Michael Bay on moving on from Shia and a more serious 'Transformers: Age of Extinction'
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?
Bay: Yeah, yeah. It’s still fun, but it’s more serious, and we’re playing it like people are going to die.
In what way did you want to evolve the robots or make them different?
Bay: I wanted to give them stronger characters. I wanted to focus on just the few robots and give them much more character.
In your experience from "Transformers" to "Transformers 4" was it important for you to make a more focused, realistic, grittier movie?
Bay: Yeah, movie franchises have to grow up a little bit. You start off kind of like fun, trying to figure out what it was, you know what I’m saying? That kind of setup. But I like it a little bit more grounded. Still fun, but grounded.
So Shia’s not in this, other previous cast isn’t in this, but are we going to learn where they are in this world? Or is that completely off?
Bay: That’s a really good question, too. We learn from the robots what’s going on, and we set you up in the movie with what’s gone on the past four years. This literally takes however long ago the Chicago battle happened, that’s when this movie starts. I think we’re saying it’s actually been three years. We might reference the Sam character in some tiny way, but right now he’s not in the script.
Speaking of the robots, we got a chance to check out the cars – which are beautiful, by the way – so what was the process of looking for the characters of the bots that you wanted to focus on, and matching them up with cars as different as the Oshkosh vs the Bugatti?
Bay: Well, honestly, it has just been the weirdest experience, because the car companies all heard we were doing it. Literally, I’m not kidding you, [it was like the] Swiss Auto Show, Frankfurt, my office. Swear to God, they would fly these cars to my office. It was just crazy. We’ve got this Bugatti in there, and this truck, and everyone’s like, “What is this?” (Laughs.) And then we get the Pagani [Huayra] which is like $1.7 million. And I’m like, “Well, you can’t be in any other movies. If you to be a part of this, you can’t be in any other movies.”
Do you feel like the designs of these are markedly different from before?
Bay: Yeah, even Optimus feels different. Bumblebee feels different.
What prompted that decision?
Bay: It’s almost like, I kept saying, “Batman needs a new suit.” It’s time to kinda change it up. We learn a lot more about the Transformer world in this one.
With the 3D IMAX camera, is there anything fun or exciting about it that you’ve discovered?
Bay: First of all, it’s really good 3D. Do you know what I’m saying? I don’t care what you say, but just doing it on the cheap and converting it is never as good. Most of these movies that were shot in 3D in the summer, most of them converted.
What makes the IMAX camera better?
Bay: Just the technology. The contrast of it is really rich. It’s also the resolution, it’s so beyond anything else.
We’ve heard about this core trio in the movie, but can you talk about where you came up with the idea for this sub-plot with Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer’s characters, and how it fits in to the whole thing?
Bay: I’ve always been fascinated by the CIA. [laughs] Stanley’s character literally came from like, we had the raid with the helicopter, and we tried to get the tail, and whatever … that’s exactly what would happen in Chicago. What would he do if there was a spaceship over there and a kid took a robot hand? Imagine the war’s over. There’s shit everywhere. They’re gonna take that shit, and people are going to figure out how the hell is this stuff made, how is it engineered, and try to reverse engineer it.
Can you talk about what you’re filming today?
Bay: This is a little section of a bad day in Hong Kong. [laughs]
In the third film, it seemed like the shot length that you had was forced to be longer because of the 3D. With the technology that you have now …
Bay: You should have been with us two days ago. We did thirty-second shots, with bombs, with actors, one single shot, we did like four of them, really complex. They take hours to set up and you don’t want to screw them up, you know what I’m saying?
Is that going to be in IMAX 3D?
Bay: No, because the IMAX 3D, you can’t focus. It doesn’t converge. It’s like two eyes. You can go look at it, it’s on the Porsche. The lenses can’t get close enough. It’s basically like the human eye, which means it can only photograph about twelve feet away, otherwise it’s unusable. That’s just the way that camera is set up. [So] we did it in regular 3D. Lugging a camera around that’s hand-held.
But it allowed you to go back to the shorter shots you used in past films?
Bay: No. 3D is always better when your brain has three or four seconds. You get the most 3D effect when it starts about three to four seconds, that’s when it starts feeling 3D. And then what you do, quick shots are always flat. But the weirdest thing is, your brain tricks itself into thinking its 3D, when it’s not. I could give you a test. It just does this weird thing. But fast shots are always flat.
Can you talk about the personalities of the new bots you’re trying to bring in on the heroic and villainous sides?
Bay: They’re different, they’re fun. Some are crotchety, they hate being the underdog all the fucking time. You know what I’m saying? “[Expletive] this shit, you know?” (Laughs.) They’re tired!
