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Racing Around 'The Rock'

Movies: Director Michael Bay, whose fast-paced work style began with music videos and commercials, is seeing his skills break through in the summer hit.

June 11, 1996|GLENN LOVELL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Much about Michael Bay shouts, "Caution: Hot Young Director in Motion!"--the way he takes over a room, the way he races through a story, especially the way he makes movies.

In high-stakes Hollywood, where a minute's delay on a shoot can mean thousands of dollars in overruns and fines, speed can make you a bigger hero than Keanu Reeves on a booby-trapped bus.

If you're fast and funny--well, that can blast you into the stratosphere, where you'll now find Bay, director of Disney's can't-miss summer ride, "The Rock," starring Sean Connery and Nicolas Cage as unlikely allies who break into Alcatraz prison to foil a renegade general's (Ed Harris) doomsday scenario. Bay calls Alcatraz Island, where he shot for eight weeks, "our fourth character."

"Michael is very fast," says Jerry Bruckheimer, who, with the late Don Simpson, produced "The Rock." "On the first day of filming, he did 42 [camera] setups. Which is amazing. The average number is 10 to 12 setups a day."

How did Bay, a 32-year-old Los Angeles native and graduate of the film program at Pasadena's Art Center College of Design, become such a speed demon? By apprenticing on low-budget music videos (for everyone from Donny Osmond to Meat Loaf) and award-winning commercials (remember those "Got Milk?" spots). The lanky 6-foot-2 Bay, who resembles a young John Sayles, did the music video for Simpson and Bruckheimer's "Days of Thunder" and last year made his feature debut on the team's no-plot-all-attitude "Bad Boys," with Martin Lawrence and Will Smith.

"Commercials were a great training ground," says Bay, who went from around-the-clock post-production on "The Rock" to last week's red-carpet premiere--on Alcatraz, of course. "I became a very fast shooter. On 'Bad Boys,' I mounted the camera on a skateboard to get this surreal, kind of interesting angle. We had no script. It was about the charisma of those two guys."

"The Rock" also had story problems ("The movie is way different than the original script," Bay says) and a wishful-thinking budget ($55 million) and shooting schedule.

Disney wanted its first high-tech thriller out early to ride the slipstream of "Twister" and "Mission: Impossible" and beat 20th Century Fox's much-anticipated "Independence Day" (July 3). Fifty sound editors were hired; four editors worked seven days a week for six weeks while Bay huddled with Cage and re-shot the actor's mostly improvised cellblock tirade. The budget climbed to $70 million. (The film took in an estimated $25.1 million at the box office in its opening weekend.)

Everyone was then shuttled to a test screening in Phoenix.

Bay, seated at a table in his Brentwood home, toying with a black production cap, relives the moment: "They fly you in. . . . You don't know where you are. . . . You feel like you've got a brain tumor coming on . . . heart palpitations. . . . You sit in the back . . . on the aisle . . . so you can run to the bathroom to throw up if you need to."

Within five minutes, Bay, Bruckheimer and the Disney brass were breathing easier; the audience was laughing and squirming at the right places. Bay had succeeded in putting Connery over, at age 65, as "a really hip, strong, charismatic figure--a rusty James Bond."

Neither Bruckheimer nor Bay has seen "Mission: Impossible," but neither is worried because, as Bay puts it, "We have characters and story. I hear 'Mission' is impossible to figure out."

And "Twister"? "The first two tornadoes are great," Bay concedes. "But then I got bored . . . just a bunch of swirling dust. I'd rather see dinosaurs."

"The Rock" ups the ante with a legendary breakout artist (Connery), a SEAL assault on Alcatraz and a missile attack on Candlestick Park. Bay is proudest of the San Francisco chase with Connery at the wheel of a Humvee and Cage in a commandeered Ferrari. The innovative sequence is drawing comparisons to Steve McQueen's suicide run in "Bullitt" (a movie Bay says he hasn't seen).

"Disney is not used to doing big action movies like this," Bay says. "They kept comparing 'The Rock' to 'Crimson Tide' [another Simpson-Bruckheimer production], which shot for three months on a sound stage. They wanted to keep cutting my car chase. I wanted nine days. Finally, I said, 'I dare you to find any other director who can do this chase in nine days.' "

Disney obviously admires such moxie. The studio has signed him to a "killer deal . . . kind of ridiculous because, see, I'd do it for free." (He'll receive more than $10 million, plus back-end points, to direct two of his next three pictures for Disney.)

Bay's breakthrough is bittersweet, coming as it does six months after Simpson's death from a drug overdose. "Don's death hit Mike very hard," Bruckheimer recalls.

To anyone who dismisses Simpson's producer credit on "The Rock" as a sentimental gesture, Bay points out that Simpson was very involved in the casting and the plotting (he devised Harris' Gen. Hummel as "a passionate bad guy").

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