Lorenzo di Bonaventura on 10 Years of Producing Movies (Q&A)
The former Warner Bros. exec and producer of Paramount's "Transformers" franchise says fear of failure drove him for years -- his 20th feature, "Red 2," opens July 19.
This story first appeared in the July 26 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Lorenzo di Bonaventura spent the first half of his career as a studio executive, logging 13 years at Warner Bros., where he rose to president of worldwide production. Squeezed out in an executive realignment in 2002, he struck out on his own, opting for the precarious life of a producer.
Di Bonaventura, 56, who lives in Brentwood with wife, Kimberly, and their two sons, has had, for the past 10 years, a first-look deal at Paramount, where he's worked on the huge Transformers franchise while juggling more than a dozen other movies, big and small. His 20th feature, Red 2, opens July 19.
The Hollywood Reporter: After so many years at Warners, what was it like for you to have to start pitching projects, to turn from a buyer to a seller?
Lorenzo di Bonaventura: I don't think I saw myself as an executive the same way a lot of people see themselves. I always saw myself fundamentally as a seller, not a buyer. I was always trying to sell my boss, I was trying to sell the movie star, to sell the big director, and I was often trying to sell my colleagues. So that part of the transition wasn't that hard. What was hard for me was the fear of failure and not knowing whether I'd be a good producer or not, whether I'd have the support of the town, because you never know when you come out of being the head of a studio how they're going to treat you. Fear of failure definitely drove me through the first four or five years pretty significantly. And there's also a certain amount of luck in anything we do.
THR: When you left Warners, were you able to take projects with you?
Bonaventura: No, I was only given one project, which was Constantine, which was not a greenlit movie, but I had always believed in it. One of the great things that has happened to me in this business is that when Keanu Reeves heard I was no longer at Warners, he called me immediately. "You've been such an unbelievable support to me," he said. I've done seven movies with Keanu now. "Listen, you give me something, and I'm going to do it. You've been great to me." Now, some people say that, and maybe they mean it, maybe they don't. But I said, "OK, great, I've got Constantine," and he said, "OK, great, I'm in."
THR: How did you get involved in Transformers?
Bonaventura: I was involved with G.I. Joe, and [Hasbro CEO] Brian Goldner asked what else I'd like to do, and I said Transformers. And he said, "You're too old to know Transformers." I said, "Yeah, but I watched all my friends' younger brothers and sisters be enthralled by it, and I think what robots could look like now could be really cool. I've been fortunate enough to work on a lot of visual effects movies, and I really understand what visual effects are capable of." It was that simple. What happened was DreamWorks was trying to set it up, and I was with Paramount, and Paramount and DreamWorks partnered, and that's how it happened.
THR: The Transformers movies have been huge hits, but critics also have cited them as examples of how Hollywood now caters to teenage boys.
Bonaventura: I think that's incorrect. I think, sure, a movie like Transformers is definitely going to appeal to a young man, but really it appeals to pretty much everybody, thankfully. So I wouldn't call it a young-male movie. In fact, I think we've abandoned young males in a large respect. They were our most dependable audience forever, and now it's a fickle audience for us because we don't really make movies for them.
THR: Why has the industry abandoned young males?
Bonaventura: I grew up in the movie business in the R-rated time frame, and I love R-rated movies, [but fewer R-rated movies are being made now] and that is one of the absolute reasons why we have fewer young males going to the movies. Look, there are a lot of good reasons to make certain movies PG-13, I get it. But I think we veered so hard to that direction, partly out of political pressure from Washington and partly out of the personal taste of the studio executives. When I started showing my kids classic movies, what did I show them? I show them The Deer Hunter, I showed The Godfather, I showed The French Connection. All these movies, they have such meaning because they didn't pull any punches. With PG-13, you're pulling punches, there's no question about it.
THR: How do you figure out what today's popular taste is?
Bonaventura: I work really hard to try to stay in touch with myself at age 16 or 17. I've got two kids whom I listen to a lot. I have two high school buddies in different places in the country whose kids I pay attention to. And I also try to stay in touch with emerging talent. I like daring movies, I really do. When I see a daring movie, I want to go work with that director or writer, or both.
THR: So how do you define a daring movie?
Bonaventura: Usually the choices made are very bold. My favorite movie made over the past couple of years was The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. That movie blew me away because it's so decisive and so bold in its vision. That deserved to win best picture of the year. One of the directors I've done two movies with is Mikael Hafstrom, who made a Swedish movie called Evil, and it's just gutsy as hell. It goes into very uncomfortable territory about violence among young people in a way that's artfully done and really makes you think about violence in a way that you've not thought about it. And Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's Amores Perros is another movie that made me go, "Whoa." I reject the notion that that kind of filmmaking doesn't have a place in Hollywood. I think it does. As an executive, I was able to push through unproven talent like David O. Russell on Three Kings or The Wachowskis on The Matrix or Antoine Fuqua on Training Day. Those are movies I will always be proud of -- in part because of their gutsiness. That doesn't mean violence to me. It can mean that, but it's just there's a confidence in what those directors are doing that really shines through.
THR: How much time do you spend on location when you have a film shooting?
Bonaventura: It depends on the movie and the director. You know, what are you going to go say to Michael Bay? "Here, Michael, I think there's a good camera angle here," you know? My job as a producer once the movie really starts is to see that the director and stars have what they need. Red 2's an interesting example because there are so many stars, you're constantly tinkering with the script, and the director truthfully doesn't have any time to do that. So you talk with the director [Dean Parisot] about what we're trying to achieve, and then I'll go off with the writers and then come back to Dean with pages, so he can go: "Yes, no, yes, no. OK, here we go." With that one in particular, you're constantly trying to make sure that there's enough screen time for each character because the audience really loves each of those characters.
THR: How do you organize your schedule when you're not filming?
Bonaventura: I don't have much mastery over my schedule. I have to react to whatever is the urgency at that moment. I'd probably say that half my day is spent looking forward and half the day is dealing with immediate questions. For me, I'm really lucky that I love to read. It's one of my great pleasures in life, so I'm always reading.
THR: Mostly scripts?
Bonaventura: No, it's everything. I have to consume both The New York Times and Los Angeles Times; I'll read a script. I usually have two or three books I'm reading simultaneously. Next to my bed, I usually have a constant of 10 books waiting.
THR: You're producing the reboot of the Jack Ryan franchise that Paramount will release Dec. 25. Are you adapting one specific Tom Clancy book?
Bonaventura: No, it's purely original. It probably has more details about Jack Ryan in it than any previous Jack Ryan movie because we took every piece of mythology out of the books and put it into the movie. So it's really the origin story of how Ryan became an agent, a master at finance, a Marine.
THR: A couple of years ago, when there was a lot of money floating around, several producers began lining up their own sources of financing. How come you didn't take that route?
Bonaventura: I've never chased it. When I became a producer, people approached me about it, and I definitely dabbled, but I quickly found two things: One was that I really didn't want to do a lot of the finance aspect of it. But, more significantly, I felt like I can't be spending all my time chasing money; I've got to establish myself as a viable producer. Maybe in the future if somebody wanted to invest in me, I'd pay attention to it, but I felt I needed to make myself successful first.