Have you already filmed your craziest thing? Or is that still coming up?
Bay: No, no, no. We’re going to do a lot of crazy stuff, but not yet.
What’s that going to be?
Bay: A big scene in Chicago. A big scene.
Is that your favorite stuff to film?
Bay: I like everything. I like to change it up. Like just working with the giant grenades in there, that was fun to film. Did you see those grenades?
Yeah. At this point, how much of this process is purely an intuitive one, and how much planning does it require?
Bay: Lots. I’ve got a great crew, but I’ve got to tell ya, when I was finishing "Pain & Gain," I was like, “Oh my God, I’ve got so much work!” You know? You could easily have a nervous breakdown and freak out, but you just go one shot at a time. I have a great crew. It takes months, months.
It seems like you’ve always given your comic actors room to improvise. On "Pain & Gain," that experience, from what we saw on the sizzle reel, it seems like they’re being given more room. Can you talk about that?
Bay: It’s however you feel, you know? Whatever feels right for the scene. You rehearse it, you talk about it, and then … when I do action stuff, I have an idea and my crew knows, they roll with me, you know what I’m sayin? If you were here yesterday afternoon and it was bedlam. We had beautiful light, gorgeous light, a train exploded, cars flipped over, boom! It was really a magical moment, just the light was beautiful. Once you get in the zone, you’re in the zone, you know what I’m sayin'? (Laughs.)
When you’re in the zone on production here, what do you do to zen out? Do you have any time to relax?
Bay: I took a nap. [laughs] Take a nap. I learned that from Ridley Scott; take a nap. Steven Spielberg; take a nap. Just go to the trailer and take a nap.
It’s been a few years since the last "Transformers." Were there any sequences you wanted to do for this one that you felt that you couldn’t before? But now that the technology is there…
Bay: Yeah, I think there are.
Are there any that you’re looking forward to?
Bay: Yeah. Yeah. [laughs]
What is the location of Hong Kong allow you that doing stuff in the U.S. didn’t?
Bay: You know, I just think it’s a cool looking city. It’s such a mixture of amazing buildings next to an apartment tenement, you know? I saw this apartment, I walked in and it was just like a courtyard and I saw more air conditioners and stuff, and I came up with this whole action sequence right there. Like, “Oh, let’s parkour down,” in this great crazy chase where you can literally jump and grab on stuff and hang on stuff and make your way down. So, they don’t really have that here, but I just think it’s a different look.
How much guidance do you like to give your actors, and do you prefer to just find the right people like Mark Wahlberg and let him loose in certain circumstances?
Bay: I just think, you know, you’re a father who’s struggling and trying to protect his daughter, and there’s a lot of obvious stuff there. We just talk about it as we’re writing it, we talk about it, tweak things, you know. We wrote the idea down, and then once we knew who was in it, we kinda tailored it.
What is it about him, and how quickly did you discover that you wanted to bring him into this after "Pain & Gain"?
Bay: Well, I mean, I would have taken Dwayne, too. Honestly, when I went to see their availabilities, and I asked what was Dwayne’s availability, Dwayne wasn’t available. So what is it about Mark?
Bay: He’s a [expletive] asshole. (Laughs.) He’s gonna read that and think, “Is that what he thinks about me?” (Laughs.) He’s a great guy. He’s so prepared. He’s so easy-going. He just gets my vibe. He’s so open to direction with zero attitude. He knows his script so well, he knows where he is, his character. He reads the script cover to cover, that’s part of his process, which I find fascinating. He knows everyone’s lines, and he knows exactly where he is, I never have to explain where he is as a character. He a very prepared guy.
What’s a day in the life of Michael Bay? Can you walk us through it?
Bay: I dunno, we’ve got a lot of stuff going on. We’ve got three TV shows, "Ninja Turtles," another small movie, "Almanac". And we released "The Purge." It’s divided up in my company by different people handling different things, you know? So, I could go to "Black Sails," but I was watching dailies and art direction pictures and things like that, so there’s a guy there I communicate with.
Are you going to do another small movie after this?
Bay: Maybe. I had a fun time doing that.
Do you know what it might be?
Bay: The only non-fun thing was that I tried to save money and bring in some people that were inexperienced … that’s a bad idea. [laughs] Never doing that again. You know what I’m saying? Try to give people breaks and …
Any idea of what you might want to do?
Bay: I don’t know. I don’t know. There’s an African elephant thing that keeps … I always wanted to do one of those stories.
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" opens nationwide on June 27.