by Amy Wallace, LA Times Staff Writer

 

The setting was elegant, which was odd, considering the guest list. Between them, the three directors, one writer and one writer-director were better known for big explosions than for dainty table manners. Yet there they were in West Los Angeles the other day, circling a huge table at the Four Seasons Hotel’s garden restaurant, sipping from crystal goblets and talking about the cinema of mass destruction.

Michael Bay, Steven E. de Souza, F. Gary Gray, John McTiernan and Jonathan Mostow had gathered at The Times’ invitation to discuss the future of a movie genre that has taken some hits lately: action. To hear critics talk, most action movies have become predictable, exploitative–even boring. To find out why, The Times sprang for lunch, and the five participants didn’t let us down.

A few in the group had already met–McTiernan and De Souza worked together to make one of the archetypes of action film, “Die Hard.” Bay and Gray occupied neighboring editing rooms on their most recent projects.

Gray’s “The Negotiator” was opening the day of the lunch, so–a bit nervous about the box-office take–he ate a green salad and not much else. But opening-day jitters didn’t keep him from speaking his mind.

Want to hear Gray tease Bay about his expensive lifestyle? Want to find out how, exactly, Gray made McTiernan groan? Want to know what is the stupidest writing assignment de Souza’s ever gotten, why Mostow counts his audience’s trips to the bathroom and what nefarious act Bay says he commits in his Ferrari trunk? Read on.

De Souza: Action movies in general are in a creative rut right now. And one of the principal problems is how they are made. The first thing that happens is there’s a window. The window may be, “We need a movie for Christmas 1999.” Or this actor has an availability. The first element of this “work of art” is a window of time. The next thing is, “There’s a director we have a deal with. Let’s lay him on this, whether or not he’s right for the material.” So what happens is, they decide to make the movie because there’s a window, there’s a star, there’s a director.

McTiernan: Wait, wait, there’s one more thing. A “tent pole” movie like this is very often a large decision for the corporation involved. So they will not make a commitment early. They will make it at the last possible minute. [He nods at Bay.] We’ve both made movies in nine months door-to-door [from green light to premiere].

De Souza: But notice no one has mentioned script. These pictures start down the railroad tracks before there’s a script. Years ago, the script would be first.

Bay: Now, things don’t get serious until you get an actor. Only then will [the studios] start spending money on writers.

De Souza: So the script is the last thing that people focus on.

Gray: I was lucky on “The Negotiator.” I read the script and loved it. I got my first-choice actors. I had the time to do it. But I think the business part of it is definitely overshadowing the creative part of it. It seems like there’s more emphasis put on statistics and research as opposed to how can we challenge ourselves to make original material. Let’s broaden the audience. Let’s not just feed who we think is already our demographic.

De Souza: This is a strange thing that we do–a mixture of art and commerce. But what you said about the statistics and the research–those are killing us. Because everybody is trying to parse this data to get the certainty that before they make [a movie], it’s a hit. I’m reading a book now called “Painting by Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art,” by these two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid. They asked Americans: What topics do you like in a painting? How large a painting do you like? What are your favorite colors?

[The table erupts in laughter–this is sounding very familiar.]

De Souza: They were able to prove without contradiction that the most popular painting in America is a 36-by-48-inch landscape, predominantly blue and green with tastefully nude sunbathers having a picnic by a riverbank. And George Washington and a hippopotamus also need to be in it. I’m not making this up. They hired research firms to find all this out–the same type of people who [tell the studios what audiences want]. It’s madness, this research and data. At the end of the day, if you’re doing entertainment, you have to at some point trust your cojones.

Mostow: There are two issues: the movies themselves and then how they’re marketed. There are a lot of action movies that are pretty good, but they are sold in such a way that the public, who by now have gotten incredibly savvy, doesn’t give the movie a chance. And certainly the critics don’t. The people who are doing the marketing–those people are like [De Souza’s] Russians. They’re reading the tracking reports and they’re cutting ads that they think sell to the under-25 male demographic. And then your movie gets tagged as uninteresting dumb action. I saw this happen on a movie I did last year [“Breakdown” with Kurt Russell]. I was looking at commercials for it and saying, “I don’t want to see that movie.”

