Steven Caple Jr. never thought he'd make a Rocky movie, let alone a Transformers film. "When I was a kid, I couldn't even afford a Transformers toy," he says. Now, he's made both. After stepping in to helm 2018's Creed II, Caple Jr. was enlisted for Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, the seventh installment in the franchise and the filmmaker's biggest-budget blockbuster yet.
Both movies have marked major leaps forward for a director whose career has gone from zero to Optimus Prime in a relatively short amount of time. Like most directors, Caple Jr. cut his teeth directing short films. His 2013 short, A Different Tree, won HBO's Short Film Competition, which helped pave the way for Caple Jr.'s feature debut, The Land. The Land premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2016, and a year later, Caple Jr. was personally chosen by Sylvester Stallone and Michael B. Jordan to direct the Creed sequel.
Rise of the Beasts arrives exactly 10 years after Caple Jr. graduated from film school. (He got his masters in directing and producing at USC.) "I've been working, man," he says with a laugh of the whirlwind last decade. "I feel really good about everything, but nothing came easy."
Caple Jr. attributes his success not only to hard work but the "delusion" that helped him pursue filmmaking in the first place. "I'm Black and Puerto Rican. To be totally honest with you, I'm from the hood," he tells A.frame. "To be in the spot where I am now and to be this many movies into my career, it's kind of crazy. But you have to be a little delusional to have this dream and actually chase it."
"It's always been an underdog story, and I've always approached it that way," explains the director. "I haven't really had the chance yet to go, 'Oh, crap, I made all these shorts and look where I am now.' It's all still a blur. I've kept a kind of tunnel vision this whole time — it's always been, 'How do I get to the next movie without losing myself?'"
Creating a legacy for oneself while working inside of a pre-existing franchise is not easy. Which is why Caple Jr. initially wasn't interested in directing a new Transformers movie. "It was tough doing Creed II. That's a 40-year franchise. It had already been going on forever, and there were a lot of expectations when I hopped on board," the director confesses. "We ended up doing our thing, but coming out of it, I felt like I wanted to do something different.
"In my first meeting with Paramount, they asked me, 'Do you want to do Bumblebee 2?'" he recalls. "I was like, 'No, I'm good.' I didn't want to become the sequel guy."
Ultimately, the studio decided not to pursue Caple Jr. for a sequel, but instead gave him the freedom to make a Transformers movie of his own. That was an offer he couldn't pass up. "There are other Transformers that I actually love," he explains, specifically pointing to the Maximals, a race of Transformers capable of transforming into Earth's most formidable animals. The fan-favorite characters make their live-action debut in Rise of the Beasts.
"As a kid, I watched Beast Wars all the time," he says. "This film gave me the chance to dive back into that lore as an adult, while still tapping into a sense of childhood fun. That's how I approached the project. I just really wanted to have fun with it."
Part of Caple Jr.'s vision for Rise of the Beasts was a greater focus on the authenticity of other cultures and traditions the sci-fi spectacle would encounter as it hopped around the globe. "A lot of times, when we're making movies — and this is not a jab at anyone in particular — people tend to look at a place like Peru and go, 'The locations are beautiful!' And it's like, 'Yeah, we're gonna get some great shots, but what about the people? What about the history? What about the culture?'" he says. "For me, that's where the heart often lies."
"When I jumped onto this project, we knew we were going to Peru," he continues, "and I said, I want to showcase Inti Raymi — which is a huge festival there — and I want to include lines about how Spain and these other colonizers built over the Incan ruins there." The goal was to highlight the country's culture in ways that were, first and foremost, cool — this is a movie about alien robots, after all — but also brought nuance and newness to a 15-year-old franchise. As Caple Jr. clarifies, "It's not about teaching a history lesson in a Transformers movie."
The desire to spotlight people who have long gone underrepresented onscreen continued into Caple Jr.'s casting choices. The human stars of Rise of the Beasts are Anthony Ramos' Noah Diaz, an Afro-Latino Brooklyn native who unwittingly carjacks a Transformer, and Dominique Fishback's Elena Wallace, an ambitious Black museum researcher who gets caught up in the galactic battle. For Caple Jr., giving those actors an opportunity to lead their own franchise film is one of the great joys of making the movie.
"I wouldn't have it any other way. When I started making shorts, the first people I ever put in front of the lens were Black and brown people. It's been that way throughout my career," Caple Jr. reflects. "I feel like we're at a really pivotal time right now where filmmakers like myself are building on the efforts of those who paved the way for us. Filmmakers like Spike Lee, John Singleton, Melvin Van Peebles, Tim Story and George Tillman brought their voices to this industry; for filmmakers like myself to now be making movies at the scale of Black Panther and Haunted Mansion feels really good."
Alongside peers likes of Ryan Coogler, Nia DaCosta, Julius Onah and Justin Simien, Caple Jr. is part of a new generation of filmmakers who are making this particular dream seem much less delusional for the next generation. "It feels great to be part of a growing legacy," he says.
With Rise of the Beasts now in theaters, Caple Jr. is once again considering which project he will take on next. One is a drama set in a world with no cops. Another is a heist thriller called Thieves' Gambit. "I love heist movies, so I would love to step into that genre a bit." Given the surprise ending of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which sets up a franchise crossover with G.I. Joe, there's also the chance that Caple Jr. will end up directing another sequel — albeit, this time to his own movie.
"I just recently heard the term 'Hasbro Cinematic Universe' for the first time, which isn't what I was thinking about when I decided to bring G.I. Joe into my film," Caple Jr. laughs. "But there's definitely a lot of stuff I planted in this movie that I could go on to build out, so the next Transformers is a possibility."
Before he decides, however, Caple Jr. wants to take a moment to enjoy how far he's come. "For the past 10 years, I've never really looked up," he says. "Now, I'm gonna try and give myself a chance to finally breathe and see what's what."
By Alex Welch