By Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY

In Michael Bay’s sandbox, everyone is a toy soldier.

Deep amid the luminous dunes of New Mexico’s white gypsum desert, the filmmaker’s deeply sunburned battalion of crew workers constructed a set to resemble a sandblasted Egyptian town beside a massive ancient temple.

This is where Bay and his moviemaking army prepared to shoot the climax of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, and when the film makes its debut Wednesday, moviegoers will see only a portion of the epic battle.

The rest of it happened behind the camera:

The long, lonely road to the movie’s set starts at Holloman Air Force Base and stretches arrow-straight for miles through the scrub-filled vastness into Army territory. Roughly a square half-mile of sand has been cleared of unexploded artillery on the testing range to make room for the Egyptian set.

The sky is clear, but overhead there is screaming thunder — fighter jets, low and loud, rip by on training missions. A giant, weathered sign on the side of the road reads: “Maximum Speed Limit In the Great State of New Mexico — Mach 10.”

Swiftness is a virtue on the Transformers set, too. It’s early morning, and Bay already has Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox running for their lives as packs of dynamite go off behind them. Geysers of dust and debris spew into the air and pepper Bay and his bank of television monitors with chunks of foam designed to look like rocks.

Soldiers toting machine guns surround rocket launchers at the crest of surrounding dunes, stained black with soot after days of shooting battle scenes.

Amid the structures in the village is a crashed Black Hawk helicopter and a pair of M1 Abrams tanks with cannons large enough to shoot slugs the size of fire extinguishers tipped toward the horizon. Gathered around the tanks are scores of off-duty military personnel, hired as extras.

The filmmaker, then 43, is watching the action unfold on a bank of TV monitors. He’s wearing an Autobot ball cap, pulled low to shade his eyes from the sun, and a Decepticon T-shirt, perhaps symbolic of which side of the robot battle is closest to his heart.

Duhamel joins Bay to watch the replay. “This really is your sandbox,” he tells the director. “And we are kinda like your toys.”

Bay gives a smirk, but seems preoccupied by his screens. When the actor leaves, the filmmaker confides, in an uncharacteristically soft voice, a story from when he was a kid.

“I made home movies that way,” he says, still looking at the replays on the screen. “I’d do little firecrackers on the train set. … I actually set my bedroom on fire once.” He smiles and rolls his eyes. “The fire department came. It was a little Super 8 movie where the aliens invaded.”

But the sound and fury that as a grown-up have earned him $2.6 billion in worldwide ticket sales only got him into trouble then. “That wasn’t fun,” he says. “I got grounded. Two weeks.”

Constructive criticism

Critics have never given Bay much respect, and aren’t likely to start now — not that a lack of Oscars and accolades has hurt his swagger. Bay acknowledges his movies aren’t deep, but he is proud of his rock’em, sock’em style of popcorn filmmaking. “It just makes you feel good, makes you smile. It’s such a guilty pleasure,” he says.

There is undeniable craftsmanship and imagination in Bay’s cinematic eye-candy, but his movies also are, in an offbeat way, personal works of self-expression. The filmmaker is big and boisterous, hot-headed one moment, silly the next, prone to wisecracks, and ready to turn serious when the situation is dire — just like his films. Both also have a softer, sentimental side.

While his style might not have been the best fit for such true-life stories as Pearl Harbor, Bay seems to have found his niche with Transformers, a testosterone fairy tale where good and evil are clearly delineated and Bumblebee, a teenage boy’s first car, doesn’t only open the world to him, but helps him save it.

When he’s on the job, however, sentimentality takes a back seat to intensity. He is direct and blunt — though often kids around a little, too.

After watching a scene in which Duhamel tries to rescue Fox from her hiding spot beneath a blown-out wall, Bay stops the action and runs out to coach the actor.

“Take her hand this time. When you ran the last time, you ran away like a (expletive) girl and left her!” the director says.

Duhamel sarcastically thanks Bay for the constructive criticism — in full view of a visiting reporter.

Bay says to the journalist, in an even louder voice: “You’ll be doing me a (expletive) favor if you print that!” Then laughs. Duhamel just shakes his head.

There is more than a week of filming to be done before the action moves to the actual pyramids in Egypt. But before the set is abandoned, Bay would like to see some of it destroyed for real with cameras rolling.

The U.S. Department of Defense agreed to partner with the filmmakers, seeing Transformers as a morale-booster for troops who get to participate and a training opportunity. Army liaison Lt. Col. Gregory Bishop tells Bay that the Army is happy to let tank crews practice target shooting on the set.

Bay’s face brightens. “Live rounds?”

Bishop shakes his head. “No, training rounds. Inert. They’re dead rounds. But they shoot, and you just pyro-up the house, Hollywood-up the house, and make it blow.”

