KEEPING CRITICS AT BAY
Michael Bay is lean, walks with purpose and carries his chin and shoulders at an imperious tilt, and on a recent afternoon at his work compound in Santa Monica it was easy to envision him as some proud matador; Bay, like those bullfighters in Barcelona, thinks of himself as a mayhem artist in the crowd-pleasing business.
Bay is back in the ring on June 24 with his eighth film, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which many industry observers expect to surpass the first “Transformers” film, which grossed a staggering $708 million worldwide in 2007. “The pre-tracking is huge,” Bay said of surveys of audience interest in the movie that stars Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox and an army of two-story alien robots.
He rolled his eyes, though, contemplating the last-minute labor that needs to be done. “This one,” he said, “is barely going to make it to theaters. You have no idea how complicated my life is.”
The 44-year-old chuckled about his stress level, which fits his industry reputation as a director who thrives on pressure and adrenaline. Bay makes huge movies with high concepts and so many explosions that you expect the filmmaker to reek of cordite when you shake his hand.
His films such as “The Rock,” “Bad Boys” and “Armageddon” may make film critics cringe (Kenneth Turan in The Times called him a “world-class noisemaker” who leaves audiences “feeling pummeled, not exhilarated”), but Hollywood executives view them as spectacles that are big enough to lure consumers away from their home theaters. With this new film, he describes the “huge canvas” of its visual effects in terms of computer memory -- at Industrial Light & Magic, the San Francisco effects house, the first “Transformers” movie took up an astounding 15 terabytes; the new one required 140 terabytes. “That breaks every record,” said Bay, who is far more Barnum than Bergman.
You might expect that his pursuit of massive entertainment would lead to humongous budget overruns, but in fact it’s a point of pride for him to wring every bit of bang out of each buck. The lanky, lupine filmmaker came from the world of television commercials (he did work for Budweiser and Nike, but the classic was his Aaron Burr “Got Milk” ad) and even after 15 years of making feature films, he still positions himself as a contrarian outsider who is offended by peers who, as a group, he views as too slow, arty, wasteful and indulgent.
“The way I do it, we work hard, we work fast,” Bay said. “We shoot 12-hour days. . . . One thing I can’t stand about Hollywood is waste. I’ve gotten to be a very, very efficient shooter. On average, these type of sequels run in the $230-million to $240-million range and we’re shooting this for a flat $200 million. A lot of these directors have second unit the entire time, that’s millions of dollars just wasted. We do it all ourselves.”
Bay likes to conserve his budget so he can film in exotic places that other directors find too difficult to access and, along with emphasis on pyro work and stunts, gives his productions the vibe of daredevil tourism. On this new film, he “weaseled” his way into the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt (“We were the first movie in 30 years to shoot physically on the pyramids”) where he shot with a 150-member crew for three days and, a few days later, he took his team to the top of the rock-carved architecture of Petra in Jordan, where military helicopters ferried 36 loads of gear to the perilous perch.
The choppers, by the way, were thanks to a Jordanian prince who loved Bay’s first robot movie, while in Egypt it was Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, who turned out to be “a big fan of ‘Transformers,’ ” Bay said, sounding surprised himself. (Bay seems to enjoy more support abroad than at home, perhaps because an explosion is easily translated; “Pearl Harbor” and “The Island,” for instance, pulled in $251 million and $127 million abroad, respectively, far more than they earned during disappointing releases in the States.)
There may be very little mystery to Bay’s movies, but he himself is a figure of fascination in Hollywood.
“We’re still not quite sure how he does it when he’s directing,” says screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, who worked on both “Transformers” films. “People who work closest with him call his method ‘Bay-os’ because it feels like wartime chaos. There are explosions going off in every direction and half as many cameras flying all over the place, and you stand there thinking none of it’s going to make any sense, then you watch the scenes cut together and realize something shocking: He’s choreographed a ballet. He knows exactly which pieces he’s going to use from each camera and he’d already cut the scene together in his head.”
Bay poked fun at his reputation in a recent Verizon commercial; it begins with him watching “Transformers” and marveling at his own work. “Hmm, genius.” He then proceeds to profess his love for all things awesome, from his pet cat (a giant tiger) to his awesome barbecue and awesome swimming pool (which he proceeds to blow up with a thumb detonator).
“I don’t take myself so seriously,” he said in his surprisingly hushed offices. “All these people think I do. Look, a lot of people think it’s fun to hate on Michael Bay. There’s a lot of poison on the Internet. People always try to knock someone who’s had a ton of success in movies. Whatever.”
Bay grew up in L.A. and attended Crossroads School in Santa Monica before heading off to Wesleyan University. A formative experience in his youth was a summer job as a filing clerk at Lucasfilm’s art department. The job got him into a screening of “Blade Runner” and his memory of it was that people walked out puzzled and with none of the buzzing satisfaction of a “Star Wars” audience.
He was turned down by USC’s film school and ended up at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. His big break came with “Bad Boys” in 1995, and it still holds a special place in his heart. In “Revenge of the Fallen,” Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) has a dorm-room poster showing “Bad Boys” stars Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.
“Those were two TV actors, and I was a music video and commercial guy,” Bay said. “We had $10,000 for a rewrite, and we had to go let the writer go play golf every day, that was part of the deal. No one believed in the script. Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were working on ‘Crimson Tide,’ that was their real movie, we were the tiny movie on the side. . . . The Friday before the shoot began, Don told Jerry, ‘We’re taking our name off this movie, it’s crap.’ I thought my career was over.”
Bay said he pulled his stars into the trailer on the Miami set to rip out script pages and improv on entire sequences, an approach he used consistently in his days making commercials. “Looking back, it was fun. We grew up on that one.”
The $19-million movie supercharged the careers of Smith and Lawrence and made $142 million. There was a sequel that pulled in $273 million and by then Bay was established as the definition of bankable.
Other directors came into this summer with major career subplots: Could J.J. Abrams win over scowling Trekkers? Would McG resurrect himself with “Terminator”? Did Gavin Hood really lose control of “Wolverine”? But Bay seems like a man looking for things to polish, not to prove.
“To make a movie like ‘Transformers,’ ” he said, “you have to shut out everything that’s out there . . . we work on it every single day for two years.”
Up next for Bay is his first foray into TV producing with the HBO project “Cocaine Cowboys” and, he says, “taking some time off.” He said he wants to make a movie with “no visual effects” too, but he’s said that before. He sounded skeptical about directing a third “Transformers” and still surprised that he made the first two. Steven Spielberg came to him with the pitch 3 1/2 years ago, but Bay, no fan of superhero cinema, thought a franchise about alien robots sounded like “a very bad idea.” He changed his mind when he considered a dark, realistic tone instead of a shiny, cosmic tale.
Bay also knew it would connect with youngsters: “So many aspects of it seemed silly, but there is so much wish fulfillment to it, the idea of having a giant robot hiding out in your backyard.” This new film, too, has some more boisterous tiny robots with loopy voices, one delivered by Tom Kenny of “SpongeBob SquarePants” fame.
In recent weeks, Bay has been in a public spat with McG, whose “Terminator Salvation” has giant robots that Bay feels look too much like “Transformers.” Bay has had a number of feuds (because, he explained, “I say what I think”) but it turns out that sometimes the explosions are fake. With a wink, he admitted that he phoned McG to turn up the volume. “I told him, ‘We’re like boxers going at it this summer,’ ” Bay said. “We have to have some fun with it.”