Apparently the August issue of Sci Fi Magazine had an interview with G.I. Joe: The Rise of COBRA director Stephen Sommers regarding the making of the film, the tone, etc… xhairs was kind enough to transcribe the entire interview, and it’s presented below.
A HUGE thanks to xhairs for going through all of this trouble!
WAR IS HELL
DIRECTOR STEPHEN SOMMERS BRINGS CLASSIC G.I. JOE CHARACTERS TO LIFE IN AN ACTION-PACKED ORIGIN FILM.
BY DAVID GROVE
The battle between G.I. Joe and the mysterious Cobra organization is taking place just southeast of Los Angeles. The whole area is littered with armored vehicles, caverns, explosions, rocket launchers, secret laboratories, and even a couple of manned submarines. What’s strange is that the entire scene is completely bloodless. There are no dead bodies and all of the people who are walking around the scene seem to be having a good time…
This isn’t a real war, but rather the stage for G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, the live-action feature film adaptation of the long-running franchise previously immortalized through cartoons, comics, and iconic toy figurines. For the cast and crew, especially director Stephen Sommers, the filming of G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra is more like wargames, as evidenced by the plethora of green-screens that are visible everywhere.
In fact, talk of G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra being a war movie is verboten on the set. “The film is closer in tone to a James Bond film than a war movie,” says Sommers. “It’s also like the first X-Men film in that this is an origin story. People who don’t know anything about G.I. Joe will be able to enjoy the film and understand the story, but the film will also satisfy the fans who love G.I. Joe.”
The origin story takes place about 10 years in the future and focuses on the rise of the diabolical Cobra organization and the fabled terrorist Cobra Commander, although weapons designer Destro also serves as a main villain in the early part of the story. Standing is Cobra’s path to global domination is the iconic G.I. Joe (Global Integrated Joint Operating Entity) unit that uses its high-tech skills and eclectic team of skilled operatives to battle Cobra all around the world. Complicating matters is the appearance of the elusive and enigmatic Ninja master Snake Eyes, along with Snake Eyes’ arch-nemesis, Cobra Ninja Assassin, Storm Shadow.
The G.I. Joe universe comprises a cast of thousands, and for the makers of G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra, who are using the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero Marvel Comic Book Series—a 155-issue series that ran between 1982 and 1994—as the template for this origin film, the biggest challenge is how to capture the massive G.I. Joe mythology in one film. “It’s a big challenge to try and incorporate so many great characters into one movie, and that’s why it took so long to come up with the right script,” says producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura. “The challenge is to introduce so many interesting characters, and do them justice, and I think we’re going to deliver with the characters in terms of establishing their back-stories.”
The genesis of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra goes back to 2003 when Hasbro executive Brian Goldner suggested that Di Bonaventura think about developing a film based on Hasbro’s long-running G.I. Joe toy line. The next several years would see the development of various scripts and storylines, not to mention real-life events. “When the the Iraq war was on, people wanted to shy away from the subject matter, not wanting to make a film that would glorify war,” recalls Di Bonaventura. “That’s when we started to think of G.I. Joe, and what G.I. Joe stands for, in the context of what a worldwide audience would be interested in seeing.”
In August 2007, the G.I. Joe film project took a major leap forward when Paramount Pictures tapped Stephen Sommers to direct the new film. Sommers was drawn to the project because the G.I. Joe concept contained elements that reminded Sommers of the classic James Bond films. “There’s a great underwater battle in the film, and when I read that in the script, I immediately thought of Thunderball, one of my favorite Bond films, and I knew that scene could be a tribute to that,” says Sommers. “the new Bond movies seem to be following the Bourne movies, and I’m drawn more to the Sean Connery Bond films, and G.I. Joe is inspired by those movies. I was also drawn to the rich back-story that’s present in the franchise, and the challenge of trying to get all of the story that was in the comic books into one film.”
G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra represents, with the possible exception of the sea-monster horror film Deep Rising, Sommer’s first real contemporary film, after a long career directing and writing historically based films such as The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Mummy, Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and Van Helsing. “This is an action-adventure film, just like The Mummy was an action-adventure film,” says Sommers. “Because this is an origin film, it’s all about the histories of these characters that G.I. Joe fans have read about in comics for years, so there is a historical aspect to it. We’re trying to bring back the 1980s G.I. Joe from the Marvel Comics series into the present.”
Since G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra takes its inspiration largely from the G.I. Joe comic book series, the filmmakers recruited writer Larry Hama as a creative consultant. Hama wrote all 155 issues of the comic book series and is credited with being the architect and creator of the modern G.I. Joe mythology. “Larry worked with us on the script, and told us what the fans would like, and what we should put in this film that would make the fans happy, and what wouldn’t make the fans happy,” say Di Bonaventura. “The only demand Larry made was that we not let Snake Eyes speak at all. We’d planned a scene at the end of the film, something cute, where Snake Eyes says something, but Larry convinced us that it would be a really bad idea.”
A massive project like G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra—and a global battle like the one between G.I. Joe and Cobra—certainly requires a global stage. For this purpose, Paramount Pictures chose the massive Downey Studios in Downey, California, near Los Angeles, to serve as the main filming location, with later filming to take place in Prague, Czechoslovakia. It’s at the Downey location that most of the headquarters, along with the arctic base that houses the villainous Destro’s M.A.R.S. (Military Armaments Research Syndicate) base. “We built parts of the Pit at the Downey studio, and the rest of it was done with effects because you could never build all of the Pit,” explains Di Bonaventura. “We also built Destro’s Arctic M.A.R.S. base there, and on another set we built the ice cavern entrance to Destro’s headquarters. We needed a large soundstage for this film, the biggest we could find, because the story moves all around the world.”
