Inside the Hollywood Blockbuster Life of Michael Bay - Rolling Stone
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Inside the Blockbuster Life of Michael Bay: The Most Loved and Loathed Man in Hollywood

Fast cars, hot blondes and the joy of making things go boom – how the ‘Pearl Harbor’ director became both hated and a studio golden-child

Pearl Harbor Director Michael Bay 2001 FeaturePearl Harbor Director Michael Bay 2001 Feature

He digs blondes, blockbusters and making things go boom – how 'Pearl Harbor' director Michael Bay became the most loved and hated man in Hollywood.

Touchstone Pictures/Photofest

Not too far from Beverly Hills, in a bedroom that’s all white and filled with glass and sunshine, Michael Bay opens his eyes and thinks, “Why the fuck am I up so early? Yeah. Why should I get up?” For a moment, he is insensate. Nonetheless, he slips a robe on over his Tommy Hilfiger boxers, takes a leak, ties his feet into a pair of K-Swiss tennis shoes, greets his two giant mastiff dogs, makes himself a cappuccino, reads the morning paper and spends a while playing a snowboarding game on his PlayStation 2.

As a kid, Bay variously thought he might grow up to become a professional baseball player, a magician, a car-wash magnate, a photographer, a veterinarian, a Buddy Rich-style drummer or a movie director. His grandfather, however, thought he should join him in his laundry business, stonewashing jeans for a living. As it turns out, Bay, 37, has made three movies – Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon – that have in total grossed more than $1 billion. Consequently, he leads a glorious life filled with superswank California-modern houses, fast cars (a silver Ferrari 550 Maranello, a black Porsche 911) and some of the most stunning blondes this side of Hugh Hefner’s pad (where Bay, it must be said, is not an infrequent guest). And so that’s one good reason why he might want to get up: to once again bless the day he steered clear of the stone-washing racket and decided to make rock-’em-sock-’em blockbuster-type movies that many audiences love and many, many critics hate.

There is, however, a more pressing reason. In a few weeks, his fourth movie, Pearl Harbor, will be opening in 3,700 theaters nationwide. He has spent the last two years interviewing Pearl Harbor survivors, drumming up support from the Navy brass and the Pentagon, battling the skinflint execs at Disney, settling on a seemingly workable budget ($135 million, said to be the largest ever willingly agreed to by a Hollywood studio), blowing up props (ships, planes, Red Cross trucks, Quonset huts, etc.), forking over about $30 million to Industrial Light and Magic for its brand of computer-generated mayhem, and crafting a triangle of a love story for his three leads, played by Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett and Kate Beckinsale. He has shot more than one million feet of film and whittled it down to nine 2,000-foot reels. But he has yet to give the final OK to any one of those reels, and that’s the main reason he had to get out of bed today, to try to lock down a reel or two.

He steps outside and sits at a table on the patio. A friendly guy with high cheekbones, a strong chin and longish brown hair that feathers just right, in a California-casual kind of way, he wears his usual faded jeans and a gray T-shirt, and stretches out under the sun, his swimming pool shimmering before him and Los Angeles beyond that. A chef delivers waffles with a side of bacon. Bay picks at his food, then glances at his watch. “A lot of directors don’t want the pressure of a movie the size of Pearl Harbor,” he says coolly. “But I love it. I thrive on it.” He also says that when Disney demanded that he and producer Jerry Bruckheimer defer their fees for Pearl Harbor, it kind of pissed him off. “For Jerry, that’s OK, he’s a rich guy,” he says crossly. “Me, I do all right, but that’s my only income, and I won’t make a dime until the studio makes all its money back.” Then, breakfast half-finished, he rises from the table, folds himself into his Ferrari and roars off.

“This can be such a destructive town, people trashing other people’s
movies, saying shit about you. I’ve heard people say I grew up as a rich kid. It pisses me off. I
made it all myself.”

On the way to work, Bay downshifts as he approaches stop signs but rarely comes to a complete stop. When he reapplies the gas, the Ferrari makes wonderful, deeply submerged sounds. He takes the winding corners as they come, not speeding or otherwise pressing his luck. He mentions that his mastiffs, Mason (named after Sean Connery’s character in The Rock) and Grace (named after Liv Tyler’s character in Armageddon), are so big that to transport them to his headquarters in Santa Monica, he bought them their own truck and conscripted one of his assistants into the doggy-chauffeur corps. Then he gives a long and tortuous account of the making of Pearl Harbor, involving the usual nutty Hollywood merry-go-round albeit on a grand, big-budget scale, the main point of which is that once Bay got it into his head to do the movie, he did whatever it took to make the thing happen.

