After receiving the Frank Capra Award for Best Student Film at America’s Wesleyan University and a brief but successful stint doing pop promo, Michael Bay’s first television commercial, for The American Red Cross, was honored with a Gold at the Clio Awards. By age 26, Bay became one of the most sought-after commercials directors in the States, working on Nike, Budweiser, Levi’s and Coca-Cola among others.
Working out of Propaganda Films, Bay’s highly energized visual technique and strong wit ensured that in 1995 he became the youngest recipient of the Directors Guild of America ‘Director of the Year’ prize – the same year that his ‘Aaron Burr’ spot for Goodby Silversteins’s popular Got Milk? campaign took the Grand Prix at the Clios He also won Gold and Silver Lions at Cannes for his work on Budweiser, Bugle Boy and Miller.
In 1995 Bay helmed the feature film ‘Bad Boys,’ following up with ‘The Rock’ a year later. Combined, the two box office hits grossed more than $500 million worldwide. His third feature project is Disney’s sci-fi thriller ‘Armageddon,’ starring Bruce Willis.
What I look for in a script is something that challenges me, something that breaks new ground, something that allows me to flex my director muscle. You have got to think fast in this business, you’ve got to keep reinventing yourself to stay on top.
Having done two movies, I see commercials in a new light. There is so much bullshit and interference, so much red tape and the freedom of creativity is held back far too often. When you’re the director of a movie, it’s your movie yet on a commercial you’re working for someone who can ultimately do whatever they want with your footage. There’s still a lot of politics in movies, but creatively, they don’t screw you up that much.
I think feature directors have a much harder time coming to commercials than the other way round. Advertising is so specific, you have to use and construct shots so differently. I like the economy of the format, the immediacy you get with fast cutting. Each second is so precious, so you learn to convey an amazing amount of information in a short space of time — which helped on my first movie “Bad Boys.’
Throughout my commercials career I have always been angling towards movies, trying to create movie-style scenarios. That was always my grand plan — and I was very open about it. At film school I sensed that advertising would be a great training ground. I wanted to do action, I wanted to do character stuff, I wanted to do comedy, I wanted to tell stories, I wanted to do cool images — anything to broaden my horizon. Compare being a commercials director with a film director — you get so many more chances, you’re at such an advantage if you’re a young guy. I shot so many different scenarios and ran so many different crews — and all that made me so much more competitive.
I still feel loyal to commercials – and it bugs me when asshole movie critics say “oh, he’s just a commercials directors.” I hate that kind of snobbery. Billy Wilder, one of the great American directors, said he was always amazed how commercials directors can tell a story in 30 second – it’s real power.
I think it’s dangerous though when some commercials directors are wooed by Hollywood studios before their time. It’s best to serve an apprenticeship. I was offered movies for many years but I kept holding back, because I wanted to get really good at what I was doing.
I demand a lot of freedom. There was a time when I was really nervous about conference calls, but now I treat them like a piece of theatre. I really probe the creatives – I ask a lot of questions, suss their client out, see where they’re all headed. I’d rather say no to a great script than be their prisoner.
Commercials are about commerce. You can soft-sell people, you can clever sell, you can make then laugh or you can just plain entertain them better them better than the last spot. It depends on the product, But I generally go for the soft sell, I always try to do something entertaining, it’s kinda always been my motto. My ads may be gig but the product is not slammed in your face, it’s woven into the story.
Being a commercials director, you’re kind of like a boss and the slave all at once. The best part of my character is my incredible drive, my fear of failing. The psychological root behind this competitive streak is that I was an athlete when I was young and took sports really seriously. I look at directing as a sporting event. It’s a race, a marathon. It’s great when it clicks — which is why I push my crews so hard so we can excel.
On set, I am not the demon some people make me out to be. I like cracking a good joke and I get a kick when people make fun of me — because at times I can be an asshole, though I never make a personal attack on someone. Crews know that they will have to work their asses of with me, but they know that w will all be proud of the end result. That’s why the director’s role is so important. We are the guiding lights. The same crew could shoot another commercial and for whatever reason it could be totally lackluster.
Out of all the weird things I’ve done in advertising, the stunts that stick out the most in my mind are all for Budweiser — cutting through a 20ft wave on a reef in Fiji to get to my surf unit, getting stuck under an 18ft tiger shark in Hawaii — but my favourite has to b getting this 94 year-old woman to do push ups and call this guy a pussy!
It’s great that I get accused of not being politically correct. People need to take themselves less seriously. This world is so screwed up as it is, we’ve all got to relax a bit more.
The perfect commercial is striking, it’s witty, it sticks with you, it comes up in conversation and enters the pop culture. A perfect commercial is one that makes the client as nervous as hell. But that’s the ground you have to break. More people see TV commercials than they do movies — and that’s pretty wild.