A key producer on the Transformers and X-Men franchises, Tom DeSanto is now developing Gods, a 3D trilogy based on a Chinese classic, with Beijing-based Yi Shang Media.
The project, which DeSanto describes as “Lord Of The Rings meets X-Men”, is based on Chinese historical fantasy Creation Of The Gods about a pantheon of demi gods each with unique powers.
The English-language project is being developed as a major global franchise. DeSanto is lead producer and is currently reworking the script. Also producing are Yi Shang’s Chen Baiyi and Taipei and LA-based producer Steve Chicorel.
How are you adapting the source material?
When I first read the material I was very intimidated by how dense it was and how do you take that sort of a story and make it appeal to people in Brazil or Barcelona? So I put myself in the shoes of the original writer and tried to imagine how he would approach the same story today. The key for me was to keep the Chinese soul but give it a global sensibility so that its relatable to people from Latin America through to Europe and Asia.
So the story is 5,000 years old?
It’s 5,000 years old and partially rooted in Chinese history. It’s basically the story of two friends and one of them just happens to be in line to become the king, and when he becomes king, that power starts to corrupt him. It’s the old Asian saying that the nail that sticks out gets the hammer. So do you decide to stand up against what you feel is wrong, or do you just fade into the background and keep your head on your shoulders and not on the end of a pike.
It’s also a classic ‘good versus evil’ story with amazing creatures that have never been seen before and that’s where I really fell in love with the visuals of it. It’s a bit like X-Men sort of revolutionised comic book movies and Transformers was like Jurassic Park in that you see something that you’ve never seen before on the screen. I think Gods has all of that.
Transformers and X-Men had an in-built fanbase – will Chinese or global audiences be familiar with this story?
The biggest movie of all time is Avatar and that wasn’t based on anything. Also with X-Men and Transformers – I’d loved X-Men since I was a kid and Transformers was the last hurrah of my childhood. But those were both dormant properties in an odd way. The animated series of X-Men had been cancelled and they’d tried three times to relaunch Transformers as an animated series and each time it had struggled to find an audience. But they turned out to be sleeping dragons.
I think animation or comic books are a petri dish and if your story-telling is good, and you have characters you care about, then that for me is the key to a franchise. Great stories know no borders and I think Gods has all those elements – great characters, big vistas and big ideas – to really become that big multi-film franchise.
Why do you think the Transformers movies were so huge in China?
I think there’s a tremendous history in China of big mythic stories and creatures. The literal translation of the Chinese title of Transformers is “Buddha’s Metal Guardians”, which tells you something. When you walk around the Forbidden City or Shaolin Temple, you see these massive statues and everything is larger than life, and I think Transformers tapped into that sort of love of the fantastic and seeing beyond reality.
Also don’t forget that Chinese films have had a tremendous influence on Western films with wirework and characters like Yoda who is a little embodiment of Eastern philosophy. We have more connections than differences – that’s the great thing about travelling you see the similarities and not the differences. We started rewriting X-Men to put in wirework when we saw The Matrix because we thought, wow that bar is much higher now than the traditional superhero stuff we were doing.
Will you have those element in Gods – martial arts and wirework?
Yes absolutely there will be elements of that, but also elements from around the globe. There’s going to be every type of martial arts from Brazilian jujitsu and capoeira through to traditional Chinese-style wushu.
Are you planning to set this up as a studio film?
We’re negotiating with finance partners right now. We’ve been kind of under the radar but now we’re starting to come above ground and I think it’s a tremendous opportunity to plant your flag and say you believe that China is going to be a massive future film market. The opportunities are astounding and for me, after growing up with a lot of American pop culture, I want to be part of creating that Chinese Spider-Man.
This is going to be an East-West production – we’re going to shoot about half the movie here and half outside of China, using a lot of amazing locations with both Eastern and Western faces. And it’s English-language so will be very much a summer blockbuster movie.
Do you think you might sell off some international territories?
Right now we’re taking meetings with international partners. I don’t think we’re going to go on a territory-by-territory basis but it really depends on the partnerships we have. We want to partner with people who really want to be involved in a character-based IP fund. I love the properties like Avatar where you have this amazing world with characters and video games and merchandising and little kids dressing up in Halloween costumes.
Have you been watching many Chinese movies lately?
I have been watching a lot and I think it’s interesting because there’s a lot of historical dramas that don’t play well in other parts of world and I think that is confusing to Chinese filmmakers. But I also think every country has that problem. My favourite Chinese film is Hero which is like watching Zen poetry with real kick-ass action. It also made me understand Chinese story-telling. In the west it’s good battles evil and good wins. But in the East, it’s good battles evil and you also have to find tranquility, balance and peace.
What advice would you give the Chinese film industry in its quest to go global?
Focus on the storytelling and don’t try to chase a trend. Write from passion and something you really want to say, which could be as goofy as cars turning into giant robots. If you love independent film and want to tell an intimate story about two people sitting across a table talking about life, then follow your heart. Luckily my heart follows happy meal movies!