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‘Transformers: Rise of the Beasts’ Director Steven Caple Jr. on Michael Bay’s Support, ’90s Rap Soundtrack and Reuniting with ‘Creed’ Directors

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts director Steven Caple Jr. isn’t afraid to pick up the phone and ask for guidance. He did it on Creed II when he asked Ryan Coogler and Sylvester Stallone for insight into how best to make a movie in the world of Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) and Rocky Balboa. So, naturally, Caple took the same approach with the mastermind of Transformers live-action movies, Michael Bay.

During prep, Caple reached out to Bay who made the time for the young director despite having his hands full with Ambulance.

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“[Michael Bay] was making Ambulance at the time, but he still picked up the phone and hopped onto Zoom,” Caple tells The Hollywood Reporter. “Monday through Friday, I was prepping for the film, and Saturday, Sunday, I was learning a lot from the visual effects supervisor and calls with Michael Bay. He gave hints and tips on how to accomplish certain things, so you‘ve definitely gotta hit those guys up who’ve done it before me. It helps.”

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts is set in 1994, seven years after the events of Travis Knight’s critically acclaimed Bumblebee, as the Autobots encounter new allies and new adversaries in the form of the beast-like Maximals and the Terrorcons, the latter of whom are acting on behalf of the planet-eating Unicron (Colman Domingo). More than anything, Caple just wants you to feel something for these Transformers characters, new and old.

“I’m not here to just create robots for you to say, ‘Yeah, that was cool. That was fun,’” Caple says. “I want you to be like, ‘I really truly care about [Optimus] Primal. I really truly care about Airazor and these other characters,’ because this is the foundation for what I would love the franchise to be going forward. And a lot of the stuff in this film is a huge setup for where the franchise can go, so I’m excited for people to check that out.”

Caple’s debut feature film, The Land (2016), happened to introduce Jorge Lendeborg Jr., who was also one of the stars in the aforementioned Bumblebee. So, when Caple earned the keys to the Transformers franchise, Lendeborg made his own phone call to see if his character “Memo” might have a role in Caple’s film. (He doesn’t.)

“[Lendeborg] wasn’t the only person who did that; [one of the stars of Bay’s first three Transformers movies] Tyrese also reached out, too. So that was just really cool and special. They’ve been a part of this family, and now I am, too,” Caple shares. “And with Jorge, there’s not a rivalry, but he definitely was like, ‘Hey man, what’s up? Are you writing my character into your version of the film?’ We didn’t do it in this one, but you never know what the future holds. I love Jorge. That’s my guy.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Caple also previews the film’s ‘90s rap soundtrack, before reflecting on the recent reunion with his fellow Creed directors, Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan.

So how did the guy behind The Land and Creed II end up making a Transformers movie?

I’m still wondering that myself, man. Pinch me and tell me it’s real. It’s been pretty good, and in some ways, every film of mine has prepared me for this moment. I’ve dealt with films that were dramas, that had sports and some level of action in them. So, the kid in me came out when I had the opportunity to direct Transformers, and everything I learned along the way, in terms of character work and things like that, I really wanted to implement into these robots that I’ve been following for years. So, to be able to make an imprint on it and hopefully bring something fresh for new audiences and OG fans is exciting, man. So I hope people love and respect it in many ways.

Only two other directors (Michael Bay and Travis Knight) have made live-action Transformers movies. Did you reach out for advice, or did you prefer trial by fire? 

A little bit of both. (Laughs.) You want to make sure you’re in your creative bubble when trying to design this world and build out the franchise, but similar to when I stepped into the Creed franchise, you call the ones who have done it before you, whether it be Sylvester Stallone or Ryan Coogler. So I’m doing the same here. I hit up Michael Bay, who’s, of course, a producer on this project. He was making Ambulance at the time, but he still picked up the phone and hopped onto Zoom. And a lot of it was like, “How do I deal with visual effects?” because that’s a new area for me. So it was a huge learning curve, and it was like going through school again, if you will. Monday through Friday, I was prepping for the film, and Saturday, Sunday, I was learning a lot from the visual effects supervisor and calls with Michael Bay. He gave hints and tips on how to accomplish certain things, so you‘ve definitely gotta hit those guys up who’ve done it before me. It helps.