“Early on, I go over to Pearl,” he says, “and 10 admirals are saying, ‘Naw, this movie’s too complicated, we can’t divert our nuclear subs, we have RIMPAC, the whole Pacific fleet, and there’s the Japanese to consider.’ I said, ‘Gentlemen, it’s easy to say no. But we’re going to use all the people from the base, all the servicemen’s kids, all the admirals’ kids, as extras.’ Then I showed them a two-minute tape, a computer animation of the attack, with ships and planes and music. And when it was over, they had tears in their eyes. They go, ‘Wow.’ And the tide changed.”

He drives in silence for a moment. “I think the movie would have an easier time if it wasn’t coming from me,” he says finally. “I bet people will go after the movie simply because it comes from me.”

Indeed, audiences love Bay’s movies, and Bruckheimer, who has produced all of them so far, sometimes likes to say, “Michael is the Spielberg of his generation,” but the critics have often not been so kind. They especially trashed Bay’s last movie, 1998’s Armageddon. They called it “an assault on the eyes, the ears, the brain [and] common sense.” They said that it was “loud, ugly and fragmented” and that its director “doesn’t give a hoot about making a deep, humanistic impact on us. Or even a shallow one.” The drubbing stung Bay, who let his umbrage be known and still makes it known today that Armageddon is, in fact, a goofball fantasy made for 15-year-olds and that no one should take it seriously.

Nonetheless, in their determination to be all action all the time, his movies are curiously fierce and bullying. They flog the brain and, at some point, you’ve got to wonder why he insists on making them. One reason, Bay likes to say, is that he views them as stepping stones to more varied and sophisticated projects. And it is true – he might be that controlled and calculating. But it’s also true that you do what you’re capable of doing at any given moment.

Thus, for Bay, part of the point of making Pearl Harbor is for him to try to show that he is capable of more – more depth, feeling and nuance. “Pearl Harbor is a classic and tragic epic, with a great love story, and what it does is give you a sense of the loss of innocence,” he says. Then, rounding onto Broadway in Santa Monica, he heaves a sigh: “This can be such a destructive town, people trashing other people’s movies, saying shit about you. I hate that. I mean, I’ve heard that people say I grew up as a rich kid. It pisses me off, because I didn’t. I made it all myself. There’s a lot of jealousy in this business. I just try to keep on doing what I’m doing.”

He eases the Ferrari into his parking space at Bay Films. Inside, he greets his crew of film editors, personal assistants and a few hovering types who would really, really like Bay to lock down a few reels before nightfall. Soon Bay is sitting inside an editing room, peering at a computer screen showing Ben Affleck in his plane looking mightily concerned as tracers streak in his direction and crap blows up all around him. “Look at that,” Bay says happily. “That should sell a few tickets.”

Later, over lunch at a large, glossy table in a white Bay Films meeting room, Bay starts to spin out his life story in more or less reverse chronological order. Before making his first movie, 1995’s Bad Boys, which catapulted Will Smith to movie stardom and earned more than $65 million in the U.S. alone, he directed flashy, splashy, Clio-winning commercials for companies such as Coca-Cola, Nike, Budweiser, Bugle Boy jeans and the Milk Board (the Got Milk? campaign was his brainstorm), and equally flashy, splashy music videos for acts such as Aerosmith and Meat Loaf. He entered that world in 1984, on the strength of a visually stunning mock ad he shot – it was a Coke commercial, based on the famous Eisenstaedt VJ Day photograph of the soldier kissing the gal in Times Square – while a graduate student at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, which he attended after being rejected by the more prestigious USC film program. To get there, he spent four years studying film at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, where a film professor once said to him, “You’ll never make it in this business,” and where he was the kind of Southern-Comfort-and-Orange-Crush-drinking frat-boy jock who sent shivers of disdain through his snooty, beret-wearing film-student confreres.

