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Witnessing Michael Bay’s Madness on the Set of TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

Witnessing Michael Bay’s Madness on the Set of TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

Ask anybody what life is like on a Michael Bay movie set, and they all, to a one, will talk about the difficulty in getting up and coming to work in the morning. It’s not that they don’t like working with him. In fact, many of the cast and crew of Bay’s latest film, Transformers: The Last Knight, have worked with him multiple times before. It’s that they know he’s going to come to the set each morning with a load of new ideas he wants to add to the already full shooting schedule; on the day I visit, what was supposed to be an indoor shoot on (semi-submerged) gigantic sets has turned into a massive outdoor production with constant explosions.

“He never changes his mind,” says special effects supervisor John Frazier, who has worked with Bay for 20 years. “He just adds to it. It’s all in his head, so we have to extrapolate that out of his head, not two months before or six months before but as he wakes up driving here. That’s when we figure out what he wants to see that day.” There’s a reason footage gets channeled daily into a custom, air-conditioned production van designed specifically for Bay. The crew has to be mobile at a moment’s notice, ready for the director to decide they need to go someplace completely new and unexpected, with all their 3D monitors to show exactly how the just-shot dailies look, running feeds from up to three different 3D rigs, and uploading all files to the home base computer overnight. We are told that Transformers: The Last Knight marks the first time that the IMAX ALEXA 65 cameras have been used in a 3D configuration.

“I’m gonna tell you, it’s the Super Bowl every day,” says stunt coordinator Mike Gunther. “Fast paced, hurry up offense, and you’re dealing with audible after audible after audible. You just kind of have to have everything ready to go in your toolbox, and you just pick and choose on the day what he might want, or a combination of what [Bay] wants… And then he’ll call you on the way to work, go, ‘Hey, I wanna change this.'”

As an example, Gunther notes that the day prior, there were no bombs listed on his call sheet, but “when we showed up today, now there’s three guys getting ratcheted and 10 bombs. If you guys got any suggestions, let me know!”

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Actor Santiago Cabrera tells us, “What’s on the page is not necessarily what you’re doing, so he keeps it really fresh.” Playing a retired SEAL who is initially head of a team hunting down the Transformers, Cabrera has recently filmed a fight scene with Bumblebee, which he refers to as, “another day’s work,” adding, “The days are long and what we’re doing is tough, rough stuff, and Bay throws the actors in as much as he throws the stunt doubles in. So you better be prepared, physically and mentally, to do it. So I did some Yoga!” He’s being modest. In fact, there are real Navy SEALs on set as extras and trainers, ready to offer immediate feedback if the actors don’t get their combat moves right. The only thing they won’t do is be shown to kill an Autobot onscreen, even by accident. (“They go, ‘We cannot let kids see that this has happened,’ and I totally get it,” says Bay.)

Bay’s not above stirring the pot a bit between the actors and the military guys, though, as Josh Duhamel recalls. “The first day, we’re up in this submersible. There’s green screen in the background, and it’s hot as balls up there. And we think we’re done, and he’s like, ‘Okay, now we’re gonna go to this part.’ And I go, ‘Fuck.’ And I didn’t realize he had the ear buds on. And he’s like, ‘What was that? What did you say?’ I said, ‘No, nothing.’ He’s like, ‘I thought I heard you say, ‘fuck.’ You got it real tough up there, don’t you? You actors got it real tough. Look at the guys around you.’ And they’re all SEALs. And he’s like, ‘Why don’t you tell those guys how tough your job is?’ So that was the first day. It’s always stuff like that.”

To Duhamel’s credit, it does feel like the desert on the backlot of the massive studio just outside of Detroit, at a facility where General Motors used to make tanks. The sun beats down as we look at various giant objects out of context.  For instance, an elevator, unattached to any building, ready for insert shots in which it presumably gets broken or blown up. A giant piece of sculpted bright-green styrofoam that we later learn is the shoulder of Autobot Hound. The gimble that was used for the tilting skyscraper scene in Dark of the Moon, this time used to dump gallons of water atop the movie’s lead actors like a waterslide.

 

Today’s main event is something that crew are instructed to show us “before he gets here.” A giant crashed military Osprey is surrounded by black sand (actually painted asphalt) with chunks of what looks like alien technology mixed in with the debris. This is a practical set, and huge, but not huge enough for the final movie, in which this scene will be inserted into larger backdrops to be shot in Iceland. As my fellow journalists and I walk by, we are told the one thing you hope and pray to hear on a Bay set, and which gladdens our inner Beavises: “Everything here will be on fire.”

