EMPIRE, DECEMBER 2013
You join us in Detroit, Michigan, where Michael Bay is peering curiously down one of his million-dollar (seriously) lenses at an old Chinese lady. She appears to be doing what can only described as a half-arsed version of “the robot”. As choices of boogies go, it is at least apt. Bay, though, looks both amused and perplexed. “Why is she dancing?” he asks no-one in particular. “The city is being destroyed by giant machines! Things are exploding everywhere! A train just fell from the sky! Why is she… dancing?”
The lady in question is one of many Chinese extras enlisted from a local old people’s home, for the climactic street battle we find ourselves slap bang in the middle of. And if there’s a dichotomy to the fact that this multi-million-dollar popular entertainment is shooting in a ravaged US city declared bankrupt in July – after years of, being generous, mismanagement from local officials – that picture is even more skewed by what is laid out in front of us. Because what’s left of Detroit has, in fact, been dressed up as what’s left of Hong Kong.
It’s day 46 of 96, one of the seven that will shoot on this particular location (of the movie’s 200-plus), and there is destruction everywhere. Explosions (just some of the movie’s 1,000-plus) pepper the road, while cars on wires drop from the sky and smash bonnet-long into the tarmac. Through the middle of all this, and just past the old Chinese lady who is supposed to be panicking but is still somehow dancing, Mark Wahlberg reverses a pick-up truck at high speed, screeching through the mayhem from a metallic foe who will be added in post. And will presumably be Transformer-shaped. In the car with him, his co-stars – Stanley Tucci, Sophia Myles, Jack Reynor and Nicola Peltz – are clinging on for dear life, and trying to not throw up.
Bay, who is this time employing the more guerilla-style techniques that gave Pain & Gain its brio, is directing this sequence practically from inside it, positioned in the line of fire in such a way as to give Paramount Pictures’ insurance department a collective aneurysm. “That’s the thing with Michael,” Stunt Co-Coordinator Mike Gunther whispers in our ear. “He always wants to be in the pocket, to get the best shot. He’s the kind of guy who will sacrifice himself to get the best shot, and it’s my job to keep him safe. There is that line. You know, we have to come back to work tomorrow!”
As the crew resets for another take, Bay dusts himself down and makes a beeline for the old Chinese lady. “We could do with a little less dancing,” he says to her with a winning smile. “And a little more panicking.” She looks at him vacantly, his direction lost in translation. He gestures wildly down the road behind her. “The robots!” he says. “The robots are coming! Boom! Aarghh!” She looks at him like he’s mental and then nods. “Okay,” he laughs. “Let’s try it again.”
At the time of our visit Bay is still undecided about the suffix to this latest installment of his billion-dollar behemoth (only later will it become Age Of Extinction). His confusion is understandable. On paper it may be the fourth of an existing franchise, but here on the front line it feels like the first in a new one. For the Autobots and Decepticons this is very much Year Zero.
Set in a world scarred by the events of the past three movies, but also having moved on from them (signs saying, “Never Forget” pepper the landscape), Optimus Prime and co have returned to Cybertron, leaving us humans to get on with it in a world now free from the menace of the Decepticons. Although a new and improved Optimus – armed with many new gadgets – will soon return, when a new threat emerges.
Bay has reassembled many of his behind-the-camera Transformers family and entirely changed the front-of-camera faces. The former are easy to spot. Battle-worn yet easy-going and keen to gently play up their director’s fearsome reputation (with a routine you get the sense has been well-rehearsed over the years) they are, frankly, a hoot. Ask them if Bay has mellowed over the course of the series and you get: “Definitely. Although that’s a bit like saying Genghis Khan is a bit kinder to puppies now”. Ask what keeps bringing them back for more Bayhem and it’s: “My parole officer put me on it”. And ask how the director makes his decisions in weekly production meetings and the considered response is: “It’s like when Dorothy Parker wrote the book review, you know? ‘This is not a book to be tossed lightly aside. It should be hurled with great force’. That’s kind of his ethos.”
