Michael Bay tells you everything you ever wanted to know about turning these 80s icons into the summer's biggest hit!
Some people are saying that Transformers is the film Michael Bay was born to direct. It takes his keen ability to destroy the screen with mind blowing action and marries it to an 80s cartoon aesthetic. Bay stays so true to the roots of the Transformers series. Not one single fan is going to be disappointed (but I'm sure they'll find some reason to complain).
Seriously, once you see the picture, you'll realize that there's not much you can bitch about. For what it is; the funcore giant robot flick is flawless.
Michael Bay recently met up with a group of journalists over at the Four Seasons to give a press conference about his new film. Here's what he had to say:
Did you get a chance to see Hot Fuzz, which was so inspired by Bad Boys II? We also heard that you were offered Live Free or Die Hard. If this hadn't come together would you have considered doing that?
Michael Bay: Live Free or Die Hard? No, I don't think so. Hot Fuzz, I haven't seen it yet because I was finishing this movie. It's really hard. The end of your post schedule is such a grind. Seeing a movie is the last thing you want to do when you go home. I thought this would be an easy post. I didn't think the robots would be that hard, but I was directing them all the way to the very end.
How did you balance your vision with what Steven Spielberg had in mind?
Michael Bay: Listen, I make my own movie. I don't have someone tell me what to do. I've always been inspired by Steven. I was not a Transformers fan before I signed on to this movie. I think I was two years older when the toys came out, so I just discovered girls then instead of Optimus Prime. But I quickly became a fan after I went to Hasbro, where they have Transformers school. I really thought, 'Why the fuck am I going to Hasbro for Transformers school?" I thought I was going to learn how to fold up robots. But I met with the CEO and I went through the whole Transformers lore. I've been offered a lot of superhero movies before and nothing's really appealed to me. In the room, because I'm such a fan of Japanese Anime, it just hit me that if I make this really real it could be something very new and different. So, I quickly became one of the bigger Transformers fans in the world. I tried to make this movie for non-Transformers fans. Okay? And I wanted it to be a little bit more adult. I'm sure I'm going to get flack for it. "You made an edgy movie on a toy, how is that going to affect kids?" I know there are Transformers fans that are 40 years old.
The cast keeps saying that you are such an actor's director. We've never heard that before. Did you do something different?
Michael Bay: No, listen, press is very weird. A sound byte gets out there, "Michael Bay yells." Listen, I visited Jim Cameron on Titanic. We have very similar styles. He's an assistant director, I'm an assistant director of my own sets. I move my own sets, I shoot very fast, I never leave the set, and I love working with actors. I love giving actors freedom, I love improvising with actors. It freaks studios out because they're like, "That wasn't in the script, what's this, he's wrecking the movie.'" And I'm like, "Trust me, it's going to be funny." There's a whole issue with tone in this movie. When I'm doing action scenes I'm going to be your worst nightmare basketball coach. That's to get the energy, the adrenalin going.
How much of what we see is improvised, and was the Armageddon joke a spur of the moment inclusion?
Michael Bay: Well, that was just me. I'm like, "Okay, this kid is so funny running." I'm like, "Dude, you've got say this." He's just funny. You guys all laughed, right? I'll often add jokes along the way. A perfect example is Nic Cage in The Rock. There was really nothing funny in The Rock script. That was all through improv, just trying to work with the guys and try to make it funny. A good example in this movie was where the parents knocked on the door of the bedroom. When he's hiding the robots. In the script it said, "Maybe he's mas ...," and that was the joke. That's pretty lame. So we actually brought him in the room and we just started this whole masturbation talk. That's because the mom's such an amazing New York actor.
She just won the Tony Award.
Michael Bay: Did she really?
Best Actress in a Play. She beat Angela Lansbury and Vanessa Redgrave. Don Murphy said that you had no nostalgia for these Transformers. Does that make it easier to direct a film like this?
Michael Bay: Listen, I'm a huge Transformers. fan now. I can officially say I've probably thought more about robots on earth than anyone in the past year and a half. Yeah, I actually think that because I wasn't a fan I think makes it more accessible to other people, does that make sense? Megatron was a gun. I'm like, "I don't get that." I did get a lot of flak from fans on the net. "Michael Bay, you wrecked my childhood." "Michael Bay, you suck. We're going to protest his office." They did protest my old office apparently. That's true. The death threats freak me out, but I think listened to the fans on the net. I really did. I would hear their comments, but I still made my movie and I' still put flames on Optimus.
That actually helped, because when the robots were fighting I knew which one was Optimus Prime?
Michael Bay: You see. Thank you.
But you gave them lips.