Bay squints one eye. “Can we shoot one live round?”

Bishop is unbending: “You’re going to make it look better than what we could do.”

“Maybe,” Bay concedes. “But it would look cool.”

Bay gives it one more try, explaining his philosophy. “I mean, when I was doing (a commercial for) Victoria’s Secret, I had Petra Nemcova and Heidi Klum in the bathtub together. The company was like, ‘Mike, Mike. We can’t use this, we can’t use this.’ And I’m bent over the camera saying, ‘Uh, OK, let’s just see what it looks like.’ ”

The director flashes the most devilish of grins. Ultimately, Bishop wins out.

Months later, Bay says the dummy cannon shots were plenty good. “Let me tell you, you have never heard such a wallop,” he says. “You can’t imitate that digitally — the dust and the fire. It’s just more of a PahhOOOOOmph!”

The heat really is on

On the set in 105-degree desert heat, Bay seems to be solar-powered. As the day goes on, he becomes only more animated. And he isn’t opposed to doing some heavy lifting.

The time comes to collapse a giant column on the temple; a Decepticon will be added later as digital animation, pushing it over to crush LaBeouf’s and Fox’s stunt doubles. The columns are about four stories tall, as thick as grain silos and made out of wood and plaster.

After it succumbs to the power of explosives and crane cables, a school-bus-sized slab has to be removed.

The skinny Bay gets under it with 17 other crew workers to haul it off, like ants carrying a half slice of bread. “This is how they did it, huh! Don’t you think? This is how they built the (expletive) pyramids!” Bay says, cheering his soldiers on.

They take a circuitous path; colored flags all around them mark packs of dynamite, wired beneath bags of cement mix (which makes an appealing dust plume when they blow). The pyrotechnics crew has been preparing for the day’s big finale shot, meant to simulate a bombardment by B-2 Bombers.

Mike Wever, the special-effects technician and bomb triggerman, surveys the explosive-planting.

“Whatever Bay wants is what we try to give him,” says Wever. “Sex is sex, dialogue is dialogue, but what people want is special effects. Bayhem, that’s what it’s called. That’s what I like to call it. Whenever we do a Michael show, it’s a new level of Bayhem.”

Wever warns to stay away from the 14 large, white plastic garbage cans placed around the temple. They are full of gasoline and wired to explode for the finale shot.

Activity soon reaches a fever pitch. The bombs are set, the actors are ready. About 10 cameras are rolling, one on a helicopter hovering above. Tanks and soldiers aim their weapons at invisible mechanical invaders.

Bay storms around the set aligning soldiers and war vehicles, clearing the town of all visible film equipment as they prepare to shoot. All of the guns will be blazing, and bombs will be erupting into a great wall of fire, as LaBeouf, Fox, Duhamel and Gibson race from their hiding place to behind friendly lines, scampering between the stomping feet of gigantic Decepticons.

Burly grips haul around armloads of rubber machine guns. Others set up smoke canisters and rig stuntmen to fly off tanks when they are shot.

There’s a race to finish before sunset, but a craft services worker shows up with a pickup full of fresh pizzas. He is swarmed by the crew, until Bay hops off a golf cart he is steering and hollers: “Get those (expletive) pizzas the (expletive) out of here!”

End-of-the-day shoots are always tense. The moment just after the sun sets creates a uniquely haunting light, and Bay prefers to shoot his big action scenes in the very limited time. Almost a dozen cameras are rolling — one of them on a helicopter above.

Bay is visibly nervous. Before settling behind his monitors inside one of the mock buildings, he watches as a water truck and firefighting crew roll down the sand road and hide out of sight behind a wall.

And the ‘Action!’ begins

The director bites his lower lip and says, in that uncharacteristically low voice: “I’m gonna burn my set down.”

The emergency equipment is in place to prevent such a disaster; the loss of the set would be devastating for the production.

Everything is in place — action! The cameras are rolling, the actors are running. The helicopter thrums overhead, and the scores of military extras are machine-gunning the shape-shifting robots supposedly marching toward them. When the actors are clear —KAR-ROOOOM!!!

The dynamite packs explode, and those plastic garbage cans of fuel vaporize, sending their contents skyward in a great, billowing tidal wave of fire that momentarily makes twilight as bright as high noon.

Bay and his crew are cheering, high-fiving, cursing joyfully and bear-hugging each other. Even the scorned pizza man would have felt the love.

But then the wall of black smoke clears, and the temple and adjacent buildings come into view. The tops are fully engulfed in flames.

The joyful curses turn serious. Bay watches as the firefighters race to the rescue, getting the blaze under control — just like the scene that played out in his bedroom with fireworks, a train set and a Super 8 camera.

But this time, he won’t be grounded.