Mark Wahlberg, back for a second-helping after Pain & Gain, sees it simply. “Michael has got a lot of great people around him, but he’s still driving the train. For quite some time I was making decisions based on my own self, a time when, despite the fact I wasn’t sure about the script I still chose to work with people like Jonathan Demme (The Truth About Charlie) and Tim Burton (Planet Of The Apes). And then, after those experiences, I just decided there was too much at stake when my name is above the title.”
Wahlberg is chatting to Empire perched on a taxi that has been stomped on by something big, turning down the opportunity to prepare for the next scene (“What do I need to prepare for? All I’ve got to do is fall out of a car”) in favour of a chinwag. He is relaxed and fitting into all the green screen with ease, primarily thanks to a furry old friend. “Ted was a good tool to prepare me for this, sure,” he says. “Having to identify with things that aren’t there. The bear prepared me for that. And as embarrassing as doing things like the fight sequence with him were – throwing myself around a room for 12 hours while the crew guys just sat around eating sandwiches and watching – it taught me how to do this shit.”
If he is calm, however, some of the locals aren’t, his arrival on set having thrown many in Detroit into something of a frenzy. “The other day, we were in the middle of a close-up on Mark,” says fellow new recruit, Sophia Myles, “and there were these excitable girl students on this high-rise building overlooking the set. It was right in the middle of a really serious moment and they were shouting, ‘Marky Mark! Marky Mark!’ Then one of them flashed her tits.”
The casting of the British actress, who plays a freelance geologist employed by a number of companies, including the one run by her ex-husband, played by Stanley Tucci, is another example of Bay adding strength in depth. “I didn’t think I’d have a chance in hell of getting this,” she says. “Everyone in LA, and their grandmother, wanted this film. And I assumed they’d be calling straight away the Victoria’s Secret modeling agency. I’m 33. I just didn’t consider myself…” She trails off. “I mean, me and Stanley [Tucci]… We couldn’t be any further from Megan Fox and Shia LaBeouf if we tried.”
Rounding out this new cast, alongside Kelsey Grammer (who is not on set today) and Tucci (who has spent most of his day in his trailer watching Marco Pierre White cookery shows, “because I am addicted to them”) are Nicola Peltz and Jack Reynor. The former, a rare survivor of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender, plays the daughter of Wahlberg’s Cade, a widowed inventor whose discovery of a buried Transformer kickstarts this movie’s plot. “It’s been amazing,” she beams. The latter, making a huge leap from hip indies like What Richard Did and Dollhouse, plays her racing-driver boyfriend, who her over-protective dad knows nothing about. "It's crazy," he grins.
It’s in this fractured-family dynamic that Age Of Extinction is marking itself out from what has come before, Ehren Kruger’s screenplay building on relationship dynamics that, from the footage we see on set, echo the beautiful bickering of Star Wars.
For the majority of this new cast, the Transformers franchise comes with personal as well as professional benefits. Myles, who used to trade her brother 15 minutes of Transformers on the TV for 15 minutes of The Care Bears, claims it’s the first movie she’s done that he’s really been interested in. Ditto Wahlberg, whose kids were so impressed that he has secured them bit-parts in the movie. As for Reynor, “Just two weeks after I got the part," he recalls, "I was back at the house I was brought up in with my mates Graham and Dave. We’d had a couple of pints and went up to the attic and started rooting through all my old toys. We found this massive box of Transformers: tanks, fucking planes, everything. It was eerie. Just incredible.”
As the day comes to an end, Bay drives us off the set on his personalized buggy and then gets into his car to be driven home himself. As he gets in, he takes off his trademark cap (that bears the logo of his Gulf Stream jet, G450) and is handed an ice-cold bottle of Heineken by his driver. He’s earned it.
As he speeds off into the distance, presumably cooking up more movie madness for tomorrow, Myles smiles. “I honestly don’t know where he gets his energy from,” she laughs. “He gets more done in a day than most directors will get done in a week.”
Will he ever stop, we wonder. Ever hand over the reigns of these vast beasts to someone else?
