He Bites Back

Posted on Jun 28, 2007

The director of Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys II and now Transformers defends his art, writes Jim Schembri.

THE easiest way to start an argument among cinema lovers is to state categorically that Michael Bay is an artist.

Yes, that Michael Bay. The hack. The King of Crud. You know the titles: Bad Boys, Pearl Harbor, Armageddon, Bad Boys II, The Rock. Big, empty-headed, action mush. Cinematic hamburger. McBlockbusters. How is that art?

Maybe it helps to think about it this way: the hallmark of any artist is to author a signature style. In this sense, love them or hate them, everybody knows a Michael Bay film when they see one. He is, if you like, an auteur of sorts.

Of course, run the idea of cinematic artistry past Michael Bay and you’ll get no argument. As the lithe 42-year-old settles into the couch opposite for our interview, he may – with $3 billion in box office earnings under his belt – qualify as a Hollywood heavy hitter, but he doesn’t speak like one. He doesn’t come across as a person with anything to defend, either. He loves conversation, accepts criticism and loves the question.

“I see myself as an artist,” he says with a distinct LA drawl. “Art is something that you create from nothing. I use a lot of very talented people, but it is art if you can get people to applaud or laugh in that theatre, so you’re creating some sort of emotional response. Then you realise, hey, they’re applauding for a truck! Do you know what I’m saying?”

Bay is referring to his new art film, Transformers, a live-action film based on the popular series of toys from the 1980s where various ordinary-looking vehicles turn – or “transform” – into giant warring robots. In the film the robots do battle on Earth. Some are here to protect the humans, others to destroy. There are explosions, fireballs, some fabulously photo-realistic digital effects.

Ever since re-creating the attack on Pearl Harbour with the aid of CGI, Bay has become a wizard at harnessing digital technology for action. With Transformers, he steps to the next level. Curiously, however, one of his favourite moments in the film involves the staging of a 1970s-style car stunt where a Camaro balances on two wheels. No CGI assist there, Bay says proudly.

“Let me tell you about that stunt. That was the most patient I’ve ever been in my entire film career. It took three hours for that guy to get up, and it was all real. No CGI. I broke a record for being the most patient I have ever been because I like real. I’m old-school.”

Despite his box-office success – or, he suspects, because of it – Bay has become the punching bag of choice for critics the world over. Even South Park has taken a swing. Why? Bay suspects it has something to do with “fear of the new”. So he’s a pioneer on the action genre frontier? “If you look at action nowadays, it’s changed more to my style,” he says.

So what does he think of the armies of Bay naysayers?

“First of all, there are too many critics and it all just turns into white noise. Also, I think many of them are out of touch with pop culture. Roger Ebert (of the Chicago Sun-Times) once commented (negatively) on one scene in Bad Boys II and I’m like, ‘Wait a minute. I’ve seen this movie with 10 paying audiences and they were laughing so loud they couldn’t hear the dialogue. Didn’t he see what was going on in the theatre?’ Then I found out he sees movies by himself.”

Transformers certainly is a first-of-a-kind. Whereas most modern films feature sporadic spots of product placement, Transformers is all about product placement. The “star” car is courtesy of General Motors, and toy giant Hasbro is expecting the film to act as a global promotional showreel for its new line of Transformer toys.

Deal-making is all part of the process, says Bay. “Listen, I had a finite budget for this. It was $US145 million ($A171 million). That’s not a lot for this type of movie, and when I (was looking for) that car, I went to GM and they took me through their concept cars and I went, ‘That’s it!’

“I had a good relationship with them (GM). They gave me $3 million worth of cars, which cuts $3 million out of my budget, which means I can put more up on the screen. So I don’t think it’s whoring out the movie. It was a good compromise.”

As for Hasbro, the film’s opening titles declare the company as Bay’s chief production partner.

“Listen, I didn’t care that this is associated with a toy,” he insists. “It has nothing to do with the toys. I wanted to make my own movie that would appeal to the non-Transformer fan as well as Transformer fans.”