There will be more robots in Transformers: The Last Knight than any previous Transformers movie; unfortunately for set visitors, the Autobots and Decepticons are by necessity CG creations, save at least one: Sqweeks, sidekick to young costar Isabela Moner, is a motorcycle bot injured in the Battle of Chicago (i.e. Movie 3) and unable to fully transform or even say much. While all involved in this production still say there is no connection to the larger Hasbro universe in this film, fans of ’80s cartoons and toys cannot deny that he looks a whole lot like M.A.S.K.‘s robo-sidekick T-Bob.

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Though no official synopsis of The Last Knight has been released yet (there have been all kinds of rumors based on what’s been shooting lately), producer Lorenzo DiBonaventura says that it’s “going to go into a very deep dive into the mythology,” particularly in regard to continuing the space journey that Optimus Prime began at the end of Age of Extinction. But Earth will not be neglected, as Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager will meet up with Duhamel’s Lennox from the first three movies, tying some of the disparate strands of the previous story together. “You’re going to get two pieces of the mythology that converge at the end,” says DiBonaventura. “So that’s sort of the driving part of it.” Initially, it was thought that those two pieces might be two separate movies, until they “came together.”

In collaboration with Hasbro, the movie team have been putting together a massive bible of Transformers mythology that incorporates all the movies, cartoons, comics, and more for the various spin-offs that have been talked about. DiBonaventura refers frequently to the “complexity of the mythology” in regards to The Last Knight and future films, which is undoubtedly what old-school fans want to hear, but he also insists you can’t start with too much fan service, saying, “I want to know first for myself what I want, what I would like a movie to be, then I can open myself up to listening. Because otherwise I think you kind of get lost about what you’re trying to do. Because you go, ‘Oh, well, that’s really interesting, and how does that fit together?’ There’s a lot of scripts in Hollywood that I refer to as Frankenstein scripts. They’re a lot of really interesting parts that really don’t fit together very well.”

He refers to Bay as the “one chef” of this movie, while allowing that everyone also has to be open to hearing better ideas. So while the script may get more complicated, don’t expect the changes to be drastic: “It feels like a Michael Bay Transformers movie,” he affirms.

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Rest assured, though, that there will be more Dinobots. Everybody, from fans to filmmakers, felt the last movie didn’t have enough. Grimlock, whom DiBonaventura describes as being “funny, like a naughty dog in this movie,” will be featured again, as will mini-Dinobots. (Asked about these, Bay bristled slightly at any implication that they and Sqweeks will make the movie cuter). There’s a new female lead and potential love interest for Mark Wahlberg’s Cade Yeager, English actress Laura Haddock.

Haddock says of her role, “I am picked up from my family home by my car that is a Transformer, that takes me to a castle where Cade Yeager is. And then I’m told I am somebody who they need to save the world, essentially. [Cade and my character] don’t understand each other at all in the beginning, mainly because he’s American and she’s English, and they have a lot of banter. But then they end up going on this massive journey together and needing each other, and they see a different side to each other.”

As the crashed Osprey—actually, the shell of an old C-47 Chinook bought as surplus years ago and leased to multiple productions—prepares to shoot, we are handed earplugs and told (not asked) to put them in. The assistant director yells out, “This is gonna be loud as…are there any children present?” There don’t seem to be, so he asks again, then presumably remembers Moner and holds his tongue on the more colorful metaphor. “Louder than me, so you know that’s loud!”

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He’s not kidding. When cameras roll, it is Bayhem (TM) time. Explosions rock the side of the Osprey to simulate attacks from unseen enemies (presumably CG robots added later), and the SEALs, along with Wahlberg and Haddock, come out firing. Despite the fact that everyone is at a safe distance and the ammunition is blanks, it’s notable that even when the actors and SEALs are firing off-camera, they ensure their guns aren’t pointed in the direction of any human being in the vicinity. No small feat given the hefty crew, and team of reporters.

One gun is jammed, which causes Bay to start yelling; later, he will tell us the issue was “a new design that’s kind of a shitty design. It’s a gun company I don’t know…it’s obvious it’s jammed for a second, which is okay. That happens. I just wish it fired for my shot. Because he’s right in front of me.” As he resets, he tells everyone, “We just need more pops around the ground,” and for set variety, he grabs a nearby SEAL and yells, “Come here, amigo! You’re volunteering to be a dead guy!” He lays the guy down, places his limbs carefully, and has the A.D. throw dirt on him.