With additional second-unit filming done in the Arctic, Egypt, Paris, and Tokyo, not to mention some intense underwater filming, G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is truly a global action-adventure film that looks more akin to G.I. Joe: A Real United Nations Hero as opposed to the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero tag that appeared on all of the comic books on which the film is based. G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra received alot of publicity, as well as controversy, when it was revealed that the film would be downplaying G.I. Joe’s American lineage, as well as downplaying the franchise’s war themes, in order to placate the overseas marketplace.
The makers of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra assert that this is just following in the footsteps of other global espionage franchises such as the Bourne films and the Mission: Impossible film series which featute globe-trotting protagonists. Although G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra was filmed entirely in California and then Prague, the story’s various locations include the Arctic, Australia, Paris, Moscow, Washington, D.C., and even the Sahara. “Duke, the young hero of our story, is clearly an American soldier,” says Di Bonaventura. “People think we’re trying to downplay the American angle in order to appeal to a worldwide audience, but the reality is that the G.I. Joe unit has always traveled around the world on missions. Clearly, the American military will be a key element in this film, and in future films, but there’s alot of international elements to G.I. Joe as well.”
To say that G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is an ensemble piece is a major understatement since the film contains no less than 10 featured characters. If there is a lead in the film, in terms of the G.I. joe outfit, it might be Duke, played by Channing Tatum, who’s G.I. Joe’s lead soldier. “I’d just done an antiwar film called Stop-Loss, and I wasn’t interested in G.I. Joe at first because I thought it would glorify war,” says Tatum. “When I read the script, I realized this was more of a fantasy film, like Star Wars and X-Men, instead of being a war movie. the hardest part of doing a film like this is that you don’t know what you’re doing because of all of the digital effects. Movies like this are largely created in postproduction, all in the computer. I’ll do a scene where I’m staring at a green-screen and imagining that I’m flying around the Arctic and then being told about explosions happening all around me. Then they tell me I’m being shot at. Movies like this force you to completely rely on your imagination as an actor.”
The obligatory veteran presence in the film, amid a universally young cast, is provided in the form of G.I. Joe’s team leader, Hawk, who’s played by Dennis Quaid. “Hawk’s kind of a Sgt. Rock type of character in the sense that he’s fought many battles in his career and he’s seen it all before,” says Quaid, who’s signed on for two G.I. Joe sequels. “My son is a big fan of G.I. Joe and he convinced me to take this part, and I’m glad I did. Originally, my character only had a few scenes, but after I joined the film, they wrote more scenes and it’s turned out to be a really interesting character.”
For die-hard G.I. Joe fans, the most anticipated element of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra’s development was the casting, and conceptualization, of iconic G.I. Joe figures Cobra Commander and Snake Eyes. Snake Eyes, a black-clad, mute ninja, is played by Ray Park, an actor and martial arts expert best known to genre fans for his portrayal of Darth Maul in Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. “I’ve always studied martial arts and so I felt I could do a good job of playing the character,” says Park. “I read the comic books and studied Snake Eyes’ movements, and incorporated those movements into my performance. The toughest thing was putting on the mask, because that’s when the enormity of playing such an iconic character really hit me. I had to take it home and practice wearing it before I got comfortable with it. The entire costume, with the mask and the visor, is a challenge to wear because it’s very heavy.”
In terms of the origin of the G.I. Joe mythology, nothing is more intriguing than the complicated relationship between Snake Eyes and Cobra’s Ninja assassin, Storm Shadow, former comrades in the Arashikage ninja clan turned enemies. “The film will go deeper into their relationship than the comic books did,” says Di Bonaventura. “if you’ve read all of the comics, you think you know everything about their relationship, but we’re going to explain the history between them that’s never been told. The film will show how they met and how they fell apart, and there’s also a big battle scene in the film. Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are really gray characters in that you’re never sure if they’re entirely good or evil. Ultimately, the main focus of this first film is about Cobra Commander, and how he rises to power, and we’re looking at this film as just the first chapter in a long journey. If we do a second film, I think we’ll explore the relationship between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow even more.”
Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Cobra Commander, whose mask was re-imagined from the comics for the film, and is augmented by prosthetic makeup that Levitt wears underneath the mask in the film. “I loved the concept art for the character and loved being able to look like that in a film,” says Levitt. “The biggest challenge is with the voice of Cobra Commander, and I sort of took my inspiration from a number of different places. I combined my own voice with my own take of the character’s voice, and mixed that with the voice from the 1980s cartoon series.”
The makers of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, and even Levitt himself, view Cobra Commander in the context of what The Joker, as played by actor Heath Ledger, meant to The Dark Knight. “In the cartoon, Cobra was somewhat whimsical, but our movie is inspired by the comic books and in the comics, Cobra was a twisted villain,” says Di Bonaventura. “The film details Cobra Commander’s origin, and his horrible past, and we discover what made him such an absolute terrorist. The Dark Knight was great because The Joker kept talking about himself, his life, and it was really horrifying, and that’s what happens with Cobra Commander in our film. The only similarity with the cartoon character is the voice. The mask will be the Cobra mask, but it will be different from either the cartoon or the comics.”
Since G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is an origin film, the door is obviously left open, box office gods willing, for more installments. The makers of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra feel that this film is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of exploring the rich G.I. Joe mythology. “This film is focused on the rise of Cobra Commander, and the second film could be about Snake Eyes, or some other character, but Snake Eyes would be good,” says Di Bonaventura. “There’s so many great characters and one of the biggest challenges was just to establish them all in this film, so there’s a lot more room to go deeper with all of these characters in future films. Cobra Commander’s just the beginning.”