By Dan Shotz
Friday, February 5, 1999
Fast-paced editing, intoxicating colors and multi-million dollar action sequences create the visual thrill ride that is the signature of Michael Bay ’86. With Armageddon” as the blockbuster hit of the year, Bay, 34, has become one of the most successful young directors of his generation.
“Michael Bay is a born filmmaker,” said Corwin-Fuller Professor of Film Studies Jeanine Basinger. “The way he understands composition, light, motion and color is astonishing. He has an eye for this medium.”
With three feature films under his belt, Bay’s talents have won him numerous critical awards while his films have grossed upwards of $1 billion. Bay, known for his features Armageddon” (1998), “The Rock” (1996) and “Bad Boys” (1995), returns to Wesleyan this Sunday for a screening of “The Rock” followed by a question and answer session for interested students.
Born and raised in Los Angeles, Bay’s interest in filmmaking came from his early experiences working for Lucasfilm, where he watched Steven Spielberg create the effects for Indiana’s world in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Bay was also an award winning photographer whose talents led to many offers for full scholarships to art schools. However, Bay declined those offers and chose Wesleyan.
“I love the east coast÷the small schools and the setting,” Bay said. “I was inspired by Wesleyan. It was an esteemed school with rigorous academics and an eclectic group of people.”
In his first year at Wesleyan, Bay joined Psi-U with a group of friends and became an officer of the fraternity.
“The ivy growing on the walls [of the house] attracted me to Psi-U,” Bay said. “It’s very cool living in a house that’s 150 years old. In L.A., nothing is 150 years old. As an officer, I also loved how I had to make peace with the feminist groups and weather through the South African protests.”
Bay, who became a film major late in his college career, felt detached from the other film majors.
“I was definitely not accepted with open arms,” he said. “They were very New York, dressed in black, and I was a Psi-U brother into sports. I would go to Jeanine and tell her that I didn’t think these [film majors] accepted me. She would say, ‘That’s okay. It’s their problem. Screw them. Who cares.’ She always had a fondness for me.”
Bay’s talents were recognized when he was presented the Frank Capra Award for Best Film for his senior thesis, “Benjamin’s Birthday.”
“A Michael Bay film is a Michael Bay film,” Basinger said. “There is a real visual consistency in Michael’s work. ÎBenjamin’s Birthday,’ I see in all his films. The artistic sense that Michael has can be traced back to his student film.”
Bay went straight from Psi-U to Los Angeles, where he enrolled in the graduate film school at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. One week after graduating, he hooked up with a producer friend from NYU film school who sent Bay’s student reel around town. “MTV was just getting hot,” Bay said. “So two weeks after I graduated I was directing a $160,000 Donny Osmond come-back video.”
Bay signed with Propaganda Films, the largest music video and commercial production company in the business, and directed videos for Aerosmith, Tina Turner, Meatloaf and DiVinyls.
“I wanted to get out of film school and direct films,” Bay said. “But I realized how much I didn’t know. I needed to slow down. When I was ready to make the jump, I would do it. I knew from the start that I wanted to direct features, but this was a great path ÷one step at a time.”
Television advertising was his next step, and he won a Clio Award for an American Red Cross ad. Bay continued in this field and directed some of the most regarded television spots of recent history, including Nike, Budweiser, Coca-Cola, Levi’s, Isuzu, Miller and the most noted GOT MILK series.
Bay has been awarded every major commercial directing award, including the Gold and Silver Lions at Cannes, and he is the youngest person to ever receive the 1995 Director’s Guild Award for best commercial director.
“There is action in my commercials. I shoot it looking better,” Bay said. “I cut it faster and use cutting to try to make my action different than the next director.”
This style was apparent to producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who pulled Bay onto “Bad Boys.”
“I was offered many studio projects and turned them down,” Bay said. “I was tough on myself. I had one shot to make a first feature and I didn’t want to screw it up. My goal was to make an entertaining movie when I hooked up with Simpson/Bruckheimer.”
“Bad Boys” began without a script and had Jon Lovitz and Dana Carvey attached. The Saturday Night Live duo fell-out and Martin Lawrence and Will Smith came aboard. According to Bay, Jon Lovitz says that by falling out of the picture, he was responsible for Bay’s career.
“Lovitz always tells me he was in Armageddon÷he says he was the asteroid,” Bay said, laughing.
“Bad Boys,” which grossed $160 million from a $12 million budget, was a survival period for Bay as he struggled with the studio system.
“The studio treated me shitty,” he said. “I was a millionaire from doing commercials and I calculated my pay per hour and I was making well below minimum wage÷$1.17 a hour to make that film. I said I was never going to do a film again. But when you see your film playing up on the screen, there’s nothing like it.”
Bay explained that there is a business sense in every choice he makes.
“I’m very gut and business oriented,” Bay said. “You need to make money to create power so that there’s a point when your name can green-light a movie.”
Following his successful year in 1995, Bay teamed up again with Simpson/Bruckheimer for a big-budget action thriller on Alcatraz known as “The Rock.” Working with Academy-Award winning actors Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery, Bay used his experiences working with big name stars in commercials to help him handle this caliber of talent.
“Actors will bully,” he said. “Sean Connery and Bruce Willis are known to be director-eaters. So you have to be a psychologist on the set. You have to deal with an actor who has a pimple on his ass and won’t come out of his trailer.”
After “The Rock,” Bay developed the idea for “Armageddon” with screenwriter Jonathan Hensleigh. Disney green-lit the film before the script was finished and Bruckheimer signed on to co-produce with Bay. “Armageddon,” with its $140 million budget, topped off at $530 million, placing it among the top ten highest grossing films in film history.
“With each movie I set higher standards and achieved them,” Bay said. “I up the bar. Each of my films takes a dramatic leap in my eye÷a big jump. “Bad Boys” was boyish and low production value. “The Rock” was high production value with big drama elements and big named actors. “Armageddon” had the complexity of a $140 million film with 2,700 crew members.”
Bay is currently looking for a new script, hopefully something smaller, he said.
“It would be nice to not have to do effects and big car crashes,” he said. “I’m waiting for the great written word.”