I sent Bitter some questions. Here is Part 1 of that Q&A:
Let me start with a personal anecdote. Back in 2009, I walked out of a screening of Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with my then nine year-old son Luke, and asked him, “So what do you think that movie was about?” He answered, “Blowing stuff up.” Over time, I have come to think that pretty much cuts to the heart of Michael Bay movies. However in your book, you seem to have surfaced a mother lode of creative inspiration at work in his cinematic oeuvre that has managed to escape 95% of movie critics. How did you make this discovery: Peyote or psychotic breakdown?
I think I’ll begin by quoting an actor who should be familiar to you for his legendary role as Sentinel Prime in TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON, one Mr. Leonard Nimoy. Very few people realize this, but Mr. Nimoy also played an alien named Spock in an obscure series called STAR TREK. In one of his last appearances as the character, he debates with Captain Picard the merits of attempting to reunite his people, the Vulcans, with their distant cousins, the Romulans. Picard expresses doubt, to which Spock replies, “I sense you speak with a closed mind, Captain. Closed minds have kept these worlds apart for centuries.” When my own thinking becomes too rigid, I cannot help but hear Mr. Nimoy’s voice in my head.
I sense you speak with a closed mind, Scott.
That, of course, is not your fault, but it is telling you invoke both hallucinogens and mental distress, both agents that would, of necessity, open one’s mind. Is it troubling that it is human nature to be so rigid in our beliefs that we need outside intervention to unwillingly strip us of that self-inflicted blindness? I genuinely hope not, and I suppose that on an unconscious level, that might have been what led me to write the book. Every now and then we need to be challenged, perhaps for no other reason than to make sure that we do not grow too inflexible as we grow older.
So to answer your question, there were no drugs or psychotic conditions – that I am aware of – that presaged my breakthrough. It was sheer force of will, an extreme effort at keeping all of my prejudices and prejudgments at bay, if you’ll pardon the pun.
As a writer and an educator, I’m sure you’re aware that the two words most vital for any creative to embrace are “What if…?” Having seen so much mockery of the latest TRANSFORMERS and Michael Bay specifically prior to the film coming out, I wanted to challenge that perception and take in the film with an entirely open mind. “What if there was brilliance in this film,” I asked.
I expected that I might find a few interesting nuggets that had passed others by. What I didn’t anticipate was realizing this film was in many ways, the Rosetta Stone to Mr. Bay’s entire oeuvre. It shifted my entire preconceptions not just of that film, but of the filmmaker and of every work he had helmed. I can only liken it to a religious awakening and as the 15 minutes of VFX credits reached their conclusion, I knew that I must revisit his work and preach the gospel of Michael Bay.
In your book, you note how Bay has all sorts of messaging at work in his movies — scientific, political, even theological. If he’s got such a comprehensive take on reality, why is he dicking around making movies when he could be President of the United States or starring in a hit reality TV series: “Bay Watch: For Reel”?
Lex Luthor once said, “Do you know how much power I’d have to give up to become President?” That’s not to say that Bay doesn’t have an affinity for politics. I believe one of his former stars once comparied him to a politician who used a great deal of personal charisma and popularity to rise to a station of significant political power. The fact is that Bay is at his best when he has total control. By design, our system of politics doesn’t allow that.
In the movie business, Bay doesn’t have to take the notes from the idiot executive who’s barely read the script and doesn’t know what he’s talking about. In politics, brain-dead morons like Ted Cruz and Louis Gohmert keep getting elected. (I apologize for disparaging those unfortuate souls left in such a vegetative state by comparing them to wastes like Cruz and Gohmert.) If Bay had the ability to tell everyone else, “No, fuck you. I know what is going to work best for this country and I’m gonna give it to the people,” then it might be worth it. Putting him in a position where he’s actually accountable to other people would be a waste of a creative genius.
What I’m saying is that Bay’d be a lousy President, but a fantastic dictator. Right now he’s still able to reach people through art. Remember, Al Franken only went into politics after he stopped being funny.
Michael Bay does Juno. Go!
Michael Bay and Diablo Cody on the same film? I’d love to see the trailer for that if for no reason other than the fact that Diablo Cody has a name that was meant to be pronounced by a Don LaFontaine-like trailer narrator. Try it – it’s impossible not to make it sound kickass!
Okay, so the first thing to understand about how Bay develops is that he’ll often start with the action set-pieces first. There’s always action in a Bay film. Even the lower budgeted Pain & Gain has a couple footchase scenes and some explosions. And what do you know – Diablo’s one step ahead of the game with the high school track team’s running scenes. The slow-motion shots of the young men’s privates undulating with each stride also hits the Bay quota of male homoeroticism. So this part of the film is definitely the same – except there’ll be a lot more of it.
Also, Michael Cera’s part is now played by Jai Courtney.
