Some think ”Transformers” represents the future of the blockbuster — and some are afraid they’re right. Inside the megahit’s explosive blend of action and advertising
By Josh Rottenberg
A caravan of stretch limousines and black SUVs is rolling into Westwood for tonight’s premiere. Hundreds of fans press up against the barricades, screaming and holding up camera phones, hoping to catch a glimpse of the biggest stars in the world. No, not the strange mix of guest celebrities in attendance — not Busta Rhymes, Helen Mirren, Brian Austin Green, Lance Bass, or the guy who played Pedro in Napoleon Dynamite. Not even the cast members of the movie itself: Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Jon Voight. Those are all fine, talented, charming folks. But what the fans would really love, what would really blow their minds, would be if a few of those limos and Escalades lined up at the end of the red carpet suddenly morphed into 30-foot-tall mechanical beings, leaped into the air in heroic poses — laser cannons at the ready — and announced they’d arrived to do battle with the forces of evil and save the human race from annihilation. Flesh-and-blood stars are great, but tonight the people want robots.
After years out of the limelight, the Transformers are blasting away again. To nearly every boy (and a surprising number of girls) who came of age in the Reagan era, the valiant Autobots and villainous Decepticons — shape-shifting superbeings from outer space, able to turn into cars, trucks, planes, and pretty much any other vehicle except possibly a rickshaw or a unicycle — were among the most beloved childhood toys, figuring prominently from the mid-’80s to the early ’90s in thousands of comic books, cartoons, and elementary-schoolers’ notebook doodles. Now, like the Police, Eddie Murphy, and other ’80s icons before them, they’re back and walking tall.
Directed by Michael Bay and executive-produced by Steven Spielberg, Transformers tells the story of a suburban teen named Sam (LaBeouf), who discovers that the junky Camaro he bought for $4,000 is actually an alien robot — a nice one, named Bumblebee. After the U.S. military is attacked by other alien robots (not-nice ones with names like Blackout and Skorponok), Sam finds himself at the center of a battle between the Autobots, led by Optimus Prime, and the Decepticons, led by Megatron. This being a big, fun summer popcorn movie, the battle could end in the enslavement of humankind. ”All my friends, they’re normal Joes, they were like, ‘What the f— are you doing that movie for? That sounds stupid,”’ Bay says. ”[But] it’s like the kid comes out in you when you see this movie. It’s just fun.”
Still, as the Transformers’ theme song goes — all together now, kids — there’s more than meets the eye. For Bay, whose fast-paced, glossy, testosterone-drenched actioners include Bad Boys, The Rock, and Armageddon, Transformers is a chance to rebound from 2005’s The Island. For Paramount and DreamWorks, which are bankrolling the $150 million production, it’s a shot at a potentially massive new franchise. For LaBeouf, it’s a critical stepping-stone toward his upcoming starring role in Indiana Jones 4. To the film industry, Transformers represents not just another big, shiny, effects-driven blockbuster but the prime (as in Optimus) example of extreme product placement. Like a Transformer, the film does double duty: as both a piece of entertainment and the world’s most expensive toy commercial. How successful that fusion proves will likely provide a harbinger for the future.
As they stroll the red carpet, the film’s flesh-and-blood stars seem perfectly aware of their place in the pecking order. Even a celebrated Oscar winner like Voight, who plays the flinty U.S. Secretary of Defense, happily accepts being just a piece in the larger game. ”The robots are cool,” he says. ”I like watching the robots better than me.”
This actually isn’t the first time the Autobots and Decepticons have invaded multiplexes. In 1986, the animated Transformers: The Movie was released in theaters, bringing together the weirdly eclectic vocal talents of Judd Nelson, Leonard Nimoy, Eric Idle, Robert Stack, and, in his final film role, Orson Welles as Unicron. During the film’s production, the man who’d brought the world Citizen Kane had been ailing. Shortly before he died, Welles told a biographer he’d spent the day ”playing a toy.” To the legions of kids who’d spent countless hours splayed on their bedroom shag carpets with them, though, those toys were as treasured as Kane’s own Rosebud — if Rosebud could shoot heat-seeking missiles from his arms.
Initially created by a Japanese company called Takara, the toys had been introduced in the U.S. by Hasbro in 1984 and quickly expanded into TV cartoons and Marvel comic books. The Transformers captured the prepubescent imagination. Soon, what had begun as just a nifty plaything had developed into an entire universe with its own complex mythology, much of it focused on the Transformers’ home planet of Cybertron, populated by everything from Dinobots to Micromasters to Aerialbots to Combaticons.
Still, the 1986 movie proved a giant flopicon at the box office and incurred the wrath of fanboys for killing off the John Wayne of Transformers, Optimus Prime. Hollywood lost its enthusiasm. Who needed giant robots when you had Schwarzenegger and Stallone? For years, while new Transformers toys and cartoons kept the brand alive, the prospects for a movie seemed dim. In 2003, when producers Tom DeSanto and Don Murphy started pitching the idea of a new Transformers movie around Hollywood, studio executives were largely uninterested. ”We were met with befuddlement,” says DeSanto. ”’This is a truck that turns into a robot and he’s going to battle the airplane that turns into a robot? And they’re how tall?’ It just wasn’t their generation.”