Michael Bay: We did a lot of facial studies, and emotion is so hard without that kind of movement. We tried it solid, it just didn't look right.
Are you going to be too busy with Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time to concentrate on a Transformers sequel?
Michael Bay: I don't know. I leave my negotiations open, because the President of Paramount is right behind you. He could probably kill me. I don't know what I'm doing right now. There's no script right now.
Are are directing Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time?
Michael Bay: I don't know. I really don't know what I'm doing. I'm unemployed right now. I finished the movie like a week ago.
You mentioned the tone of the film. How did you managed to balance between what seems like a somewhat normal action film and the Transformers aspect?
Michael Bay: When Steven called me a year and a half ago, he said "I want you do direct Transformers. It's a story about a boy who buys his first car." To me that was a great hook. I hung up and said, "Thank you, I'm not doing that stupid, silly toy movie." But I thought about it. The hook was great because that's such a launching point. I liked the simplicity of it. Okay, it just made it somewhat more accessible. If you notice, I shot this movie kind of generic. I've never in my life shot at a Burger King. Or had a guy riding on a pink bicycle, or a house that's in suburbia. It just makes it more acceptable and accessible to the ultra-slick uber-action that is around it. I kept having this image of a kid trying to hide robots from his parents. That just stuck in my head as we were writing the script. To me, that was the whole charm of it. I don't think I even answered your question.
Did The Island failure affect how you made this film?
Michael Bay: You know, I liked The Island. It worked really well overseas. I knew it would never be a smash, because it's not that type of movie. I continually have so many people that come up to me and say, "God that movie is so good." But no one knew about it in America. I mean, I asked 500 people before it came out. They didn't even know when it was coming out. You saw our poster campaign. We had a muddled campaign. I knew we were in trouble with that movie domestically four months before it came out. I kept saying, "You should go with the Warner's campaign." Which they did foreign. So it was a whole kind of microcosm study of studio marketing.
Did you change your attitude?
Michael Bay: No. The thing is, you get right back on the horse again. There are so many directors, "Oh, it didn't open. Oh my God, I'm over." It's like, you know what? Screw it. Get back on the horse, let's go. So I finished The Island, three weeks later I was doing Transformers.
Can you talk about casting Shia. Also, what do you feel is the underlying theme or message of this movie?
Michael Bay: Well, the underlying theme, to me, is really "No sacrifice, no victory." That was something I wanted to nail. My movies often deal with the hero arch-type and the boy becoming a man. Kind of like Nic Cage becoming a hero in The Rock. With Shia, it was the same thing. When he got to carry that cube and sacrifice his life. Your first question was about casting Shia? It's very scary when you're trying to hinge a whole movie on a kid. I had seen him in only one of his movies. Constantine. I thought, "He's interesting. But he looks so old." And Ian Bryce, one of my producers, said, "You should look at this kid, Shia." I'm like, "Okay." He was coming in. I saw some of his other movies, and I really liked him. Then I talked to Steven. I said, "I'm seeing Shia." He goes, "Oh yeah, he's great. I love Shia." And he came in for the audition and nailed it. I liked his improv skills. I liked how he was very able to take direction and mold. I didn't want the geek. What I like about Shia is he comes right back with wit and humor. Every guy likes him right then and there. I think. Do you guys think so? I don't think there's a kid today that could have done a better job. He's a pain in the ass to work with, let me tell you. Let me tell you a funny story. I always like to put my actors in real circumstances. There was a seventeen-story building downtown by the statue and my producer said, "How do you want to shoot that?" He goes, "We're going to do a blue screen, right?" I said, "Nah, fuck, we're going to put him up there." We put him on wires and we rigged it very safe, but there was only four inches to stand on and Shia is like, "Yeah, I think I can do it, I'm gonna go up there, I'm gonna go up there." So we're ready to go and he goes, and mind you I would never go out there on my own, I would never do this, but he goes, "Oh man, I can't get up there, I can't get up there." I said, "Dude, you're going to embarrass yourself in front of the whole crew. You get paid way more than those kids on Fear Factor, get the fuck up there." So he did it, and it was really scary. But he was on cloud nine after it was over.
Do you ever foresee a time where you might want to do an intimate low budget character study?
Michael Bay: No. I've got this one I keep trying to do called Pain and Gain. It's a really funny character story. I keep talking about it. We're going to be here next year and we'll talk about it again. I just keep getting gas to do these big movies. Sometimes it's a fear of, like, are the big movies going to go away? You know what I'm saying? Hollywood is kind of tough right now, so I don't know.
What's it about?
