I step outside of my hotel and into a beautiful Michigan morning. I start to trek down the block, marveling at the incredible architecture Detroit has to offer, when I’m beckoned across the street. I hang a left, and all around me the majesty of Detroit has slowly dissolved into a post-apocalyptic war zone. There are Chinese temples and markets everywhere next to half-standing buildings with gaping holes. Skyscraper tops are riddled with blast marks and are laying on the smoldering ground as smoke billows through the air. We may be in downtown Detroit, but today the Motor City is standing in for Hong Kong in Michael Bay’s latest Transformer movie.
At this point, I know very little about the fourth installment in the Hasbro toy franchise other than Mark Wahlberg is anchoring another outing in the ongoing battle of the Autobots vs. Decepticons. And, frankly, I would have happily accepted any invite to go out and see what it’s like to be on a Michael Bay set for a day and how he makes such beautiful mayhem. Love him or hate him, Bay is still a person to admire in the industry. He still shoots on film, and he never settles for a CGI shot when he can blow up a perfectly good car or building.
To say Bay’s sets are expansive is an understatement. The effort and attention to detail in the set dressers and decorators is something to behold. The signs and decorations go down, around, and through several blocks. You can even pick any random shop to walk right in and see what looks like a fully-functional business inside. At one point, I was led into a noodle shop where Bay was about to show me some footage, and there were bags of flour everywhere, large machines with Chinese labels, pots, pans, and hanging from wooden dowels on the ceiling were thin strips of rubber bands that looked like ready-to-eat noodles.This is all just to serve as the backdrop to my day filled with watching Michael Bay do what Michael Bay does best: blow shit up.
I get onto set and quickly spot Bay in the middle of this calculated chaos. As he’s hustling his crew to get ready, someone nearby yells “sparks WILL fly at your face, watch out!” and the crew of hundreds start echoing "rolling" as Bay counts down from four to “action” when, all of a sudden, a camera comes swooping off of one building, down into the middle of a group of screaming people amongst sparks and dirt explosions, up through a mangled building that’s shooting fire and stuntmen off its second story, and then back up and away to another building. My eyes keep following the action, but then I turn back to the center of it all to watch Bay frenetically swinging a handheld camera he seemed to have manifested out of nowhere and filming empty space where his imagination is already compositing shots of attacking robots.
When I finally meet Bay it's almost like a sheepish kid in grade school whose mom told him to come over and say hello. He welcomes me to the set as his hands nervously find something to do and then disappears almost as quickly as he appeared. I hang back and observe the next shot and again see a different person commanding front lines like a general while having the best time in his own little world—like a kid playing make believe with his toys. I was clearly the outsider he was feeling out because Bay looks so at home and comfortable here. He finishes his next shot and comes back over and starts to talk to me about an event I had put together at the Alamo Drafthouse called BAYMAGEDDON, where we spent an entire day watching Michael Bay films. I told him about the day, and he laughed and started to reminisce about some of the films we had screened. We talk a bit about the current crop of summer titles and what we'd each seen when Bay confesses he's so far behind because he's been so busy. I ask what he watches to unwind, and I seemed to have called him too on the spot because he vaguely says "I don't know, lots of stuff." I then start to talk about Gene Kelly, and Bay owns up to really enjoying relaxing to a Gene Kelly movie when he's not trying to stay up to date on the latest projects on one of his many different plates. I ask what we're shooting today, and you see Bay's face switch from a dude meeting another dude for the first time to a little kid telling you an enthusiastic and detailed story. Only this little kid is telling me about an exciting scene involving a completely redesigned Hound, who's got guns all over him, is pinned down on the ground, and, as a last resort, bites down on a bullet in his mouth, shooting a bad guy in the head. The enthusiasm is contagious, and his vision is clear. Despite my own mixed emotions about some of the Transformer films, there's no person I'd rather have making these movies than a guy who seems to have as much fun with it as Bay undoubtedly does.
After I watch Bay handle a bunch of takes (this is a man who shoots at two to three times the speed of a regular director) I head off to meet with a bunch of the cast. From Stanley Tucci to Mark Wahlberg, everybody seems to be equally as stoked to be in a Transformers film with Michael Bay at the helm. No one is really allowed to share too much with me, but the one apparent throughline is that Michael Bay is a visionary whom everyone seems to love and trust, and while this new film will acknowledge those that preceded it, Transformers: Age of Extinction is going to be its own film. There is a greater focus on the human story at play, and Bay really hopes to flesh out the characters of the Transformers more. By the time a fourth installment comes along, franchise fatigue seems to hit most sequels, but with a completely fresh cast, it seems as though everyone feels like they are working on the first installment of something entirely new.
