He’s been one of the most reviled filmmakers in Hollywood for over ten years, but someone keeps sending his films to the top of the box office. Drew Turney was among reporters who met Michael Bay during his recent Sydney press junket.
Did you know before you started the Transformers toys had such a huge fanbase?
The toy started 20 years ago and it’s been the bestselling toy around the world – in the top five – for 20 years so it has a huge depth of fanbase. It’s also strange that adults do collect the toys – don’t you?
Is it true you turned Transformers down?
Well it was a phone call in my edit room, Steven Spielberg called me up and said ‘Michael, I want you to do this movie called Transformers. There’s not much of an idea but it’s about this boy who buys his first car with an alien robot.
I said ‘that sounds kind of cool’, hung up and said ‘I’m never doing that stupid movie’.
But I thought about it and I went to Hasbro and met the CEO Brian Golder, who said ‘I’m going to put you through Transformers school’. And I thought ‘what are we going to do, am I going to learn to fold up the toy?’
He took me through the whole lore of transformers. I’ve been offered a lot of superhero movies in the past and nothing’s really appealed to me until this. I’ve always liked Japanese anime movies and it kind of clicked. I said ‘if I could make this really real and edgy I think I could do something very cool with it’.
You kept in touch with the fans to make sure you were giving something they’d be happy with. How was that process?
Some of our artwork started to leak out early on and you’d read stuff like ‘Michael Bay you killed my childhood’, ‘death to Michael Bay’ and ‘Michael Bay you suck’. When you take a cartoon and re-imagine it for the big screen, I had to reinvent some of the robots, I had to take it much more real and change certain things so they can hold up on a big cinema screen.
But I’d listen to the fans and I took a lot of their stuff to heart because I don’t want to re-invent the entire franchise even though you have to reinvent it for a movie.
The movie’s told from the human perspective. Can you talk about why?
I really like Steven Spielberg’s hook, the boy buying his first car, it’s such a launch into adulthood. It’s a seminal moment in a kids life – when they get their first car. It just so happened he bought an alien robot car and I thought it was such a nice way into the movie. I wanted to make a movie for the non-Transformers fan.
How did the Internet – including your blog – affect the process?
You’re never going to make everyone happy and I knew that going into this but you’ve got to be very respectful to the fanbase. You can’t change Spider Man’s outfit too much. When they put nipples on Batman, you saw that. You just have to be respectful to what they want and certain arguments but you’ve got to make your own choices as a filmmaker.
Many fans have seen clips and they’ve really given it their stamp of approval even though they were only seeing 2D images. By January 2006 we had 39,000 attempted hacks so fans were trying to break into our system, which is kind of bizarre.
The other Aussie connection is the voice of Hugo Weaving…
Yes, Megatron used to be done by Frank Welker and I felt his voice was too cartoony for a 40-foot Megatron. Hugo was so nice to accept the job and it was great working with him, I worked with him via the Internet for four hours and that was kind of fun.
Peter Cullen’s still in it though, as Optimus prime…
He’s just got a phenomenal voice and that’s something the fans really wanted. I was going to take a clear approach and audition and he was by far the best choice.
Any particular challenges with the CGI?
It’s something Industrial Light andreached a new benchmark with. I’m very into lighting and how real these things had to look. You look at a lot of CG and all of us have something in our brain that says when the light isn’t right, so we worked extensively on lighting.
Optimus Prime had 10,108 parts that all had to move and interact so they’re the most complicated physical models ILM’s ever made. Pirates of the Caribbean had some big shots in terms of rendering but ours reached a record. If you had 3 robots in the shot it took 38 hours to render one frame of film, and you’ve got 24 frames per second, so it was quite extensive.
It’s just that they had reflect certain kinds of light. When you look at a car you’ve got soft light with little hard pings everywhere and that’s a hard thing to do in the digital world.
Why are you the whipping boy fro critics everywhere?
When I did Bad Boys I used a style of very quick editing, partially because I didn’t have a lot of money. It was a $9m film and we didn’t have a lot of money for art direction so we had to disguise things. I was competing against True Lies that had all the money and all the effects in the world. That became my style and it kind of hooked into young kids.
So yeah, I did get the whipping boy thing and I asked a very esteemed film professor why I get the hard end of the deal and she said ‘in Hollywood they will always go after someone who changes something’. They don’t like change, and if you look at action movies these days they’re all fast cut now, and I don’t know if I’m somewhat responsible for that.
Or maybe I’m just a good whipping boy because I take it.
What was your favourite Transformers character and why?
My favourite was Bumblebee. You just get a lot of emotion out of him and there’s something cute about him, I think it’s the eyes.
I just finished the film literally last Friday [days before the first screening in Sydney] and when you step back it’s so weird that there was nothing there and now there is. You heard the audience last night applauding when a truck came in and skidded in – they’re finding emotion for a truck! I really liked it that we created characters out of thin air that you can feel something for.
Is it hard to find a balance between mature themes and toy content?
It’s not a movie about toys, I couldn’t care less about the toys. I wanted the older Transformers fan to like it as much as a younger kid aspiring to see a movie that’s a little bit more violent and a little bit scarier than he’d usually see.
Do the US military ever said no to you?
I’ve got a good relationship with the military. This is the largest co-operation they’ve given since Pearl Harbor and Black Hawk Down. They chose to sign onto to this movie because they know there are so many people in the military that are fans of the franchise.
Plus the military knows I won’t make them look stupid. When you saw those guys at the AWACS they were the real guys. I said to them ‘this is what’s going down on the ground, what would you do?’ Literally within two seconds they had the dialogue and they said it saw fast as we could film it.
What was the hardest decision in making the film?
It’s an expensive movie for what it is but it cost half of Spider Man 3 and Pirates of the Caribbean. We had $145m to make this movie and Steven’s very tough because he is the studio. He’s tough on budget so I really had to dig deep and make as few effects shots as possible and get the most bang for the buck. That was hard, how to tease them out and use them.
What keeps a director awake at night?
You just do it one shot at a time, that’s the way it goes. I work with a great crew who I’ve worked with for 16 years. I’ve got a different kind of speed, I shoot very fast. We shot this movie in 83 days and an average movie shoot’s 50 days and this has so much action. What keeps me up at night? I’m into everything on that set – what does the wallpaper look like, what does a chair look like?
Was there a sense of relief among fans when the release date came closer?
A big sense of relief. They saw the drawings and when people saw I put flames on Optimus they had coronaries. I had death threats. But you have to make decisions. I saw flames on a truck and I said ‘I’m going to put flames on Optimus’. When the first teaser came out, that’s when the tide started to change.
When I make a movie I really try to make it for the world, not just for the US. I think this is one of those movies that could do well all over the world, so I’m excited.