We're sitting in a Santa Monica screening room down the street from Bay Films. Michael Bay films. You wouldn't know it from the outside because it's not exploding.
It's an early December afternoon, and a select group of online/print journalists have been summoned for a world premiere unveiling of the teaser trailer for TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. It's the third entry in the franchise which has rung up 1.5 billion worldwide for Paramount - and if it seems a bit early to be talking to journalists for a film that's not due to hit theaters until July 1, 2011, well, Bay's got something to say about that.
"We have a more serious story this time," he promises. "I'm trying to make up for movie two."
Bay is referring, of course, to TRANSFORMERS: REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, which played like a fourteen-year-old's Four Loko-fueled vision of the robot apocalypse. It was a lot of movie. Too much movie. Too much all the time. It was like a roller coaster with one perilously steep, two-and-a-half-hour-long dive. It also grossed more than the first movie, so the fact that Bay's acknowledging he perhaps went a tad overboard with this movie is encouraging. It means he's sane.
It also means that he's in the filmmaking business for the right reasons. Bay could've very easily argued for more of the same after REVENGE OF THE FALLEN, but he gets that the audience needs a break from the Bay-hem every now and then. He listened to the reactions not of the critics, but the fans, and I imagine he was bummed that they didn't have as good a time with the second movie as they did the first. I'm certain of this, actually. I've been around Bay enough to know that he's in the business because he genuinely loves giving people a great night out at the movies. When I attended a test screening of THE ISLAND several years ago, he taped off one seat for himself in a recruited audience aisle, and watched the entire movie surrounded by people who've helped make him a very rich man. In terms of judging the effectiveness of a movie - particularly a Michael Bay movie - it's a far more accurate barometer than adding up numbers from a pile of clumsily-worded scorecards.
We've also been called out to Santa Monica so Bay can shoot down once and for all the rumors about substandard 3D in DARK OF THE MOON. He's already issued a rebuttal to the "morons" making these claims, but nothing squashes a rumor more emphatically than whipping out the goods. After he's concluded his brief preamble, that's precisely what Bay does.
First up is the DARK OF THE MOON "announcement piece", which will be attached to TRON LEGACY next week. It opens with the Apollo 11 Eagle landing on the surface of the moon in 1969. A voice from mission control speaks to astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin: "We are dark on the rock. Mission is a go. You have twenty-one minutes." Armstrong and Aldrin venture off to a crater in the moon's surface where some familiar-looking (to us) alien craft is embedded. They've made first contact. Thus begins the cover-up.
The teaser succeeds at setting a serious tone. It's not "dark" per se, but one gets a sense that the stakes are going to be a little more elevated in this film, and, um, clear. Later in the day, Bay assures us that the movie will be free of "dorky" humor (though Ken Jeong will be around to do that Ken Jeong thing).
Next, Bay cues up a series of 3D shots selected to dispel any concerns about the "problems" the production has encountered. It's rough, unfinished stuff, but there are some breathtaking moments: there's a vertiginous aerial dive shot from the perspective of a soldier in a wingsuit (Bay had these guys zipping around a skyscraper-lined two-mile stretch of downtown Chicago for three weeks), a precarious-looking slide down the side of a collapsing building, Shia swinging wildly from a cable clamped to the eye of a Decepticon (who's so annoyed he has to annihilate the side of a parking structure, which means lots of flying cars!)... and it all looks spectacular because it was shot real-world rather than blue screen.
It's only three weeks into the editing process, but the 3D looks about as good as 3D can. Bay's got Vince Pace and the AVATAR gang at his disposal - and while they're having to invent a new way of shooting 3D to accommodate Bay's style, the director put them through a rigorous series of preproduction tests to make sure they could adapt. Here's how Bay explains his decision to shoot in 3D:
Contrary to opinion, the studio did not force me to do anything. They suggested, "Would you be interested in 3D?", and I'm like "Huh?" I've had [Jeffrey] Katzenberg call me all the time, Jim [Cameron] call me all the time... "You've gotta do 3D." I visited Jim on AVATAR, and I just saw all the blue screen and the big cameras and I'm like, "This is so not me." So it's kinda scary, alright? Especially 'cause I do real world stuff, [as opposed to] the blue screen stage where it's all air-conditioned, no dust, and you can manufacture so much, and you've got these big rigs that go with the umbilical cord into a lot of this brain power stuff.
So we first investigated conversion companies. It took about 5 months of investigation - I mean literally breaking it down. We had them all come pitch to us how they would do it, and so I thought, "Okay, well what if we spent a lot of time on conversion?" You can do really successful conversion, but it just takes a lot of time. And then I kept thinking, "God, I've gotta try these cameras." And we got Jim's space, his camera systems out there. This is really hard for me 'cause I'm a die-hard film guy. Anamorphic old-school lenses. There's just nothing more beautiful than anamorphic lenses to me. So going digital was like, "Ugh"; it's just kinda crass for me, and in close-up it's terrible. Just for me, that's for my taste.