There was one executive who got it, however — and he happened to be the most powerful kid in town. Spielberg grabbed on to the idea of a Transformers film and ran. DreamWorks and Paramount came on board, instantly transforming the project from a quaintly nostalgic nonstarter into a would-be blockbuster. ”Steven was the architect of this from day one,” says DreamWorks production head Adam Goodman. ”He had played with the toys both with his kids and, quite frankly, by himself. He had a passion for it.” Spielberg lured screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Mission: Impossible III) with a simple, human-interest pitch straight out of the E.T. playbook. ”He said, ‘It’s about a boy and his car,”’ says Orci. ”That’s all we needed to know.” When Bay got Spielberg’s call, he was initially reluctant, but a trip to Hasbro changed his mind. ”We went through the entire lore of Transformers. I’m like, God, you know, if I make it real and edgy it might be something really interesting.”
With Bay on board, Spielberg supported casting LaBeouf, 21, as the teen Everyman who gets ensnared in the robot war. The boyish actor, then slowly gaining traction with audiences through films like Holes and I, Robot, was being groomed by Spielberg to be a young Tom Hanks — hardly the chiseled hero typically associated with Bay’s movies. ”The girls in the office, they always rate the actors coming in here,” says Bay. ”They were like, ‘Nope, he’s not hot.’ I said, ‘Just watch the [audition] tape.’ And they saw it and they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, we love him.”’ (Spielberg was unavailable for an interview; he’s at work on LaBeouf’s next project, Indy 4.)
Filming took place over several months last spring and summer, in locations as varied as the Arctic, the Pentagon, the Hoover Dam, and downtown Los Angeles. This being a giant-robot movie, the biggest challenge, of course, was to create plausible Transformers, a job that ultimately fell to Industrial Light & Magic, at a cost upward of $40 million. As part of a cross-promotional deal with General Motors, nearly all of the Autobots were designed after GM cars, which will bring out a 2009 Camaro that looks like Bumblebee. ”That saved me $3 million on the budget,” Bay says. ”It’s not whoring the movie out.”
For the actors, all this digital-effects work meant exchanging dialogue and doing battle with a tennis ball standing in for a robot. ”Let’s be honest: I would rather do a scene opposite a tennis ball than some of the actors I have had to work with in the past,” says Gibson, who plays an Air Force sergeant. ”The tennis ball is your friend. The tennis ball doesn’t mean you no harm.”
Bay, who has a reputation as a demanding director, rode his actors hard on the set. ”He is an intense guy,” says Duhamel, who plays an Army captain. ”When you have a movie of this size on your shoulders, you can’t worry about whether you’re hurting people’s feelings.” LaBeouf says the female cast members, including costar Megan Fox, had it the roughest: ”The girls had a tough time. They’re trying to run as fast as us in heels and it’s just f—ing impossible. And Michael doesn’t want to wait. He doesn’t want to moleskin their heel when it’s bleeding. He wants that on film. He wants to see pain.”
Bay took his lumps as well. Last fall, a poem about the film, seemingly written by an insider, was leaked onto the Internet. The ”Wrap Poem” lambasted production executives for giving Bay too free a hand on Transformers and called the movie ”loads of crap.” It’s a subject no one relishes discussing. Bay says he has a good idea of who wrote the poem and dismisses him or her as someone who felt creatively ”castrated.” Screenwriter Orci believes that Bay gets scorned unfairly for his unabashedly mainstream aesthetic: ”He’s got such a reputation that it’s almost watercooler stuff to say nasty things about him now. There’s even a song about it in Team America. It’s trendy.”
The afternoon after the premiere, Bay sits back in his chair in his Santa Monica office, wearing an Autobots baseball cap and jeans, a porch door open to let in a breeze. ”I’m still hungover from last night,” he says. ”Sorry about that.” Over the past few months, Bay has heard the protests of the passionate Transformers fans who say he’s mucked too much with their beloved franchise. He’s also heard the charge that the film’s just a commercial, one step removed from Hungry Hungry Hippos: The Movie. Right now, with box office domination a near certainty, all that criticism rolls right off him.
For the numerous promotional partners, the Autobots and Decepticons certainly do represent an army of steely salesmen. Though many have bemoaned the creeping influence of advertising, Bay defends promotional partnerships and product placement. ”There are products in everything in everyday life,” he says. ”Do people think there shouldn’t be brand names on something? Everything is branded. I hate commercials when they take the logos off of stuff. It’s not real life.”
Not surprisingly, Paramount and Hasbro will be joined at the hip for a while: They’re developing a movie based on another beloved toy, the G.I. Joe action figure, with Transformers producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. The studio is discussing Transformers sequels, which begs the question, will Bay direct another installment? He’s preparing a thriller called Pain and Gain but keeping his options open: ”Let’s see how this one does. I’ve got a lot of ideas for the next one. I feel like it’s my duty to do it. You don’t want someone else to take your baby.”
Transformers really is Bay’s baby. Whether fans send him love letters or death threats, it’s clear he never saw a need to transform his movie — or himself — to satisfy anybody else. ”You get this funny talk, like, ‘Damn you, Michael Bay, you wrecked my childhood! I want to hunt you down,”’ he says. He shrugs. ”Whatever, you know? People are passionate about their childhood.”
Can’t everybody just play nicely? For now, the cast at least sees the movie as a win-win, good for toys, good for mankind. ”I am totally fine with being an accessory,” says Gibson. ”It doesn’t hurt me to be in one of the biggest releases of the summer. The boat sinking in Titanic was the star of that film. That doesn’t mean that Leo and Kate weren’t good too.” He smiles. ”Me and Megatron and Optimus Prime are good friends. We are all in this together.”
Additional reporting by Carrie Bell, Missy Schwartz, Christine Spines, and Adam B. Vary