De Souza: In [my next] picture [“Knock Off”], Jean-Claude Van Damme has a fight with 48 guys at once. It’s the most phenomenal action scene I’ve seen. But the coming attraction looks like every other action movie. I said, “There’s some real weird, offbeat stuff in this picture.” And [the marketing people] said, “Yes, but we don’t want to put it in the trailer. We think that would alienate the action audience.”

Mostow: Great ideas come at a natural rate. Whether you’re a writer or a director, you only get so many great ideas in a year or in a lifetime, and the quantity of great movies is roughly the same year to year. The sense that movies have gotten in a rut is, I think, principally due to the fact that they’re sold that way.

Bay: I want to know what this “rut” is. The movie business is at an all-time high right now.

De Souza: Part of it is people following the pack. Part of it is the research. It’s been almost 15 years that I’ve been doing feature films, and in that time the world market has also become a factor. Action movies were the first ones to play overseas because you don’t need the subtitles. It’s not Noel Coward. And for a while, as new markets opened up, you could not lose money on an action movie. I have been in creative meetings with people who have never done an action picture, but they want to now because they know it’ll make money overseas. These people parrot back to you what has to be in this movie. They say the hero has to be a disgraced Green Beret or a cop who does things his own way.

Bay: Who’s divorced.

McTiernan: With a hippopotamus.

De Souza: I had the good fortune to get aboard a couple of trains like “Die Hard” and “48 HRS.”–pictures that were viewed as archetypes of the buddy-cop action movie and the claustrophobic pressure cooker. But then people want that again. I was sent a script recently to rewrite and direct. They said, “We think you’ll like this. It’s sort of like ‘Die Hard’ in a building.” [The original “Die Hard” was set in a skyscraper.]

Bay: That’s how they describe everything: “Die Hard” on “The Rock”!

De Souza: I can’t constantly write on carbon paper. So I’m doing quirky, offbeat material in between these giant action movies that I can’t refuse because I have a mortgage and alimony.

Bay: But look who’s making the money right now. Action movies are. “Saving Private Ryan,” any way you cut it, it’s still an action movie. You’ve got five action set pieces, you’re going on a mission with these guys. The movie comes to life when the audience is getting that human emotion of, “Oh, my God! I’m stuck in the fray.”

Gray: But that’s different. You feel human emotion in that film, whereas in most action films that are released you barely scrape the surface of any emotion besides thrills.

Bay: I’m just saying action movies are making money right now.

Gray: Yeah, but are we talking money or are we talking creativity?

De Souza: There is a list of things that routinely go into action movies now. Hostages, terrorists, car chases, fistfights, a scene in a bar with strippers and buddy cops–one black, one white. Do you know how much crap he got [De Souza points at Bay] for having two black guys in a cop movie? You can’t do that. One has to be white.

Bay: You’re totally right. I had $9 million to make “Bad Boys” with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. It was my first movie and [the studio] didn’t believe in it because “black guys don’t travel. They don’t work [with audiences] in Europe.” That’s what I was told.

De Souza: I was fortunate on “Knock Off” because the director was from Hong Kong and the producer was from Israel, so neither one of them knew that you can’t have a black leading lady, thank God. [Lela Rochon] was great, so she got the part.

Gray [to de Souza and McTiernan]: You guys have been doing it for a long time. Has there ever been a time where you were afraid you might make a decision [to do a film] for the wrong reasons? Because you know it’s going to sell, or you know the studio’s going to put it in 3,000 theaters with a bunch of marketing money behind it? Have you ever been in that position where you said, “I know this is kind of formulaic and it’s not a major passion, but maybe I could change it a little bit?” I know it’s a hard question.

McTiernan: Is he asking if we’ve sold out? [laughing]

De Souza: Are we whores?

