Robots in disguise: An interview with the showrunner of Netflix's Transformers
Robots in disguise: An interview with the creator of Netflix's Transformers
Netflix’s Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy - Siege kicks off the prequel to the original Transformers cartoon with a bang. The story focuses on Cybertron, home of the Autobots and Decepticons - a battlefield as both factions fight for control. Their leaders, Optimus Prime and Megatron battle for the greater good of their home planet - but they’re risking everything to do it.
Recently, I had the opportunity to interview showrunner F.J. DeSanto, and pick his brain on how the series came to be!
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
This series is much darker in tone than I expected, at one point even showing dead Autobots on pikes. What inspired that approach to the story’s tone?
F.J. DeSanto: Well, we didn’t want to make it dark for the sake of being dark. Hasbro is doing a toyline called War for Cybertron, which is very much about this civil war between Autobots and Decepticons. We wanted to convey that war can be scary and it’s not easy for either side. Everything dark about it is driven by the story and characters, and not just to do something different with them.
The intention was to create a sophisticated Transformers for a wide-ranging audience. I know it looks dark from the trailers, but it’s more tonally similar to Marvel and Star Wars movies. The stakes are very real and the characters are very deep.
Where do Optimus Prime and Megatron stand at the beginning of this series? What are their goals?
F.J. DeSanto: Well, that’s an interesting question, because they share the same goal. They want to do what they think is best for Cybertron. They want peace, but they have very different ideas on how to achieve that. For Optimus, it’s peace through freedom. For Megatron, it’s peace through tyranny. They both think that’s what best for the robots of Cybertron. The ideological split between them is very clear, and we learn that very early on. In the end though, they’re just trying to get Cybertron to a place of peace.
Can you talk about the hierarchy of Autobots and Decepticons before this war? What was life on Cybertron like before Optimus and Megatron butted heads?
F.J. DeSanto: We’re dealing with the end of this civil war, so that’s a little tough. There was a time where there were no Autobots and Decepticons - just Transformers. There was equality. Eventually, their differences forced citizens to choose sides. Not everyone even chose a side.
Some popular characters weren’t automatically Autobots or Decepticons right away. We’ll get a glimpse of what their lives were like beforehand - mainly through dialogue. It helped us to create three-dimensional characters that people can relate to. When we meet Optimus and Megatron, we’ll discover that they had a shared mentor - and how that relationship fell apart. They weren’t always enemies.
Do you have a personal favourite Autobot or Decepticon?
F.J. DeSanto: I do! In this series, there’s one character that I can’t spoil yet. It’s a reintroduction of a character from the Japanese anime continuity from the late 80s. I’m very excited for our new spin on the character - but I just can’t spoil it! I can talk about Elita-1 however. She’s the female lead of the entire trilogy, and I’m really fond of her. She wasn’t explored much in the original continuity, and we had the opportunity to develop her and make her significant to not just the trilogy, but the whole franchise.
Is there anything fans should read and watch to brush up on their Transformers lore before watching the series?
F.J. DeSanto: No, not necessarily - and that’s intentional. We knew in advance that we were creating a prequel to G1, the original animated series. So, we wanted to make a show that would be a really good jumping on point for new fans. At the same time, if you’re a fan of Transformers’ long history, you could find little easter eggs in the series. You don’t have to brush up on anything, but there’s fun to be had for longtime fans. Newcomers shouldn’t be turned off from it, though.
Does Optimus Prime’s vehicular form look like a truck, or do trucks look like Optimus Prime?
F.J. DeSanto: I’m reluctant to answer that, because I may be spoiling something. When we meet Optimus, he’s in his classic Cybertronian truck mode - but there are various iterations of his truck mode, including his earth mode. That may or may not be explored as the series moves forward.
Where is War for Cybertron headed, in full? What themes or messages would you say the entire series focuses on?
F.J. DeSanto: It’s about fighting for what you believe in. It’s about staying true to your values, loyalty and brotherhood. It’s about becoming who you’re meant to be - especially for Optimus and Megatron. This is really about their journeys into the legends we know them as. When it starts, they’re not quite perfect yet. They’re still flawed. Optimus and Megatron make mistakes. That’s fun to explore as the series goes on.
What was the process of creating this series like? How did the creative team come to decide on the trilogy format?
F.J. DeSanto: Well, the trilogy format was actually decided on by Hasbro. Hasbro releases toy waves in trilogies - you’d have to ask them why they do it that way. About two years ago, I flew out to Hasbro’s offices in Rhode Island. They took me to a quiet conference room and showed me all of their top secret plans. Their plans for their next three toy lines in particular, called War for Cybertron.
It’s three chapters long, and they gave me an overview and tone for the toys. It was my job to figure out the story and how it all connects, but we very much did that in tandem with Hasbro. When we eventually brought the project to Netflix, they understood immediately that this was a trilogy, and had to be produced that way. We’re lucky that we get very long lead times to explore the story and go to all sorts of places across three chapters, but it’s a big task. You have to figure out years of Transformers continuity in advance, before the toys are even out.
How did the creative team decide which Autobots and Decepticons would be included in the show, and which would be left out?
F.J. DeSanto: A lot of it was dictated by the story. Certain key characters are a given - such as Optimus, Megatron and Starscream. We get an advanced look at the toys Hasbro is going to produce, and there’s a budgetary factor in selecting from those - how many characters we can have in this without breaking the bank? Once we figured out a number, it’s about being smart in choosing characters that fans want to see, but would also serve the story in a significant and fruitful way.
Elita-1 for example, was added to the show because we needed a very specific character. When the toys come out, you’ll see that there are a couple not included in the show - but we chose the ones that would make for the best onscreen experience.
Netflix's Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy - Siege is out now on Netflix. Read our review here.