The other thing to realize is that Bay films are never about what they’re about. My whole book is built around this. When Bay wants to deal with man’s relationship with God, he makes a movie about an asteroid threatening the Earth. When he wants to criticize Hollywood filmmaking and franchises, he makes a sci-fi movie about clones. So if Bay wanted to make a movie about teen pregnancy, the last thing the plot would be about would be teen pregnancy. All of that is hidden. Obviously the first part of that would be to make the main character a male.
A great metaphor for pregnancy is the creative process, so our male lead should be making something. Let’s say he’s an inventor. But he’s in over his head and he doesn’t even want to be working on this project that’s going to consume nine months of his life. This is a Bay movie, so how about he’s making a giant robot. The adoptive family in the original Juno is replaced by the people who have made our hero build this robot against his will.
Who could have the power to do that? Who else? The U.S. Government. The Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner characters are now government bureaucrats. Since these are the “gravitas parts,” though, they’re now played by Gary Oldman and Helen Mirren.
Over time, our guy starts to bond with the robot. And then, after Gary Oldman gets inappropriate with him over a couple drinks, he decides the deal is off and sets out to go on the run with the robot. This is good because it gives us more chase scenes. It’s good to have your characters running from something in a Bay film. Along the way he picks up a stripper/MIT night school student played by Victoria’s Secret model Candice Swanepoel.
But here’s the twist, Helen Mirran catches up to him and the robot (who for some reason has picked up a Creole accent) and reveals that she needs the robot. See, she’s not just a government agent – she works for NASA and if we don’t sent that robot to land on a comet and collect a sample immediately, the human race will be doomed. Our hero realizes the best thing for everyone is for the robot to go back with the people who love it, even if it means he’ll never see it again.
So basically the same film.
Let’s say I knew nothing about Michael Bay. If you had to pick one scene from his movies that would convey everything I would need to know to grasp his essence as a filmmaker, what scene would that be?
This is an easy one because I call out to this in the book. In Pearl Harbor, there’s a scene soon after the attack where President Roosevelt calls a Cabinet meeting to demand they come up with some kind of counterstrike against Japan. His advisers all say that it can’t be done. FDR isn’t hearing of this, and says that he believes God put him in his wheelchair for a reason.
Then he pushes away from the table and pulls himself out of his wheelchair, waving off the offer of help from his aides. For one moment, he stands tall, free of the prison that was his chair and says “Don’t tell me it can’t be done.”
It’s a completely transcendent crowdpleasing moment that has absolutely zero basis in documented fact. It doesn’t matter that FDR probably could never have done such a thing. All that matters is through this moment, we feel his conviction as well as the belief in the impossible that must have been felt by anyone supporting FDR’s impossible plan in real life. As I say in the book, Pearl Harbor gains greater emotional authenticity the further it estranges itself from actual events or even reasonable plausibility.
That one scene and everything it represent is probably the most effective summation of Michael Bay’s extraordinary career.
In a /film interview, screenwriter Ehren Kruger, who has writing credits on three of the four Transformers movies, is quoted as saying that the Michael Bay approach to story is “quasi-experimental”. What would you consider to be ‘experimental’ about Bay’s storytelling and what would you consider to be ‘quasi’?
I’m not sure quasi-experimental is even a word. Wouldn’t that be like being “quasi-pregnant?” I can see where he’s coming from. You can pretty much draw a straight line for early surrealist works like Un Chien Andalou and Transformers: Age of Extinction. But what I think Kruger intended to do with that phrase was underline a statement he makes right before that, “you start to make your peace with the idea that logical sense doesn’t have to be the be-all, end-all. It needs to be amazing fun for the audience. They need to be swept up, and be promised that they’re going to see things that make it worth spending money on a ticket.”
That’s Michael Bay in a nutshell – putting the audience first above all else. If that’s experimental in any way, it’s only because of the selfish self-indulgence of too many helmers these days.
Michael Bay does Little Miss Sunshine. Go!
I’m worried the idea is too small for Bay. Bay movies really work best when there are epic end-of-the-world stakes or at least big themes. His weakest film is probably Bad Boys II, which is a fairly routine cops-vs-drug-cartel story. He’s bored and you can feel how much he’s desperate to amuse himself because he pulls out every bell and whistle in his bag of tricks. It’s every Bay hallmark cranked up to 11. So the first thing he’d toss is the story in it’s entirety. The road trip aspect can stay, though. That’ll give us our car chases. Maybe we’re making a new kind of Cannonball Run here.
LMS is essentially about family. That’s the core ideal that drives it. So you take that, wrap it up in this car race and… oh shit! We just made a new Fast & Furious movie!
So if you want to see Michael Bay’s version of Little Miss Sunshine, I’d say Furious 6 comes pretty damn close.
Tomorrow the final part of my Q&A with The Bitter Script Reader about his new book “Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay Films”.
If you’re a fan of The Bitter Script Reader, here is a simple, easy and inexpensive way to show your gratitude for his many years of contributions as an online resource for screenwriters.