EW: Optimus Prime Time
”Transformers” director Michael Bay opens up about working with Steven Spielberg, the art of the action film, and the possibility of a sequel.
By Adam B. Vary
‘I’ve thought more about robots in a year and a half than probably anybody,” sighs Michael Bay. Slouched in his chair, a gentle breeze wafting through his surprisingly zen Santa Monica, Calif., office, he’s still hung over from the previous evening’s mega-premiere of his latest summer-action extravaganza, Transformers — the movie adaptation of the 1980s cartoon TV series and Hasbro toy line about a race of alien machines who bring their war to Earth. (He may be doing more celebrating after seeing the estimated $36.3 million in box-office revenue from the movie’s first 36 hours in theatres, including $27.5 million on July 3, its first full day of release, a new record for a Tuesday opening.)
Over the course of the next hour, Bay talked to EW.com about his working relationship with exec producer Steven Spielberg, what helped him get over the notion of directing just ”a toy movie,” and how he feels about being, you know, Michael Bay.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I have to tell you, as a Transformers fan since childhood, the special effects were pretty darn cool.
MICHAEL BAY: That’s what it’s all about. I worked a long time on that. It wasn’t always easy.
I can see why — the machinery is incredibly intricate. Why did you want to go in that route and not more —
Simple? Like a cartoon? Basically it’s the equivalent of, like, the Marshmallow Man in Ghostbusters. It’s got to withstand, you know, a 40-foot screen — you just need a lot of detail and a lot of things moving just to keep your eye dazzled by these complex machines. It wasn’t always peaches and cream. The robots kind of sucked in the beginning. My whole thing is lighting with [visual] effects. We all know something in our brain is telling us it’s not lit right — that’s what makes you say it looks like a cartoon. You figure out how it’s all going to reflect different pieces of light — different materials reflect differently.
What first hooked you into wanting to direct Transformers?
It was a pitch that Steven [Spielberg] gave me. The story is true: I hung up [after we talked] and went ”I’m not doing that silly movie because it sounds like a toy movie.” I thought about it. And I said okay, you know, [I’ll] just go to Hasbro [for] this thing called Transformer School. I sat in this conference room and we went through the entire lore of Transformers. I like Japanese anime movies — I just think visually they’re really cool. There were some images in the room; I kept looking at one and I’m like, you know, if I make it real and edgy, it might be something really interesting. So I was a non-Transformer fan, but that’s good because I think it makes it more accessible for people that are non-Transformer fans. I kept having this image of a kid hiding his robots from his parents. To me that’s just a great kid fantasy. You have alien robots that are your friends. That’s charming to me. [Chuckles]
My understanding is that Spielberg really was the guy that roped you into directing this film. What was the first time that you realized that he was following your career?
When I was 27, I did a whole string of commercials that were pretty famous, the type of commercial where people go to a bar [and say], ”Did you see that commercial?” That ”Got Milk?” stuff, a whole string of funny Nike ones, whatever. So I sent this reel [of my work] around Hollywood. I get this call from my agent. ”Steven wants to see you.” I go, ”Steven who?” ”Steven Spielberg wants to see you.” Okay. I drove down to his office. A true story — I said, ”You know, when I was 15, I worked at Lucasfilm and I filed your Raiders of the Lost Ark storyboards. I saw the entire movie [in storyboard form] and I honestly thought it was going to suck.” [Laughs] And he started laughing. And I said, ”When I went to the Grauman’s Chinese [Theater] with my parents and saw it, I went ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to do this.”’ [Pause] I don’t know, he’s always been nice to me.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: There are stories of him asking you how you would pull off certain shots, or certain sequences.
MICHAEL BAY: What was fun working with him, we would sit in my war room and [I’d say], ”Oh, Steven, I got this scene and I want to do it like this and shoot like that.” And he knows what I’m talking about. He goes, ”Oh, what if you do that?” But you can see when I’m showing him stuff that his gears are ticking for Indiana Jones 4. [Chuckles] You can see that he’s a competitive director.
I’m told he worked a lot with the Transformers’ screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci to bring a certain innocent tone to the film. The motto seems to have been, ”It’s about a boy and his car.”
Yeah. That was the hook to the movie. But I added a stronger military thing at the beginning to make it more, I guess, badass, to make the stakes higher. But originally the tone was very suburbia. We kind of changed that and made it edgier. I like the idea of the suburbia. I specifically shot this a little bit more suburbia, meaning, like, I would never put actors at a Burger King, but it’s what people do, you know what I mean? Or in [lead character Sam Witwicky’s suburban] house. It’s not a sexy house. But it’s identifiable, and more accessible.
Was there a particular demographic that you thought would be your target audience?
I just thought it would be from kids to, you know, to 20-something whatever. The first day on the set I’m working with all these guys in the military and I was apologizing for the movie. Forty-something guys. I was like, ”Okay guys, I know this sounds really stupid, but there’s a 40-foot-tall robot over here and it’s going to flip and land right here.” They’re like, ”Which robot? Is this Starscream?” I’m like, how do these guys know that? And I realized, oh my God, it’s a lot older than I thought.
