If you believe the hype: bigger, better, badder, is the mantra referring to the sequel to the 2007 blockbuster, Transformers. After all, it is a Michael Bay film, the director synonymous with explosions, over-the-top action sequences, sexy women, and loud music. All elements are in place to satisfy every adolescent boy's fantasy. Or, those who are just young at heart.
Since the first movie (which grossed US$710 million worldwide), its stars Shia LeBeouf, 23, went on to major leading man material in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Eagle Eye. And the then little-known Megan Fox, 23, who is widely regarded as the "new Angelina Jolie" due to her striking resemblance to her predecessor and a beauty in her own right, is the ubiquitous presence on every magazine cover and is in umpteen coming movies.
But the real star of the movie is director Michael Bay. Endowed with the swagger of a rock star, his reputation for grandiosity precedes him. Nonetheless, he is always entertaining in person, and boasts a resume that includes The Rock, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boys, and Armageddon, evidence of his penchant for blowing things up bigger and louder than anyone else. In short, to borrow from Spinal Tap, Bay turns the action up to 11. Although serious film critics moan with disgust at the mention of his name, Bay is unashamedly one of the most commercially successful directors in Hollywood.
Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura says of his collaboration with Bay, "Michael doesn't know his limits. The chaos of all the elements he has on a set with planes coming in, bombs going off and everybody running in different directions, it requires a general like Michael to get everything in order." So ambitious are some of the scenes, that Bay has made it into the Guinness Book of Records for the biggest explosion on film with actors present. That shot was filmed in New Mexico. Some have likened the film to that of a "war movie," to which Bay disagrees. "No, it's just more adventure and action. There are also more robots and they can do more things, but it's not a war movie."
Like many of his other flicks, Bay enlisted the help of the US Army. "On the first Transformers we used real service people, not actors. With this one, we used every service - the navy and the army. Actually, after the first Transformers there was an increase in signing up for the military. It's almost like a big commercial to enlist in the army," says Bonaventura.
The sequel has more of an international flavour. Says Bay, "The last movie basically took place in a 10 square mile radius. This one goes halfway around the world, and I think it's real fun. It's a lot darker, but I think funnier, and the robot interaction and the visual effects are simply far superior and the complexity is much more advanced."
Outside of the US, the movie was shot in Paris, Jordan, and Cairo. "I take you to places that have never been shot in a movie. The top of Petra has never been put on film, period. King Abdullah II let us take 36 helicopter loads of military men up there. We were able to use a crane, so we take the viewer on aerial shots of the pyramid that even National Geographic never got permission to do," he says. "They've all tried," he says again, making his point. "When John Turturro was filming on the pyramid, he had a tear in his eye. I said, 'Why are you crying? What's going on?' He said, 'You just don't get to do this in movies. You don't get to shoot in a place that's 4000 years old."' So, how was the big shot from Hollywood able to convince Middle Eastern royalty to let him have his way? "Because I'm a smooth talker," he jokes. "No, seriously, the Prince and the King of Jordan were big fans of Transformers. That helped."
Making everything on a grander scale obviously translates to a bigger budget. Although Bay will not disclose or even ballpark a figure, he says vehemently, "I have a different philosophy on directing than most. One thing I hate in Hollywood is waste. I can shoot action faster than almost anybody on this earth, okay? That means I can keep my costs down," he says. "There's no dilly-dallying around. There's so much wasted time on sets. But not mine. We don't sit around. We shoot."
Security in the Middle East is obviously an issue, and consequently, arrangements for the cast had to be made. But according to Fox, it was Bay who required more security than any of the film's stars. "When we landed in Jordan or Egypt, Shia and I shared one car with the driver who was also the security guard. Michael's car was flanked by six other security vehicles to make sure he got to the hotel safely," she says. Now you can see why he's regarded as a rock star. Fox adds, "It was like they were driving the president."
Employed for her eye candy value, Fox is in contrast to the machines which get bigger and louder. Her outfits have become smaller and tighter. Bay's camera lens lingers on her long legs as she's reclining on the back of a motorbike, although he insists she's not merely employed for her good looks. "Okay, I wanted to get the first shot out of the way, be shameless about it, and move on. That was it. It was for those young boys in the audience. But that's the only shot where she's sexy. The rest of the movie shows her as a strong woman," he says. But that scene is in the trailer to promote the movie. Bay snaps, "Well, I didn't put that in the trailer. They [the studio] did."
Fox says defensively of this scene, "If Michael Bay can make me look that good in shorts, then I don't mind if people think I'm being exploited. And it gives me an advantage because even if I do a mediocre performance, people don't expect anything of me, so they're impressed." And incidentally, although she is adorned with tattoos, claims to be bisexual, and does her best to come across as "dangerous and dark" a la Jolie, she insists it is not calculated. "It's more of a curse than a blessing to look like Angelina," she says, straight-faced. "Seriously, there are a lot of films I've had to pass on because I don't want people to think I'm trying to emulate her." (Apparently she was offered the next Tomb Raider but turned it down for this reason.) As for Lebeouf, an edgy leading man and an example of the core audience of a film like this, says, "Transformers is escapism in the same way Star Wars was for its generation. If you want magic tricks, theme park rides, the roller coaster vibe, Transformers is for you."
What: Toy-and-cartoon-series-inspired blockbuster, Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen starring Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox and directed by Michael Bay
When: Opens Thursday June 25