Watching Movies With Michael Bay

By RICK LYMAN The New York Times

The director of "Pearl Harbor" found inspiration to become a filmmaker from movies that create a world, especially musicals like "West Side Story."

SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- Michael Bay was just days away from putting the conclusive touches on his latest movie, the $135 million historical epic "Pearl Harbor," and he had been working pretty much around the clock for a week, his head full of last-minute details about music, sound cues and the color mix.

"So I thought, yeah, what better way to lose myself than to spend a few hours watching 'West Side Story'?" he said. "We're, like, four days away from locking `Pearl Harbor' for good, in terms of final everything, and here I find myself watching this movie and just totally forgetting all about it. I love movies where you can kind of relax and escape."

Mr. Bay, 37, is 6 feet 2 inches tall with light brown hair and movie-star looks. He strode into the new screening room at Jerry Bruckheimer Films, in a network of red-brick buildings near the Santa Monica Freeway, and moved quickly to the center seat in the back row, extending his long legs and staring down at the white flickering glare of the screen. When he moves, whether walking across a room or stretching out in a screening room chair, he does it with a very confident, athletic polish.

"What I remember about this movie, and I haven't seen it for a long time, is that you don't necessarily fall in love with the actors or the love story," Mr. Bay said. "It's more about the style and the dance and the energy and the amazing music. So I thought, O.K., this is a good way to love myself at the end of one of the hardest weeks I've ever had, on `Pearl Harbor.' "

Although he started his career making music videos for Tina Turner, Lionel Richie and others, Mr. Bay has in a few short years become one of the most successful directors of Hollywood action blockbusters, beginning with "Bad Boys" in 1995, a buddy-cop thriller starring Martin Lawrence and Will Smith, and continuing with "The Rock" (1996), starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage, and "Armageddon" (1998), a hugely successful science-fiction thriller, starring Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck, about an asteroid streaking toward Earth.

In each case, Mr. Bay worked with the producer Jerry Bruckheimer, as he is again with "Pearl Harbor," his most ambitious project in both length (2 hours 50 minutes) and scope (stretching from the air war over Europe to the Japanese attack on Hawaii to the responding air raid over Tokyo), and one of the most anticipated films of the summer. It opens next Friday in more than 3,000 theaters and has the lucrative Memorial Day weekend all to itself. No other studio dared go up against this Disney behemoth.

"Do you think people will be surprised that I picked 'West Side Story' to watch?" Mr. Bay asked.

He didn't wait for an answer: "I've got to tell you, I have so many different tastes in movies. But people try to pigeonhole you. They say, `No, he just does action.' Which is why `Pearl Harbor' will show a different side to me. It's more poetic and poignant. Despite the big action scenes, it feels like an epic old love story."

Besides, he said, musicals illustrate what it is that first drew him to filmmaking. And the kind of musicals made in 1961 when Robert Wise and the legendary choreographer Jerome Robbins directed "West Side Story" have more in common with the blockbuster action movies of today than many filmgoers realize.

"When I was at college, at Wesleyan, I took this course in musicals from Jeanine Basinger, a great professor, a real guru on movies," Mr. Bay said. "Frankly, it was a course that I wasn't really excited to take. I wasn't sure at the time if I wanted to be a photographer or a cinematographer, but that course on musicals really opened my eyes to how far you can push the film medium and where you can take it in terms of cutting and craft. It's strange, but when filmmakers are forced to solve the problems you need to solve to shoot dance, they really find themselves using the film medium to its fullest."

Genesis of a Passion

Great movies the ones that interest him and that he says he tries to make use the medium to create a world on the screen, he said, an imaginary but convincing place conceived by the filmmaker.

"I love it, the idea of crafting and creating these worlds," Mr. Bay said. "In a way, I think it goes back to my childhood a little bit. When I was 12 or 13, I used to make these very elaborate train sets in my bedroom. I just loved going into my imagination and making stories about the little fake town and creating my own little disasters. It was very elaborate; detailed mountains, mom-and-pop stores, houses, trees, golf courses. The idea was to make it as realistic as I could get it. I remember one time my parents came into my room to have a serious talk, you know. I was spending too much time locked away with my train sets, and they wanted me to get outside more. I actually made my first movie about one of my train sets. I was doing some glue fires and the buildings caught on fire, and that caught the drapes on fire. I put most of it out, but it kind of wrecked my room. I was grounded for three weeks.

"And then, a few years later, I got a job with Lucasfilm where I was filing artwork in their library. I was filing away the artwork for the `Star Wars' movies, you know, and I remember one day coming across the production designer's blueprints for Yoda's house. That was when I really started to get interested in film, because I could see how they were creating this whole world. It was just like my train sets. Part of filmmaking is that you have to become a magician. You have to create a world, and nowhere is that more important, more essential, than with musicals. That's what `West Side Story' does. Just look at how Robert Wise creates his world."

