Cloning takes a haunting turn in “The Island,” the latest action fare from director Michael Bay, who’s had a few nightmares of his own.

By John Horn / Times Staff Writer / July 17, 2005
Michael Bay loves to play softball and went 4-for-4 on a recent weeknight. As the game progressed, though, Bay felt a sharp tightness across his chest. Was the 40-year-old director having a heart attack? Had he pulled a muscle? Or was he simply panicking over “The Island”?

Having made some of Hollywood’s biggest summer blockbusters, including “Armageddon” and “The Rock,” Bay is accustomed to last-minute jitters. Yet with “The Island,” he had cause for a real anxiety attack.

Even when compared to “Pearl Harbor,” whose budget battles led Bay to quit the movie on several occasions, production of “The Island” had been rushed and demanding; on one day, Bay had no completed sets on which to film, and at another point the movie’s construction crew was fired after an accounting scandal.

For the first time, Bay wasn’t working with über action producer Jerry Bruckheimer, his partner on all of the director’s previous films, and not that long ago Bay had fired his Creative Artists Agency talent agents, which helped guide his career from a hot music video (Aerosmith, Tina Turner) and commercial director (the Aaron Burr “Got Milk” spot) into a popcorn movie superstar.

And not surprisingly, there were complications on “The Island,” some typical and others unexpected. Visual effects were not completed until the last weeks, meaning that early commercials and trailers couldn’t include several action scenes. Months after “The Island” filming was completed, Bay had to stage one more quick scene for the movie’s final reel. By that time costar Ewan McGregor was in a London musical and couldn’t come to Los Angeles (Bay essentially directed the scene from Los Angeles, using a British crew to film the actor).

And still the difficulties continued to escalate. Up against a summer of remakes, sequels and television show retreads, “The Island,” opening Friday, has neither big-name stars nor for that matter an actual island. Theoretically that could play to its advantage — the film is being sold to moviegoers as an original story in a summer of imitation. But the director worried the DreamWorks marketing campaign wasn’t generating interest, and he complained that “The Island’s” poster — the winning candidate was chosen from more than 650 mock-ups — made costar Scarlett Johansson look like “a porn star.”

All of a sudden, Bay’s $124-million movie was feeling like anything but a sure bet.

“These last three weeks have been a pressure cooker,” Bay says. “Every movie is a war. Studios try to grind you down to the point of your having a nervous breakdown. I’m proud of the movie. But there’s nothing I can do. I can do all the screaming and yelling. But they have to do their job” and market the movie, Bay says.

“The sad thing is, I think we have a really good movie here. But pretty soon, it’s going to be too late. There is a point where I have done my job, and they have to do theirs. So I am causing a … storm.”

Bay has in the past said that he was tiring of big-budget endeavors, and longed to make a smaller, more containable — even personal — movie.

“The Island” was hardly that film.

Studio’s scramble

In early 2004, DreamWorks was amid a tough transition.

Live-action co-heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald were shifting into a producing deal at the studio, production chief Michael De Luca was headed out the door on his way to Sony Pictures, and the studio’s animation unit was plotting its initial public offering.

Amid all of those machinations, longtime production executive Adam Goodman was being promoted into the top moviemaking job, where he faced one immediate matter: DreamWorks had a thin production slate and needed to step up its output.

Then Caspian Tredwell-Owen’s “The Island” screenplay came on the market. Its futuristic idea couldn’t have been more timely, as it focused on human cloning. With DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg in Japan, a flurry of intercontinental telephone calls wasarranged to discuss purchasing the script.

Goodman thought Spielberg should consider directing it, but the “War of the Worlds” director suggested Bay instead. In fact, Bay just a few weeks earlier had visited DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg to talk about working at the studio, eager to show he was not joined at the hip with either Bruckheimer or Disney (home to three of his five movies).

Bay’s new William Morris agents read the script, then dispatched it to their client with their recommendations. Bay didn’t start reading the script until nearly midnight, but he was immediately struck by one scene in particular.

Early in the story, a pregnant inhabitant of a futuristic colony goes into labor and is dispatched to a delivery room, with the imminent promise of motherhood and a lovely recovery on the film’s titular island. The woman gives birth to a healthy baby, but her post-delivery care makes even the worst HMO look exceptional in contrast. Instead of the woman recuperating on some sun-drenched atoll while a baby nurse attends to her newborn, the infant is snatched away. Things then get even worse. “That’s what hooked me in,” Bay says.

The director said yes the next morning. In Goodman’s first week in his new DreamWorks job, he bought “The Island” for $1 million, beating out Paramount Pictures in the bidding.

While Bay may have seemed an unusual pick for a drama about cloning and body parts harvesting, Goodman says he was confident the filmmaker was the right match.

“It needed someone who could bring a real sense of scale to the movie, which we knew Michael could do,” Goodman says. What’s more, Bay could bring some high-octane pyrotechnics to a topic that in duller hands would play like a “Nova” special. “He could make it fun,” Goodman says.

Bay knew Warner Bros. was contemplating a remake of 1976’s “Logan’s Run,” which had similar anti-utopian themes, and Bay wanted his movie not only to come out before “Logan’s Run” but also to be ready for the summer of 2005, which was then a year away. In movie time, that’s hardly any time at all.

The old bait and switch

Bay sits in a darkened Santa Monica screening room, quickly making assessments about color and contrast levels for an “Island” promotional reel to be shown to theater owners in June.