The Times [to Gray]: Are you worried about doing that yourself?

Gray: I’m asking if you’ve ever thought about it. I’m not saying that I’m worried about doing it–I’m in big trouble right now for turning down a movie [“The Nutty Professor II” for Universal and Imagine Entertainment] that was actually really big.

De Souza: In trouble with who? Your agent?

Gray: With the studio.

[Gray’s original question goes unanswered.]

Mostow: If there are only five great scripts a year, and the major studios put out 200 [films], what are they going to do? Action movies become a very easy answer because you can fill them up with certain genre elements and disguise the fact that you don’t really have a great central idea. Last summer particularly was the nadir. Movie after movie came out with no idea. . . . Without naming names. [laughter] So yes, the action movie travels well because you don’t need subtitles. But it’s also because if you’re a studio, you feel like at least you can make that and charge eight bucks for a ticket, even though there’s really no idea at the core. And that’s what, as a moviegoer, pisses me off.

Bay: I went to my agency the other day talking about scripts. I said, “What do you guys have?” We sat down at a big table like this and they all started pitching. There must have been 12 ideas. I said, “Guys, you should listen to yourselves. It’s cops-do-this, cops-do-that. What’s going on here?” It’s all cop movies. Cops dejected. Cops trying to prove themselves innocent.

Gray: A cop that’s a vampire.

Bay: No, I don’t get vampire movies.

Gray [to McTiernan]: What do you think? I’ve respected your work and looked up to you for a long time. Part of me coming here today was to listen to the guys who have been in this for a while.

McTiernan [groaning]: It’s awful. It’s like suddenly I’m the grand old man.

Gray: No, I just want to hear your thoughts.

McTiernan: I think we’re mostly responsible for what we do ourselves. There are always [jerks] who have distorted notions of what would make a good movie or what would make a lot of money. And it’s only our fault if we listen to it. . . . Are there a lot of derivative films made? Sure. But there were always derivative films made. For a little while, the [action genre] elements alone would allow one to turn a profit. But that’s not possible anymore. The stars’ prices have gone up so much that it not only has to have all those elements, it’s gotta be good.

The Times: And “good” means story?

McTiernan: Not necessarily. Sometimes it’s story. Though there are films that don’t have much of a story that are in one way or another interesting or have some lightning and represent something to the audience.

De Souza: The audience has seen everything now. There’s a database in the brain of every viewer, and they recognize very quickly, “This is a buddy cop movie. Where are the drug dealers?” All the cliches, they recognize. Jonathan’s “Breakdown” was fabulous in that it was so terrific to say, “Why are the villains doing what they’re doing? Because they’re greedy, sick bastards and they’ll kill somebody to make $1,000.” It wasn’t that they were going to take over the world from their secret satellite base on the moon.

Bay: Maybe we could use Big Blue and input all these action movies and come up with a new combination.

The Times [to Bay]: You’ve been criticized on “Armageddon” for quick-cut editing, for poor storytelling skills, for jittery camera movement.

McTiernan [sarcastically]: Jittery camera movement? Oooh, shame on you.

Bay: Ooh, I know. Boy, did I get bad reviews on “Armageddon.” But, boy, are they going to see the movie. The movie’s going to make about a half a billion dollars. Sometimes critics are out of touch with what people want. The average age of a critic is 45 years old. Do you think they’re going to tell the 25-year-olds, “This is what you should see”? They basically, like, assault you. They say you’re stupid for seeing this movie. I saw an esteemed critic from the L.A. Times sitting there, 600 people cheering, laughing, and he had a scowl on his face. I was watching him. It was like, “I hate that they love this movie. I’m going to torture this director.”

De Souza: I saw one magazine that said, “Is Michael Bay the anti-Christ?”

The Times: No, it was the devil.

Bay: Quentin Tarantino was the anti-Christ. He called me up and said, “Hey, they already used that on me.”

