Hey folks, Harry here... I couldn't resist having Mr Beaks, the most literate of AICN contributors, cover the set of the latest Michael Bay film, the director that is often times maligned as being the most illiterate of film directors. Something that I wildly disagree with. With the exception of PEARL HARBOR, I have loved every single one of his films, even the fascistly evil BAD BOYS 2. I can't wait to see THE ISLAND, and my bet is that when we see a trailer - our jaws will be unhinged at the size of Bay's latest John Holmes blockbuster! Till then, here's Mr Beaks with the word and the visions he saw...
It’s Day Sixty-Five on THE ISLAND. A stuntman is dangling thirty feet in the air, waiting to be sucked into the whirling blades of an extractor fan which will materialize later through the magic of CG. Hanging there next to him is a camera operator, strapped into a harness, but tilted at an angle that makes a forward pitch to the not-cement-but-still-plenty-solid floor entirely too possible for this vertigo-prone reporter. Meanwhile, another fan – this one very real and very massive – whips debris furiously about the Nigel Phelps-designed vent room set as crew members rush about preparing for the next take, which will briefly bring the stuntman back down to earth only to be whipped skyward yet again a few minutes later.
And Michael Bay says he’s bored.
Which elicits the obvious follow-up, “If this is boring, what excites you?”
Bay laughs, and confesses somewhat convincingly that, no, this really is kinda fun. But for a guy who’s orchestrated the sinking of “Battleship Row” in Pearl Harbor, staged a demolition derby through the traffic choked streets of San Francisco, and sent a Hummer crashing through a hillside shanty town in brawny, fuck-the-world homage/counterpoint to a classic Jackie Chan stunt, the torpor is somewhat understandable.
Happily for Bay, this shoot hasn’t been all studio bound derring-do. Before being turned loose to scope out the gargantuan sets taking up two Downey Studio soundstages, he plunks me down in visual effects supervisor Eric Brevig’s crew chair (daunting, since the guy’s a legend for his work with Rob Bottin and Alex Funke on TOTAL RECALL), and produces a DVD that reveals pretty much what I expected: despite today’s relative onset uneventfulness, Michael Bay is once again makin’ lots of mayhem.
With a twist. Because, more than any other film in his calamitous oeuvre, THE ISLAND is a foray into serious and, yes, *brainy* science-fiction; thus, requiring a set-up devoid of explosions, but rife with calm and careful exposition that establishes characters beyond their automobile and apparel preferences (as Bay says, “It’s a slow build”). And, much as I have adored the extreme demolition of some of his previous works, the emphasis on narrative has toned down to a degree the old, familiar freneticism while maintaining the filmmaker’s sure sense of epic scale – something that is fully on display in the marketing presentation he proudly shows me on monitor while cast and crew shuffle about behind us.
So, what is THE ISLAND? It’s the promise of Eden made to a small colony of humans toiling away at their ostensibly important jobs several hundred feet beneath the Earth’s surface, which is now, save for the titular locale, completely uninhabitable in the wake of a planetary holocaust. The decision of who gets to go to The Island is relegated to a lottery system, with one lucky winner being chosen periodically (much to a frowning Elgin Baylor’s continual chagrin). Though the odds against topside deliverance are high, the colonists are also instilled with the knowledge that their work is contributing to the Earth’s eventual repopulation.
Ewan McGregor plays “Lincoln Six-Echo”, a dutiful worker bee tinged with a bit of curiosity touched off by, among other things, recurring nightmares in which he finds himself immersed in water. He’s also something of a rebellious character, imbibing extra rations of coffee and bacon that raise his carefully monitored sodium intake above desired levels. This whimsicality is noted and addressed by Merrick, the settlement’s facilitator who is intrigued by Lincoln’s wishes that there was more to life. But while Lincoln has The Island, for Merrick (Sean Bean), this is it; the promise of the lottery is denied to the staff, which makes their sacrifice even more poignant.
