There was still an hour before the gates would open at Universal Studios Hollywood, so Michael Bay pretty much had the Autobot universe to himself on Tuesday morning. First he took two spins through Transformers: The Ride — 3D, the theme park’s just-opened, $100-million digital marvel. Then the 47-year-old filmmaker wandered through Transformers Supply Vault (a store designed to look like the world’s most cheerful military bunker) where even he seemed surprised by its inventory of merchandise that included T-shirts, masks, magnets, patches, coffee cups, books and (of course) plastic toys.
It was all a bit much, but then Bay was presented with a frosty mango-colored energy drink from a Transformers-themed concession stand. “It’s called Energon,” one of the Universal employees chirped, “and it’s the preferred fuel of the Transformers.” Nearby, a Universal dancer wearing an elaborate Bumblebee costume began to shimmy and groove — even as the Hollywood version of the character hammed it up on a blaring wall screen in the gift ship.
Remember the old theme song? “Transformers, more than meets the eye … “ It may be time for a new jingle, perhaps: “Transformers, as far as the eye can see … “ That’s especially the case with Bay turning his attention to a fourth installment that Paramount Pictures is looking to release in the summer of 2014. That news will be met by groans of metal fatigue from film critics but the numbers from the third film, “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” show the public feels differently — the film stands as the fifth-highest grossing film of all time in worldwide box office.
“It’s kind of daunting and scary — you want to try to keep it going, to match what’s come before,” Bay said with a rare flash of self-doubt, or something close to it. “We’ve accomplished a lot [with the first three films] but that doesn’t mean you get anything handed to you or that you’ve got everything figured out.”
After talking for years about making a dark, offbeat tale, Bay finally did it with the $20-million black comedy “Pain and Gain,” which wrapped this month in South Florida and stars Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson as bodybuilders who embark on a criminal career with ludicrous and horrific consequences. Bay is now editing the film, which is based on a 1999 Miami New Times series by Pete Collins, but next week he goes back to his signature brand and the task of getting Optimus primed for a new kind of “Transformers.”
Bay says the film will veer off into new directions but keep the important things. Translation: There will be different human actors delivering the reaction shots when Optimus Prime makes a speech or Bumblebee channels some classic Motown. In a way it’s like “Star Trek” — the crew might change but the Enterprise gets the glamor shots.
“It’s a new cast,” Bay said with a matter-of-fact tone. “We’ve moving on to something different.”
Yes, that means the hard-luck saga of Sam Witwicky ends with a doorstep scene in the rain. Shia LeBeouf’s character was modeled on Marty McFly of “Back to the Future” and has a lot in common with Peter Parker, that other scrappy, misunderstood underdog with a special destiny that includes unlikely girlfriends. Tobey Maguire couldn’t stick for Sony’s fourth Spider-Man movie but at least his character will. Not so with Sam Witwicky, who already had faded away from Bay’s Polaroid picture. (LeBeouf made it clear months ago that neither he nor Bay were coming back to the franchise and, well, he was half right.)
As the director proved with the banishment of Megan Fox, he will brook no dissent on the set. And (with assurances s a $75-million payday for just one of the films) Bay is the only human cog who is as important as the big clanging robots in the title.
Bay hinted that the story might move into the future somewhat and, in an earlier Hero Complex interview, he mentioned that there would be some redesign of the robots (which would mean waves of new toys, welcome news to Hasbro) but he said it is incorrect to call the new film a reboot.
“It’s not a reboot, that’s maybe the wrong word,” Bay said. “I don’t want to say reboot because then people will think we’re doing a Spider-Man and starting from the beginning. We’re not. We’re taking the story that you’ve seen — the story we’ve told in three movies already — and we’re taking it in a new direction. But we’re leaving those three as the history. It all still counts. I met with the writer before I went off to do ‘Pain and Gain’ and we talked about a bunch of ideas. We let that simmer for a bit. He’s been thinking about stuff and now we’re getting back together next week to see what we’ve got and to see if it gels.”
Could the new story involve a departure from Earth? “I think so, yeah, a little,” Bay said. “That feels like the way to go, doesn’t it? I want to go a little off but I don’t want to go too sci-fi. I still want to keep it grounded.That’s what works in these movies, that’s what makes it accessible.”
