x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Apocalypse now and then

Over a 15-year career in Hollywood, the dynamic director, Michael Bay, has made a series of multimillion-dollar box office behemoths such as The Rock, Armageddon and Bad Boys.

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It is the largest American invasion force the Middle East has seen since the beginning of the 2003 Iraq war. Fighter jets, military attack helicopters, tanks, spy planes, drones and myriad heavily armed infantry charge across national borders, heading directly for the Giza pyramid complex on the outskirts of Cairo. Here machine guns are unleashed, missiles are fired, and American bombs explode with trademark shock and awe. This is not, however, some US foreign policy nightmare made real, or a test run for the beginning of an even newer world order. It is, instead, the climax of Michael Bay's blockbuster summer sequel Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which opens across the UAE next week. The film, eerily similar to Bay's original 2007 hit, pitches giant anthropomorphic alien robots against each other in a noisy and relentless battle for Earth's very survival. Thus the good and compassionate Autobots, with the aid of Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the baffled earthling and classic American teen hero, must once again defeat the evil, human-hating Decepticons while searching for a precious object that might spell doom for all humanity - in the first movie it was the All Spark, now it's The Matrix (not the Keanu Reeves movie, but an S-shaped piece of metal that can destroy the sun - don't ask). It is the ending, set in Egypt, that will raise eyebrows. It is here that the might of the US military is called in to save the region from complete destruction as the Decepticons go on their final kill-crazy rampage. For some people, this will smack of American wish-fulfilment, and the need to re-imagine the region as a powerless sandpit in need of western intervention. For others it will simply be the culmination of the Michael Bay method - a love letter to western firepower from a director who, through movies such as Pearl Harbor, The Rock and Armageddon, has increasingly fetishised all levels of the military machine. Not so, says the 44-year-old director. "This is not about trying to make a movie that's pro-American military," he says, seemingly indignant at the very idea. "I wanted to have the military in it because it helps to give some credibility and realism to the story. If you're going to be fighting giant robots, you can't just have them up against kids. Bringing the military into it, which would actually happen, helps ground the movie in some level of reality." "Bringing in the military", he explains, also means co-operating with the military. Thus in many Bay movies the director, who claims to have a direct line to the Pentagon, is trying to strike a balance between military co-operation - he demanded full access to the "real" Pearl Harbor, a working Navy base, for his film - and military interference. In one pivotal scene in Revenge of the Fallen for instance, a team of crack commandos dupe an interfering National Security boss into parachuting out of their plane over the desert. The scene, says Bay, appalled the military top brass. "They said they didn't want their military to be shown throwing a VIP out of an aeroplane," he says. "I told them that it was a joke, and that you can't take this movie too seriously, but they just said 'No'. So, eventually, I told them that I'd put in a shot of him alive, down on the ground, and they said, 'OK. We can live with that.' '' Bay nonetheless, and despite his cosy relationship with the military, warns against looking back at his canon and reading his films metaphorically as American political propaganda. "A lot of my movies deal with archetypes that are open to interpretation. And a lot of them deal with heroism, about the common person who sacrifices himself for the greater good. But they're not political statement movies. They're just supposed to help you escape somewhere." Bay's driving need for escapism, some say, has come at a price. For though his films have collectively made US$3 billion (Dh11bn) at the international box office, he has been critically derided at every turn: the LA Times famously announced that his work was so empty that it "impoverished audiences around the world", while the director himself was simply "a world-class noise-maker". He says the constant critical carping is wearing, even hurtful, and the accusations that he is a bullish perpetuator of mindless junk are unjust. Yes, he says, he can be a tough task-master on set. But the sheer scope and scale of his projects demands it. Bay, who acts as his own assistant director - ie the one who tells everyone to shut up before shooting - describes a typical filming episode, from Pearl Harbor, involving more than 200 extras, that both confirms his reputation as a martinet and explains it. In this case, in one epic pan over the bodies of bomb-blackened burns victims, he noticed a bored extra giggling in the corner of the shot, thereby ruining a very expensive and protracted set-up. "I spot this guy laughing in the crowd," says Bay, still seemingly furious. "And I'm like, 'Cut! Do you think this is funny?' We fired him right there." His reputation as the blockbuster champ is a matter of fortune rather than savage ambition, he says. The adopted son of an accountant, Jimmy Bay, and his wife Harriet, a child psychologist, Bay's early years growing up in Los Angeles were focused more on baseball than films, and were blissful. He was once rumoured to be the illegitimate offspring of John Frankenheimer, the filmmaker, but today simply says: "We don't talk about that". It wasn't until he started a summer filing job at Lucasfilm, headquarters of George Lucas, the Star Wars guru, that the filmmaking bug started to bite. "Being surrounded by all this stuff, like architectural set plans and storyboards, and seeing how the magic was done and learning about it, that's when it really hit me, and when I decided I wanted to do it," he says. He subsequently studied film at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, and again as a postgraduate at Pasadena's Art Centre College of Design, where he produced a decadent 60-second mock-commercial for Coca-Cola inspired by the famous VJ Day photograph of a sailor and nurse kissing. Here, using $5,000 of his own money and, with a hint of things to come, Bay filmed the short commercial on the Navy frigate USS Prairie, with more than 80 extras in period costume. The advertisement became his calling card, and by the age of 26 he was directing pop promos for Aerosmith and Meatloaf, and real commercials for Nike, Pepsi and Budweiser. He was brought in by Jerry Bruckheimer, the über-producer, to direct a no-hope project called Bad Boys, which was to be a vehicle for Will Smith, the then-rapper turned TV star. Bay threw out the script, allowed Smith and his co-star Martin Lawrence to improvise much of their comedy shtick and, when the film ran over-budget, paid for the final shots himself. The movie went on to make more than $140 million at the box office, and Bay's career as a blockbusting kingpin had begun. He says today that his progress through the movies that followed - The Rock, Armageddon, Bad Boys II and so on - has merely been a matter of trying to out-do himself commercially, while pleasing the studio bosses and franchise-friendly system that he currently fuels. There is, however, a much smaller filmmaker within him, someone who has consistently thought of making a modest "character-based" movie. He says now, while single and without children, and having made the most commercially successful movies of his career, might be the time to do it. And yet he is worried the franchise machine might railroad him back into the action. Transformers 3 is the current bait being dangled before him. "They keep trying to convince me to do these movies," he says of the studio bosses. "They get in your way, and they can manoeuvre you. So right now I won't even talk to them about Transformers 3. Because if I do they'll tell every other studio in town that I'm doing Transformers 3 and that blocks me from doing anything else." He admits, of course, that it is an enviable position to be in, to be dodging the offers of multimillion-dollar projects. But you also suspect that Bay has reached a creative cut-off point too. And that unless he does something different, something smaller and something quieter soon, he will be forever known as the world-class noise-maker and the Pentagon's best friend in Hollywood. * The National