Selling a Vision of Reality

The film's lush overture fills the small screening room. On the screen an abstract series of lines gradually expands and thickens and transforms itself into the Lower Manhattan skyline. The color keeps shifting from magenta to yellow to blue, all explosively vivid.

"Can you imagine sitting in a theater back then and just watching this?" he said. "How long does this overture go on? It must have been something, sitting there watching it with those first audiences. Can you imagine audiences doing that now? I remember, even when I saw it, I thought, `This is weird.' "

With a flourish, the overture ends and the camera pulls back to reveal, across the bottom of the screen, the film's title. And gradually, the brightly colored abstract rendering of Lower Manhattan resolves itself into a real, overhead shot of the city. The camera glides like a hawk over New York, where a street-gang version of Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet" plays out with a beautiful Leonard Bernstein score, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a script by Ernest Lehman. The movie includes several ballads and love songs that have become classics, like "Tonight," "I Feel Pretty" and "Somewhere," and such comic gems as "America" and "Gee, Officer Krupke."

"I haven't seen this film in a long time, not since college," Mr. Bay said. "So what was that, maybe 16 or 17 years ago? At that point, I had been seeing a lot of musicals for Professor Basinger's course, about five of them a week, and what really struck me about this movie was how it started with this very stylized introduction and then went into the real world with real shots of New York. This first sequence, the first 15 minutes, was really amazing to me. Watch how they do this, how they take this real world and introduce dance to it and make you buy it. You know, there's this moment, really early on, where they're walking down the street and they start doing these pirouettes and you're thinking, `This is really weird.' But you buy it. They make you buy it. That's always the big thing when you are trying to put an audience into the world you are creating. You've got to make them buy it."

Stylized Street Gangs

The camera slides over the rooftops of Manhattan, the familiar images of the Midtown towers and the United Nations gradually blending with more anonymous, densely packed neighborhoods. In contrast to the lush overture, all that is heard now is a distant high-pitched tone, like a cross between a schoolyard whistle and the call of a water bird. "Here we go," Mr. Bay said. "I love this." With a flourish, the camera careens down into an urban playground where a group of young men lean against a chain-link fence. There is something immediately odd about them. While everyone else in the concrete yard is involved in a chaotic welter of ball-playing and activity, these youths are poised in perfect configuration, and they are snapping their fingers in time to the music, as if they are on their own wavelength.

When the young men members of the Jets street gang move through the playground, they do it with careful choreography, a kind of swaggering dance that ties them together and separates them from everyone else.

"You see the levels of stylization you have going here?" Mr. Bay said. "First, you had those abstract lines and the bright colors and the overture. And then this changed to the real world. And then, after that, you meet these guys and they're kind of in between. They exist in the real world. The real world is all around them. But at the same time they're on a different level, in their own musical dancer's world. O.K., fine. You go along with it. It's interesting. But wait. Watch. Here's where it starts to get weird."

Subconscious Inspiration

The Jets are going down the sidewalk, moving to the music, and then one of them, then another, and finally all of them break out of their ranks and do graceful pirouettes, extending their arms, spinning and then moving back together in the street gang's swagger.

"It's very bold," Mr. Bay said. "But this is where I think you really start buying it. This is where you really understand and accept the world that's been created for the movie."

Others are introduced, without dialogue: members of a rival Puerto Rican street gang called the Sharks. The dance begins to tell a story. In comical set pieces, the gangs encounter each another, their movements always part realistic, part dance. "They don't say anything, but you're able to follow what's happening through the dance and the staging and you're sort of mesmerized," Mr. Bay said. "It's the whole vibe. The colors, the costumes, the attitude. They're explaining the whole Jets- Sharks turf war to us. Oh, I love that cut."

'It's Very Dynamic'

Three members of the Sharks, dancing forward, swaying from side to side, move toward the camera and seem to run right into it. There is a cut as one of their bodies covers the lens and, just as suddenly, they are moving away from the camera down the street, their backs to the camera. "That's great; it's like the camera moved right through them," Mr. Bay said. "I love dynamic things like that. Look at this, too, how the dancers are really close to us in the foreground while the buildings are looming up in the background. It's very dynamic. Wise was a film editor, you know. You can see it in this movie. See how precise everything is, transition to transition. All these great cuts. Man, I've stolen things from this movie and I haven't even known it."

That's what "West Side Story" is about to him, Mr. Bay said: the energy and dynamism of some of the sequences, especially the gang scenes and the dances, as well as the way the movie creates a universe with its own logic and look.