He has a baseball cap pulled down low over his long hair, nearly covering his eyes, and is massaging his temples, suffering from a migraine. “Too bright,” he says to an editor. “Too blue,” he says. He sighs, exhausted. “They need to clone me,” he says.

Cloning figures prominently in Bay’s new movie. After a rewrite by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, the final shape of “The Island” story was formed. The movie begins in a hermetic enclave filled with hundreds of mild-mannered adults, whose daily rituals are monitored by cameras and governed by overseers. The outside world, these people are told, is contaminated, so they must never wander. Thanks to a periodic lottery, a few residents will win a trip to the island, “nature’s last pathogen-free zone,” where they can finally run around and breathe fresh air.

Actually being chosen for the getaway is scarcely all it’s cracked up to be. Unbeknownst to the “winners,” it’s the date your liver might be harvested for an ailing doppelgänger somewhere in the real world. The film’s residents, it turns out, are clones of living people; their bodies merely carry spare parts the way Pep Boys stocks spark plugs. It’s “the holy grail of science,” boasts the geneticist Merrick (Sean Bean), whose Merrick Biotech owns the highly profitable cloning operation.

Johansson plays a young woman named Jordan whose “owner” falls into a coma after an accident. When she is summoned to the nonexistent island, her friend Lincoln (McGregor) helps her escape. With two clones on the loose, Merrick Biotech’s sales pitch — that its clones are not sentient — will be debunked. Jordan and Lincoln must be killed.

While that last plot point added the chase scenes you’d expect in a Bay movie, the director says he was really drawn to the film’s ethical inquiry. “I wanted people to leave the theater saying, ‘If I could own a clone, would I?’ ” Bay says.

Toward that end, in his first meeting with Parkes and MacDonald, who produced “The Island,” Bay didn’t discuss cinematography. He didn’t outline stunts. He wanted to argue plot.

“I was expecting Michael to start talking about shots and cranes and camera rigs,” Parkes says. “But he was focused on the story and its moral questions. That really surprised me.”

Rather than pitch the story nearly a century in the future, the movie’s timeline was set about 15 years ahead, to try to make its issues more relevant. “If it was too futuristic, people would become disassociated,” Bay says.

But before he could start filming, Bay had to corral “The Island’s” budget.

Wasps were on the line

They are part motorcycle, part cruise missile, and Bay calls them Wasps. They are flying cycles used in “The Island” to chase down Jordan and Lincoln, yet they almost didn’t take flight.

As “The Island’s” budget crept above $120 million, Bay and DreamWorks started looking for ways to hold costs down. “Every director wants to make a sci-fi movie,” Bay says. “I’m a director who likes to create a world, and sci-fi allows you to create a world.”

His previous worlds have been tremendously popular. His first film, 1995’s “Bad Boys,” grossed $65.6 million, and every movie since has sold more than $130 million in tickets. His biggest hit was 1998’s “Armageddon,” which grossed $201.6 million, and despite its detractors, “Pearl Harbor” sold $198.5 million in tickets.

Part of “The Island’s” world included the Wasps, which DreamWorks worried were too expensive and too otherworldly. “That was a big bone of contention,” Bay says. “They just thought they would be too futuristic, that it would be unbelievable. But the thing I’ve learned more than anything is I am there to protect the movie at all costs. My job is to be the tough guy,” Bay says. “Sometimes people will make a bad decision for a dollar.”

He won the fight for the Wasps (which DreamWorks now admits is one of the best parts of the movie), yet other battles loomed. To try to shave the budget, Bay tapped some of the companies for whom he has made commercials, including Budweiser and Cadillac, getting money in exchange for numerous product placements. It still wasn’t enough, Bay says.

“I called Jerry for advice,” Bay says. “And he said, ‘You have to keep beating them down. You have to keep beating them down.” DreamWorks decided it needed a financial partner, and Bay went out to try to sell the film to another studio. He brought along storyboards, talked about his design ideas, and showed studio executives how he would stage chase scenes. Warner Bros. decided to split the film’s costs, and Bay was ready to start.

Southern California’s rainstorms created countless obstacles, an actor’s father became ill and production was briefly shut down — at a cost of $500,000 — and the construction budget spiraled out of control.

“This movie was hard all the way,” Bay says as just a few days remain to finish the film. “We were always playing catch-up. We were shooting on an ambitious schedule — 20 days less than ‘Pearl Harbor.’ And we were shooting in the winter, when there is less daylight.”

While some studios have been showing completed summer movies months before their release, DreamWorks could only wait until Bay was done. As for its marketing plan, DreamWorks notes that Bay has approved every spot and poster.

Still, says the studio’s marketing chief, Terry Press, “There is no question it has been a challenge. But it also goes to the schedule these movies are made on.”

Parkes agrees the timing has been an impediment. “We are on a schedule where we haven’t had our most important tool for selling the movie — the movie itself,” the producer says. “I don’t know if it’s an underdog, but it’s a movie with its challenges. In a season of movies with presold [attributes], it’s very daunting.”

As he races to finish “The Island,” Bay already is contemplating his next project. His Platinum Dunes genre film label has been a winner, producing the hit remakes of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “The Amityville Horror.” The label’s next project is a remake of “The Hitcher.”

But what will Bay do? His conference room is filled with Transformer toys, which are the basis for his next planned movie. But then again, Bay says he still might make that small, personal movie.

“You know,” he says somewhat reflectively, “I’ve never had a flop.” Next weekend, he’ll be fighting to keep that streak intact.