That is, until the big first act reveal that Lincoln’s yearnings are more than the stuff of whimsy. There is more. Lots more. In fact, there’s a whole, populated, uncontaminated world a mere fifteen years from now* carrying on without any knowledge of the top secret cloning operation hidden away in the desert southwest of the United States, maintained by a private corporation catering to a very rich, mortality fearing clientele (the company is also in cahoots with the Pentagon ala Boeing or Lockheed Martin for the development of disposable clone soldiers that don’t at all look like Temuera Morrison). In other words, Lincoln is a flesh-and-blood spare parts receptacle for some wealthy chap named Tom Lincoln, a revelation that quickly galvanizes him and, in turn, sends him on the run with a female acquaintance in the comely embodiment of Scarlett Johansson, their escape fueled by a thirst for answers and, most importantly, the right to live their own life.
That’s the set-up; what ensues is a big, balls-*through*-the-wall chase flick (with Djimon Honsou in the Javert role) that features both earthbound and airborne action meticulously choreographed by Bay and his usual cohorts (e.g. Brevig and 2nd Unit ace Kenny Bates) who’ve been with him since THE ROCK. And when I say “choreographed”, I mean “practical”. Once again, Bay and his certifiably insane stunt team have eschewed studio bound digital trickery for literally high-speed chases that are seamlessly enhanced in post with carefully integrated CG (a methodology that worked magnificently for the freeway pursuit in BAD BOYS II, which delivered the thrills largely lacking in the similarly set sequence from THE MATRIX RELOADED).
This is something you apparently can’t do in downtown Los Angeles anymore; ergo, Bay’s desire for physical verisimilitude forced the crew to shoot Detroit-for-L.A. back last fall. While hanging out in the Motor City, they also cleverly availed themselves of the abandoned Michigan Central Depot, a vast, beautiful, high-ceilinged structure in which Bay staged the grand finale of a narratively crucial set-piece that brings together the clone and the cloned. I got a chance to watch most of this sequence, and, as with the other footage I saw, it was sans CG, but expertly done, and with a clearer sense of geography then we’ve seen in a Bay film to date. Built in 1913, the station plays host to a multiple car chase with ample Ã©lan, and Bay, as is his wont, shoots the hell out of it from every angle, juxtaposing the lovely Beaux-Arts architecture with the frenzy of a multi-car smash-‘em-up (imagine that new commercial with the waltzing Cadillacs, only this time they’re slam dancing). To the best of my knowledge, he’s the first filmmaker to make such extensive use of the location. Judging from what I saw, he won’t be the last.
What I did not get to see, sadly, is the much-ballyhooed-around-set WASP set piece, which was described to me numerous times as an urban counterpart to the Endor speeder chase (better than Ewan and Scarlett doing battle with a bunch of lithe, scantily clad, possibly rabid debutantes… or maybe just “different”). Everyone I talked to seems confident that this will prove to be *the* ride of the summer, and none are more enthusiastic than Bay and Brevig. I’m just happy that it’ll be the product of a lengthy location shoot (several weeks for five pages), and wasn’t overseen by Tim Story.
And what, pray tell, are WASP’s? Why, they’re the nifty flying motorcycle contraption that Ewan and Scarlett are running toward below (that’s Bay operating the camera off to the left):
Essentially, it’s a really cool, wheel-less upgrade of those flying hogs from MEGAFORCE, outfitted with a swiveling rear shotgun seat for a gunner, and no Barry Bostwick. Though I didn’t get a chance to talk much with Ewan*, I have to imagine the motorcycle enthusiast in him got a kick out of getting hauled around on one of those puppies at 70 mph. Apparently, Scarlett, described by most on-set as the consummate trooper (though I did hear a dreaded “d” word slip out on occasion), was right there with him in the stunt department. That said, neither one was crazy enough to attempt this jaw-dropper:
That’s the faÃ§ade of a building in downtown Los Angeles mocked up on the Downey Studios lot.