"They take this real world and they segue you into this fake world, this dance-stylized world, and then they mix the two worlds together," Mr. Bay said. "And later in the movie, just like the Jets have their own world-within-a-world, when Tony and Maria, the two lovers, get together, they have yet another distinct, stylized world that's just for the two of them. It's a world-within-a-world- within-a-world. There are so many levels of stylization, and sometimes they all come together in the same scenes. That's what really excited me about musicals. I know it sounds kind of strange, but you can really let yourself go in musicals."

Even when the opening sequence ends, moving quickly into the film's first song and dialogue scene, the mood continues. Russ Tamblyn, George Chakiris and the other gang members talk in a rhythmic way. It is not singing, but it is definitely syncopated, like somebody's idea of conversational blank verse recited by a group. And the effect only becomes more pronounced when others in the film like Simon Oakland's racist cop and Ned Glass's kindly candy store owner speak normally.

The various levels of reality extend even to the film's sets and locations: a mixture of authentic Manhattan streetscapes and stylized versions of them lighted with the kind of bold colors pioneered by Vincente Minnelli and popular with many musical directors from the late 1940's to the twilight of the musical in the 60's.

"That's a real location, no question about it," Mr. Bay said during one sequence on a basketball court. Later, in an alley, with a bold, red light on the background wall and a chilly blue emanating from windows to the side, he remarked, "That's a set." Real location, studio set. That was the whole point. The film was creating a world where the two kinds of reality could fit side by side, just as the dancing street gangs mingled with the ordinary people walking down the street.

"What I like about musicals is that they break the rules of cinema," Mr. Bay said. "You know what I'm saying? The old rules of editing where, it's said, you must cut from this to this. You can't cut from here to there. You can't place the camera there; you have to place it here. When I do my action movies, I break the rules, too. That's one thing musicals and big action movies have in common. With both of them, you can break the rules. One of the things that can make them exciting is that you are breaking the rules."

Suspending Belief

The use of privileged angles puts the camera where, logically, it cannot be for example, in the middle of what viewers know should be a wall. In musicals, audiences are willing to accept the use of some privileged angles. Viewers understand that the world being presented is not meant to mirror the real world. The same license sometimes works for action movies, Mr. Bay said.

"Like there is this shot in `Pearl Harbor' where the camera follows this bomb all the way from the Japanese plane, falling through the air over the battleship until it crashed through the deck and explodes below," he said.

It is impossible. No camera could do this. But the audience will accept it. In the service of the action, he said, the audience will allow a certain suspension of the ordinary rules of filmmaking, just as it will with musicals. In the case of his plummeting-bomb view, Mr. Bay said, it is done to achieve a heightened reality rather than a musical fantasy world. But remember, he said, hyper-reality is a kind of stylization, too.

No matter how realistic it is, the miniature world of the train set is not real, and part of the pleasure comes from knowing this and enjoying the craftsmanship that made it so convincing.

In the rooftop dance in which the Shark men face off against the Shark women to sing "America," Mr. Bay noted the twilight urban setting, the surrounding water towers and the backdrop of shaded windows. "I really hadn't realized there are so many music videos that were basically stolen from this movie," he said. "It was so influential. I mean, how many commercials and Janet Jackson videos have copied this one scene alone?"

"West Side Story" won 10 Oscars, including best picture, best directors, best cinematography (Daniel L. Fapp) and both supporting acting awards (for Mr. Chakiris's performance as the leader of the Sharks and Rita Moreno's as his girlfriend). It continued a cycle of big-budget musicals that frequently dominated the Academy Awards from Minnelli's "American in Paris" in 1951 through such later films as "My Fair Lady" and "The Sound of Music" in 1965. In a way, Mr. Bay said, the big musicals of that era had an audience appeal similar to that of today's big action movies escapism with high production values.

The Romance Withers

The doomed lovers in "West Side Story" are the good-natured Tony (Richard Beymer), a former member of the Jets, and Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of the leader of the Sharks, who try to overcome the gang rivalry to forge a romance. As in Shakespeare, Tony is unwittingly involved in a killing, and the romance withers into tragedy. In this version, though, there is the added, very American angle of racism and ethnicity: Maria and the Sharks are Puerto Rican; Tony and the Jets are Irish and Italian. The Verona for which they fight is a grubby grid of Upper West Side slums.

As Mr. Bay watches "West Side Story" and measures it against his memory, most of his comments fall into four categories. He is struck by Mr. Wise's dynamic cuts, by the vivid use of color, by the differences in texture between the scenes shot on location and those shot in the studio, and by how much, true to his recollection, he finds the central love story and the lead actors uninteresting.