Michael Bay: It's very Pulp Fiction-y. A true story. It's about these knuckleheads that kidnap and murder. They are searching for the American dream in all the wrong ways. It's very funny. All true.
We've seen how James Cameron went from huge physical action movies to 3D films. Can you ever see yourself moving in that direction?
Michael Bay: Honestly, I think I'd want to shoot myself working on a blue screen stage. I did maybe one, two days of blue screen on this movie. I just hate it. I like doing things real. It's really hard to go there, you know?
Did 9/11 change the way you make action movies? I kept thinking of 9/11 with the jets going through the buildings. Did that enter your mind at any point?
Michael Bay: Are you kidding, lady? That's a silly question. Of course it entered my mind. I don't even want to go there. Let's go onto the next question...
As a filmmaker, you seem to get more of your budget on screen than almost anyone else. You get $150 million and make it look like $250 million. What's your secret?
Michael Bay: My secret is that I shoot very, very fast. An average director will shoot 20 set ups a day. I do about 75. They're real set ups, too. We work 12-hour days, I don't go overtime, but we work very hard. I work with the same crew. I gave 30% of my fee because they were going to ship me to Canada or Australia. I said, "No, I want to shoot with my guys." It's a team that I've worked with for close to 16 years. I like to keep the movies in Los Angeles if I can, and I especially like to keep them in the States. We just saved so much money, because I have really good people. I don't know, we just make an efficient day. I think music videos gave me a sense of that. I'm able to shoot fast and when the shit hits the fan, which it always does on a movie, you've got to figure out your plan A and B. I do this system called leapfrog. Like I said, the whole A.D. thing that gets out there, Michael Bay yells, Michael Bay's being the assistant director, okay, three shots, we're doing this, I want you to prep that, so we're leapfrogging, we're almost ready for the next shot. It's almost hard, actors don't even go back to their trailers, if you've probably already heard. 'Tyrese, put your clothes back on.' He would always take his clothes off. And that's a lot of stuff to put back on.
How did you guys arrive at the tone of the film?
Michael Bay: I think it was just my gut, I knew its Transformers, you can't take it too seriously, but you wanted to give that sense of realism. That's why the military involvement was very important, that we make it very real and credible. Like those guys in the AWAC those are all the real guys. I told them, this is what's going down on the ground, what would you say? And literally within two minutes they were, 'dah, dah, dah, dah, dah,' I just photographed what they said. So I think you mix the realism with Tyrese being in the worst situation, and he says, 'Man, if you could see this shit,' that sounds real, but it comes in a funny way. I made little jabs here and there like, that's way too smart for Iranians scientists, or, how much do you get bugged by these outsourcing calls, you know, the calls out there. It just bugs me. When I forget to pay my AT & T bill, I get a call, 'Mr. Bay,' and they're calling from Bombay, and I'm like, 'I didn't pay it.' Anyway.
Tyrese made a joke that he was running and dodging cars and everything and then he had to say a joke. As a director, you somehow manage to get real emotion in an action film. What is more important for you and is there a balance you are seeking?
Michael Bay: Yeah, you want it to feel real. What I try to do, especially when actors are doing action stuff - the crew jokes - Ian, don't you call it 'Bayos'?
Ian Bryce: Yeah. Bayos is one of them.
Michael Bay: Try to have a little bit of chaos. It's very organized, but you get them a little fritzed, y'know? Because it just gives them more adrenaline. It's a little bit of the unknown and they will have a lot of loud bombs and stuff like that on the set if that's what it calls for. And I like to see the real emotion when they are inside these action scenes.
So what's more important to you? Is it story or action?
Michael Bay: No, it's both. It's a balance. It's both.
You are your own AD is that because of the scale of the project or because you can't find the people who work at the pace you want to?
Michael Bay: I just love it. I dunno, it's just my thing. It keeps me interested. My thing is I will get to set usually 45 minutes after everyone is there, because I don't like people - watching them eat burritos and their eggs? I want to go to work. It's like, so, they always go on the radio, 'Bay's coming in hot. He's coming in hot.' It just keeps me really involved. That's my thing, I dunno. That's the creative thing for me.
What was going through your head last night at that first screening?
Michael Bay: We'll I've got to apologize, the print was way oversaturated. Way too much color. Way too much red, so I was having a freak-out on that. We are trying to figure out what the problem was. Bad projector or something. But, I thought it was fun. I said, I mean, when I said, 'You guys are the first in the United States to see this,' it was true.
Was it loud enough for you?
Michael Bay: Yeah, I turned it down. I said, 'Turn it down. Turn it down'
Is it always stressful watching it on the screen in front of people for the first time?
