One of the highlights of directing Transformers is that I get to work with some of our nation’s finest.
Photos: Alex J. Berliner / ABImages
On May 23, Michael Bay will have his hands and feet encased in cement outside the iconic TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, alongside classic stars from Marilyn Monroe to Meryl Streep. While Bay is thrilled, he does have one hesitation. “I just remember as a kid, going to see the handprints and I always thought the people who got this honor were so much older,” he says with a laugh.”
For the record, Bay is a youthful 52, but it’s a credit to his career that his accomplishments over the past 20 years have put him in the ranks of his mentors Steven Spielberg and super producer Jerry Bruckheimer, both of whose imprints are also in the Chinese forecourt. And it’s full circle for Bay, a native Angeleno who discovered he wanted to be a director at that very theater.
At age 15, Bay was working at Lucasfilm, filing storyboards for “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” He openly admits he thought the movie would be terrible. “What did I know, I was looking at cartoon storyboards,” Bay recalls. “The first time I met Steven Spielberg, I basically told him I thought the movie was going to be bad.”
But when his parents took him to see the final product at the Chinese, a filmmaker was born. “I saw it and saw how wrong I was. And right then and there, I knew I wanted to make movies,” he says. “That theater is literally Ground Zero, it’s where I decided to become a director.”
Not just a director, but a global superstar. Steve Jablonsky, who has composed the scores to many Bay films including all the “Transformer” movies, notes, “Bayhem is a worldwide → phenomenon, and I am insanely proud to be a part of it.” While the public perception of Bay is of a confident, unapologetically excited filmmaker, Jablonsky says that’s not far from the truth. “I imagine people see him as larger than life, which he is. When Michael Bay walks into a room, you know it. But he truly loves what he does. He knows exactly what his fans want.” In fact, Jablonsky credits his “sheer boldness” for his success. “He is going to do it his way no matter what anyone says and I have great respect for that mindset.”
Bay’s rise to the top appears as fast-paced and exciting as, well, a Michael Bay movie. After making a name for himself with commercials and music videos, he was plucked by Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson to make his feature debut with 1995’s “Bad Boys.” Bruckheimer says it was an easy call. “Michael is a true genius as a filmmaker. You could see it very early on, you could see he has a style and a wit, even when it was a 60-second commercial. Unfortunately, we were right and he’s gone on to have an amazing career,” he quips.
“Bad Boys” was the first in a line of blockbusters that include “Armageddon,” “The Rock,” and five “Transformers” movies — films that at last count totaled more than $7.8 billion worldwide. That figure is sure to skyrocket even higher with the June 21 release of “Transformers: The Last Knight.” Then there’s his work as a producer with Platinum Dunes, his company with Brad Fuller and Andrew Form, which has produced a series of hits on smaller budgets and television shows such as “The Last Ship” and the upcoming “Jack Ryan” series for Amazon.
And yet, when first asked about being honored at the hands and feet ceremony, Bay admits to a slight feeling of imposter syndrome. “I was like, ‘No, no. They picked the wrong guy!’” he says with a laugh. He eventually changed his mind. “I remembered going there as a child and seeing these hand impressions and putting my hands in them — this was such an incredible honor.”
Talk to those who know Bay best, and no one is surprised by his meteoric rise to the top. Film historian Jeanine Basinger met Bay when he was 18 years old and a freshman at Wesleyan University, where she was his advisor. Bay came to her with interest in being a film major and showed her some of his photography work. “I was actually quite taken aback that it was the work of a high school kid because it was dynamic, had great compositions and angles, showed a real control and mastery, but the work had life and energy in it,” she recalls.
Bay and Jerry Bruckheimer on the set of “Armageddon,” one of their many profitable collaborations.
Fuller has known Bay since childhood, though the two really began their partnership in college. Fuller considers himself lucky to have paired up with Bay then, though they were in a class that included the likes of Joss Whedon. “All I can tell you is I sat next to the right guy in film class,” he says. “I knew that guy was going to be successful; he just saw things in a way that other people didn’t.”
If there was anyone who wasn’t confident of Bay’s inevitable success, it was Bay himself. “I thought I wasn’t going to make it as a filmmaker,” he says. “When my senior thesis came around I took my script to the head of production and he just kind of scratched his head and said something like this: ‘No, you’re never going to make it in this business, so I’m not going to let you do a senior thesis.’ And I thought, ‘OK, he knows more than me. I’m not going to do this, I’m not good enough.’”
Fortunately, a few feet down the hall, he saw Basinger and told her what occurred. “She stands up, pulls her glasses off, and says, ‘You march back in there right now and you tell him you’re going to make your f—ing movie!’”
