'Deepwater Horizon' Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura on Studios' Self-Destructive Fears and "Abandoning" Young Men

PHOTOGRAPHED BY Austin Hargrave
Lorenzo di Bonaventura

The former Warner Bros. production chief also talks about postponing his USA series 'Shooter' in light of the Dallas shootings: "It's talking down to people, like they can't differentiate truth and fiction."

When Lorenzo di Bonaventura was growing up in New Hampshire, his mother banned toy soldiers and guns from the home. But he began having nightmares, and a child psychiatrist put the young boy in a room full of the very toys his mom had banished. "The psychiatrist said, 'Understand that this is a morality play. [Kids] need to know that good people beat the bad people, and if you take that away from them, they fear the bad people,' " he recalls. That conversation still lingers with di Bonaventura, 59, and is evident in the dozens of movies he has produced, from the smash 'em up Transformers and G.I. Joe franchises, which have earned $3.8 billion and $678 million, respectively, to the heavily armed thrillers Salt and Red. "Action movies, by definition, are morality plays," says the onetime Warner Bros. president of worldwide production, who got his start at Columbia working for Dawn Steel and now is based at Paramount.

Things still blow up in his latest film, Deepwater Horizon, set on the British Petroleum offshore drilling rig that exploded in 2010 and created the worst oil spill in U.S. history. The Peter Berg-directed Lionsgate film, which stars Mark Wahlberg (di Bonaventura's eighth movie with the actor) and opens Sept. 30, doesn't soften the terror of that fateful night, which left 11 crewmembers dead. In fact, di Bonaventura says he fights Hollywood's tendency to neuter movies to what is deemed safe for mass consumption. "The notion that polarization and controversy is unprofitable is something I absolutely reject," he says.

THR sat down with di Bonaventura at the Toronto Film Festival on the eve of Deepwater's world premiere. The father of 18- and 15-year-old boys spoke about the challenges of making a ripped-from-the-headlines movie, how to beat sequelitis and why Hollywood's biggest mistake would be abandoning young males.

When you first heard about the oil spill, did you think movie potential?

No. The environmental disaster is obviously terrible and gigantic. What first got me interested was David Barstow's article in The New York Times. It was the first time I understood people had died. The human story got run over by the environmental story because it was an easier story to communicate from a TV point of view. It still wasn't like, "Let's go make a movie," but I called Barstow, eventually, and it began to take shape.

With news-based movies, the thinking seems to have shifted to, if it plays on CNN, audiences might ignore it.

I don't entirely subscribe to that. But it may be one of the reasons we rejected the oil spill part of it. Entertainment is about surprise. It's hard to surprise people if you know everything about an event. I didn't love Zero Dark Thirty because it didn't shed that much more new light on the story, and I thought it was inaccurate in some places. But when I saw Citizenfour, that blew my mind. Because I read all this stuff [about Edward Snowden], and it just did not match up. I like the true stories that are very hard to predict. Captain Phillips had that experience for me. The Deepwater Horizon story reminded me very much of a big movie going over budget. Everybody starts getting a little nuts. The studio arrives — in this case, BP. People tend to cut corners out of the belief that they're helping. They're not, generally. BP made a lot of big, bad decisions that day, but other people went along with those decisions. And they're adults and professionals. Why did they go along?

Did other studios pass on Deepwater?

Yeah. Paramount. Participant and Lionsgate deserve credit for having the guts to jump into it. We had a great experience with Lionsgate making Red, so they've sort of become my home away from home. Paramount passed on Transformers five times, but then the sixth time they said yes. The truth is, it's about what moment you catch a studio, how much money they have left in their budgets.

You're doing Granite Mountain with Lionsgate, about the 19 firefighters who died in the 2013 Prescott, Ariz., blaze. Did you face similar resistance?

There's always resistance from people who, rightfully, worry that Hollywood's trying to exploit a story — their loved ones. They want to be shown the respect they deserve. I did Perfect Storm as an executive many years ago. Learned some lessons there. Learned some lessons on Deepwater from Pete. He was very forthright with the families of the deceased that he was not going to pull any punches on how they died. On Deepwater, they appreciated the truth.

You're signed for three Transformers and a spinoff. Given the problems this summer with sequels, any concern?

Transformers 19 — we'll be talking about that 10 years from now. (Laughs.) But I'm glad they believe in the franchise. I don't want to pick on any movie [this summer], so I would say this: The quality of the sequel is very important, and if you fail at the quality, you're going to fail. It's funny, though, because when I first got in the business 25 years ago, there was a summer where all the sequels didn't do well. And everybody said, "No more sequels." And here we are 25 years later with a hell of a lot of sequels.

You've never done a superhero movie?

Not for lack of interest. As an executive, I oversaw some Batmans and tried to get Superman going. But that market is saturated now. I have a project with Mark Millar, who wrote [the comic that became] Kingsman: The Secret Service, that is a superhero project: Jupiter's Legacy. What attracted me to it was it's not repeating what everybody else has done. It's not yet set up at a studio. Its universe is so expansive that it's, in some ways, more conducive to a television treatment. I'm doing it either way.

As a former studio head, what's right and wrong with studios now?

As an industry, we've weathered the collapse of DVD. We've weathered the onslaught of video games and really quality television. The disappointment I have is that the response to those challenges has been a narrowing of choice. And I don't think that's the right thing. We've abandoned young males largely in our business. They like R-rated movies. They were the most dependable audience of my 25 years in this business. They've become less dependable because we are not making product for them. That's a big mistake.

And a movie like The Magnificent Seven is made for a PG-13 rating.

That's a perfect example of the mentality. It makes no sense to me. It makes me not want to see it. The notion that polarization and controversy is unprofitable is something I absolutely reject. The fear of that has the corporate masters of the business — and I don't mean the people running the studios, I mean their bosses — [becoming] increasingly safe. I've had personal experience where controversy has made movies widely profitable. Three Kings, Training Day, Falling Down, Matrix in its own way — not exactly controversial, but it was in your face. With Three Kings, every single time we tested the movie, when the woman got shot in the head during the milk truck scene, 10 percent of the audience stood up and walked out. And we kept it in. Today they would take it out.

Dylan O'Brien, your American Assassin star, had an awful accident on the set of Maze Runner: The Death Cure. Is he healed?

He's all better. It was more than disconcerting. I never saw him in his worst form, but it was described to me. It was really scary. He came close to dying, I'm pretty sure. It was enough to shake your core.

Given your history at Warner Bros., what are your thoughts on the studio?

If I were Warners, I wouldn't worry about Marvel. I'd be worried about being authentic to ourselves. DC Comics is a really vibrant universe. Let it be what it's going to be.

You were the exec who bought rights to Harry Potter. Did you envision it would be Warners' crown jewel?

No. How could you? But I was given a really hard time by some people in the corporation for having spent the kind of money that I committed to it because at that time, kids entertainment, which is how it was termed to me, was not that business. It was animation. But I didn't read a kids book. I read a book that was imaginative, had something for adults, had something for kids. I brought [J.K. Rowling] to L.A. and sat down with her, and she walked me through what the seven books were in her mind. I was blown away.

Your USA series Shooter was postponed after the Dallas police shootings. Should entertainment be impacted by real-life events?

It's pandering to the audience. The audience is way more sophisticated than that. Look, if it were [debuting] that week, maybe not. [But] it's talking down to people, like they can't differentiate truth and fiction. It's the same argument people make that video games make you kill people. I don't believe that for three seconds. My kids — neither of them is going to go kill people. They play video games all the time. I watch violent television and violent movies. I don't have any desire to kill people.

This story first appeared in the Sept. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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