Michael Bay shows us ‘Transformer 2′ footage and talks about Shia LaBeouf’s dark moments

May 21, 2009 | 6:15 p.m.

SPOILER ALERT: I watched about 20-25 minutes of footage from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” and although I describe the scenes only in VERY general terms below, you might want to stop reading if you want to save all the surprises for when the film opens on June 24. 

Michael Bay and friend

I visited with Michael Bay last week and got a rare chance to sit with him in the editing bay and check out several sequences from “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen,” which most of Hollywood expects to be one of the mammoth money-making films this year.

Bay was a pleasant host but I could tell he didn’t really have the time to be entertaining visitors, not with the big finish-line looming for a movie that he has been working on “every day for two years,” as he put it. “This one is going to be close,” he said of the last-minute labors that remain.

A bit about that footage…

He showed me a comedy sequence with the Witwicky family getting young Sam (Shia LaBeouf) ready to go off to Princeton University. There was a lot of “empty nest” humor with Sam’s mom, Judy (Julie White), and dad, Ron (Kevin Dunn), and then the house is all but leveled by an unwelcome metallic visitor. The scene has a lot of humor in it but Bay said the film, overall, is darker than its 2007 predecessor. “This one,” Bay said, “is less quippy.”

There was the first scene in the film for the nubile Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) and of course she was wearing very little and posed like a grease-monkey hottie on a garage pin-up poster. “Of course we had to get that out of the way,” Bay said with mock resignation. There was plenty more of Fox in seductive mode and a romantic rival as well — at Princeton, a curvy mystery girl pounces on Sam in his dorm-room but there’s something a little alien about her. Maybe it’s the nasty steel tail that suddenly emerges from under her skirt like a scorpion’s stinger.

(My mind flashed on the director feud between Bay and McG on whether “Terminator Salvation” was just a Nine Inch Nails version of “Transformers” — this particular Bay baddie seemed to be channeling a bit of “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines,” so maybe McG will be firing back pretty soon…)

    

Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf

The hardware is impressive but it’s characters and story that generate the word-of-mouth that can carry a film into its second, third and fourth week as a box-office powerhouse, as “Iron Man” and “Star Trek” prove. Bay said he is mightily pleased with the performances in this film. The actors, he said, have sharper interactions this time around because of the previous experience of working together and in character; he said that’s one of the underappreciated benefits of this make-a-sequel era.

“People I’ve shown this to instantly feel like, ‘Hey, I know that family, they’re fun to watch.’ It’s like when you watch a favorite TV series, there are things about familiarity you like and it can be satisfying. There are other benefits from doing it a second time. Movies do take a life. Things spark and take a life, things you thought would be important drop away and a tone is set. With the sequels, you know the tone. That’s a huge thing.”

Perhaps, but sequels can also spend so much time being “familiar” that they become numb, pointless encores. We’ll have to wait and see the whole film in order to judge this particular $200-million enterprise.

Bay showed me an intense action sequence in Shanghai and I have to say he’s right when he boasts that the robots this time around are more impressive in their movement, intricacy and emotives…

Bumblebee

There was also a section of the film in a Princeton classroom with a leering Lothario of a professor (Rainn Wilson) who has a run-in with new student Witwicky, who is suddenly a sputtering genius thanks to his encounter with a powerful shard of alien technology. Bay based the sleazy Wilson character on a randy film instructor he remembered back at his alma mater, Wesleyan University, who wore leather pants and had a whispered reputation for seducing coeds.

There seemed to be a lot of humor in the film, but that may have been weighted by the fact that many of the more intense action scenes simply weren’t ready for sharing with a visitor. I asked Bay about his reputation for being a strident boss on the set and he said that’s the cost of doing business.

My movies are a big canvas. A lot of stuff can go wrong. I also do a lot of dangerous stuff so we take things seriously. You have to run a real well-oiled machine.”

He showed me a sequence with a cranky new Autobot with a lot of stylized personality (think of a windy old geezer with the metallic equivalent of a braided beard) and he mentioned that the smaller robots will be a key part of this film. Tom Kenny (the star voice of “SpongeBob SquarePants“) and ubiquitous voice veteran Frank Welker are on board and I think little kids in particular are going to seize on this movie. “Jeffrey Katzenberg gave me advice once. He said it’s great to have little characters with these big huge voices,” Bay noted of some of the manic little bots. 

I met Bay at his Santa Monica work compound, where one of his giant mastiffs was casually walking around like it owned the place. “You’re the first reporter to come into this editing bay,” the director and producer said. (The visit was for a Sunday cover story in this weekend’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section; I’ll be posting that feature here on Hero Complex on Friday.) Bay took me by his office, where he spends very little time — he’s usually on a movie set or the editing room.

Revenge of the Fallen poster

“This was an auto body shop years ago,” Bay said as he gave a tour of the offices, which sit behind an imposing gate. “I had my car painted here when I was 17, in that building across the parking lot. It was a Volkswagen Scirocco. I hand-sanded it myself and they sprayed it.”

In a corner conference room, a pair of MTV Movie Award trophies (they’re shaped like tall buckets of popcorn) share a wall with a gruesome latex torso from “Bad Boys,” the 1995 film that marked Bay’s deep-impact arrival on the Hollywood scene.

“We had a burglar alarm go off one night and the cops came in here with their guns pulled, and they saw that in the dark,” Bay said with crooked grin. “It completely freaked them out.”

I asked Bay about his lead actors and where they are this time around. It made him reflect on the first time he met LaBeouf, who came to visit the same Santa Monica office.

“Shia came in and auditioned and he was this little skinny kid. ‘Dude you’re like this action king!’ he was so giddy and he wanted to be in action movie so bad. I told him, ‘All right, all right, just calm down.’ I instantly loved his acting because he is disarming, he is great at improv. He’s got this everyday kind of guy that thing. He’s much more charismatic in this movie, too. He’s coming into his own. He’s a smart actor. You sometimes have to push him when he doesn’t believe it. He’ll go through a dark period. With actors you’ve got to be a psychologist. You have to see the darkness coming, especially with funny actors. I can see it coming on and I have to say, ‘Shia…’ and pull him aside. I explain it to him and he’ll come out of it. And then he’ll say, ‘You’re right, you’re right, I was in that mood…’ The reason is they’re scared of things sometimes. It’s not easy being an actor and putting yourself out there.”

On Fox: “I brought Megan in when I was producing a different movie and she auditioned for a two-day part. We gave the role to someone else but I remembered her when it came to this movie. There were a lot of young women that auditioned for ‘Transformers,’ but she got it. She was very junior as an actress. There was a chemistry thing, though, between her and Shia. She’s vastly improved over the last one.”

We’re going to have a lot more “Transformers” coverage here at the Hero Complex, so check back for that long Bay profile on Friday and then come back next week for more insights into a movie that may well be a juggernaut at the box office.

–Geoff Boucher

READ MORE FILMMAKER CONVERSATIONS ON HERO COMPLEX 

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Photos, from top: Michael Bay; “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.” Credits, from top: Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times; Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures.
 

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