So we brought the camera systems out, and you hear horror stories on all these movies: they would do 20 shots, 10 shots a day. I usually do 40-50 shots a day. So I'm like "Well this is bad on a $200 million movie. This is gonna just exponentially increase the shooting days. It's a disaster." So I went out there, with my guys and their guys - we had the AVATAR guys [because] I wanted really seasoned guys. It's like either you work with the best or you're screwed. I had the same guys that did AVATAR and have a lot of experience with that system, but they'd never done what we've done. We put it through a rigorous test. We strapped a camera on a skydiver, you know that doesn't really happen much. We put it on systems that it's never been on before. So that day of testing, I was testing with film cameras and 3D cameras, and I was trying to keep the pace and timing. I was pretending like this is a real shoot, and I'm throwing curveballs to them saying "Alright let's change this lens, do this lens" and I'm trying to time them, seeing how it would affect my day. And they were scrambling a bit, so I'm like "Ugh, it could be a disaster, but maybe we can train them better. I mean, it's the first day, you know? They gotta set the rigs up the way I like them.
But it was fun to put those glasses on and go right around to the TV [to watch the footage they just shot in 3D]. It's kinda cool." As Jim told me, "Mike, we've done everything, it's just a new toy for us." (Laughs) And that was when I finally said "Alright, you know what? I'm gonna try it." Originally I was gonna do four to five weeks of photography, and the rest we were gonna do conversion. [Bay says to do conversion right, you've got to shell out $30 million. Studios will sometimes try to get by with a $10 to $12 million conversion.] Cause they had done really hard shots from Transformers, we picked our company. We gave 'em shots that had the dust and the debris and the facial stuff, and some was quite surprising. And then I saw some stuff that ILM was doing with dual-eye rendered robots, so it's two eyes putting it into a plate, and we figured we could be very successful doing that.
Our first day, I kinda secretly told my line producer, "We're gonna keep that [3D] camera the whole show, the studio just doesn't know it yet. We're gonna take our conversion money, we're gonna put it towards our camera money, so keep that crew the whole show." I didn't wanna spill the beans to the studio; you gotta sucker punch 'em when they least expect it. (Laughs) You get 'em invested and then they're fucked, you know? (Laughs) And then they came down the first two days, they put the glasses on, and I'm like "Hook line and sinker, they're sold."
Bay seems happy with the 3D process so far, but he was quick to emphasize that he shot most of the close-ups in the movie with anamorphic film. "It's just more beautiful than the digital," he says. I'm still of the opinion that a great Michael Bay action film doesn't need 3D to blow me away, but it really does look like he's done something remarkable with that wingsuit sequence. I can only imagine how it'll play on an IMAX screen. I'm going to have a light lunch that day.
After the presentation at the screening room, Bay whisked us away from the Paramount "hall monitors" to Bay Films for lunch, conversation, and "just a little bit" of footage. Bay was eager to pick our brains about the reel he'd just shown us, as well as just shoot the shit about the troubled state of the movie industry. He parceled out some story details: after the 1969 prelude, the film is centered on Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) getting his first job after college (Shia evidently lobbied for Sam to be working with the government, but Bay wanted to keep the character grounded with real-world issues). Sam's also traded in his old brunette (Megan Fox) for a blonde (Rosie Huntington-Whitely), and while we didn't see much of her performance, we saw enough to confirm that she'll do.
Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson are also back, but they're no longer on active duty together. We know for sure that Tyrese is retired from the military. As for the combat in this movie, Bay describes it as more BLACK HAWK DOWN than the previous two. When he brought us into the editing suite to watch that "little bit" of footage, he showed us exactly what he meant.
Full-on urban warfare. Not like in TRANSFORMERS. Trashing downtown Los Angeles was one thing - and rather impressive in its own right. But what he's done with the final set piece in DARK OF THE MOON (and he really was showing us the end of the freaking movie in the editing suite) is a mix of practical and CG that, if seamlessly integrated (and Bay's the best in the business at this), will make the entirety of BAD BOYS II look like BRIEF ENCOUNTER. I can't divulge details, but even with unfinished animatics, I was giddily reacting to it like a finished movie. It's some of the most inventive, destructive, and cleanly-composed action Bay has ever staged. Almost as amazing as the footage was watching Bay work the sound board and volume like a DJ during the sequence, occasionally shouting out what the scene was missing in terms of 3D. Not that we could hear a damn thing. By the end of the presentation, Bay was literally brushing off his desk drywall that had shaken loose from the ceiling.
Bay also showed us the Capone footage, which was basically a more roughly-assembled chunk of what we'd just watched with fewer f/x. I now understand why Capone got worked up. I obviously can't speak to the rest of the movie, but as far as the action is concerned, this is Bay at his chaotic best. And, yes, you can tell what's going on at all times. That the movie already looks this entertaining in the third week of editing (with more scenes yet to be shot in Africa) is incredibly encouraging.
Bay was also sure to clarify that DARK OF THE MOON isn't crammed with nonstop destruction: he's taking more time setting up the story, and steadily escalating the scale of the set pieces. I can't speak to the quality of the screenplay, but I love the Apollo moon landing hook, which should help set the film apart from the last two (and, to be honest, the second movie was basically the first movie times a million or so). There's a lot of big-ticket competition this summer, but I wouldn't want to be anywhere near TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON. This should easily be the best of the series.