By Prairie Miller
Bruce Willis is taking orders this summer from director Michael Bay, as the breathlessly anticipated Armageddon hits theaters, not to mention the earth, momentarily. The asteroid disaster $100 million blockbuster had no choice but to show up after Deep Impact, but Bay insisted Armageddon is definitely no sequel, and he was pretty impressive about explaining why.
PRAIRIE MILLER: You’re about to touch down on planet earth with maybe the biggest blockbuster movie of the summer. What’s racing through your mind right now?
MICHAEL BAY: Whew! Seriously, I’m really proud of Armageddon. I think it’s taking this idea from its inception, to seeing this mass of movie put on the screen. I mean, there’s a lot of pain getting there, but I feel really proud of it.
PM: I’m not mentioning names, but some of the actors in Armageddon said that you’re a difficult director to communicate with on the set. Are you aware of that?
MB: Well, let’s see…No, I don’t think there’s really a problem. The problem would only be if I didn’t get what I was looking for in a scene. Then there’s a problem. But to me, I don’t see that there’s a problem. I’m a very direct director, in that I know my vision, I know what I’m going to get and I go after it. You know, I’m very decisive with my decisions.
But sometimes I like to create a bit of chaos among the actors, because I think it helps bring out a little improvisational skill, and I get things that I wasn’t necessarily expecting. So I sometimes get these gems. It’s just part of my madness, I think! It’s kind of inherent in my style, and it seems to work. Every director has got their own way, you know?
PM: It’s interesting that you bring up the idea of chaos, because there is a great deal of chaos in the action scenes in Armageddon. That makes the scenes very intense and very exciting. You are assaulted visually by the tremendous action on screen. What’s your secret?
MB: In terms of the action scenes, I want the audience to feel like they’re inside of it. That they are living it, and not just watching it from afar. I like putting the audience at privileged angles, where they’re feeling it, rather than just watching it unfold in front of them. So I do try to create chaos with the action.
When we have the whole shuttle sequence on the asteroid, I kept trying to think, what would it be like to be in a plane crash? I think it would be the most horrific thing in the world, and it’s got to be chaotic to look at, just trying to stylize that. That’s also something I tried to do in The Rock with the shower sequence, where we dropped out all the sounds and we made it more stylized.
PM: A big plus in Armageddon is that there’s some real character depth, which is unusual in action movies.
MB: I think we did spend a lot of time trying to develop who these characters were, and to make you really feel something for them in the end. Even though they’re small characters, just to see these little moments come to fruition at the end, those are the moments I like the most in the movie. The action means nothing if you don’t care about the characters. So I think we spent a little extra time in the beginning to try to get to know these people.
PM: Does it make you nervous that Armageddon will follow on the heels of Deep Impact?
MB: No. I’m not the worrying type, but I also think they’re very different movies. We have a very different take on it. I’ve done test screenings where people have seen both movies. And they said, no way did this affect their experiencing this movie, that they love Armageddon. I just think it’s a much different take.
PM: I agree with you. It is very different, and not just another asteroid movie.
MB: I mean, it’s really sending the dirty dozen into space. It really is a space adventure. It’s not what I would call an asteroid movie, gentlemen!
PM: Absolutely. So how did you prepare for this journey into space, technically speaking?
MB: I went to film school, where I worked my butt off. Before that, I wasn’t exactly sure what I wanted to do. I thought I wanted to be a professional photographer, and then I discovered film.
I came out of film school wanting to do features. I came into the marketplace at a time when music videos were reaching their height in terms of story videos. There were a lot of story videos that were being made. I just kept making a music video each week, and became a better filmmaker. It was something that got me a lot of recognition in Hollywood. I then went on to do a lot of edgy commercials, and did a lot of Nike commercials.
I started with a company called Propaganda Films, which kind of took the business by storm. Commercials had always been an old boy network, it was a very closed off business. There were a lot of young guys there from Propaganda that came in through music videos. We came into the commercial world, and we kind of reinvented a lot of commercials out there.