Yeah, you did some crowd VFX on Creed II, but nothing quite like this. So how quickly did you get acclimated to the VFX side of things?

I had a little time in prep to get the gist of it, and it was all about getting into a rhythm. It was understanding the different layers and levels and departments of visual effects, and once I understood what everyone was doing, I was like, “Okay, now I know how to guide this ship in a way that allows me to do things that are somewhat new, while still doing the things that people love, and create and design new robots that fit into this story and franchise.”

So it was a huge learning curve. I can’t say it came quickly; it took a little bit of time, but by the time we got on set, I understood it. And then there’s a whole different set of problems or curve balls. For example, I put so much work into designing robots, but once you get to set, they’re obviously not gonna be there. So now I have to spend time with the actors, letting them know, “This is how Airazor looks. This is how big her wings are. If she talks … This is how she moves. So make sure you back up and react to it.”

So those are different rules of the game that I didn’t know before, whereas, with a boxing match, it’s like, “Hey, imagine this whole arena is filled with people.” (Laughs.) That’s it. In a visual effects-heavy sequence where there’s characters you’re trying to bring to life, you want to make sure that there’s someone that you may have temporarily cast for a voiceover on that day, so they can interact with the actors and help them emote and get there. So it’s quite different than just crowd placement.

Having directed Creed and Drago’s fights, was that at all useful to your Transformer fights? 

For sure. I actually brought on the same stunt team. [Creed II stunt coordinator] Danny Hernandez reached out and introduced me to this guy named [fight coordinator] Shahaub Roudbari. I just wanted to make sure we had some really cool fight sequences in there. I did the same thing on Creed II, but I wanted the fights to be more raw. You felt the punches in Creed, and I was like, “How do you do that with robots and no blood? How can we make sure we feel the punches and the blows, and keep the transformation aspect to it? How can we dabble in that?” So everything is not just shoot ‘em up. When we were doing  hand-to-hand combat, it was like, “How can this character bend his arm this way or transform mid-fight? How can we have a weapon transform mid-action?” So, [Creed II] was super helpful, but when you’re making a Creed film, you have to fake the punches. No one could really get hit, or at least you hope they don’t. But on this one, you could really punch the hell outta your robots. You’re trying to make people cringe even though everything they’re seeing on screen is fake. So that is the goal.

So I assume the movie will contextualize things for the casual moviegoers who last saw Bumblebee, but what do they need to know going into Rise of the Beasts

You don’t need to know much. If anything, Bumblebee got here in 1987, along with Optimus Prime, and they’ve tried to seek refuge on Earth until they can get back to Cybertron. Ultimately, all you need to know is that they’re trying to get back to Cybertron. If you can go into this movie just knowing that piece of information, you’ll be able to track it completely. It doesn’t mess up any of the timeline in 2006, 2007. We’re actually going in a direction that allows us to protect that side of the universe, but that’s all you need to know. And if you’re not familiar with The Beast Wars, I would say to just watch the film itself. You don’t have to get caught up with the Beast Wars franchise in order to watch our movie. I feel like this is a standalone.

Have you and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. started a friendly rivalry involving your Transformers movies? Have you exchanged any good-natured trash talk? 

We definitely did! It’s funny because I did his first film, The Land, and then he went on to do Bumblebee. So I kind of welcomed him into acting, and as I got the Transformers gig, he called me and was like, “Welcome to the Transformers family.” And I was like, “That’s crazy,” just because I feel like he’s my kid brother. He wasn’t the only person who did that; Tyrese also reached out, too. So that was just really cool and special. They’ve been a part of this family, and now I am, too. And with Jorge, there’s not a rivalry, but he definitely was like, “Hey man, what’s up? Are you writing my character into your version of the film?” (Laughs.) We didn’t do it in this one, but you never know what the future holds. I love Jorge. That’s my guy.

So instead of the usual Autobots versus Decepticons, you’ve got some different types of Transformers joining the mix.  What are you most excited for people to see? 

We do have different factions, for sure. Of course, there’s the Beasts, the Maximals. They already have a fan base for those who watched Beast Wars [1996-1999]. But I’m excited about the Terrorcons, man. With Unicron now being out there in the universe and everyone now knowing that he’s in our film, the idea that I get to bring about his army is really cool and exciting. [The Terrorcons] are scary. They’re truly scary, and I just want to make sure we dabble in that. Peter Dinklage plays Scourge, and so I’m excited for what that brings. It’s not a faction, but I’m excited for a new robot, Mirage. I’m excited for people to check him out as a new Transformer because I poured a lot into his character and his personality with Pete Davidson. So I hope people respond to him as well. He’s this rebel to the Autobot family.

