Bay guffaws. That's the best word to describe it. "No, but if you go back and read that article, and I’ve actually put it on my website, that writer really got me. He says that my movies have been held up as representing everything that’s wrong with Hollywood, but explains how that perception is incorrect. I changed how action movies were made, changed peoples idea of what an action movie could be. All the way though the history of movies, whenever a director changed how things were done, they were hated for it, because it meant everyone else had to change too, to follow the lead. If you know anything about directors, they hate to be followers, yeah?”
The 42 year old Bay changed things in Hollywood Spinal Tap fashion, by turning every dial up to eleven. Since his debut with 1995s Bad Boys, quickly followed by The Rock, Armageddeon, Pearl Harbour and back again for Bad Boys II, Bay has been all about scale – the biggest stars, biggest budgets, the loudest explosions, the most destructive action. It’s a formula that has worked, his films have generated a billion dollars so far, and although when we sat down the director wasn’t to know it, Transformers looks like being his biggest success yet, passing the $400 million mark just two weeks after opening around the world and garnering the best reviews of the director’s career.
“Did you say formula?”, Bay asks, shaking his head slowly with exaggerated regret. “I don’t believe in formula, either on this movie, or anything else that I’ve done. People like to think they can figure it all out, but I just want my movies to be fun and entertaining”. Transformers is unexpectedly funny, so to get around his resistance, I ask him how he achieves a balance, between the action stuff, the metal robots, and the humans at the centre of the story. Bay likes this question a little better. “It is important to have a balance, like you put it, between all the various elements of Transformers. You have to draw the audience in with the action, obviously, but with touches of humour and romance and whatever observations you can make about society, because characters can’t be taken out of the world that they live in. If I can do that with a joke, that’s all the better for me”.
Back in 1984, Transformers – ‘robots in disguise’ - took the world by storm. The Pokémon of another generation, they were an internationally successful Japanese cartoon series that sold countless millions of plastic toys, alongside comic books, lunch boxes, t-shirts and even an animated feature that boasts Orson Welles’ final performance. Bay’s take on Transformers has rising stars Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox playing high-school students who find themselves caught up in an ancient battle between two races of giant alien robots, whose fight has erupted on present-day Earth. For the first hour, the movie is a funny, beautifully observed Southern Californian teen comedy which then becomes a breathtakingly realised triumph of action cinema. It would be easy to dismiss the movie as a money-grabbing exercise in recycling and bombast, but Bay’s Transformers is that rare thing nowadays, a surprisingly entertaining summer blockbuster that outperforms expectations; of the concept itself and the director who made it.
I ask him how he got involved in reviving the property and Bay, who says he has been offered countless superhero movies over the years and turned them all down, puts his thumb and little finger up to his ear. “It was a phone call from Steven”. The Steven is Spielberg, the executive producer. “And it went like this”. “Michael, I want you to make Transformers. We don’t have a script, but it’s about a kid buying his first car. Turns out the car is an alien robot. Isn’t that great?” “So I said, cool Steven, I’ll think about it”. Bay replaces his imaginary handset, leans back in his chair and says “There’s no way I’m doing this stupid movie”.
Seeing as he’s sitting here, having done the stupid movie, I ask him what changed his mind. The director recalls his initiation into Transformers lore, which is surprisingly dense and complicated for a Saturday morning cartoon, describing the various robot names and their unique characteristics. “I learnt all this at the Hasbro museum. They have an actual museum at the factory where they made the toys back in the 1980s. It’s in New Jersey. I watched the whole cartoon series there, went through their collection and read everything they had. Eventually I was just completely turned around on it. I like to think I know my own mind but it goes to show, you should challenge your own assumptions sometimes. Your first reaction isn’t always the right one.”
“For me”, he explains, “there has to be a moral. It’s like when Optimus Prime (the red and blue leader of the good guys) says, ‘we’re a strong race, but we’re a violent race and we are in danger of destroying ourselves’. That’s something we can all learn from, right? Especially nowadays. What stands out for me, however, from the whole story is the line ‘No Sacrifice, No Victory’, and I think that’s true in life and its certainly been true for me”. Bay has a reputation for being a tough, demanding director but even before I can finish my question, he interrupts me. “I don’t get that. There’s no sacrifice there. I’ve been with the same crew for more than fifteen years now, which is a long time in Hollywood. I will tease them, encourage them, lead them, but they can see that I never leave the set. I’m there just as long as they are, from the first camera-set up in the morning. These are twelve hour days, you know. I work hard and fast and always ensure that I am organized to get the maximum out of the time and the money and if that means leapfrogging from one shot to another, and coming back and keeping both elements working, then that’s what it takes and I’m always ready to go”.
I ask him if there’s an element of risk in his approach and Bay takes it to mean physical risk. He explains how there is always danger in shooting action sequences, with fire and pyrotechnics and how everyone is trained and insured. I clarify that the risk I’m talking about is that by doing so much, so quickly, he might miss a trick. “No”, he says, “and I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. I think that by moving fast and keeping everybody going, I get more opportunities to work with my actors. I can do more takes, and keep them in the right place for longer I can try improvisation, which I love to do. By keeping that frantic pace, I can make more time for myself, if that makes any sense”. Bay goes on to describe the origins of a very funny scene between a flustered LaBeouf and his parents, played by veterans Kevin Dunn and Julie White. “That was something I made up there on the set, and asked the actors to work into the scene. I thought what was written was dumb, so I said, we have to come up with something and we have an hour. As far as the humour in the movie goes, that’s one of my favourite scenes. You can see it in the actors faces, too, it has that authenticity and immediacy and that’s part of the heart and the charm of the movie” .
With Bay, part of his own charm is his reputation for extravagance and swagger. I tell him there’s a story about him, since the early days, that he can order the US Army up like other people order Chinese food. “Yeah, that’s true”, he says, deadpan. “Nah, of course not, man. This is the United States armed forces we’re talking about here. The Military have been good with me because I’ve been good with them. On Transformers, I knew early on that from the script, that I’d be making an approach. I called my liaison guy at the Pentagon and I said, we’re doing this action movie and its about giant alien robots battling each other in suburban Los Angles. We’d really like if you could be involved.”
He just made the call. It’s that easy? “This is the guy who speaks for the President or whoever, right? He goes, ‘you know Mr Bay, if it really were the case that giant alien robots were invading Earth, we would be there to fight them’. So we all had a good laugh at that”. He seems to be having a good laugh now, but Bay clears his throat and goes earnest for a minute and admits that sure, Mr Hollywood has to carefully pick his way through the channels in order to secure that essential co-operation. “For a project this size, on any project, they don’t take it lightly. Short version, all the military care about is that they are portrayed in a realistic way. So if we shoot an air-strike, for example, it’s as close to reality as we can make it in our story. For this movie, we had the real pilots, in their planes, to do it for us.”
“The brass don’t really care about the fact that in the script, the robots are virtually unbeatable. What they are concerned about is that the service men and women we show are doing what it is they are supposed to be doing. That it is accurate and according to code. If you’re just making that part of the story up, then they don’t want to be involved.” Half joking, I ask him if he knows there’s a war on? “Our country is having some troubles, that’s for sure”, he replies, meeting my throwaway line with an unexpected gravity. “This war is a mess and everyone in America knows it’s a mess. Even the military people I talk to say it’s a mess. But if you knew the guys I talk to, you would respect them the same way as I do. I respect anyone who loves their country and it’s people enough to put their lives on the line to protect them. I think war is terrible, I really do, but I’m dealing in fantasy.” Just in case we hadn’t realised.