ACTION. VISUAL EFFECTS. ‘TRANSFORMERS’ SOUNDS LIKE A MICHAEL BAY PIC. IT DIDN’T AT FIRST, THOUGH.

By John Horn / Times Staff Writer / May 6, 2007

 

The “Transformers” concept is simple: In the blink of an eye, some innocuous thing — a car, for instance — morphs into an alien-whupping killing machine.

Director Michael Bay has undergone his own transformation, and while it’s hardly as dramatic as what happens in his new movie, his turnabout does suggest that he is about to have a much sunnier summer than his last time around.

When Bay was previously putting the finishing touches on a summer movie, he wasn’t having that grand a time. The year was 2005 and the movie was “The Island.” Bay was battling with DreamWorks over the movie’s advertising campaign, but the ads were only a part of the problem. Moviegoers didn’t seem to know what the movie’s title meant (there’s no island in “The Island”) and the $125-million anti-utopian drama was opening on the heels of three box-office hits: “Wedding Crashers,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Fantastic Four.”

“The Island” was routed. It sold just $35.8 million worth of tickets in its entire domestic release, and while “The Island” performed better overseas — grossing more than $124 million — it was Bay’s first flop. After an uninterrupted run of solid and whopper hits (“Bad Boys,” “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Bad Boys II”), Bay’s winning streak was in tatters.

Still, he went back to work three weeks after “The Island” opened and closed. Rather than make a smaller, more personal movie as he has long talked about, he jumped into another huge and challenging summer movie, with two of the same screenwriters — Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci — who penned “The Island,” and he was returning to DreamWorks, the same studio behind “The Island” (and which is now owned by Paramount Pictures).

Bay didn’t have a screenplay or a cast, but a July 4 release date had already been set and it was looming. He wasn’t all that familiar with Hasbro’s Transformers toys. And he knew he’d be following massive sequels to “Pirates of the Caribbean,” “Spider-Man” and “Shrek.”

But Bay believed he could make a “Transformers” movie work. “I just thought,” he said, “it could be something new and different that I could do well.”

It was a certainty he didn’t always feel.

<strong>SERIOUS? FUNNY? BOTH?</strong>

<strong></strong>”Why should I do this movie?” Bay found himself asking, not once or even twice. He asked it repeatedly, both of himself and his collaborators: Kurtzman and Orci, and producers Steven Spielberg (who came up with the idea to make the film) and Lorenzo di Bonaventura.

“My friends would say, ‘Why are you doing that movie? Is it animation? Is it a cartoon?’ They didn’t get it,” Bay said. (The toy line previously anchored a 1984 animated TV series and a 1986 animated movie.) But the more time Bay spent with the toys — he even attended Hasbro’s Transformers school — the more the movie’s themes coalesced.

Bay, with a sometimes feared reputation for being demanding, always envisioned “Transformers” not as a toy movie but as a live-action spectacle loaded with visual effects. Yet he wasn’t as certain about the film’s narrative and emotional hook. “Our take on it was it’s about a kid finding his adulthood through his first car,” Kurtzman said.

That kid is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and the car his dad (Kevin Dunn) buys him is a 1977 Camaro. Like many machines in the film, the car leads a double life. When an alien Transformer attacks a U.S. military base in Qatar, an intergalactic war between the good Autobots and not-so-nice Decepticons is launched. Before long, Witwicky and what his car turns into are drawn into an epic battle.

The robots are of course fantastic, but the warfare is very real; the U.S. government supplied planes and assistance to the production. “If you are fighting alien robots, you need the American military helping out,” Bay says.

Di Bonaventura says even with that straightforward story line, Bay faced another challenge. Was “Transformers” going to be serious? Funny? Or both? “The hardest thing to do with a franchise is to find the tone,” he says. As a rough cut showed, the film alternates between PG-13 action and old-fashioned, Americana humor more reminiscent of a Spielberg movie.

From the beginning, the producer says, Bay had strong ideas and wasn’t any less opinionated because of “The Island’s” performance. “You don’t want filmmakers second-guessing each decision they make,” Di Bonaventura says. “I think people will be surprised by the movie. There is a spectacular amount of heart and humor in it.”

The studio likes what it has seen and is already developing a “Transformers” sequel script.

Through it all, obsessed fans watched the production closely. Bay says someone even hacked into his home computer to try to steal the “Transformers” script. While the director did share some production details with enthusiasts, he also used his blog (www.michaelbay.com/blog/newsblog.html) to snipe at some Web critics. “This is by far the most action I have ever put into a movie — I have 12 huge set pieces,” he wrote in one posting. “Boy, I get tired of these lame crybabies on the Net.”

<strong> A DIFFERENT MOOD</strong>

<strong></strong>Still, Bay’s mood working on “Transformers” was measurably brighter than it had been just before the release of “The Island” in 2005. With the opening just a few weeks away, the director knew that film was in trouble. As he finished an “Island” color-timing session with an editor, Bay seemed exhausted, eager for the whole experience to be over.

In the back of his mind he knew the film wasn’t going to be a blockbuster, but he still hoped it might somehow crawl past $100 million in domestic theaters. A conference room at Bay’s Santa Monica offices was filled with Transformer toys, those robotic-looking action figures that can twist and turn into new configurations — cars, rockets, weapons — but back in 2005, they were hardly his priority.

Two years later, the mood at his offices was much more upbeat. Sure, Bay was a little worried that the most recent horror movie made under his Platinum Dunes genre label, “The Hitcher,” had sold a fraction of the tickets sold by the label’s earlier remakes, “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror” (“We’re trying to figure out where that business is going”). Yet production was picking up at Digital Domain, the special-effects house Bay and investment firm Wyndcrest Holdings purchased a year ago.

Bay had some work left to do on the $145-million “Transformers” and was awaiting the completion of several special effects shots. The studio wanted him to cut the film’s running time by a few minutes and Bay wanted to tweak its ending, but most of the hard labor was behind him. He had just screened 28 minutes of it to an enthusiastic audience of theater owners in Las Vegas. In a few days, he would travel to Phoenix for another test screening, where the film scored even better than “Armageddon.”

The director says he spent no time at all ruminating over any possible lessons “The Island” could have taught him. “You know, I think the movie works,” he said. “But I never thought it was going to be a smash. On ‘Armageddon,’ I had a feeling — a gut feeling — that there was something big.”

His enthusiasm for “Transformers” is more tempered. Bay realizes his latest film is no easy sell, particularly since it’s one of the few non-sequels to hit the screen this season.

“We are still the underdogs,” Bay says. “Big time.”