DETROIT - When you’re about to watch an explosion, in person, on a set the size of a city block, it’s easy to be excited about the prospect of "Transformers: Age of Extinction." No matter what you think of him, Michael Bay blows stuff up better than just about anyone, and he never fails to deliver a payoff that meets the greatest expectations of your inner 13-year-old. And even without actual Transformers creating the destruction, the scene in question promises to be quite a spectacle, as extras are trained to scatter while rows of cars prepare to go up in flames as they’re flipped. Quite frankly, it sounds nothing short of totally awesome.
But in the many, many hours that it took to set up that shot, waiting numbly as stunt coordinators and pyro experts make sure that everything is ready, everything is set up for maximum safety and (eventually) excitement, it’s a lot easier to temper your enthusiasm. Even if you’re a fan of the series, the first three films are indisputably pretty silly, make very little sense, and feature so much destruction that your inner 13-year-old almost overdoses on eye candy by the time they’re over. And notwithstanding its thus-far $2.6 billion worldwide grosses, it’s tough not to question, at least a little bit, the creative impetus to continue such a critically-maligned franchise.
All of which is why it seems appropriate that Bay’s motivation arose from experiencing the Transformers ride rather than, say, some deep-rooted impulse he hadn’t yet exercised. “I went to the ride, and I saw a three-hour line,” Bay said on the film’s Detroit set. “It was around the [expletive] block. You see all these kids and families, and then I went to the one in Singapore, and I’m like, [expletive]!” That said, he admitted to a certain amount of protectiveness for the series, given that he shepherded all three from conception to completion.
"To just hand this over to somebody?" he asked rhetorically. "You know what I’m saying?"
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" was released in the summer of 2011, and though it righted many of
"Revenge of the Fallen’s wrongs," which to be fair were at least partially a result of the 2007-8 writer’s strike, that epic finale committed plenty of its own. But three years later, Bay seems to look at "Age of Extinction" as the first in a completely new series of films, not just updating the robots but replacing his entire cast, and according to him, approaching the material with an at least slightly different tone. “What I want to do is really set it up,” he said. “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," he revealed. "We started working on a script, and then by bringing Mark [Wahlberg] 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."
That said, when our small group of reporters stepped on set in July of 2013, things quite honestly didn’t seem altogether that different. Shooting Detroit for Hong Kong, Bay spent the first half of the day shooting a few scenes in which Wahlberg fends off an unseen attacker with some kind of laser rifle, and the second supervising his crew as they set up what would be this enormous, cathartic moment in the film. (Or who knows? Maybe it won’t be – in Bay’s films, explosions occur as regularly as exchanges of dialogue.)
At the time of the set visit, Bay and Paramount hadn’t unveiled the film’s title "Age of Extinction," much less revealed that the dinobots would appear in the film. But although producer Lorenzo Di Bonaventura laughed when we asked about them, he did offer some specific details about how the film took the core ideas of its predecessors and steered them in a new direction. "It’s a lot different in many ways, and it’s also the same characters you know," he said.
"Optimus and Bumblebee are joining us for this trip, but it’s a completely new chapter. Like, nobody from the original cast is in [the film] other than our Transformers, honestly. People have said it’s a reboot. It’s not a reboot."
Gobsmackingly, Di Bonaventura suggested that it was the relationships between the human characters that formed the central conflict in the film, rather than the one between humans and Transformers. "I think what’s really a big and important difference for us, is [that] in the first movie, there was this triangle that kind of bound the movie together, which was Shia and Megan and Bumblebee," he observed. "Now we have a human triangle that’s meshing this movie together, and I think it’s giving the movie a real solid base, so that’s obviously Jack [Reynor], and Nicola [Peltz], and our friend Mark Wahlberg."
Di Bonaventura also said that Wahlberg’s comparatively established screen presence, at least in comparison to his leading-man predecessor Shia La Beouf, gives the story a slightly more grown-up, perhaps more serious feel. "It’s like, you see movie-star shots in a way that remind me of having done movies with Kevin Costner or Bruce Willis… it has a different texture to it. One of the biggest struggles for us has always been how do you keep a six-foot human relevant against these 30-foot things? Well, we found it in this case, and it’s partly because Mark’s just older, and you’re going to believe that an older character can do things that you’re not going to believe a high-school character can do."
Reynor and Peltz play young lovers caught in the crosshairs of Wahlberg’s disapproval (as Peltz’ character’s father). But even if they’re the film’s discoveries, Bay has enlisted a supporting cast with bona fides equal to, if not greater than those in the first three films: Stanley Tucci, Kelsey Grammer, Patrick Dempsey, John Goodman and Ken Watanabe, to name just a few. Tucci, who often skillfully elevates broad supporting players into substantial roles, explained that he was thrilled to join the film. "It's a great role – I was more than happy to do it," he said. "To be typecast in great roles does kind of misuse the word, I think, but no I was very happy to. If it had been a role I'd done before then I maybe wouldn't have been interested, but it was something kind of new and really fun, you know what I mean? Sometimes making movies isn't fun and to play a character like this in a movie like this is fun."
In recent fare such as "The Hunger Games," Tucci has stayed mercifully far away from the action in the film, mostly commenting on it with toothy relish. But he admitted that the opportunity to play in Bay’s sandbox, including dodging some of the fireworks that are his hallmark, was extremely exciting.
“The action stuff is as anybody will attest, it takes a long time," Tucci says. "But when you're there and you're doing it and you run and everything is blowing up around you and you're diving onto something it's actually incredibly thrilling, you feel like a kid again. Like a kid who used to play and pretend all those things would happen and now they're actually happening."
After a visit to the lot where the Transformers, as vehicles, are packed away and protected, we returned to the Hong Kong set. With dusk fast approaching, Bay barked orders at his crew to get everything in position for the day’s big finale. And as the crew moved a phony double-decker bus in front of video village, a shield against the pyrotechnics that were set to explode, Bay opened up about his technique, which seems shockingly free-wheeling given the scale on which he works.
"It’s however you feel, you know? Whatever feels right for the scene,” he said. "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?"
Bay continues, "f you were here yesterday afternoon, 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. And once you get in the zone, you’re in the zone, you know what I’m sayin?"
Bay, who was initially reticent with us, warmed to our presence over the course of the day. But after he kept us safely out of harm’s way as time neared for the explosions to start, he invited us to huddle around video village – a phalanx of monitors that captured the action from every conceivable angle – to watch what he’d shot when it was finished. Oddly, even with all of the action taking place just on the other side of a lousy bus façade, none of it seemed fully real until we watched it on those screens; the sound and light of the in-person experience notwithstanding, Bay captured it in ways that made it feel more visceral when it was on camera.
Of course, Bay wasn’t particularly impressed. Satisfied with the execution, perhaps, but still settled comfortably within the boundaries of his seemingly indefatigable, cool proficiency. According to him, that one shot, which took all day to prepare, wasn’t even the biggest sequence in the film.
"No, no, no," he said. "We’re going to do a lot of crazy stuff – a big scene in Chicago. But not yet."
On June 27, we’ll find out if he was telling the truth. But in part and as a whole, Bay has a high bar to clear with "Age of Extinction" in making a new "Transformers" film that resurrects, and redirects, the franchise instead of being an unnecessary relic of blockbusters past. Because quite frankly, exceeding the scale of one of the biggest explosions we’ve ever seen should be just the beginning.
More from "Transformers: Age of Extinction":
On set: Mark Wahlberg is open to more 'Transformers' movies
Michael Bay on moving on from Shia and getting 'serious'
"Transformers: Age of Extinction" opens nationwide on June 27.