Transforming the franchise: Michael Bay reboots the blockbuster sci-fi series with Mark Wahlberg
Once upon a time, it was rare for the same filmmaker to direct more than one installment in a major movie franchise. These days, though, it's standard practice for one director to call "Action" on all three parts of a blockbuster trilogy, with such A-listers as Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and, of course, Peter Jackson pulling off that hat trick before moving on to other pastures. (And in Jackson's case, by the end of 2014, he'll have two complete trilogies to his name.) Three years ago, Michael Bay joined the Trilogy Club when Transformers: Dark of the Moon exploded in theatres, marking the supposed end of a three-picture journey that began in 2007 when the first live-action Transformers feature took the global box office by storm.
Dark of the Moon's billion-dollar worldwide gross meant that another Transformers movie was inevitable, but Bay's involvement certainly wasn't. In fact, in the run-up to the movie's release, he indicated he was looking to put Optimus Prime, Megatron and the other giant transforming robots created by the toy company Hasbro in the early ’80s in his rearview mirror. But after a three-year hiatus during which he made his first non-Transformers movie in eight years—the 2013 dark comedy Pain & Gain—Bay re-upped for Transformers: Age of Extinction, the latest chapter in what's now become his Transformers quadrilogy.
Set four years after the events of Dark of the Moon, Extinction launches an all-new storyline with an all-new cast of characters headed up by Mark Wahlberg as single father and mechanic Cade Yeager, who discovers that the broken-down truck sitting in his garage is, in fact, a Transformer. And not just any Transformer: Optimus Prime, who has been in hiding since his heroic Autobots defeated Megatron's villainous Decepticons and leveled Chicago in the process, making both sides robota-non-grata with Earth's human population. When yet another world-shattering threat arrives on the scene, though, the Transformers emerge from seclusion and bring some new friends and foes—like Cade, his college-aged daughter Tessa (Nicola Peltz), her boyfriend Shane (Jack Reynor) and a whole crew of Dinobots—yes, those would be giant transforming robot dinosaurs—along for the ride.
In the midst of their final sprint to get Age of Extinction ready for its June 27 release date by Paramount—where it stands poised to dominate both that weekend as well as the following Fourth of July holiday—Bay and series producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura spoke with Film Journal International about mounting the fourth Transformers adventure and the experience of taking the ’bots across the Pacific to shoot on location in China.
Film Journal International: Michael, prior to the release of Dark of the Moon, you indicated it would likely be your final Transformers movie. What tempted you to return for the fourth time around?
Michael Bay: Well, the way I look at it is that this isn't the fourth time around: It's the first time with a new franchise. Age of Extinction feels very different, while still keeping the history of the franchise intact. I wanted this one to be more cinematic and have a slower pace at the beginning to try and get into the human characters before it gets into this chase from hell and grows bigger and bigger. I also felt like it would be such a massive undertaking for a new director to come in and reinvent everything in terms of the design process, as well as the sheer volume of creating new characters and an idea for where the series was eventually going to go. It would have taken someone [new] three years instead of two. And then I was inspired when I saw these three-hour-long lines in Orlando and Singapore for the Transformers theme-park ride. I thought, "You know what? I think I gotta do this one more time."
FJI: Lorenzo, did you play a role in convincing Michael to return after he initially expressed interest in moving on?
Lorenzo Di Bonaventura: Honestly, I think Michael had to make his own decision. I do think the thing that was instrumental was that this movie was going to be so completely different. I can't think of a franchise that has changed virtually all of the human cast [between movies], and even some of the robots have changed. So Age of Extinction is still Transformers, but from a creative point of view it has a very different texture and feel.
FJI: One of the most obvious differences, of course, is that Mark Wahlberg is replacing Shia LaBeouf as the star of the franchise. How did that change come about?
Bay: Mark mentioned it to me when we were making Pain & Gain. I love working with him; we have a really similar work ethic—he gets me and I get him. Right away, the studio said, "You gotta find a new kid, you gotta find a new kid" and I was like “That's the wrong way to do this." We captured lightning in a bottle with Shia and it would be very hard to replicate. So I figured out a backdoor: Let's start with a father who has a daughter that he's raising by himself and she's got a boyfriend and that's a backdoor way of bringing younger people into the movie. The whole cast is amazing: I wanted a real 17-year-old girl and I found Nicola; she's just a doll to work with and a tough woman too. Jack is also a big new talent and it's always fun to put new talent around really established people. And then we also have Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammer, who were both fantastic.
