July 13, 1998

 

BRENTWOOD, Calif. – Armageddon director Michael Bay’s career started with a train wreck.

He was just 13 when he copped his mom’s Super 8, torched his train set with firecrackers and filmed the burning disaster.

“A little glue, the models burning, breathing in all those plastic fumes,” says a grinning Bay, sitting in his slate-and-glass bachelor pad.

But the flames got out of control, the fire department was called, and little Mikey was in big trouble.

Ironically, Bay, 34, is now in big favor in Hollywood for doing the same thing, just on a larger scale and usually without need of fire trucks.

The ambitious, $140 million Armageddon is Bay’s third film. His first two were box-office hits, bringing in more than $175 million combined: Bad Boys in ’94 (Will Smith, Martin Lawrence), followed by The Rock in ’96 (Sean Connery, Nicolas Cage). Both were under the helm of producers Jerry Bruckheimer and the late Don Simpson, who first hired Bay to shoot the Top Gun music video.

Bay shot to top action director status from the quick-cut world of music videos and award-winning commercials (Coca-Cola, Nike, Budweiser, Got Milk?).

Some directors find the phrase “target audience” offensive. Not Bay. “If you’re given $135 million to make a film, you better know who your target audience is,” Bay warns. He happily sits in test screenings, watching “to see if they laugh, if they get bored or confused, where they applaud” and cuts accordingly.

Armageddon producer Bruckheimer, who was instrumental in the careers of commercial directors Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide), Simon West (Con Air) and Adrian Lyne (Flashdance), points to Bay’s commercials as a key to his current success.

“Commercial guys have to move quick, they have clients on their back, the ad agency telling them what to do, yet they’re involved in the profitability of the commercial and don’t want their budgets to go over,” Bruckheimer explains, adding, “Michael has both a business acumen and an artistic acumen.”

Armageddon, then, is Bay’s baby on both levels. The tale was told to him in three sentences by writer Jonathan Hensleigh. They worked it out in three weeks and made their pitch to Walt Disney chairman Joe Roth, who, Bay says, unofficially green-lit it immediately.

Bay’s involvement extended to co-producing, casting, directing, even shooting camera some days. Much of the film’s humor is improvised, which Bay encourages. He came up with the funniest line: “We don’t wanna pay taxes. Ever.” He even has a walk-on as a NASA engineer.

“The crew talked me into it,” Bay says, with an aw-shucks shrug. “That was shot the last night, our Florida wrap party.”

Critics dismiss Bay’s quick-cuts as sensory overload. But his kinetic cinematic style is also praised as pure lightning. The speed extends to the set, where he often shoots 40 setups a day, four times the norm. “I get bored on the set. I just like to shoot.”

He shoots so much so quickly in part to please the studio. “I know I’m gonna go out there and make them money. When I make them money, I’m going to get power and I’m going to get my way in terms of doing things where I can branch out.”

While Bay’s reputation for not going overbudget appeals to studios, his lanky good looks appeal to young fans. “It’s so wild,” Bay says. “At a test screening, there were like 120 kids screaming my name, and everyone was laughing, saying, ‘Hey, you’re like a rock star!’ I get mobbed by kids, I think, because I’m young.”

When he was young, Bay wanted to be a baseball player, a magician or a vet. He was moved by movies such as The Exorcist, Star Wars, The Shining and Alien, but Raiders of the Lost Ark rocked his world.

At 15, he worked at Lucasfilm (a filing job arranged by a well-connected neighbor) and began winning photography awards at Crossroads High in Santa Monica. He attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and loved film class but hated the “arty, elitist film-school attitudes.”

The self-professed frat boy’s senior thesis, a short film called “Benjamin’s Birthday”, won the school’s prestigious Frank Capra Award. “That’s when I discovered that I really liked making an audience laugh,” Bay says. “I saw 350 people staring at the screen, laughing. I thought that was pretty cool.”

He returned to L.A and attended Pasadena Art Center College of Design. One of his student projects, a 90-second Coke commercial, so impressed Capitol Records that they hired him to direct a Donny Osmond video. He went on to churn out music videos for Propaganda Film.

When Bay set his sights on advertising, he won a Clio and a nomination from the Directors Guild for best commercial director of 1994. “We hipped up commercials and made them for our generation,” he says.

In faded jeans and hiking boots, Bay conducts a quick tour of his home. Out back, a pool inhabited by a cleaning robot and the deck, which is home to a bleached cow skull.

Inside the main house, photo and architecture tomes lie on wooden tables. On the walls are antique film posters and framed photos of Mason, his 200-pound mastiff.

Bay recently treated himself to a second home in Montecito, Calif. “I thought, ‘Do I really have to start saving for retirement right now?’ Nah.”

Bay’s upstairs office, next to his glass-walled bedroom, is slickly high tech (video editing equipment and TV mounted in the wall). But on his desk are souvenirs – the bomb from The Rock, a plastic NASA pass from Armageddon – revealing he’s still the boy who likes to blow up trains.

“I love doing big movies,” Bay confesses. “It’s awesome! You have all these toys. . . . The thing I like about this movie is, like they always say, directors have the biggest train sets! Don’t tell anyone, but I’d do this for free.”

 

Contributing: Claudia Puig By Elizabeth Snead, USA TODAY