From the cast I'm sent over to “meet” the cars, which look very glamorous and expensive on film but can't be truly appreciated until you see one in person. I would never consider myself a car guy—I always would just look at the cars in the movies and say "cool" while I slammed more popcorn into my face as I waited for them to transition into robots—but to see, sit, and rev the engines of these machines really gives you an appreciation for the art of building these automobiles and all the practical work Bay and his crew put into getting them to the VFX team, who turns these million dollar marvels into fully-realized robot characters.
Then it's time to head back to the shooting set, and Bay is still at it. They are at day 43 in a 100-plus shooting schedule, but Bay is showing no signs of fatigue. The sun is setting, and it's time for one last sequence before they call a wrap on this over 12-hour day. Cables are laid out linking several cars, and hundreds of extras are herded to the edge of the street where Bay has all of his cameras set. After a brief safety meeting, Bay comes over to tell me they are going to “ratchet” these cars, which essentially means that they are going to pull them at a very high-speed on cables that make them fly through the air and flip. After issuing all his commands, Bay just has to sit back and wait (which is a hard thing to do for a guy who lives at 180 mph) for his extremely familiar and professional crew to get things all into place for him.
During this downtime, Bay shares some stories about shooting Armageddon and The Rock and how he is often misquoted and misunderstood. The guy I met and hung out with was hardly the man the world makes him out to be. All that ego and bravado seem to be a manifestation of people combining and equating Bay to his films, when he's really just a guy who loves making movies. Bay is halfway through a story about a time they got drunk on martinis with Nicolas Cage to help him loosen up for that rooftop scene in The Rock when a PA heads over to let him know everything is set. The wait had been pretty long, but it provided me with the opportunity to get to know Bay a little bit and see him just relax and laugh. But then it's time to "ratchet" these cars, and Bay lets everyone know just how serious and dangerous this stunt is - with a smirk on his face all the while. He knows it's dangerous…but he also knows it's going to be awesome. The stunt people are all in place with firemen and paramedics at a standby as Bay counts down to “action” for the last time this day. Cameras come zipping down the street as cars go zooming by screaming extras when, all of a sudden, bursts of flames are erupting and cars are flipping end over end fifty feet in the air. Buildings in the background are crumbling to the ground, and smoke fills the air until the last boom echoes through the alley and Michael yells "cut!"
The day was filled with nonstop explosions and booms, but at this moment I felt less like a journalist and more like a Make-a-Wish kid who was having his dying dreams come true. I had just been treated to 12 hours filled to the brim with fun, but it wasn't until this moment that it truly hit me I was on a Michael Bay set. This is exactly what I wanted to see should I ever set foot on a Bay set, but I never, in a million years, would have dreamed I'd get to. As the clapping of the crew who witnessed the successful final shot of the day begins to fade, I hear Michael Bay yell "get over here!" The crowd parts like the Red Sea, and I feel a spotlight beaming on me as I see Bay holding his hand out gesturing for me to come over to the monitors where all of the various cameras have captured the spectacle I was just lucky enough to have seen with my own two eyes. He plays back all the various angles, and because of the 100 percent practical way he shot it, the clips look theater-ready. Clearly, there is no substitution for real cars and real explosions.
After marveling at all the explosions and car flips from all the different angles, I was left suppressing giggles to myself as Bay leans over with a very casual, "Pretty cool right?" to which I honestly couldn't tell you what I responded. As Bay shook my hand and called it a wrap for the day, I found myself walking through the rubble of downtown Hong Kong until it slowly gave way to just a common street in Detroit again. I was sad to have stepped out of that world and hoped I could step back in one day. I didn't get a real sense of the movie because the film was so far from release that everyone was pretty tight-lipped about most of the details. But, there are times when you watch a movie and feel like you can tell that people had a great time making it. There's a sense of energy beyond what's just playing on the screen. If my day on the set of Transformers: Age of Extinction was any indication, Michael Bay and company have put so much of their life and energy into this action sequel that I can definitely imagine having a great time in the theater come this summer. Some people may have been a bit taken aback when Bay announced that they were coming back for a fourth outing after swearing part three was their last film, but from what I saw, Transformers: Age of Extinction might be more than meets the eye.