Nothing to do with the toy? Michael, please. It’s in the title.

“Listen, I didn’t grow up with the toy, I didn’t grow up with the cartoon, so I’m trying to do my own thing with it.”

Bay has made most of his films for uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer, with whom he is planning his next epic. For Transformers, however, Bay’s new patron is the one producer considered more “uber” than Bruckheimer – Steven Spielberg. Indeed, it was Spielberg’s idea to have Bay direct the film. “You know,” says Bay, “he always says ‘I wanna be your new Jerry Bruckheimer’. Isn’t that funny?”

Yes, it is. Fall-down-on-the-couch funny. He joins the laughter, then adds: “Spielberg has been very open about that (mentoring role). He said to me, ‘Michael, I think you’ve got one of the finest eyes in Hollywood.’ And taking that from one of my idols, that’s pretty awesome.”

It takes a few solid minutes of prodding, but Bay eventually concedes that Transformers is a return to safer cinematic territory after the box-office flop of his previous film, The Island.

“You’re probably right. OK. OK. I’ll grant you that. This film is still a big risk, but I’m more comfortable in this realm.”

The circumstances this time around were also far less troublesome. The Island was not only plagued with production problems, but with an ill-conceived marketing strategy that Bay hated. His big lesson from the experience?

“Never trust a studio with marketing your movie. I am all over this movie. Like, they can’t do a f—ing thing without me looking at every detail!”

One cannot interview Michael Bay and not seize the opportunity to raise a central criticism of his kinetic style. As fun and enthralling as Transformers is, its massive action sequences share the same irritating qualities as those in his other films. The camera is too close, the cutting is too fast, there is too much shaking, not enough sense of composition. Everything looks like a jagged blur. It’s as though Bay is trying to cram too much into the frame.

Michael, does it have to be this way? He thinks.

“You watch Mission: Impossible III. That’s way too shaky.” A pause. “It’s a style. I don’t know if the cutting is too fast. You know, as I go on with movies, I think I do slow down a little bit.”

The time has come in Michael Bay’s career to fulfil everyone’s fantasy by making a small-scale film with no explosions or giant killer robots or machine-guns, where it’s just people relating.

“That’s my fantasy, too!” he exclaims. This is good because Bay has an underappreciated gift for comedy, which he has sprinkled generously throughout his films. He considers Armageddon a comedy about the world being saved by a bunch of average Joes, and the hilarious opening reel of Transformers plays like an unofficial remake of Herbie, the Love Bug.

“I love comedy,” Bay says. “I’ve got this great pulp fictiony true story called Pain and Gain that I’ve been working on. It’s fun dialogue and it’s true and it’s these people looking for the American dream in the wrong way. It’s something that I really want to do.”

And he likes improvising. The chancy masturbation joke in Transformers, he says, was done on the spot, and he loved it. “We made this funny scene because I had these great actors to work with, but the studio kept saying, ‘What are you doing? That’s not in the script! You’re wrecking this movie!’ And I said: ‘Just trust me. This is how I work. I shoot a lot of jokes, and some of them will live and some of them are going to die, but these are the things that will bring the house down. You watch and see.”

Bay’s next film will be another Bruckheimer biggie, but he is hungry for change. A passing joke about the prospects of a Bad Boys III elicits this response.

“Here’s the thing. Bad Boys II was fun, and it’s funny, but it’s no great shakes . . . I’m worried that big movies are going to go away, so I figure I’d better direct (some) while they’re still here.”

Does he really think they will go away? “Maybe.” Why? “I don’t know. There are not a lot of big movies.” Michael, there’s one every second week! He laughs. “I guess you’re right. This is just the neurotic director talking to you.” Michael Bay? Neurotic? “I know. The thing is, I’m unemployed now. I am! That’s the way we think. I’m unemployed.”

Source: The Age dot com