How the New Transformers Reinvented Optimus Prime While Navigating a Complex Franchise

How the New Transformers Reinvented Optimus Prime While Navigating a Complex Franchise

For a child of the 1980s, it doesn’t get much better than getting to direct a Rocky movie followed by a Transformers movie. But for Steven Caple Jr., that’s exactly what happened. The filmmaker went from Creed II, which reunited two epic 1980s rivals in Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago, to Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which does the same for two other 1980s rivals: Optimus Prime and Unicron.

That pair met in the unforgettable 1986 animated film, Transformers: The Movie, which saw Optimus Prime actually die. That doesn’t happen in Rise of the Beasts, mainly because it’s set before the events of Michael Bay’s five Transformers movies which Optimus is a huge part of. But Caple did take the opportunity to give the Autobot leader, and most famous Transformer, a whole new story arc.

Speaking to Gizmodo over video chat last week, Caple talked about that as well as the not-so-great history of Transformers movies before his. We also spoke about paying homage to the animated series, how this film breaks the fourth wall in a very unexpected way, and the challenges involved in making a prequel film.

Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: So historically, the Transformers movies can be pretty hit or miss in terms of story; I think yours really works. What was the hardest thing to get right this time around? What was the thing that made you say, OK, I can stand behind this and it’s going to work?

Steven Caple Jr.: [How did I] make sure it wasn’t a miss? For sure. [Laughs] Agree, by the way [about the previous movies]. I think when stepping into a project and being movie number seven, you’re like, “What worked and what didn’t work [in the earlier films]?” and being aware of that. For me, I’m just a fan of the franchise, so [my approach was] definitely starting there first, not getting too caught up in the pressures of stepping into the franchise, and being like, “OK, what do I want to see on screen?” I love Optimus Prime, but how can I see him differently? I started to ask myself those questions.

We’re bringing in the Beast Wars, the Maximals, which was a really cool element which really brought me to the project, because now it allowed me to have an imprint on the legacy of something new. We never saw them in live action so a chance to develop them, create new personalities, and see how they fall in line with the rest of the mythology was really exciting to me. And then I would have to say too the development of Mirage was really cool for me. The fact that there was an opportunity to do something in the Autobot world and create a new robot that we haven’t seen just yet, or at least flourish and get this much screen time, was pretty exciting and what drew me in.

Optimus has a whole new story. (Image: Paramount)
Optimus has a whole new story. (Image: Paramount)

io9: Now you mentioned Optimus. I think there are pluses and minuses setting Rise of the Beasts before the other movies, but one plus is you actually get to give Optimus Prime an arc here. He’s not fully the hero we know yet. So how early was that in and how did that kind of come about?

Caple: The first script I got, it wasn’t in there. Optimus Prime was our noble Prime, and I just remember a conversation with the team and they’re like, “You know, in the past, whenever we would toe the line with Optimus, fans would get upset.” So I was like, “Well, what if we start off Prime as someone who’s just trying to look out for Cybertron? I think that will stay true.” He would try to look out for his own people and get them home, especially if he was just coming to Earth to seek refuge. So he had his myopic sort of perspective, if you will, that was only about him and his agenda. That created a Prime that we’ve never seen before. And so that kind of had this natural build and friction with [Anthony Ramos’ character] Noah that I felt like led to the Prime that we all know and love by the end of this film.

io9: Yeah, it works and is definitely one of the best things in there, And while that works really well being in the time period, you are kind of stuck between these walls of Bumblebee and the Michael Bay movies. Does that hinder the creativity at all of the characters you wanted to use and couldn’t use? How much does that come into play?

Caple: For the most part, it becomes a challenge, for sure. I mean, I can’t say it fully hinders, like you find creative ways to kind of get around it. We’re in the 1990s, so you’re like, “All right, we’re in between these two.” There are some things that are already sort of cheated throughout. You know, when you look at the Bumblebee movie and you look at 2007, there’s some creative liberties you can take when trying to adjust. But no, the characters in the script were, for the most part, people I wanted to explore. Arcee being the first female Autobot. She never had any real screen time in either in terms of Bayverse or [Bumblebee director Travis] Knight so like, just giving those characters a voice, and Unicron, who we hinted at in other movies, we never actually got to introduce so I’m glad we did it in this one.