Then he approaches us press. “You guys might wanna watch from over here,” he says, taking us behind the main camera. “Straight down the barrel.” Joking to the crew that we’re his IT guys, he warns our very un-tanned group, “Don’t let the whiteness reflect on the camera!”

The scene rolls again and again, each time with full-on explosive rounds and multiple cameramen, including Bay himself. And again, even with the action heroes running right at us, all are carefully pointing their weapons at angles above and away from any bystanders. Bullets are not cheap, we are told, and are rendered CG nowadays in many movies, but Bay wants as many of the elements to be practical as possible. As Gunther puts it, “This movie, I think, would live on its own if you didn’t have any of the CGI because there’s so much practical action. It’s almost like two movies. We do so much practical, and then they just drop the robots in on top of it. It’s not like something gets taken away and replaced with CGI; it’s added to. So you just have to leave room in the shot where the robot would actually be stepping or fighting and all that. But all the cars flipping and all that is all practical. So, it’s probably the same. There’s just more action on this than on other practical movies.”

Bay may have a reputation for being aggressive—longtime collaborator Frazier has had to lay down a rule that with him, the director gets “one confrontation a movie. Any more than that and you become a whiner”—but on this day he seems really excited to talk to us, coming over repeatedly to show off some new piece of equipment, or pick our brains about what other action movies we like. He opines that the airport battle in Captain America: Civil War didn’t have enough movement for his taste, and says he doesn’t think Bad Boys 3 will ever really be made. Oh yeah, and as the first guy to ever own a Dolby Atmos system in his home, he made Steven Spielberg jealous.

The last time I met Bay, it was some 17 years ago at a Troma party. Since then he has gotten blonder, tanner, and slimmed even further to what looks like close to zero percent body fat, though he has plenty of energy to burn. I ask if he ever wishes he could make an R-rated Transformers movie; he smiles and says he had one idea with Bumblebee once, then stops himself before he can say anything incriminating. Bumblebee is still getting a spin-off movie, that much is true, but don’t expect it to actually contain adult content.

What gets Bay most excited, though, is the third act of the movie at hand. He tells us, “The palette on this one is the most different I’ve ever done. The third act is spectacular looking. It’s stuff that I’ve never done that excites me. It’s stuff that’s really complicated. I have no idea how we’re going to shoot this. It’s fun. That’s the fun of it. How do you keep it human? I like really grounding it with our Burton character, Anthony Hopkins. I’ve always wanted to work with that guy.” We do know that portions of the movie have been shot in England and involve Medieval knights; there were even some scenes filmed in Cuba. Like the previous sequels, The Last Knight will touch on the fact that Transformers have visited Earth many times before, and possibly begin to explain why they keep coming.

It’s easy, when you’re talking to so many people, to forget what else is going on around you, which is why, when we talk to Wahlberg in the golf cart he takes to and from set, nobody thinks to put in the earplugs again. But holy hell is it loud when stuff explodes right behind us!

Wahlberg is as you’d expect: completely unfazed by it all. In that laid-back Bostonian voice of his, he calmly says, “Behind you guys, the one guy got ratcheted up in the air, and you guys missed that completely.”

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The actor explains that The Last Knight takes place a number of years after the last film, because “they wanted to make sense that I was older, a little slower. But yeah, you meet up with Cade now and he’s living elsewhere and he’s basically had to go on his own on the run…to protect his daughter and make sure that she is no longer hunted in the way that Cade is. But yeah, a loner.”

It’s also why there are multiple protagonists this time, from the teenage Moner to the returning Duhamel. “You need to have new people, young people that are super excited and super eager to get in there anytime we’re doing something dangerous action-wise,” Wahlberg says. “For a lot of explosions and stuff like that, you’re harnessed to something getting swung in the air or dragged onto something or thrown onto something.” Comparing this set to the Ted movies, he offers that, “I mean, if I could snap my fingers and just be sitting in a room after 40-something days of getting the crap kicked out of me, I’d rather be doing comedy, but this stuff is fun too. I approach it the same, and I don’t do much extra for a laugh or anything, I just kind of play it real and hopefully the comedy comes from circumstances.” Like, one assumes, when press guys get startled by the explosions and miss seeing a stunt completely.

This is, incidentally, what Bay describes as “an easy day.” As the day ends and we say our goodbyes, Duhamel calls us “The Bay Whisperers,” saying, “You should come back every day.” You might say we have apparently made the director transform into his alt mode. And now it’s time to roll out.

The new trailer will debut tonight, Monday, Dec. 5th. I’m as anxious as you are to see how the robots look.

Images: Paramount

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