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Michael Bay, master of the 'huge canvas'

'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen' should continue the director's explosive box-office career.

May 24, 2009|Geoff Boucher

Michael Bay is lean, walks with purpose and carries his chin and shoulders at an imperious tilt, and on a recent afternoon at his work compound in Santa Monica it was easy to envision him as some proud matador; Bay, like those bullfighters in Barcelona, thinks of himself as a mayhem artist in the crowd-pleasing business.

Bay is back in the ring on June 24 with his eighth film, "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," which many industry observers expect to surpass the first "Transformers" film, which grossed a staggering $708 million worldwide in 2007. "The pre-tracking is huge," Bay said of surveys of audience interest in the movie that stars Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox and an army of two-story alien robots.

He rolled his eyes, though, contemplating the last-minute labor that needs to be done. "This one," he said, "is barely going to make it to theaters. You have no idea how complicated my life is."

The 44-year-old chuckled about his stress level, which fits his industry reputation as a director who thrives on pressure and adrenaline. Bay makes huge movies with high concepts and so many explosions that you expect the filmmaker to reek of cordite when you shake his hand.

His films such as "The Rock," "Bad Boys" and "Armageddon" may make film critics cringe (Kenneth Turan in The Times called him a "world-class noisemaker" who leaves audiences "feeling pummeled, not exhilarated"), but Hollywood executives view them as spectacles that are big enough to lure consumers away from their home theaters. With this new film, he describes the "huge canvas" of its visual effects in terms of computer memory -- at Industrial Light & Magic, the San Francisco effects house, the first "Transformers" movie took up an astounding 15 terabytes; the new one required 140 terabytes. "That breaks every record," said Bay, who is far more Barnum than Bergman.

You might expect that his pursuit of massive entertainment would lead to humongous budget overruns, but in fact it's a point of pride for him to wring every bit of bang out of each buck. The lanky, lupine filmmaker came from the world of television commercials (he did work for Budweiser and Nike, but the classic was his Aaron Burr "Got Milk" ad) and even after 15 years of making feature films, he still positions himself as a contrarian outsider who is offended by peers who, as a group, he views as too slow, arty, wasteful and indulgent.

"The way I do it, we work hard, we work fast," Bay said. "We shoot 12-hour days. . . . One thing I can't stand about Hollywood is waste. I've gotten to be a very, very efficient shooter. On average, these type of sequels run in the $230-million to $240-million range and we're shooting this for a flat $200 million. A lot of these directors have second unit the entire time, that's millions of dollars just wasted. We do it all ourselves."

Bay likes to conserve his budget so he can film in exotic places that other directors find too difficult to access and, along with emphasis on pyro work and stunts, gives his productions the vibe of daredevil tourism. On this new film, he "weaseled" his way into the Giza pyramid complex in Egypt ("We were the first movie in 30 years to shoot physically on the pyramids") where he shot with a 150-member crew for three days and, a few days later, he took his team to the top of the rock-carved architecture of Petra in Jordan, where military helicopters ferried 36 loads of gear to the perilous perch.

The choppers, by the way, were thanks to a Jordanian prince who loved Bay's first robot movie, while in Egypt it was Zahi Hawass, the secretary general of the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities, who turned out to be "a big fan of 'Transformers,' " Bay said, sounding surprised himself. (Bay seems to enjoy more support abroad than at home, perhaps because an explosion is easily translated; "Pearl Harbor" and "The Island," for instance, pulled in $251 million and $127 million abroad, respectively, far more than they earned during disappointing releases in the States.)

There may be very little mystery to Bay's movies, but he himself is a figure of fascination in Hollywood.

"We're still not quite sure how he does it when he's directing," says screenwriter Alex Kurtzman, who worked on both "Transformers" films. "People who work closest with him call his method 'Bay-os' because it feels like wartime chaos. There are explosions going off in every direction and half as many cameras flying all over the place, and you stand there thinking none of it's going to make any sense, then you watch the scenes cut together and realize something shocking: He's choreographed a ballet. He knows exactly which pieces he's going to use from each camera and he'd already cut the scene together in his head."

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