De Souza: The editing issue really is a generational thing. The ability to take in information has changed. Take a hypothetical movie 50 years ago. Bogart says to Bacall, “We’ll meet in Paris.” Then they’d cut to an airplane flying. Then they’d dissolve to a picture of the Eiffel Tower. Then a subtitle would say, “Paris, France.” Then they’d cut to a little cafe and they’re at the table. Now, you can skip all that. “See you in Paris,” cut to an ashtray and then you’re in a bistro.

Mostow: How different do you think the critical reaction would have been without the giant marketing campaign? . . . How much of the criticism has to do with the expectations that were created before the movie even opened?

McTiernan: I think there is drag that comes from the marketing–resistance. The harder you market something, the more you may develop a backlash.

Bay: Listen, the press don’t like to say nice things because nice is boring. It’s much better to label me the devil. What we do is not brain surgery. We are entertainers, plain and simple, and we’re responsible to bring that money back, to make a profit. Big movies help support the smaller movies.

Gray [to McTiernan]: Do you ever get nervous? Is there a point in a picture where you’re just like, “What the hell is going on?”

McTiernan: Has that never happened to me? What are you talking about? I’m terrified most of the time.

Gray: Why?

Bay: ‘Cause we’re directors. We’re always unhappy with everything.

McTiernan: If you’re not a sociopath, to some extent you are aware of your responsibilities or interactions with other people and you can look at yourself and say, “I’m spending blah-blah millions of dollars of someone else’s money and I’m doing a lot of this on guesswork.” You know? There isn’t a manual.

Bay: No formula, like everyone thinks.

McTiernan: Every now and then, you sort of wake up and realize that you’re way out over Niagara Falls on a wire and you were too busy to realize you even got there.

Gray: OK, then when the movie is done and you watch it with an audience and someone gets up and walks past you to go to the bathroom . . .

Bay: You want to grab them and say, “No! You’re going to miss the whole movie if you go now.”

McTiernan: I feel like I failed when a guy is going to the bathroom.

Mostow: In someone else’s movie, do you pay any attention to who’s getting up?

Bay: You don’t even notice.

Mostow: But in your own, you count the flushes.

The Times [to Gray]: There’s been a lot of talk about aging action stars and the lack of a new generation. Your solution has been to use actors who aren’t action stars.

Gray: [In “The Negotiator”] it was easier for me to get the depth that I wanted by choosing Sam Jackson and Kevin Spacey ’cause we know that they’re gonna give us more than just sliding across the car and roughing up bad guys. I hired them in order to inject a certain level of humanity into it–making it about the average guy that you can relate to as opposed to the chiseled, muscle-bound, Hollywood tan guy.

Mostow: Especially in the late ’80s, you could just stick in X and Y actor and you had a hit no matter what you had for a script. And there’s a lot of actors that played that game and made a lot of money, but I think they’ve burned out the audience. You go to a movie to be surprised. A lot of “marquee stars” today, the audience knows exactly what they’re gonna get before they go.

De Souza: So they wait for the video.

Mostow: Exactly. Look at the movies that are doing the $22-million opening weekends and then look at the movies with the big stars that are opening at like $12 [million] to $16 million. That you don’t need those big stars anymore is, I think, tremendously exciting.

Bay: Yeah, it is.

Mostow: I love most of those actors and I love to work with ’em, but for the health of the movie business and for the health especially of the action genre it’s great that the audience is opening up to finding new people. Now the only problem is . . .

McTiernan: Where are the stars?

Mostow: Yes. Where’s the young Pacino and the young De Niro? I mean, I can name on about three fingers the number of [young] actors who electrify me. Ed Norton–that’s an incredibly exciting actor who just explodes on the screen. But I don’t see a lot of Ed Nortons out there.

De Souza: What happens now is that anybody who makes any kind of impact at all is immediately thrust center stage. You get one shot and then, “Oh, he’s over.” That’s not fair. For years, Bogart played an underling of the villain that was playing opposite Jimmy Cagney. And after Cagney killed Bogart in eight or nine movies, Bogey finally got a shot at stardom. But they brought him along. Now it’s really brutal.