The trailers so far have had ‘90s needle drops from DMX and The Notorious B.I.G.. Will that continue in the film? 

We have A Tribe Called Quest. We have Wu-Tang [Clan]. Oh my God, we have so many. We also have an unheard track that’s gonna come with the film. We have a legacy artist who’s blessing us with a new track for our film, and I’m so excited about that. It has not been released yet, but I think you guys are really gonna appreciate it when you hear it. He’s from the ‘90s, but I would say that he’s arguably one of the top three rappers to ever live. So I’m excited for people to check out what we cooked up with him as well.

What feeling do you want people to leave the theater with? 

I hope it’s not a cheesy answer, but I want people to be able to connect with the new Transformers that we’re creating. Yes, I definitely want people to connect with the humans, too, because they now look like us more than ever in this film. But, if anything, I just really want people to be able to emotionally connect with the Transformers that you know and the new [Transformers] that we’re bringing to the table. I’m not here to just create robots for you to say, “Yeah, that was cool. That was fun.” I want you to be like, “I really truly care about [Optimus] Primal. I really truly care about Airazor and these other characters,” because this is the foundation for what I would love the franchise to be going forward. And a lot of the stuff in this film is a huge setup for where the franchise can go, so I’m excited for people to check that out.

In the recent trailer, there’s an interesting moment at the very end involving Anthony Ramos’ character, Noah. What would you like to say about that at this time? 

The Autobot slogan is “till all are one,” and in this particular case, it doesn’t really work until the humans really start to feel like Autobots and Transformers. With that piece itself, it was like, “How can we take it to the max?” What haven’t we seen in a live-action Transformers that pays homage to the Transformers that I fell in love with — the first thing that initiated everything — which is the 1986 animated movie [The Transformers: The Movie]. So that’s all I will say on that. But it’s exciting, and I think we cooked up something really cool with it. I’m sorry — with him, spoiler alert. But that’s a little nugget for the fans. I feel like some people saw it and totally missed it, but the fans will definitely check it out and go, “Wait a minute! Hold on!” So we just wanted to tease the audience a bit, and the next trailer will give them a little bit more. (Laughs.)

So Anthony and Dom Fishback have history? 

Yeah, I discovered it during casting. I cast Anthony first, and then we had a wide net for the character of Elena. And Dom was on my top-three list. I loved her on [The Deuce] and Judas and the Black Messiah. She’s just so grounded and so real. And I remember saying to Anthony, “I love Dom.” And he’s like, “Dude, I know her from Brooklyn. We did this play.” And I was like, “Wait, what?” So we had them chemistry read, and that was it. We were all like, “Oh yeah, they’re the perfect match.” They knew each other so well and bounced off of each other so well, and they just brought that New York personality to it. But they can really act, and they’re both physical actors as well. They’ve both done some theater work, so they were all in it. They were great to work with and fun to work with, and since they’re so young, it still feels like they have something to prove. So, every day, we just tried to top the day before and challenge ourselves. And they were for it, which I really liked.

Lastly, I saw a powerful image of you, Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler on the Creed III carpet not too long ago. What did that moment with your fellow Creed directors mean to you? 

That was a special moment. We’ve all hung out together before and taken pictures, but never all three of us on the red carpet. Mike B. brought that out. He was just like, “Man, isn’t it crazy? Creed is one of the first franchises where all three directors are young Black males who are carrying it through.” And we were like, “Damn, that is crazy.” And Mike was like, “Man, we gotta get a picture on the carpet.” When Creed II first released, Ryan wasn’t there; he was pushing Black Panther at the time. So this was the first time we were able to get together at a Creed premiere and take this particular photo. And it was more emotional than anything else. Seeing two people that I love and admire and have been through the trenches with, it felt legendary to take that photo together. It was a moment to continue the franchise, and we were just proud and happy for Mike, who was now stepping into very new territory. And on top of that, Creed III succeeded, so it was a special moment.

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Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens in theaters on June 9th. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

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