Michael Bay: Yes, it is so nerve wracking. Do you want me to describe the testing process? Real quick. I do little focus groups on my own. I'll take like 30 kids into a screening room. I'll do like 9-year-olds to 15-year-olds, and I did like 16 year-olds to 25 year-olds and I have someone who has nothing to do with the movie come in and say, 'You can say whatever you want about this movie.' I show it in rough form and they were great, because they will fill out little pages about what is confusing them, what lines they thought sucked. They are very blunt about it. And there was something where they hated Megan. She said one line and the women just turned off. And I'm like, 'We've got to deal with that.' And then I get to the big test in Phoenix where we did 450 people. It was all families and I'm like 'Ah, the kids are cute because they are applauding at different things.' 'Oh, they all laughed at the masturbation thing and they are 9-years-old.' ' dunno. Must be younger now.' Ok, so then I went to the adult screening next store, introduced that. And I'm doing this little sound button thing and this guy sitting next to me goes, 'What's that?' 'Oh, it's just the sound.' 'What do you do?' 'Oh, I'm the director.' So the movie stats they were like laughing and applauding at certain things. And I'm thinking, 'This sucks. This movie sucks. It's a kiddy movie, alright?' And I said to the guy sitting next to me, 'Do you like this type of movie?' And he goes, 'Eh.' I'm like, 'Ugh. It's a kid movie. It's a kid movie.' So all these emotions go through your head. And then we did a focus group. I ran out and we did a focus group with the kids and the parents in the focus group. 26 out of 26 gave it an excellent. I'm like, 'Oh, that's interesting.' Our scores were gigantic. I'm like, 'That's O.K., because it's a kids movie.' Then I went to the adult focus group and we got the same score. We got like a 95. And I was like, 'That's weird. A lot of the older ladies, like 35, 40, they are like, 'I didn't want to come here. I didn't want to see this. I was dragged here.' It's true! This one lady goes, 'This kinds of reinvents super heroes.' She said this great line. She goes, 'We're tired of the suits and the whatever. This is totally new and different.' Anyway, It's still nerve-wracking, you know what I'm saying? That is a long boring answer.
John Turturro said that he based a lot of his character on you. Wondering what you guys discussed?
Michael Bay: No, I was scared to work with John Turturro. I was like, 'Oh, John.' He came out a little quirky. When he had that hat -- that was the first day I worked with him - at the damn. I said, 'I don't know about this. I dunno.' I dunno, I grew to really like working with John. I don't know if he based it on me, but I do think criminals are hot by the way. No, I'm kidding. I dunno if he based it on me. He said that, but you should see his Scorsese imitation. It's one of the best I've ever seen.
Michael, some of this movie plays like almost a recruiting vehicle for the military. Can you talk about all the military elements in the film that you said grounded the film more in reality?
Michael Bay: Here's the thing. You've got to have more than the external alien invasion. To make it credible, you have to have the military. I just don't like when you see like an Independence Day and they don't get military support and you've got like a few jeeps and you've got this and everything is kind of mismatched and it's all digital planes and it's like, it's just not credible. So you need that reality so you can ground this little kid's story. I had a good relationship with them on Armageddon and Pearl Harbor . And, so I somehow convinced them. This is the largest cooperation since Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbor for them. So, I am always good at weaseling stuff that's never been shot like the F22 and all that stuff. And I think they like me because I really respect the military. I respect the soldiers. The people, the men and women who really will sacrifice themselves. Those guys around Josh and Tyrese, they are all the real guys. They are all special ops seals and it's fascinating. I'm just enamored by people who will really go to combat. It's just a wild thing.
A lot of equipment and ships and planes going.
Michael Bay: If you look at the theme, 'No sacrifice, no victory.' I think that's how they see it. They just want to be treated credibly. They want it to be shown in a real light. If you are fighting Scorponok how would they do an air strike? So we literally show you how it happens?
So are the guys in the movie retired?
Michael Bay: No, those were guys who have either taken leave. Some of them were actually going to get called back to Iraq. And I mean, they all, this is the thing that happens to all of them. They get the Hollywood bug. We call one of them Hollywood. He trains U.S. Seals down in Coronado and we're like, 'Dude, just go back to getting a seal.'
Can you talk about GM and the introduction of the new Camero?
Michael Bay: O.K., I mean, I had $145 million. I needed to find a car company that can give me a bunch of vehicles and save me three million bucks. And I opened it up to every car company. And I have a relationship with GM because I've done commercials with them and they have helped me out on my other movies by giving me flood damaged cars or cars that had to be destroyed. And they took me to Skunkworks, which is where they do the prototype cars, it's a secret place somewhere. And I saw that car and I said, 'That's Bumblebee.' And, so, to help save $3 million and it was a great looking car.