PM: Hey, it’s true. Commercials have become a lot more artistic and surprising lately. Less grating.
MB: Well, we started making commercials very entertaining, and a lot more edgy. We were making the clients a lot more nervous, but we opened the door for a lot of younger people to get into the business.
PM: You know, people who make commercials are not normally considered to be filmmakers. But Ridley Scott once said that to tell a story in thirty seconds takes a lot more ingenuity than to tell a story in two hours.
MB: Yeah. Billy Wilder said that too. And he didn’t understand about it, so he was always very impressed with how you could do that. I think it’s a different medium than film. There are a lot of great feature directors that came out of commercials, like Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Tony Scott.
You know, I think filmmaking is anything where you’re directing, and telling a story through images. It was always my goal to be a feature director, so I just used that as a stepping stone.
PM: What was your first filmmaking experience all about, and did it help you become a better director?
MB: I started out when I was fifteen years old, working with Lucas Films. I filed Raiders Of The Lost Ark story boards. And I told all my fifteen year old friends that the movie was going to really suck, but I ended up finding out that it was an awesome movie. I even told Spielberg that story, and he broke out laughing. So I did a lot of jobs like that in Hollywood all through college.
But film school is not going to make you a good director. It’s really just a place where you get access to equipment and you can be inspired by teachers – even though I had teachers who told me, you’ll never make it. You encounter that all the way through. It’s just a place where you’ve got to fight the battles, and do anything you can to get a movie made. And now we have access to video cameras, so there’s a lot more access to equipment in recent years.
But there’s no set way to get into this business. Mine is just a route that I took. And you know, while all my frat brothers back east in college had their Wall Street jobs, I was thinking, well, I’m gonna go to Hollywood and try to get into film. But it’s a pretty risky adventure, considering not many people make it in this business, and everyone is telling you that you can’t make it. You know?
PM: Your first big breakthrough was Bad Boys, just like it was for Sean Penn. Talk about that.
MB: Bad Boys was a very bad script I thought, let’s face it. Basically all we had for Bad Boys was two great actors, and they had a great charisma together. That’s what the movie’s really about. And it was a very low budget movie. I had nine million dollars to make the movie, and the other ten million dollars was all tied in politics, paying people off in different studios. We made it down in Miami Beach.
What did it do…I think it hit a chord with audiences. It broke a lot of records, and it made Will Smith a big star. But it got me a chance to team up with the same people for The Rock, which was a much bigger scope with a much better script. And it had three very great actors that I always wanted to work with, Nick Cage, Sean Connery and Ed Harris.
PM: Can you confirm or deny this rumor that’s going around, that when Sean Connery walks on a set, he’s the director?
MB: Oh, no. That’s not true at all. Sean is a total pro. He’s someone who’s got good ideas. And he likes to rehearse. Sean taught me that by taking a few hours in the morning to really rehearse, you can craft a scene better. You can extract more from the actors. It was good advice.
No, I never felt that Sean was directing. We really had a good relationship. He was very intrigued by the way I was shooting the movie, because he had never seen cameras going on skateboards, and low on the ground. He got very turned on to the visual style of the movie, and I think he just loved working with Nick Cage. So it was a fun experience.
PM: Speaking of action, you’re on a real roller coaster right now with your career, and this is only your third movie. Is that thrilling or scary, and are you going to put the brakes on just a little?
MB: Well, next I would like to do something small. Don’t tell anybody, but my goal always was that if I made Hollywood money, I would be able to get more freedom creatively, in terms of what I want to do. I would love to do a movie that doesn’t take almost two years to finish. I want to make a movie that takes six weeks to shoot. I’m a huge Coen Brothers fan, and I’d love to find some dark, quirky comedy or some thriller. Nothing to do with special effects or explosions. You know, those are tough movies to find, but I’d really like to twist it up.