He did, and the resulting film, “My Brother Benjamin,” won the university’s Frank Capra prize for best film. Bay then went on to study at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design for graduate school, where he continued collaborating with Fuller. “I’ve been around his filmmaking my entire life,” Fuller notes. “His talent is undeniable, but he can back it up with passion and hard work. And his style has been copied so much it’s prevalent now, and I don’t think he gets enough credit for the impact he’s had.”
Bay’s signature style is generally associated with kinetic action scenes with rapid editing, and it was there in his debut feature, but not for the reasons one might think. “I got maligned for being such a fast cutter on ‘Bad Boys,’” he says.
“Everyone told me, you can’t cut that fast! But the reason it was a fast cut was because we had so little money to make the movie, there wasn’t enough production value so it was a way to get more energy to the action scenes.”
Of course, such editing is not only common in today’s action films, but expected. Most of this summer’s blockbusters owe more than a bit of their DNA to Bay. So now that his early style has become the norm, how would he describe a Michael Bay movie? “I’m trying to give the viewer an experience and show them a world in a different way visually,” he says. “I think that’s been my strength, using visuals to create an energy and excitement and do it in a way you really haven’t seen before.” But lately, he’s been drawn to true stories on smaller budgets: see last year’s “13 Hours” and “Pain and Gain.”
Though it starred Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson, “Pain and Gain” was made for around $26 million, which probably equals the craft services budget on the “Transformers” movies. “I was upfront and said I have no idea what kind of movie this is,” he admits. “It’s this bizarre, funny character study of failed people. But I’ve got a great cast and we’ll do it fast like guerrilla filmmaking.” It also happens to be Basinger’s favorite Bay film. “If Preston Sturges were alive today, he would be making ‘Pain and Gain,’” she raves.
Bay also loved making “13 Hours,” about six soldiers fighting to protect an American compound in Benghazi. “It’s great to use different muscles. A massive movie is a fun world to work in, but it’s also fun to go back and forth,” he says. He recalls filming the last shot in the movie, where John Krasinski’s character is saying goodbye to his best friend in a body bag as the sun sets. “I looked around and there were six or seven people, one guy was holding a tiny handheld light, three guys are operating cameras, including me. It was a beautiful moment about filmmaking with a small group doing a really touching scene in a rather untouching environment. It was a beautiful team effort, everyone was so into it, and I had to take a moment to just appreciate it.”
There was a considerably larger crew on “Transformers: The Last Knight,” the fifth film in the blockbuster franchise, all of which have been helmed by Bay. Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura had originally met with Bay when the former was president of production at Warner Bros. and hoped to land the director for “I Am Legend.” Notes di Bonaventura, “Over the years we kept a conversation going and then ‘Transformers’ came together and we’ve had a hell of a ride.”
That ride includes tinkering with the film up to the last minute, something Bay says has always been a part of his work ethic. “When I did my first movie, we were literally doing stuff the day before we pushed the button,” he reveals. “You can always change them, you can always find new angles. A movie is so malleable, there’s always different ways to connect them.”
So even though “The Last Knight” hits theater screens in less than six weeks, Bay has spent the last few days shooting insert shots and working nonstop in the editing room. Asked if this is stressful for others, di Bonaventura laughs: “It’s definitely not relaxing!” He adds, “Look, these movies are hard, they’re a physical test. But there’s also a narcotic in driving hard to accomplish more. Working on a Bay movie is the ultimate example. You’re working so hard and so fast and there’s an incredibly satisfaction to that.”
Actress Gabrielle Union, who worked with Bay in “Bad Boys II,” has also compared the experience to narcotics. “You know when people talk about the very first time they did drugs? Being in a Michael Bay movie was like my drug,” she said in a 2011 interview. “It’s like I’m chasing the dragon, I’ve been chasing that experience ever since.”
And di Bonaventura says Bay has clearly proven the method to his madness time and again. Asked what made him the right filmmaker to launch a movie around the Hasbro toys, previously only seen on screen in animated form, producer Ian Bryce says, “Mike has a very singular vision about how to make these movies. We shoot in a live-action way and he loves practical locations, and then you put the robots into those practical environments so everything’s as grounded as it can be. When there’s no robots there, it takes a real imagination to know how to move the camera.”
Agrees di Bonaventura. “He’s a combination of a very sophisticated filmmaker, a kid at heart, and really imbues his movies with humor,” he says. “If you look at his movies, other than the ones that are very serious by nature, they’re all funny and yet they have different writers and stars. And that humor, particularly in this franchise, is a great way to give personality to these 32-foot metal men.”