Some of the cuts, like those involving the prowling gangs, clearly excite Mr. Bay. "Oh, man, that's a great cut, so precise,' he said at one point. "Another great cut, look at this."

What, he is asked, makes a cut great?

"It's just something that, pow!, adds energy or gives you a surge," Mr. Bay said, and is silent for several minutes.

"It's really hard," he finally said. "It's very hard to describe what makes a good cut. I know it when I see it. It's an internal thing."

Color Saturation

Like most musicals of the period, "West Side Story" also frequently alerts audiences that it is taking place in a artificial world by using bold and unnatural colors. In many sequences the room walls or building exteriors are lighted with bright red or yellow, and there are strange mixes of colors, like icy blues next to cozy ambers. Sometimes the gangs' colors (blue for Jets, red for Sharks) are used as a symbolic backdrop.

"I don't like too many colors in a shot," Mr. Bay said. "I like blues. Remember that last shot, the one with the door in it?" He was referring to a scene in Maria's bedroom. Its door is made up of a dozen small, colored glass panes, a checkerboard of red, blue, yellow and green panels. "Too many colors. I would never shoot a scene in that room. Never. I have an aversion to that door. I don't know why. It's just my eye. Fewer colors are just more pleasing to me. Now look at this shot of the alley. This is nice. Not too many colors, and you've got this warm orange next to the cold green. Yeah, this is better."

At the end of the film, when the screen goes dark and the lights come up, Mr. Bay said that his memories of the film were fairly accurate. Again, he found the dance sequences and the scenes of the gangs energizing. And, again, he found the love story uninvolving and the lead performances bland. He was especially put off by Mr. Beymer's Tony, who seems too much the choirboy to be a former gang member and neighborhood legend.

"No way this guy is the co-founder of the Jets," Mr. Bay said. "When he appears, I find myself starting to zone out. He doesn't look like a tough guy. He's a little too femme for that, you know? I don't buy him in this role. I must tell you, you just can't fake it with acting. I think guys in the audience can sense when you're not a guy's guy. That's why, you know, I was pitched some actors for `Pearl Harbor,' and good actors, too, who are great in other kinds of roles, and I'd have to say to the agents, `Sorry, I don't really think he's a guy's guy.' "

Evolving With Popcorn

Overall, though, he felt that "West Side Story" had once again provided him with the escapism that he wanted to distract him from the myriad details of finishing his own movie.

He stood up, collected his empty water bottle and a stack of papers. His jacket was draped over the back of an adjacent chair, he retrieved it and slid it onto his long arms.

"You really think people will find it weird that I picked a musical to watch?" Mr. Bay asked. "I guess it sounds kind of funny. But you know, the thing about filmmaking is that you grow. You grow and you change and your tastes change. Each movie I've made, I did for a specific reason, and each of the last three of them, before `Pearl Harbor,' were popcorn movies. `Bad Boys' basically had no script and it was about the charisma of the two stars. `The Rock' had a kind of outlandish story, but it had very classy actors in it and it was exciting and energetic. `Armageddon' is like a total fantasy for a 15- year-old. It's funny when the critics tried to review `Armageddon.' I mean, relax, it's a popcorn movie. It's not supposed to be taken seriously. It's a fantasy world."

That is true of "Pearl Harbor," too. It presents a fantasy world Michael Bay's vision of what it would have been like to be there, with privileged angles and digitally enhanced sound. But it is different, too, he said, because its subject is more serious and its ambitions are higher. It is a gourmet popcorn movie.

"What I love most about movies is creating my own world," Mr. Bay said. "That's what I tried to do with `The Rock' and with `Armageddon.' With `Pearl Harbor,' it's a more realistic world, but it is still creating my own world. The same as they did with `West Side Story.' We had to do some unreal things. We had to mix real footage with digital footage. It's a false reality, but its purpose is to make it feel more authentic."

Mr. Bay remembered his mother's visit to the "Pearl Harbor" set in Mexico, the same huge water tank where James Cameron filmed much of "Titanic." On the set, Mr. Bay and his team had constructed portions of Battleship Row, the central cluster of military vessels that were hit by Japanese bombers on Dec. 7, 1941.

"The crew had put up this director's chair for her and put a sign on it that said `Mom,' " Mr. Bay said. "And she came and sat down and looked around, and it was all really just massive. And she said, `Oh, it kind of looks like your train set, only bigger.' "

Highlights of Michael Bay's directing career and information on "West Side Story."

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What They Watched

"WEST SIDE STORY." Directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. Produced by Robert Wise. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Cinematography by Daniel L. Fapp. With Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno and George Chakiris. MGM Video, 1961. 155 minutes. $13.99.