How Michael Bay saw his future career in 1996

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On the eve of the release of The Rock, the-then 32-year old Michael Bay gave an interesting interview to Premiere magazine – and we’ve been taking a look in a bit more detail.

It’s probably worth making my position clear on director Michael Bay from the off, lest you think you’ve stumbed into one of those pieces that just exists to lob bricks at him.

This is not that piece. Two of my go-to films when faced with impending apocalypse are The Rock and Armageddon, and I love ‘em both. I quite liked the ambition and ideas of The Island, although confess that the Transformers movies and the recent Six Undergound left me quite exhausted. But then, I reconciled, they’re not really for me.

Flicking through back issues of movie magazines, then, I stumbled upon an interview that Bay gave to Premiere magazine in its July 1996 issue. This was on the eve of the release of The Rock, and it’s easy to overlook just how fast Bay had come in a short space of time.

At the point the interview was given, he was 32-years old, had built a hugely successful career directing commercials and music videos, and then had followed through with his ambition to become a movie director. His first feature behind the camera was Bad Boys, starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and a crucial part of the jigsaw in the former’s rise to fame. It was a surprise hit at the time, grossing over $140m at the worldwide box office. Not bad for a film that cost $19m to make. Two sequels to date have followed, with another on the way.

Bad Boys is cited by some as their favourite Bay film. What’s surprising about the interview in question is how cold its director was towards it. He’s warmed to it since, but back in 1996, the article notes that mention of the movie ‘makes him cringe’. Bay is then quoted as saying “I had a studio that didn’t believe in me and a piece of shit script”. Sony was the studio, who hired him for the sequel, although the screenwriters would change for that (with the likes of Judd Apatow, Ron Shelton and Seth Rogen all contributing to the eventual script).

The Rock, then, upped the ante for Bay, with over three times the budget and a notoriously difficult leading man in Sean Connery. Again, Bay is surprisingly open about this. “One day I had to get him underwater holding his breath with a fireball coming over him”, the director recalled.

Connery apparently was not happy with said director, and Bay conceded that “I think the word f*ckhead came out into the air”.

He also was clearly tuned to the fact that what he was doing was hardly going to be fodder for movie critics. But what’s also of note is that he appeared to show them some regard. “When I’m more experienced, that’s when I’ll try to do something that’s more regarded critically”, he says. There are three projects on his resume since that suggest he did indeed try. His much-maligned blockbuster Pearl Harbor was clearly trying to tap into what made James Cameron’s Titanic so popular, but it’d be fair to say that while the film was a financial hit, it was a critical miss.

More recently, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi took a real life story, although arguably the resultant film skewed more towards action.

The Island, though, remains a curious standout in Bay’s directorial career. The 2005 science fiction movie, headlined by Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson, isn’t entirely successful, but the first half of the film in particular hinted at a restraint and injected tension. That the second half feels more familiar Bay territory may also be in part to justify the $120m+ bill for the film. But there’s a sense there was something more within the project. That said, it only just about broke even, and so Bay looked elsewhere for his next film, and so began the Transformers saga.

One thing, though: I’d also argue that with the right project, Bay is an adept director of comedy sequences. Just look at the training scenes in Armageddon. They never fail to bring a smile to my face, and I’d be fascinated to see what a full Michael Bay comedy movie would look like.

Yet what also comes across clearly in the 1996 interview is a man finely attuned to movie trends. “I go out there to win”, he rounds off by saying. “People don’t care if you die in this business. The only way I get back is with success”.

And you can’t deny that success is what Bay has found. Several $1bn+ grossing movies, one of the most watched films of the last year on Netflix, and more money in is bank account as a result of his work than most of us put together will see in our lifetime.

Bay may be the director that many like to not like, but – aside from his criticising of arguably his most-liked film – it’s hard to see his interview proving too far wide of the mark…

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