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Transformers - Michael Bay interview

Michael Bay directs Transformers

Interview by Rob Carnevale

MICHAEL Bay talks about overcoming the death threats to direct Transformers and some of the biggest technical challenges he faced.

He also confronts the speculation surrounding his fiery reputation, the possibility of a Transformers sequel and the progression of special effects…

Q. Transformers fans gave you a really tough time when you were announced as director. How tough was that to take?
Michael Bay: I cried [smiles]. What are you gonna do? They didn’t know what I had in my head. But I think when the fans see it now they’re like: “Wow!” But I took the death threats like a man. It was all over the internet, things like: “F**k you Michael Bay! Death to Michael Bay! You’ve wrecked my childhood!”

Q. Is the current look of Transformers the way you imagined it?
Michael Bay: Believe me, that’s not what I imagined when I got the call from Steven Spielberg. I thought this was a silly toy movie. But he told me: “We don’t have an idea other than it’s a kid buying his first car.” A car is a big thing for anyone going into adulthood, it’s a big seminal moment, so I thought there was something in that. But then I hung up because I still thought of it as a silly toy movie. But then I made the trip to Hasbro and I’ve always been a fan of Japanese anime movies and I saw some animated shots and I thought if I could make this edgy, cool and real then it might be something.

Q. What was the biggest challenge?
Michael Bay: To make these robots as real as possible. I think we’ve made a huge accomplishment visually. When I was 15 I worked at LucasFilm as a kid filing artwork and stuff. But George Lucas wrote me a letter after Pearl Harbor saying: “You raised the benchmark on effects.” I was like, “wow”. But I think we did it again on this one. I think we’ve done things that couldn’t be done about a year ago. It’s very complicated lighting. To me, effects are all about lighting. We know in our minds when something looks fake and my key is to making the lighting as real as possible.

Q. Is it true that you based the robots on different actors?
Michael Bay: Yeah, we took Liam Neeson for Optimus – not his face but his mannerisms. We took Michael J Fox for Bumblebee and Hugo Weaving for Megatron.

Q. Did you enjoy working with Steven Spielberg?
Michael Bay: He’s always been an idol of mine and he’s been very complimentary to me. He says this thing that I don’t buy – that I have the best eye in Hollywood. He says: “I steal stuff from you Michael!” But I steal stuff from him too. He was interesting to work with. He’s different to work with than Jerry Bruckheimer because I can talk visually with him. But he’s a real tight ass on money, which is good. We made this movie for half of what all those other movies this summer cost. Spider-Man 3 is $300 million and something, Pirates 3 is $350 million, but we made Transformers for $145m. And that’s partly because Steven is very judicious on his movies. If you think about Jurassic Park he only had 50 effects shots. On War of The Worlds he had 119. On this one, we had 450 but that’s still not a lot. Steven makes you go in and think about what you’re doing and that was a good exercise. But then there were times when he saw the movie and say: “God, I wish you had that shot!” I’d have to tell him we couldn’t afford it!

Q. Do you sometimes get your visual ideas from the script and weave them into the movie, or is it the other way around?
Michael Bay: No, I do a lot of writing on every movie I do. I write all the action. I’ve just come to this realisation that about an hour into every one of my movies I always do these really cool montages. I loved it when the Japanese were starting their engines and getting ready to go [in Pearl Harbor], when the shuttle launches in Armageddon and on this there’s a whole montage when the meteors are coming in. It’s just so visual. There was no script when I signed on to do this movie so I’d come up with images and had a good relationship with the writers.

Q. How was working with the military? Did they have much involvement?
Michael Bay: They don’t give a lot of co-operation because they’re very busy at the moment. But I called the Pentagon and said I had this alien invasion movie, this fantasy movie, and they said that if there were aliens about to invade we’d be right there to fight them. All they care about is making it accurate. They don’t care about politics. They don’t tell me if I can make fun of the president or not. That’s not their job. Their job is to make sure that what everyone’s doing in the movie is real. The scene where they’re calling in the air strike is exactly how it would happen.

Q. You have a reputation as being a hard director to work with. What do you say to that?
Michael Bay: Listen, in my personal life I’m very mellow but in my work life we will joke around a bit but I shoot very fast. My crew has been with me for 16 years and they know my style and speed. That’s how we shot Transformers for $145 million instead of $300 million. We shoot 12-hour days, I don’t grind crews down to 16 or 17 hours because you don’t get as much done. But we do work hard. On my set I’m like the assistant director and his job is to push the crew… “let’s go, let’s shoot this!” I go into a mode and I’m very focused. But actors come back to work with me, so…

Q. Where do you go from here? Will you keep making bigger and bigger movies or will you go back to smaller scale stuff?
Michael Bay: Yeah, I’ve got these four movies I want to do that are just actors acting with really good dialogue and fun characters. It wasn’t the right time after The Island to do something small. But I also like these types of movies. The problem is it’s like doing three movies because it takes forever – drawings, conceptual… you spend months with a team of artists. And you always fight with the studio. But I always quit at the right time.

Q. What do you think about the development of special effects?
Michael Bay: It’s almost getting to a point where whatever you think of you can probably come up with that image. I guess it’s becoming more freeing for a writer or director to start coming up with these ideas. Back in the ’70s, not a lot of movies had been done so there were a lot of ideas. Now, it seems like so many things are done over and over and over I wonder if we’re running out of ideas… right?

Q. What about a Transformers sequel?
Michael Bay: I haven’t even thought about it. I know I’ve got some cool stuff that I was going to put in the first stuff that proved too expensive. So who knows.

Read our review of Transformers

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