Transformers' End: Michael Bay brings robot action to the U.K. with 'The Last Knight'
The premiere of The Transformers: The Last Knight is still several weeks away when director Michael Bay takes a break from editing to talk about his last episode with the franchise. Paramount is releasing the movie in IMAX, 3D and other formats on June 21.
"I've got five editors in Santa Monica, that's more than I ever had, while I work here in Miami," he says by telephone. "It's a virtual setup here. I can color-correct, do my ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] sessions. I've got something like fifteen monitors here, and I've got the Cisco TelePresence so I can push a button and boom! I'm in their room. They can see what I'm cutting, I can see what they're cutting."
Bay likes the peace and quiet he finds in Miami, complaining about the "snootiness" in Los Angeles. One of the most commercially successful directors in the world since he turned professional at 23, he can seem alternately intimidating and defensive. He's even made fun of his outsized persona in a Verizon commercial where he stated, "I demand things to be awesome" while detonating explosives around his house.
"I had a younger director with me, and I knew this poor kid was not going to make his day," Bay recalls about that shoot. "I'm trying to like leapfrog for the guy, going to my effects guys for help. Producer goes, 'We're going to have lunch.' I said, 'No. When that sun goes down at 4:45, you're not going to be making your day. And I'm not coming back here tomorrow, so we've got to get it done now.'"
Bay can summon up defining moments, good and bad, from all of his work. The blast he had directing the second unit on one of his TV shows to help out his director, but also the special-effects shot in Armageddon that he still regrets, the writers' strike and "piss-poor" camera sensors and defective 3D equipment that made it harder for him to achieve his vision on other productions.
When Bay directed the first Transformers film back in 2007, "There had never been a successful robot in movies. One that had 10,000 moving parts and had reflective light in a hundred thousand ways. It had never been done before. It broke the mold."
Bay says he deliberately avoided a stylish look for that first entry. "I wanted to keep it very suburbia, not flashy. It was all about a little boy hiding the robots from his parents." He cast actors who were comfortable with improv, like John Turturro and Julie White, to keep the mood light and upbeat.
"Movie two [Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen], we had a writers' strike, so even though it was funny, that was a tough one," he says. "Movie three [Transformers: Dark of the Moon], I think it got back on track again. And then with Transformers: Age of Extinction, we had some actor changes and we had to go a different direction. I think we were still finding our way. This one feels completely different, much more confident."
Transformers: The Last Knighttakes place primarily in England, although Bay shot in locations around the world: Scotland, Iceland, Arizona, Detroit, Africa, Hong Kong. Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci and Josh Duhamel return from earlier episodes. New to the franchise: Nickelodeon star Isabella Moner, playing an orphaned tomboy; Laura Haddock as an Oxford professor who teams with Wahlberg; and Sir Anthony Hopkins as an astronomer and Transformers expert.
"I loved working with Anthony Hopkins, he's quite funny in the movie," Bay says. The director also praises Wahlberg, saying, "He's always present, a really hard worker. Although I called his lawyer and warned him not to cut his hair for Patriots Day."
The director encourages his actors to surprise him, admitting that he will sometimes push them out of their comfort zone to make a moment feel real, despite the absence of effects that will be added later.
"Here's the thing about actors and effects, " he says. "First of all, we don't use a lot of green screen in these movies. We have real locations with real stunts around them. But to get your actors to believe in something that's not there, you cannot be an armchair director. I don't even allow director's chairs on the set. Instead, you get right up next to them, show as much passion as you can. And then it's all about the eye line."
Bay mentions action blockbusters where actors lack guidance, where directors seem to have lost control of the production. "These massive movies, you've got to keep the machine moving," he insists. "Where these movies get into trouble, some directors have no clue how to keep that machine moving. You've got to have high energy to really walk your actors through these scenes."
The director maintains that energy level during post-production, working in his editing suite, teleconferencing with his Malibu editors, having sessions with ILM and MPC [Motion Picture Company].
"You have to get proof of concept, that an effect will really work," he says. "There are some effects here that are making me really nervous. I've been around the block, but some of this stuff is scaring me. It's always good to get scared. It's good to get ILM scared, too. That's what the business is all about, getting scared."
Bay has developed a reputation as a director who can seamlessly orchestrate layer upon layer of effects. But focusing on effects makes it too easy to overlook his distinctive visual style—his bold color palette, kinetic compositions, geographic unity. Bay isn't afraid to overwhelm viewers, transforming passages in a commercial blockbuster into completely abstract imagery.
"There's always a little special sauce I put into my color correction," he jokes. " A lot of colorists want to land in this safe zone of color correction. I don't always follow the rules."
Bay even directs viewers within the frame, using lighting, lenses and composition to highlight specific areas. "You want the audience to look here or there," he says. "I'll tell you a little funny fact. There's a camera assistant who's in Pearl Harbor, he's in a hallway. No one's ever found him. I left it in the movie. I know no one will ever see him because you're always looking over there instead."
The director talks in the same propulsive rhythms of his movies, at times beating out emphasis on his desk. He uses "boom" to indicate a transition in his stories, warns about "making the day," about "hitting it really hard," about "breaking the shot," about leapfrogging from one setup to another. And about pushing back against studio executives to get something he needs—like shooting native 3D instead of converting footage in post-production.
What's evident in talking with Bay is his love of filmmaking, his excitement on the set, with equipment, while editing. Complimented about his visual sense, he will demur, "It's just a style." But then he will explain, "It's about intensity and energy and intimacy, and then composition and movement."
Bay shot roughly three million feet of footage for Transformers: The Last Knight, an inflated amount he needed using two cameras for 3D. Still, it's a massive amount of material.
"It's interesting because I've got a couple of new editors on this one, and I'm trying to get them used to my style of cutting and how I shoot," he says. "Because when you shoot so much, they're going to put it together in a way where, 'Oh that's not me, that's not me.' I'll talk like in music with them, 'It's got to go boom bo bo bo boom!'"
Bay laughs disarmingly about his methods, adding, "It's especially hard when you're doing it here and you're not sitting next to them, you're talking to them on a phone."
This will be the last Transformers movie for Bay. Travis Knight is scheduled to direct a Bumblebee spinoff to be released in 2018. Further Transformers features are in development.
"About two years I ago I went to Paramount and said we need to invest money and create a writers' room," Bay says. "We sampled fourteen writers and sent them to Transformers school, put them in a room at Paramount that was a big kind of warehouse space. We filled it with 10,000 images. We had a life-sized Bumblebee there, we had a Megatron head, we had videos playing the old movies and clips, it was like a think tank. Akiva Goldsman heads up the group, a great bunch of writers. Steven Spielberg and I really gravitated to some of their ideas."
Bay says that The Last Knight feels different from other Transformers episodes. "It's really a springboard for where Transformers could go. It's much more about mythology. The writers came up with different eras and we combined them. It's neat how you see some of the ideas in the past movies link up here, but the story also fans out into a lot of different directions."
The director believes the ability to develop familiar Transformers characters and add new ones helps keep viewers connected to the series.
"Remember, the Transformers are all about rebellion," he adds. "And in this one you've got conflicts with governments, conflicts within governments. But at the heart of these movies is my belief that there's a hero in every one of us. Sometimes we get that moment in life, maybe just fifteen minutes, to change something in this world."