LOS ANGELES — About five years ago, Shia LaBeouf stormed the offices of Michael Bay, planning to rip the director's head off. The actor, then 20, had just auditioned for Bay's action opus Transformers and thought he nailed it. Bay seemed delighted when LaBeouf ad-libbed lines as the two made up their own bot-dialogue.
Weeks passed, and no offer. Worse, word had spread among actors that Bay was using LaBeouf's lines to audition other actors. "I said, 'Dude, you're ripping me off,'" LaBeouf recalls. "He said he had other actors he liked, especially this guy in Canada. I was (furious)."
A few days later, Bay called LaBeouf to not only offer the part but to admit there was no other actor in the running. "He wanted to make sure I was in," LaBeouf says. "He played me a little, but he got what he needed."
What Bay needs today depends on who's talking about the most divisive director in Hollywood. Film critics, particularly, think the director of Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and Bad Boys needs an ego liposuction and a writing coach.
Actors, fans and even academicians believe he needs a break from the critical barrage. Whatever shortcomings Bay has as a dramatic filmmaker, they say, he makes up for in action — and profits.
"I don't know why people like to take so many shots," Bay says at a park bench on the Paramount Pictures lot, where he had just wrapped Transformers: Dark of the Moon. "I think the media does that with anyone who has success. I make movies that audiences like, that I'd want to see. That's all. It helps take off some of the pressure."
The pressure is on Bay, 46, and his third installment of the Hasbro toy franchise, which opens Tuesday in select IMAX and 3-D theaters and nationwide Wednesday.
Though just about everyone (including Bay) considers the picture a blockbuster shoo-in — some projections run as high as $500 million — Bay knows he's late to the 3-D game. And since 2009's 3-D spectacle Avatar became the biggest movie of all time at $701 million, Bay says, the game has gone downhill.
So he has taken it upon himself to revive the fad.
"There are many movies that have done it very badly," he says. "The studios have gone for quick profits and audiences are feeling (angry). People aren't taking the time and spending the money to do it right. I am."
Bringing 3-D into the light
No one is going to accuse Bay of being a spendthrift. While he denies reports that his film cost $400 million, he won't talk figures. He does acknowledge destroying 532 cars during filming.
"I don't comment on budgets," he says. "But I did tell Paramount that it was going to be expensive to shoot this in 3-D, and they were a little shocked at the price.
"But you really want to know how much this one costs? A movie ticket."
For all the bravado, Bay still is covering his bets. Last week, he sent a letter to more than 2,000 theater projectionists, urging them to set bulbs at their highest setting. (Bay has accused theater owners of keeping bulbs too dim to save on energy costs.)
"It is critical your projectors play to the brightness levels specified for the best results," he wrote on Paramount letterhead. "We are all in this together." He also took a passing swipe at previous 3-D movies, calling them "dark (and) dingy."
To entice exhibitors, Bay offered to ship extra-bright "Platinum 6" prints of the film to any theater that could project in 6-foot lamberts, the brightest possible luminance for current projectors. About 2,000 of the 3,900 theaters qualified for the deluxe prints, Paramount says.
(Check with your multiplex if you're particular about which print it's showing.)
Bay concedes he has done an about-face on 3-D, a format he once said did not fit with his "aggressive style" of filmmaking, namely, quick cuts and unrelenting action. The technology typically requires longer shots to give the eye time to react to its depth of field.
But when James Cameron invited him to the set of Avatar, Bay began to see possibilities.
"At first I thought, 'This isn't for me,'" he recalls. "The cameras were big, the sets were cold. It wasn't my style."
But he considers Cameron a godfather of sorts and was swayed by his plea. "He said, 'You need to do one. We need big movies in 3-D or it's not going to work.'"
Bay took nine months to study the technology, hired Cameron's staff for his film and bankrolled millions to construct portable cameras that he could take into Chicago, where the movie was shot.
He also changed his thinking. Known for films that can resemble music videos and Chevy commercials, Bay opted for longer tracking shots for Moon, which posits that robots have been feuding in the Milky Way since Neil Armstrong (in on the alien presence) took one giant leap for mankind.
Much of the old cast returns, including John Turturro and Tyrese Gibson (though Rosie Huntington-Whiteley replaces Megan Fox as the distressed lass).
And while directors such as Martin Scorsese and Ang Lee plan to employ 3-D to add visual nuance to their upcoming films, Bay believes Hollywood has it backward. What's missing, he says, is the leap-in-your-seat thrill of '50s 3-D pictures like Cat-Women of the Moon and Robot Monster.
"It's such an amazing technology, and it's been wasted," he says. "We did things that have never been done. I don't say this often, but this is a movie you should see in 3-D."
Bay’s style invites vitriol
Not everyone is holding their breath. Bay's style has earned him scorn since he was a boy, when he nearly burned down his Los Angeles home with his first movie.
Bay was about 10 when he made his first flick, an untitled Super 8 action romp involving his train set, a toy dinosaur and firecrackers he rigged along the tracks (he has always been nuts for pyrotechnics). A train derailment, though, set the curtains ablaze and attracted the fire department — and a grounding.
His grandfather, a Russian-born factory owner who manufactured denim, took Bay for a walk and suggested that when he was done with the movie silliness, "I could come home and help him stone-wash jeans," Bay says.
Bay never came home. After a stint as a 15-year-old intern for George Lucas, where he filed storyboards for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he attended Wesleyan University in Connecticut and majored in English and film.
"Even then it was clear that he was born to be a director of visually splendid but narratively challenged summer popcorn movies," says Jon Sherman, a former classmate and now an assistant professor of film at Kenyon College in Ohio.
As a brash college student, Bay employed large casts and special effects "when most of us were making pretentious, handheld black-and-white short films," Sherman says.
"Look, I've seen Pearl Harbor three times and I still don't understand the story," Sherman says of Bay's 2001 hit. "And I'm pretty familiar with the events it's based on. But every time I watch it, my jaw drops at Michael Bay's visual chops."
Bay's style has earned him an inordinate amount of vitriol. There's a website dedicated to besmirching him, and critics salivate at getting him in their cross hairs.
Of the second Transformers film, 2009's Revenge of the Fallen, Roger Ebert wrote: "If you want to save yourself the ticket price, go into the kitchen, cue up a male choir singing the music of hell, and get a kid to start banging pots and pans together."
If Bay is fazed by the criticism, it doesn't show. He's even willing to join the cacophony against Transformers 2. Ask him why those talking toys needed a third film and he'll tell you: The second one stunk.
"Frankly, the writing wasn't there," he says. "We had a writers' strike, so the script wasn't where we wanted. It's the wrong way to make a movie."
Critics may debate whether Bay knows the right way, but there's no arguing he has tapped into public tastes more successfully than most directors. Bay's eight movies have averaged $187 million in the USA alone, and Revenge of the Fallen is the 11th biggest film on record at $402 million.
"Every other director I've worked with wants to give you the artistic meaning behind every scene," LaBeouf says. "But sometimes, you're just picking up your wallet and leaving the room. There's not some intelligentsia message.
"Michael gets that. There's no ping-pong table on his set. The money goes toward making the movie — one people want to see."
Not that the director needs a defender.
"You'll hear people say now, 'Oh, I don't want to see something in 3-D,'" Bay says. "That's wrong, because what they've seen is 3-D done poorly. Directors stage scenes improperly. This isn't going to be one of those movies."