DETROIT - If the conventional wisdom on film sets is “hurry up and wait,” a Michael Bay production demands the addendum “…but it will be worth it.” On a long but pleasant day in July of 2013, Bay and his team of expert technicians meticulously coordinated an incredible stunt sequence involving Mark Wahlberg, a Detroit plaza fitted to look like Hong Kong, dozens of extras and a lot’s worth of exploding cars, culminating in one of the most impressive displays of pyrotechnics this writer has ever seen, on or off the silver screen.
On the set of "Age of Extinction," Bay, coolly presiding over the production, alternately barked orders at his already-ahead-of-him team and spoke with attending press, discussing his return to the Transformers franchise as he mounted what may turn out to be an even bigger sequence than his destruction of Chicago in the third film, "The Dark of the Moon." Perhaps surprisingly gregarious, Bay openly discussed his motivations for taking on a fourth film – the popularity of the Universal Studios ride – and reflected on his own creative process, both technically and artistically.
Is this a slow day?
Michael Bay: No, it feels like we’re working 40 a week. The movie’s going great. It’s a very fresh new vibe. I’ll show you a sizzle reel, this thing I do for studios. … I think when you see it, you kind of understand how there’s no more Transformers. Everyone’s like, “What do you mean, ‘No Transformers?’” You know? But I think the writers found a really clever way how to make it start a whole new chapter.
Do you feel reinvigorated on this one?
Bay: Yeah! I’m having a really good time on this.
It feels like it’s a new movie?
Bay: Yeah, it really does. And I really love working with Mark [Wahlberg]; I’m glad we could do this together. I think these two young actors I’ve got are really, really good. Working with Kelsey Grammer.
You should get Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in the sequel, for 5.
Bay: During Pain & Gain, they both took me aside and were like, “Hey, so, are we going to be in Transformers?” “Hey, Mike, how about Transformers?” Yeah it was fun.
We’re starting to get hints of what it’s about, we know that the plot is on lockdown, but [your producer] teased some father-figure elements…
Bay: You’ll get some of the sense of that … but they are not easy movies to do. [laughs] Today’s easier.
It’s not a bad slow day when you’ve got all these explosions going on.
Bay: Yeah, but you know, yesterday was 200 extras, a lot of them don’t speak English. Great extras though. … Sometimes it’s easier for me to operate down where the robots are, you know?
What were you getting on the hand-held camera?
Bay: I was shooting robots in the yard. (Laughs).
Are you shooting digital or film?
Bay: We’re shooting Red. We mix it, but now what we’re doing is, we’re the first movie to do IMAX 3D, the new digital camera is a million dollars. It’s a crazy, crazy camera.
I wouldn’t want to hold a million dollars…
Bay: No, it’s good.
You were a big film guy though…
Bay: I am. I love film. I’m still shooting on it, but the reality is that the labs are basically all shutting down, and there’s basically one lab. Fujifilm doesn’t exist anymore. Kodak, they’re bankrupt. Know what I’m saying? They’re not maintaining their film cameras now. It’s, sadly, over.
So since you’re shooting on digital, do you have any kind of animatic that overlaps while you’re looking at the shot?
Bay: Oh, no, you just kind of memorize it or whatever. I don’t actually look at my animatics a lot. They’re very elaborate, but I burn ‘em in, and I bring notes.
What made you want to come back and do another one?
Bay: The real truth? I went to the ride, and I saw a three-hour line. It was around the fuckin’ block. You see all these kids and families, and then I went to the one in Singapore, and I’m like, “Fuck!” To just hand this over to somebody? You know what I’m saying? What I want to do is really set it up and … the bottom line, if someone would take it over, you would get a director who doesn’t do a lot of these movies, you’ll probably get a B star, you know what I’m saying? So, on Pain & Gain, it kinda came together. We started working on a script, and then by bringing Mark on this, that’s what made it fun for me. It’s a better way to set it up. And we redesigned all the robots, everything is new from top to bottom. You come into the franchise, you have to redesign everything. … It’s overwhelming because you have to start in August, designing, all the way to the shoot.
Do you feel like you’re approaching this differently?
Bay: We’re trying to do a lot of different stuff. This is not as different, but there’s a really funny character, this guy who’s fighting in here, he’s called Hound. He drips bullets. He’s literally got every gun known to mankind. He’s grizzled. He’ll fight when you tell him to fight, and he’s fighting down to the very, very, very last round of every gun, all the way down to a little Swiss Army knife. [laughs] He’s a really funny character. The robots on this one have more character.
Was that one taken at all from the toys? Because that Hound was a Jeep.
Bay: Yeah, we just … he’s kinda fat, he’s a fat guy but he’s like a ballerina with guns, you know what I’m saying? (Laughs.) He’s just funny. He chomps on a bullet. That’s actually how he kills one of the guys. He’s lying down and he has nowhere to go, but he’s got this bullet in his mouth. He spits it up, puts it back in his mouth, and shoots the shell right into the guy’s face. He bites it and it blows up the head.
For stuff like that, do you feel pressure to always have to outdo yourself?
Bay: In action you want to do new stuff, try new elements. There’s some stuff that’s really geared for 3D. Some great flying stuff in Hong Kong.
This one also seems more grounded.
Bay: Right. I wanted to go back to more down-home. They wanted me not to go to Texas, and I said, “[Expletive] it. I’m going to Texas.” There’s a shot of Texas because there’s no more down-home place, you know what I’m saying? I wanted this really simple life. The idea was to start with an innocent, simple life and they’re just going on a ride that takes them to such a different world. My thing was, you can’t we couldn’t go around just replacing the kids, you know what I’m saying? So, my idea was to backdoor it, kind of like have the father who’s a thinker, you know, Mark, and then we’ll introduce the kids that way. No matter who you brought in, they’re just going to compare him to Shia [LaBeouf], and Shia was just like lightning in a bottle. Back then, he was just that funny. He was the only kid who could do stuff like that.
Was it during "Pain & Gain" that you got the idea to use Mark?
Bay: We didn’t know exactly. We were toying around with different story ideas. But I knew that I wanted to go with the father-daughter thing. So, I knew that, but Mark was the one who brought it up.
Do you feel like the humor’s more understated this time around?