“I doubt it,” she laughs. “I actually asked him the other day if he was going to do the next one and he said, ‘Well, it’s a director’s world… It’s a franchise world at the moment… You know, Peter Jackson is still in Middle-earth…’”
“TRANSFORMERS DIRECTOR ROUGHED UP BY TRIADS!” screams the front page of the South China Morning Post, before relaying a breathless tale of gangsters, extortion and, um, air conditioners (being wielded threateningly, apparently). Welcome to Hong Kong, where the Transformers crew is about to commence their second day of shooting in the fragrant harbour and where, it’s safe to assume, Day One didn’t go entirely as planned.
One of the world’s most densely populated cities, Hong Kong has more than seven million people crowded into its 425 square miles. And this morning it feels like every one of them is in Quarry Bay, an industrial and residential area (most spaces double up here) in the Eastern District where Myles is preparing for a scene set, appropriately enough, in a traffic jam. If yesterday’s palaver has led to any extra security, it’s hard to tell. The sight that greets EMPIRE on arrival simply looks like utter chaos. Now on day 90 of those 96, there are no barriers between onlookers and production, just a sea of locals snapping away on their phones.
“It’s like an assault on the senses, isn’t it?” grins the actress, who has the demob happy air of someone almost at the end of their shooting schedule. We weave through the hordes to a relatively quiet spot around the corner. There are no trailers for the cast, just a tatty courtyard behind a noodle shop with some pots of coffee and a few soft drinks packed in a bucket of ice. The vibe is less blockbuster production, more guerilla filmmaking.
“You just have to zone the chaos out,” says Myles. “Also, Michael likes to create a certain energy that’s applicable to whatever scene we’re shooting. And that scene was supposed to be quite tense and stressful so… mission accomplished!”
As we chat, various crew members stroll by, many of them with a well-thumbed copy of this morning's Post. Myles didn’t see yesterday’s headline-grabbing incident but she knows a man who did. “He started it,” she laughs, indicating Kelsey Grammer, who has perched behind us on a stool nursing a very un-Frasier-like polystyrene cup of coffee. Grammer, who plays Harold Attinger, the film’s non-robot Big Bad (“Yes, I’m the Double B”) is in good spirits despite a touch of jetlag from hopping between Bulgaria, Chicago, London and Hong Kong to fit Expendables 3 around his Transformers 4 schedule.
“I sensed some sort of commotion as soon as I arrived yesterday,” he recalls. “And then an air conditioner hit the ground about two feet in front of me, and this guy in a white T-shirt headed purposefully forward. I thought we were going to get in a fight. We didn’t but that was clearly his intention – he was after money or something. And then it all died down. Until about 45 minutes later, when the guy tried to do the same thing to Michael. There was a bit of an altercation but everybody was fine. And we shot a very productive day. I think the only person who was hurt was the guy throwing air conditioners…”
“I think yesterday’s incident actually helped in a funny way,” suggests Ilt Jones, one of the film’s location managers. “I mean, Michael has his reputation and when we got here the local crew were pretty apprehensive. Then we start off by stealing a shot on the traffic islands in the middle of rush hour and you could see their apprehension turn to barely suppressed terror! But after 'The Incident' everyone kind of bonded." Seeing us scribbling notes he adds helpfully: "We bonded in the white hot crucible of adversity!”
Of course, beyond the crew making new friends, the real benefit of shooting in Hong Kong and China (where the crew head shortly) is that it will inevitably help the Chinese box office figures, which grow ever more significant for studio blockbusters. (“There was definitely encouragement from the studio to shoot here,” admits co-producer Allegra Clegg.) Last year China became the world’s second largest movie market after the US and it’s still growing, probably to become the number one spot within the decade.
In addition, films that qualify as Chinese co-productions (which Age Of Extinction does) offer Hollywood a 43 percent share of profits generated here, instead of the usual 25 per cent. And that’s a big chunk of change considering Transformers 3 was one of the most popular films ever in China. The latest installment, which has even been the star of a local popular reality show here, where contestants could win a walk-on role in the film, also includes one of the country’s most popular actresses, Li Bingbing (not to be confused with Iron Man 3’s Fan Bingbing) who plays, in her words, “kind of the CEO of the Chinese Transformers”.