The Times: Why are the Hong Kong directors so revered?

Gray: They have no rules. They can kill, hurt, maim, slash, slice people. There aren’t any union rules. You have free rein.

Bay: I hung out in Hong Kong with Jackie Chan. He says, “I need a Volkswagen.” They bring in a Volkswagen, and he’d do his own own stunts–six in a row that you know if he misses, he’s dead.

Gray: Also, [John Woo’s 1989 film] “The Killer” had, I think, over a 100-day shoot. If you have a 100-day shoot in America, you’re gonna spend close to $100 million, if not more, depending on who’s in it. There, 100-day shoots won’t cost more than $20 [million] to $30 million.

Mostow: Action movies are cheap to make if you don’t care about safety. The tricky part in an action movie is doing it safely.

De Souza: Suddenly, this became a production conversation. “These damn OSHA people and these safety rules are hurting our creativity!” But what about the aesthetic rules? I just did a picture with [Hong Kong director] Tsui Hark. Not only do these Hong Kong guys move from period pictures to comedies to contemporary action pictures, but they mix these genres all in one picture, creating a kind of unpredictability within the genre.

[Dessert is served. The conversation resumes with a discussion of who is to blame for the general sameness of action films.]

Mostow: It’s not that the studio is the bad guy.

Gray: Wait a minute. “The studio’s not the bad guy”–fine. Politically, that sounds awesome. But what happens to encouraging different material? The people who pay for it are responsible for encouraging it.

Mostow: But where’s the great stuff that’s being held back from getting made?

Gray: Come on now. You gotta give me a break. You’ve got people who’ve been in this business for a long time who are getting lots of money who have mortgages and alimony and this and that. [he turns to Bay] You have a Ferrari, don’t you?

Bay: Two.

Gray: Two of them! [he laughs] You see what I’m saying?

Bay: I breed my devil spawn in the trunk.

Gray: I’m making jokes, but ultimately, are we being encouraged to do different things by the people who are putting the money behind the projects? Do we all feel encouraged to write and direct pictures that are different and that support not just [our] lifestyles? This applies to actors too.

McTiernan: The actors do distort the subject matter. The stars.

Bay: What do you mean “distort”?

McTiernan: Well, if the break point on [a movie] going forward or not is that one of the five fat fish decides to do it, then you’ll find a lot of people who’ll decide they should write a story or cause a story to be written that happens to be about a 40- to 50-year-old white male who solves problems on his own and is the obsession of everyone else who’s come in contact with him. You get screenplays written to appeal to the egos of these five particular guys who are of course . . . [he pauses, his voice filled with irony] very mature, very sophisticated and generous in their outlook on other actors.

[The table explodes in laughter.]

De Souza: In his book “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” William Goldman talks about “The Great Santini,” which starred Robert Duvall. He talks about how only a guy who’s a character actor could have made that movie work because the protagonist was so flawed. He describes how, if they’d gotten a star, the movie would have been twisted and warped to fit and would not be the same.

McTiernan: Right.

De Souza: Maybe it’s because these action movies really don’t get respect from the people who are paying for them. They only get respect from the fans. When I go to a story meeting, I don’t see people challenging me like they would with a love story, where somebody might say, “How is this different from ‘Sleepless in Seattle’?” . . . I find people saying, “Give me what you’ve given me before.” It’s not even old wine in new bottles. It’s like we’re putting old wine in beer cans.

Bay [laughing]: I’m picking up a little bitterness [he looks across the table at McTiernan and De Souza] from you guys who have been in it longer. It’s not as bitter on this side [of the table].

De Souza: I have to run, actually. Now that I’ve made all my high-minded complaints, I’m rushing off to a meeting about a movie that’s based on a video game. [Everyone laughs.] And then I’m going into a meeting about a movie based on a television show. That I actually worked on. It comes full circle. So that’s my final word on the subject. [He pauses, then turns to Bay.] Put in a good word for me with Satan.