Also, setting any extended section of the film on, say, the ancient planet of Cybertron would jack up the cost of the visual effects, and Bay has been told he won’t be getting a production budget as large as he did for “Dark of the Moon.”
“It’s going to be less, actually,” Bay said. “Our mandate is to cut about $30 million.”
Together, the three Bay-directed “Transformers” films have piled up a Megatron-sized total in global box office — it’s north of $2.6 billion — and exerted considerable influence on Hollywood’s visual-effects films and action storytelling. Bay’s trademarks are quick cuts, angles that amplify kinetic possibilities, a wicked sense of timing and a passion of all thing sleek and fast. Fair or not, all of that (plus the filmmaker’s fondness for strip-club portrayals of women and his imperious reputation) has made Bay’s name a Hollywood shorthand for making movies with noxious smoke and vanity mirrors.
A different view is offered by Steven Spielberg, the franchise producer who coaxed a then-skeptical Bay into directing the first “Transformers” film. The three-time Oscar-winner told Entertainment Weekly that Bay has “invented a genre and he’s got the secret formula.” That formula can be hard for some people to swallow and keep down, Spielberg said another time, speaking with Variety: “You can either look at his imagery as assaultive, transformative, or deliriously entertaining.”
Guess which one the film critics usually select? Village Voice film critic Dan Kois wrote that Bay’s last movie really gets inside your head: “Your brain cells perish by the thousands, their howls of agony lost to the cacophony inside your skull.” Apparently, the moviegoers of the world are cool with cerebral catastrophe as long as there’s buttered popcorn and Junior Mints; CinemaScore audiences gave the film an “A” grade.
Bay says this next “Transformers” film will “absolutely” be his last, but he said the same thing while making the third one; and, before that, he predicted his departure would come right after the second’s film’s completion. Why does he keep going back? The writers strike hobbled the second movie, “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” and the final product was “kind of a mess” (his words) so pride bought him back with something to prove. This time, he has said, he returned partly because so many people rely on the franchise as an economic engine now that he felt walking away would have been like shutting down a town factory.
There’s also the simple fact that the space robot saga has grown on him — why else would he have jetted down to Florida to work with the creative team behind the new Universal Studios attraction?
“When I went to Orlando they laid out the things that they could do,” Bay said. “And I loved it, the engineering of it. They have this stuff down, they know what they’re doing. I really like that. They said, ‘We’ve got this space, this size and we’ve got these flight simulators, we think this is the track play-out to get the most bang for the buck. There’s two elevators in there so we could do some rising up and some drops.’ The thing they needed was a story to fit in there.”
The story is all of four minutes, or course, and with the velocity inside, it’s all verb and simple enough to be understood by an audience (representing a wide age and cultural range) that is being whisked at whiplash speed through the spectacle and mayhem in the dark. This is what Bay does and will soon do again. Does that make him a pandering hack? Or a visual savant and throwback to the Old Hollywood crowd-pleasers who are adored by the same Cahiers du Cinema crowd that snub the Witwicky of blockbusters.
After his second ride, the director nodded his chin north toward the past and connected a few more dots. “I started my career on the other side of that stage wall on a Nike commercial, right next door,” Bay said. “I graduated film school [at Art Center College of Design] in 1989 so that was maybe … 1992? It’s was literally just over there, right next door.”
The commercials (which included a truly classic “Got Milk” spot) and his music videos (“I Touch Myself” for the Divinyls and “Do It To Me” for Lionel Ritchie among them) led to his first feature, 1995’s “Bad Boys,” which introduced Hollywood to the idea that a young television star named Will Smith just might make a good action-film hero. Bay made five more movies over the next decade: “The Rock,” “Armageddon,” “Pearl Harbor,” “Bad Boys II” and “The Island.” The first two were major hits, two of the last three were notorious disappointments, and then came “Transformers” and its measure of commercial safety.
Asked if he really thinks he will be able to walk away from a franchise right after he’s reshaped it, Bay looked genuinely surprised. “Here’s the thing, it’s tough to find someone who’s done these kind of movies and to have the complication of creating the new stuff that needs to be in this movie — not just characters but a new type of action, I hope — and that’s a lot for someone new to bite off. And so after this one I will leave it in the best hands possible. That’s the plan.”
— Geoff Boucher
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