But does this mean we’re looking at a future where eventually all big budget Hollywood movies are Chinese co-productions? Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura isn’t convinced. “It’s hard to say if it will it pave the way for other productions. Michael had a vision for the third act for a particular kind of thing to occur, which I don’t want to divulge too much, but on a visual level, when we looked around the world, Hong Kong was the right city for it. So our creative choices drove us to have Chinese characters and Chinese locations and not vice versa. Anyway, the fun part is actually putting a face to something sort of monolithic called China, you know? I now have friends here. And so, the world looks different today than it did six months ago.”
The world is also starting to look a little different to Nicola Peltz, Extinction’s young female lead who has just had her first taste of the paparazzi. “We walked out of the airport and they were everywhere,” she says, taking a seat outside the noodle shop. “I was so excited – I was like, ‘Ooh, who was on our plane?’ But there wasn’t anyone famous. It was just me…"
Peltz, who Bay describes approvingly as “a real trooper” is having a ball. She describes working with Wahlberg as “a dream” and Bay as “amazing”. Even the director’s mercurial ways are brushed away. “People judge way too quickly. I mean, does he holler? Yeah, he speaks loudly. But, you know, I grew up with six brothers so I’m used to that."
The 'loud-speaking' Bay enters the courtyard we’re in with a bang. “Hey!” he shouts. “Wanna see something cool?” The director, his usual bundle of kinetic energy, is about to shoot a rooftop chase on the Yick Fat Building, a very tall and decidedly rickety looking bundle of tenement flats. We travel up with him in what may well be the world’s smallest lift, with Bay divulging: “This wasn’t supposed to be in the film, but we saw the building and just thought it would look great for a chase.” He leans forward conspiratorially. “Mark’s not keen on heights but I’ve used a little reverse psychology…”
By the time we reach the roof it has clearly worked, as Wahlberg is standing perilously on a small ledge that runs around all four sides of the building’s perimeter, and which he’ll shortly have to run across, being chased by Titus Welliver, who plays Savoy, a former Navy SEAL now working for Grammer’s Harold Attinger. Due to the heights, both actors (and their stunt doubles) will need to wear harnesses. Even so, Bay can’t quite resist playing down the danger: “Yesterday I saw an old woman out here watering her flowers…” Wahlberg raises an eyebrow.
Take after take follows. With each one, the director tweaks a little more (“Knock over more baskets… stumble quicker… throw the punch earlier… more baskets!”). He particularly delights in capturing spontaneity. “The scrappier it is, the more real it will look,” he explains. “I don’t like action scenes that look choreographed or rehearsed to death.” Eventually he’s satisfied. Except now he’s decided that the red baskets he kept adding in will look particularly good seen from ground level falling to earth from the rooftops. The unflinching crew prep for the additional shot as we head back down in the lift.
“Did you see the paper this morning?” asks Bay. “Nice way to wake up: seeing yourself on a front page that says you’ve been roughed up by a gangster.” He pauses, before adding with mock indignation: “And anyway, he got roughed up by me!”
What actually happened, according to Bay, is that three men – two brothers and a colleague – weren’t happy with the money the production had paid to local shopkeepers for the inconvenience of having a film crew around and decided they could extort more cash by disrupting shooting.
“It was bizarre,” says the director. “One guy was particularly belligerent. He was high on drugs or something so I told my crew to keep away from him but he kept coming back. The police spoke to him and even tried to call his mother to embarrass him! I was just angry that he was stopping us shooting. We even closed down for an hour but then he came back. He came up to me and tried to hit me with this air conditioner but he was so high I was able to duck and then grab him by the throat and push him back…”
He pauses for breath. Or dramatic effect. “But that wasn’t the fun part. The fun part was that I had these Special Forces guys. And they jumped him — but six of them couldn’t hold him down. It was creepy. He was only a little guy. I’ve never seen anything like it. Eventually the police took him and his colleagues away. And the police were from the Triad Division.”
Wahlberg, who is also in the lift, raises that eyebrow again. “Is that how it went down?” he asks, with just a hint of mockery. By the time Bay tells the tale again for TMZ later that night, it has got even more dramatic and now seven Special Forces couldn’t hold the crazed assailant down.
Not that we would expect anything less. As usual with Bay, the scale of the story just keeps getting bigger…