Di Bonaventura: Shia was great at what he did, but he was a young man when we started the first Transformers and audiences will not accept that a 20-year-old can be an action hero. They won't see that maturity—only age brings that. With Mark, you have a verifiable action star that's able to take the fight to the [enemy]. Also, the emotional dynamics are different. We always said that that the core story of the first movie was: "Boy gets car and gets girl." It was really a triangle of those three elements. In this case, the triangle is father, daughter, boyfriend. When the boyfriend enters the film, you get the father reacting to the idea that his little girl is growing up and he's not the only man in her life. That's the emotional tug we're able to play throughout the movie.
FJI: The Chicago battle from Dark of the Moon was probably the most complicated and demanding action set-piece in the franchise so far. How did you plan to top it in this installment?
Bay: I showed the film to Steven [Spielberg] this weekend and he said, "It's such different action than you've ever done!" We try not to be repetitive, and the unique thing about Transformers is that it can be anything. With Bad Boys, the characters are cops, so what can you do action-wise? You've got the water and you've got police cars, but it's always only stuff that cops can do. Whereas with Transformers you can have an alien ship, you can have something transform into something else. Their world is really vast. Like in this movie, we have Dinobots!
Di Bonaventura: One of the reasons we went to China is that Michael was looking for a new experience and a way to top the Battle of Chicago. Visually, Hong Kong provided the kind of backdrop he was looking for. And as we debated that possibility, we got more and more excited about how cool it would be to shoot in China.
Bay: We were in Hong Kong for three weeks and on the mainland for about two. They shut down a national park for us, which was an amazing environment. We've always traveled with these movies because they appeal so far around the world and China's always been a place I've wanted to shoot. Shooting there isn't easy; it takes a lot of approvals—I don’t think they've shut down a street in Hong Kong for a movie in over thirty years, so that took some talking.
FJI: Along with The Lego Movie, the Transformers series stands as a key example of the commercial viability of toy-based films. Is there a secret to your approach that other attempts have perhaps failed to crack?
Di Bonaventura: Yeah, my secret is that Michael Bay's directing. [laughs] Honestly, he's done a phenomenal job. I think The Lego Movie is quite amazing, because they just had Legos to work with, whereas we're drawing from cartoons, comics and other aspects of the bigger Transformers mythology. It also comes down to the creative team, which is usually spearheaded by the director. Michael has been able to push for a creative environment that's kept this franchise evolving. It's never stayed static.
Bay: I don't look at this as a toy movie. To me, it's a mythology; that's what the creator originally conceived of and then it became a toy. So I think cracking the code in this case is not approaching it as a toy movie, but rather as a mythology and a tale of good versus evil involving aliens who have an interesting story. And that's kind of where we take this movie. It opens the door to explore where the Transformers came from.
FJI: With that in mind, looking ahead to the franchise's future, do you foresee a day when someone could make an all-robot installment or does the series always require a human element?
Bay: You can do one entirely with the robots, but I can tell you that it would be very expensive. These shots are not easy, because the robot computer models are so complex and that's what makes the films so time-consuming. We have 80 animators on Age of Extinction—that's a lot of animators. Before, our use of the robots was always money-conscious, like, "We only have three shots, so we can only show this much." And when we made the first film, we were working with technology that hadn't been done entirely successfully until that movie. It was a huge advancement in visual effects that was completely underappreciated at the Oscars that year. So I think that eventually you could go pure robot, but someone's gotta foot the bill for that.
FJI: Finally, the million-dollar question—if there is a fifth film in the series, will you both return?
Di Bonaventura: I was always attached to the fourth film, as I am with the fifth one—if there is one. The difference between a producer and a director on these kinds [of franchises] is that the producer has different functions on each movie and that keeps it fresher. Like for this movie, figuring out how to produce a movie in China was a different experience than it was for the director filming the movie in China. A director is still thinking about camera angles and things, while producers are dealing with different crews, different rules and different laws. So we get a little more variety. I think it's harder for the director to find the excitement each time, but Michael's managed to do that.
Bay: These things are killing me. [laughs] I'm telling you, they're really hard! I've been doing it for a long time and work with one of the best teams in the world, but this was a bear of a movie. We're trying to push limits in every aspect; like in this case, we've devised a whole bunch of scenes for the new Dolby Atmos technology. It’s only in about 500 theatres, but it's really amazing and I'd encourage people to see the film in an Atmos theatre. So right now, I'm just trying to get to the finish line on this film. Even Steven was like, "I don't know how you guys are going to finish the movie!" But we'll get there—we always do.