Bay’s humor, evident when you speak to him, is repeatedly cited by his friends and peers. Praises Bruckheimer: “It’s rare for a director to have a strong style and also a wonderful sense of humor. Often, the most stylish directors can be on the darker side, but Michael has a light and funny touch.”
Concurs Krasinski, “That guy loves to laugh. Man, he is a great audience for a bit … and dishes out a few of his own. [He] ‘Punk’d’ me to the level of Ashton Kutcher” while on the set of the very serious “13 Hours.”
Krasinski, best known for his nine seasons as lovable Jim Halpert on “The Office,” represents another aspect of Bay’s movies that stand out: casting against type and locating new talent. “I certainly wasn’t the obvious choice for the role,” Krasinski says of the Navy SEAL he portrayed. But having come from a big military family, the actor put himself on tape and Bay was sold. “Michael has always been incredibly kind about that tape. He credits me for taking the chance, even though I knew the odds were slim. Well, I will forever credit him for taking the chance on me.”
Krasinski is continuing their collaboration by headlining the “Jack Ryan” series. Tell the director he’s making an action hero of Krasinski and he demurs, “Well, he’s making an action hero of himself.”
But Bay was also the director who first put Nicolas Cage in a hit action film (“The Rock”), made a movie star out of Will Smith (“Bad Boys”), and gave big breaks to the likes of Owen Wilson and Ben Affleck (both cast in “Armageddon” after Bay saw “Bottle Rocket” and “Good Will Hunting,” respectively). Fuller adds that at Platinum Dunes, they were the first to give a leading role to Rooney Mara (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”) and cast Chloe Moretz (“The Amityville Horror.”)
Michael Bay cast John Krasinski in the lead role of a Navy Seal in the film based on the book by Mitchell Zuckoff.
Bay’s frequent casting director Denise Chamian, who first worked with Bay on “The Island,” says the director has excellent taste. “Michael is never afraid to give new talent a chance,” she notes. “He has the ability to spot someone’s star quality. He likes actors and the casting process, which makes our casting sessions fun and collaborative.”
Bay also enjoys giving breaks to people behind the camera. Fuller points out, “Our first 10 films were mostly first-time directors or directors who came back to work with us again. I think he felt very grateful that Don and Jerry gave him his chance, and he wanted to give directors opportunities as well.”
Jablonsky credits Bay for giving him a huge break on “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” remake. “It was my first big film,” he reveals. “Naturally, I was absolutely terrified but somehow I got through it. I vividly remember after the final playback Bay saying to me, ‘Man, you did a great job and we hardly paid you anything!’ He said it with that big, charming Michael Bay smile.”
“You’ve got to give people shots,” Bay says simply. “Even when I’m casting my crew, I will mix old and new because it brings another energy and I can give people a chance.”
And while Bay’s motto may be about fun both on and off-screen, it doesn’t mean he doesn’t take the work seriously. In the case of “13 Hours,” Krasinksi says, “Getting this story right was everyone’s highest priority. And that all started with Michael. He understood what it meant to be telling this story and what it would mean to the families and military communities involved.”
That extends to lighter fare, as well, Philip M. Strub has served as the entertainment liaison at the Department of Defense since 1989, and first worked with Bay on “Armageddon.” Strub says from the beginning, Bay has been respectful of the military and often even casts military people. Even in the “Transformers” films, “he has impeccable attention to detail,” says Strub. “He’ll ask for help with lines on how the most accurate way to say something is. He doesn’t interfere or complain; he takes advice.”
Strub says Bay has a lot of fans in the military, and even paid a visit to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. “He went up exclusively to greet those service members and their families and hand out gifts to their kids that Hasbro had donated,” Strub says. “It wasn’t for publicity; he wasn’t allowed to take photos. And let me tell you, we didn’t have to tell people there who he was, they were big fans. The amazing thing is, for months afterwards, he would thank me for his going to Walter Reed.”
Indeed, those who know him paint a picture of a generous auteur, one who adores his dogs and is loyal to a fault. “Says Fuller. “If you look at our office, people have stayed here 10 to 15 years. He’s a loyal guy.”
And while he might be dismissed by critics as a popcorn filmmaker, Basinger believes time will tell a different story.
“Michael Bay measures respect by the response of the audience, not the critics, not the naysayers, not the bloggers,” she says. “If you’re in the commercial filmmaking world, you and your work are going to be a target. But Michael has consistently, over a long period of time, proved himself as a filmmaker who can get it done and whose films appeal so much they make huge amounts of money.”
Most importantly, he still has a passion for the work. “It’s a great industry, but it can be very cynical,” he admits. “So people need to remember it’s a really, really, really fun job. And I love, love, love doing it.”
Photos: Alex J. Berliner / ABImages