Arcee goes from the 1986 animated film to a big part in Rise of the Beasts. (Image: Paramount)
Arcee goes from the 1986 animated film to a big part in Rise of the Beasts. (Image: Paramount)

io9: Yes, I love seeing Arcee, Unicron, and other things from the 1986 movie because that was my introduction to Transformers. I know you were a Beast Wars guy but were you into the 1986 movie? How much of that was part of your Transformers DNA?

Caple: Oh, a lot of it was ‘86 — ’86 was my first introduction into Transformers. Everyone keeps bringing up like, “Hey, what toys you have?” And I have to admit, I didn’t have any because my mum and dad did not buy the $US20 ($28)-30 toys, but like, I saw the VHS tape. I didn’t get to see the animated film in a theatre, but I saw the movie and was like, “Oh, this is cool.” And then I went to the series and then I went into the Beast Wars. But when developing the movie like, right off the rip, at the beginning… you watched the opening scene of Unicron in the animated Transformers. You see the way Unicron comes in. If you listen closely to the score, we pay homage to that and gave him his own theme. So it’s stuff like that that I get excited about and I got the opportunity to do, so a lot came from the animation film.

io9: And especially something at the end but I won’t spoil it.

Caple: Something at the end for sure. [Laughs].

io9: I was also wondering, the movie sets up a fun, weird question because it mentions Mark Wahlberg by name.

Caple: [Laughs].

io9: What kind of conversations were there? Is Cade Yeager just a big Mark Wahlberg fan? There’s obviously a bunch of time between the 1990s and the Wahlberg movies so did you discuss it all?

Caple: Yeah, we did. We wanted to break the fourth wall. In all fairness, Pete Davidson [the voice of Mirage] made that up in the booth and we laughed so hard we were like in tears. And we’re like, “There’s no way we cannot use this.” We had ad-libbed a whole bunch of stuff. One was on Beanie Babies. [Then] he was like, “What about Marky Mark leaving the Funky Bunch?” And we were just in tears. And then we showed the studio and everybody loved it and were like, let’s just break the fourth wall and do it.

Steven Caple Jr. directing Rise of the Beasts. (Image: Paramount)
Steven Caple Jr. directing Rise of the Beasts. (Image: Paramount)

io9: Yeah, it’s fun. There’s also a brief mention of Bumblebee and his time on Earth [before this]. As a big Bumblebee fan, I was wondering, was there ever any more of the DNA of that story in this at all? Or was it kind of just too much to add in?

Caple: It was… we had mentioned [Hailee Steinfeld’s character] Charlie at one point, but we wasn’t too sure if that started to like mix up or mislead everyone to think that Charlie’s about to be in this film or Hailee, so to speak. So we didn’t want to bring too much of that into this Transformers. We want that to be his own sort of stand-alone Bumblebee project, because it just felt like we’d have to now really abide by what was set up before.

io9: Now, last thing, I just have to ask, what’s up with Hot Rod? He’s my favourite Transformer, are we ever going to do Hot Rod justice?

Caple: I agree with you on that. I would love Hot Rod because coming off the animation film, I was a huge Hot Rod fan. And they dealt with Hot Rod in part…

io9: Yeah. He’s a little bit towards the end [of the franchise].

Caple: Part 5? The Last Knight?

io9: Yeah.

Caple: I don’t think they gave him full justice in my opinion, you know what I mean? Originally, that is one area I wanted to go on this one, but when I saw Optimus Prime and the opportunity to give him an arc, I said, “I’m gonna ride with this,” but I don’t think it’s too late to close that door. Maybe there’s something to play with. I think it’ll be really cool, especially for the G1 fans.

Transformers: Rise of the Beasts opens on June 22.