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You call this paradise?

Cloning takes a haunting turn in 'The Island,' the latest action fare from director Michael Bay, who's had a few nightmares of his own.

July 17, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

Michael BAY loves to play softball and went 4-for-4 on a recent weeknight. As the game progressed, though, Bay felt a sharp tightness across his chest. Was the 40-year-old director having a heart attack? Had he pulled a muscle? Or was he simply panicking over "The Island"?

Having made some of Hollywood's biggest summer blockbusters, including "Armageddon" and "The Rock," Bay is accustomed to last-minute jitters. Yet with "The Island," he had cause for a real anxiety attack.

Even when compared to "Pearl Harbor," whose budget battles led Bay to quit the movie on several occasions, production of "The Island" had been rushed and demanding; on one day, Bay had no completed sets on which to film, and at another point the movie's construction crew was fired after an accounting scandal.

For the first time, Bay wasn't working with uber action producer Jerry Bruckheimer, his partner on all of the director's previous films, and not that long ago Bay had fired his Creative Artists Agency talent agents, which helped guide his career from a hot music video (Aerosmith, Tina Turner) and commercial director (the Aaron Burr "Got Milk" spot) into a popcorn movie superstar.

And not surprisingly, there were complications on "The Island," some typical and others unexpected. Visual effects were not completed until the last weeks, meaning that early commercials and trailers couldn't include several action scenes. Months after "The Island" filming was completed, Bay had to stage one more quick scene for the movie's final reel. By that time costar Ewan McGregor was in a London musical and couldn't come to Los Angeles (Bay essentially directed the scene from Los Angeles, using a British crew to film the actor).

And still the difficulties continued to escalate. Up against a summer of remakes, sequels and television show retreads, "The Island," opening Friday, has neither big-name stars nor for that matter an actual island. Theoretically that could play to its advantage -- the film is being sold to moviegoers as an original story in a summer of imitation. But the director worried the DreamWorks marketing campaign wasn't generating interest, and he complained that "The Island's" poster -- the winning candidate was chosen from more than 650 mock-ups -- made costar Scarlett Johansson look like "a porn star."

All of a sudden, Bay's $124-million movie was feeling like anything but a sure bet.

"These last three weeks have been a pressure cooker," Bay says. "Every movie is a war. Studios try to grind you down to the point of your having a nervous breakdown. I'm proud of the movie. But there's nothing I can do. I can do all the screaming and yelling. But they have to do their job" and market the movie, Bay says.

"The sad thing is, I think we have a really good movie here. But pretty soon, it's going to be too late. There is a point where I have done my job, and they have to do theirs. So I am causing a ... storm."

Bay has in the past said that he was tiring of big-budget endeavors, and longed to make a smaller, more containable -- even personal -- movie.

"The Island" was hardly that film.

Studio's scramble

In early 2004, DreamWorks was amid a tough transition.

Live-action co-heads Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald were shifting into a producing deal at the studio, production chief Michael De Luca was headed out the door on his way to Sony Pictures, and the studio's animation unit was plotting its initial public offering.

Amid all of those machinations, longtime production executive Adam Goodman was being promoted into the top moviemaking job, where he faced one immediate matter: DreamWorks had a thin production slate and needed to step up its output.

Then Caspian Tredwell-Owen's "The Island" screenplay came on the market. Its futuristic idea couldn't have been more timely, as it focused on human cloning. With DreamWorks partner Steven Spielberg in Japan, a flurry of intercontinental telephone calls was arranged to discuss purchasing the script.

Goodman thought Spielberg should consider directing it, but the "War of the Worlds" director suggested Bay instead. In fact, Bay just a few weeks earlier had visited DreamWorks partner Jeffrey Katzenberg to talk about working at the studio, eager to show he was not joined at the hip with either Bruckheimer or Disney (home to three of his five movies).

Bay's new William Morris agents read the script, then dispatched it to their client with their recommendations. Bay didn't start reading the script until nearly midnight, but he was immediately struck by one scene in particular.

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