We heard there was a GM guy on set who wouldn't let them touch the leather, but when he wasn't around you raced the car through gravel at 145 miles per hour.
Michael Bay: No. We did have the one prototype. The prototypes are really hard because they cost like $5 million to make. We made our own, we had the cab out there with a celine chasse, and we made it in like six weeks in Detroit really fast.
How have you changed as a filmmaker over the past few years?
Michael Bay: I've gotten older, crankier. No, I'm not cranky. No, I don't. I don't. I crack a lot of jokes. I tease people. A little bit.
I mean, do you think this movie is different from your predecessors?
Michael Bay: I mean, someone said to me in Australia, 'Well, after 'The Island' did you want to go back to your more safe roots?' And I just thought this idea if it was done in a cool way could be a big idea and a fun movie idea. And a fun summer movie and I liked the challenge of taking something that hasn't been done and trying to working with my team of artists for months, 8 months, 9 months and my digital effects companies, to try and create characters made out of thin air. And it was something really challenging for me. It's like doing an animated movie. Working with animators is such a great process. And the end result, it's like, you look at Bumblebee and it's like there is a soul in this thing. That was a fun challenge for me.
This scene in the back yard is so wonderful and so much of that is comic timing. How did you create that comic timing with the characters not 'being' there?
Michael Bay: What I do is I do a series of animatics, which are crude cartoons. And a movie really comes to life, I mean working with the writers and creating the script, but it all starts with the concept drawings. That becomes the tone of the movie. I showed Steven a picture of Megatron in the hanger and he's like, 'Omigod, I love it. That's the movie!' And I'm like, 'I know.' And that's how you get the tone. It's like you build off of there. So, in the backyard we kept coming up with the beats and whatnot. I think the dog peeing was something we made up. That's where we tied a little string to his leg and lifted it up to nothing is there and they added in the squirt. It's just really good to work with someone like a Shia or a Megan where they can actually see a cartoon and they are looking at window washer poles, which is tough. And, you just keep doing it.
If this film is a monster hit, are you willing to jump back into a sequel and what characters you'd like to bring to the franchise?
Michael Bay: I mean I have some really cool things that I came up with for the first one that was just too expensive. Stuff that was really cool, but Steven was right, 'No, we should pull back and not have as many robots so you can really focus more.' I mean I wish I really got to into some of the faces more of some of the robots. But I really think it was Steven who said, 'I think we should make it like 5 against 5 or 5 against 6.' Or something like that. So, it was good we scaled back a bit.
But would you be willing to jump right back in to a sequel?
Michael Bay: Maybe a little break. But, we have to come up with a good story first.
You were talking about Tyrese earlier. You kept asking him to keep his clothes on...
Michael Bay: He kept taking his underwear off in front of me. I don't know what that was about. No, I'm kidding.
The special effects guy said this was the first giant robot movie. Were you conscious about creating a new movie subgenre?
Michael Bay: Well, let me tell you, these robots didn't come out good at first. It was hard. It was not all peaches and cream at ILM. There were a lot of angry phone calls like, 'We have to do better. We have to do better.' They thought they were settling on something and I was like, 'Nope. This is unacceptable.' I just kept pushing them and pushing them and pushing them, but we came up with a really a good visual thing. I wanted them not to be clunky, lumbering robots. I looked at a lot of kung fu movies. I wanted them to have a different type of movement so I would just clip different things from different movies and I'd reference those to the animators on how they would move. What was your question again?
Were you conscious of creating a new subgenre?
Michael Bay: Yeah, because if they sucked, if they were horrible than the movie was doomed or is doomed. So, you've got a lot of pressure they're trying to make it work. And you've got pressure from the fans saying 'You wrecked our childhood' and all this about, complaining 'We don't like the look of them.' You just had to hold to your guns. You just had to I just, y'know, the fans just wanted me to literally take these cartoons and blow them up. And it's like literally the equivalent of 'Ghostbusters' with the Marshmallow man. It just wouldn't work. They needed to be much more complex the way they are. Y'know?
You made a reference about being afraid big movies were going away?
Michael Bay: I dunno. You know what it is? You do a movie and then you are unemployed, you know what I'm saying? So, it's just like - I dunno. It's just. I think Hollywood's got some stumbling blocks here and there. You hear where the business is going and there are not a lot of big movies that are made.
It's a big summer for the movie industry.
Michael Bay: I know. That's good. A lot of people are going to the movies.
Transformers opens July 3rd, 2007.