What is your work ethic with actors? What do you want and expect out of them when you are on the set?
I want people to bring their A game. There are some directors that sit in a chair. They sit in their trailer. I am always on the set. I do 12-hour days, that’s it, and I don’t go in overtime. And I shoot very fast. When I am doing action I’m like your worst nightmare basketball coach. I am there with my kneepads on, right next to you, and I’m there because I’m trying to instill the adrenaline. When they see me intense, I see actors’ intensity starting to rise. It’s like a game you’ve got to play. Sometimes you create a bit of chaos. We call it on the set ”Bayos.” But no, honestly, it’s like a manipulation thing.
You made certain changes to the Transformers from the ’80s series to update them and make them cinematic — like giving Optimus Prime a long-nose truck cab instead of a flat-front. There was a lot of fan uproar about that. There were even rumors that you got death threats.
No. You get these funny talkbacks, like, ”Damn you, Michael Bay, you wrecked my childhood, Michael Bay. I want to hunt you down.” I mean, whatever, you know. People are passionate about their childhoods. [Laughs] But honestly, they remember the cartoons greater than what they really are if you look at them. Because they don’t stand up at all.
I watched the 1986 Transformers animated movie the night before seeing your film, and it was, um, kinda not so good.
Yeah, I saw 15 minutes of that movie and I wanted to put a gun to my head. ”I can’t see this. I have to go into my own head about what this movie [I’m making] is.” [Laughs] So yeah, you take the heat, but they weren’t seeing [the robots] in a 3-D world.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I couldn’t help noticing that all the Autobots other than Optimus Prime are GM cars.
MICHAEL BAY: Why did I do it? I did this movie for [a budget of] $150 [million]. That was a hard number. Steven, he’s tight with the budget. So it forced me to get creative. I opened it to any car company, from Ford to Porsche, anyone. I just did it to keep an open mind because I wanted to find Bumblebee. I did not want a Volkswagen [like in the original cartoon series] — it’s the Herbie Love Bug to me.
I’ve had a relationship with GM, so they took me to where they do these cool concept cars. I saw this picture of that Camaro [used in the film], and I’m like, That’s the car. It saved me $3 million on my budget, getting all those cars. I don’t think you are whoring out the movie, because I think each car kind of fits the character. Maybe not Jazz [the Autobot that’s a Pontiac Solstice in the film]. Jazz is the one thing which I was like, ehhh, I wish he was a different car, personally. It’s too little. But that’s why I did it. It saved me money.
Was there any concern that you were also serving Hasbro, making sure that you are true to the toys and original characters?
Well, I said ”Listen, if I do this, I’m going to redesign these things. You might not like everything, but I’m going to do it my way or I’m not going to do it.” Starscream [the Decepticon fighter jet] they had a big f—ing problem with, you know. When we were deciding characters it became kind of ridiculous. Ian Bryce, my producer, came to me: ”Mike, they need the molds [of the Transformers for the toys].” [I said] ”We don’t have a script yet. We’re only on page 30!” He goes, ”They need the molds in China. What kind of vehicles do you want?” Literally, we were scrambling.
There was a poem that leaked on the Internet this spring, seemingly written by someone within production, that blamed DreamWorks for giving you too much creative control over the movie. Is it weird being the director people seem to love to take shots at?
No. I’m pretty content with who I am. I feel like I’m happy in my life. They take cheap shots because people don’t really know me. They think [what I do] is not art. Like, a nice woman from the Hollywood Foreign Press, she [asks me], ”Wouldn’t you want to do more of an art movie, like something that’s hard to do?” And I said, ”Are you kidding me?” I had this big picture of Bumblebee [behind me]. That took a team of artists. It is so much harder to do, these type of [big action] movies, than a little art movie in the south of France. I mean, if you can take something that doesn’t exist and make it look like it’s got a soul, that’s art. It’s just frustrating when people just think it’s like, oh, it’s easy.
How are you sitting with the idea of directing another Transformers movie?
Let’s see how this one does. I’ve got a lot of ideas for the next one. There’s a lot of really cool, big robot stuff that I had in my head that we didn’t do. I just want to see how this works. You might not grow as much as a director [to do a sequel]. But it’s kind of like you have your baby and you don’t want someone else to take it.
So, hypothetically, if you were to take on a Transformers sequel, would it be your next film?
I don’t know if it would be ready. It just takes so long to do a script. A couple things are on the horizon, but [maybe] I’ll do my little movie that I can knock out, because we all think we’re going to have a strike.
What is it?
Pain and Gain. It’s a true story, happened in Florida. Just love the characters. It’s these guys who work at a gym, and nothing’s good enough. They’re all looking for the American Dream, and they end up kidnapping. It’s like a mixture of Fargo and Pulp Fiction, but it’s all true. And they’re knuckleheads. The whole point is no one’s happy with what they’ve got. It’s a fun character piece. No action. One car crash.
Maybe that woman from the Hollywood Foreign Press will be satisfied.
[Laughs] I don’t know! If I shot in the south of France, maybe she would!