While I love sharing these photos, I dearly wish I could share with you what was the absolute highlight of my visit (aside from the below incident, of course): a tour of “Centerville”, which is the crew’s nickname for the clones’ buried habitat currently taking up a goodly portion of Downey Studios’ largest soundstage (a converted Boeing manufacturing plant). As far as futuristic underground cities go, it’s fairly minimalist – lots of glass and grays – but the scale impresses nonetheless – to give you an idea, it’s expansive enough to warrant an extra call of 500 or so. The main segment of the set is two levels with a pair of soon-to-be functioning elevators; there’s also a communal dining room and a bar (despite the generous space, the architects have wisely decided against a mechanical bull), along with the Department of Operations where Lincoln is employed under quite nefariously false circumstances. (He thinks he’s helping to repopulate the Earth; the reality is… he so isn’t.) Bay is understandably nervous about how he’s going to light this monstrous set (“It’s too big”, he complains), but, with cinematographer Mauro Fiore backing him up, I trust he’ll figure it out.
Right before lunch, I wound up back on the “smaller” soundstage watching Bay rack up takes of Ewan and Scarlett jogging down a steel platform in the form fitting jumpsuit that’s apparently the fashion of the cloning facility. As a huge crane swooped down and reset, presumably capturing the trademark fluid motion that typifies a Michael Bay film, I found myself chatting with the director and Dreamworks production chief Walter Parkes, both of whom were keenly interested in hearing the buzz on their summer competition. Slated for release July 22nd, a date everyone swears this currently on-schedule production is going to make without trouble, the pair seem mildly concerned that they’re “under the radar”. We rattle off the big ticket films – KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, REVENGE OF THE SITH, BATMAN BEGINS and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – all of which already have a marketing jump on THE ISLAND by virtue of their teaser trailers (it sounds like you’ll receive your first glimpse of this one in March). Sure, there’s the increasingly relevant cloning issue, the unstoppable sex appeal of Scarlett, and the fact that, if Lucas doesn’t screw the bantha, audiences are going to fall in love all over again with Ewan after having their hearts broken in the final reels of the last STAR WARS film ever, ever, *ever*. But none of these feel like sure-fire selling points.
Ultimately, THE ISLAND is a smart, provocative package that will reflect the evolving sensibility of Michael Bay, a director oft derided for soulless spectacle, but, let’s face it, one of the few guys working today capable of conveying the epic, budget-busting scale that used to signify grandiose Hollywood entertainments (a dying breed as a result of the town’s newfound spasm of spending consciousness). I can already tell you he’s nailed the massive scope; Bay shot the hell out of his desert locations with the same bravado evinced by Peter Jackson in his lil’ hobbit movies. The only question left unanswered is whether he’s imbued it with a heart.
And that brings me to the most astonishing thing I saw all day: a quiet scene between Lincoln and Merrick in which the former, restrained by design to a fifteen year-old’s education, struggles to articulate his growing unease caused by nightmares and a general sense that something in his world is simply *not right*. There’s space here, pauses even. Ewan takes on the mannerisms of an awkward teenager, while Bean hangs back and observes his charge, allowing him room to vent, but reining him in deftly whenever possible. It’s a lovely, poignant moment well played by two very talented actors, and even if it does eventually get cut up into five second takes (and I’m not saying this will happen), that calm will remain.
Bay’s always been good with the action, but the calm, particularly in PEARL HARBOR, always seemed forced. This time, however, it feels right.
Better yet, it ain’t boring.
* I’ve been told that Spielberg regretted setting MINORITY REPORT in the too distant future, and felt that this material, which he brought to Bay’s attention, would connect more tangibly with audiences.
** I would be remiss if I failed to note that I did receive an unexpected close-up of his left butt cheek as he cheerfully showed off his bruised but healing bottom to his director, the splendor of which was mostly lost on me; however, lemme tell ya, the hours of vivid detail demanded by Moriarty was exhausting and off-putting in equal measure.