but I just want them to have fun. I want people to come and that’s why we came up with the story we did and wrote it the way we did. It’s an origin story so that people around the world who’ve never even heard of “G.I. Joe” can have a blast and not get lost. I think if you are a “G.I. Joe” fan you might have even more fun because you’re more in love with the characters and know stuff that other people don’t, but no one’s gonna get lost in this movie.

SHH!: I hope Marvel re-releases some of those early comics, because I’ve become more interested in the characters after seeing the movie.

Sommers: I think a lot of people are.

SHH!: I probably own the first Marvel Comics from the ’80s, but I was more into the 12-inch figures myself, and I never quite figured out why anyone would want to make comics or cartoons about G.I. Joe.

Sommers: (Laughs) Right, right, we’re a little older.

SHH!: I appreciated the “kung fu grip” line though.

Sommers: That was one of the first lines of dialogue in there that I wrote because I knew I gotta throw that in there for the old guys like me. (Laughs) It’s funny ’cause half the audience will burst out laughing at those two lines and then the other half will scratch their heads and go, “Why is that funny?” They won’t know the reference.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra opens on Friday, August 7. Look for our video interviews with Sienna Miller, Rachel Nichols, Channing Tatum and Marlon Wayans later this week.

Source: Edward Douglas