He lost his virginity at the age of 17, after another evening of Orange Crush and Southern Comfort. “With women, I was kind of a late bloomer,” he says. “But then I bloomed. It was like, ‘Oh, my God!’ I had a girlfriend who was 21 when I was 17. And she was all woman, let me tell you. And then, one Christmas vacation, I worked at Club Med and got seduced by all these older women. When I have a son, I’m going to have him get seduced by an older woman. It’s a great way for a guy to learn. Very instructional.”

His teen years and early childhood were placid. “I was very comfortable growing up,” he says.

He was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Westwood, with his child-psychologist mom, Harriet, his accountant dad, Jim, and his younger sister, Lisa, in the same small two-story house that a young Robert Redford once called home. When he and his pals would get caught egging cars, all the cops would do is berate them: “What’s the matter? You guys a bunch of fags? Don’t you have girlfriends?” He dreamed of becoming a big-league ballplayer. He donated all his bar mitzvah money, some $5,000, to a local animal shelter. He stuffed a toy train with firecrackers and filmed the ensuing explosion with his mom’s Super-8 movie camera. He bought a still camera and started winning national photo contests. At 15, he interned at George Lucas’ production company, where he took one look at the Raiders of the Lost Ark storyboards and pronounced it a bomb for sure. But still, more than anything, he wanted to play ball.

“It was all very normal,” he says.

Only two traumas stick out in his mind. One took place when he was seven and some neighborhood toughs pinned him to a wall and stole his pants. The other happened when he was three, when he went to pick up his new little sister at an orphanage. “Afterward, we had a big family party, and I was all upset,” he says. “I took my milk and poured it on the floor.”

As it happens, he too had come from an orphanage. That’s where he spent the first two weeks of his life. He was a special lad there, he says, for it was well known among the orphanage ladies that the boy’s father was in the movie business.

Bay shifts in his seat and crosses his legs. “I think I was five or six when I found out about being adopted,” he says. “And, no. No, I don’t think it was traumatic.”

Just then, one of his dogs angles into the room.

“Gracie!” Bay chirps. “Were you sick? Did you eat rocks? How’s Gracie?” he asks, and then he gets up to go back to work.

Pearl Harbor Director Michael Bay 2001 Feature

The thing about Bay is that he seems nice enough, but he also seems to be all surface, all good looks, and not a lot of depth. For instance, he will say, “I seem to have gone out with a lot of blondes,” instead of simply stating what he knows to be true. That’s the way he is, although when he gets upset, he really doesn’t mind sharing, point-blank.

What’s ticking him off today is the piece of paper in his hand – it’s a list of people that Warner Bros. wants at a Pearl Harbor screening in order to cement a deal with Faith Hill, who is a Warner Bros. artist and might write a song for the movie. So that’s five people from a rival studio – but each wants an additional seat, so that’s 10 Warner-associated people altogether. Bay finds this incredible, and he hops right on the phone.

“You’re out of your fucking mind!” he barks at some hapless functionary. “I was told a manager and Faith. I’m not inviting another studio! OK?”

Afterward, he chuckles, says that competing studios often try to sneak spies into screenings and leans back in his chair. His only hobby, he says after a pause, is landscaping: “I like cutting trees down, limbs down.” His favorite cuss word on the set is fuck: “I get this potty mouth when I shoot, but it’s a great word, and I say it a lot.”

“Vices?” he goes on. “I bite my nails. Oh, and some people will give me shit because I’ve gone out with so many pretty girls. But it’s, like, when I’m single, I’m single. I don’t see why that’s so bad.”

His current girlfriend is named Lisa, and she’s a professional golfer, and she is, he says, “Fucking hot!” Generally, he doesn’t like to go out with actresses – “The actress vibe is a little too neurotic for me” – and he’s not big on money-grubbing freaky chicks, either. “This one girl, I went out on two dates with her,” he says. “She called me up, goes, ‘I was wondering if you could help me with my BMW payment? I said, ‘Excuse me?’ And she goes, ‘Well, like, I’m sure you have a lot of money.’ And I go, ‘Yeah, I got a lot of money, but you know what? I would never give it to you.'”

“Listen, I can be like a general. But I’ve got a shy side. I’m
also a lot deeper than [you’d] think, and a lot more sensitive. But I
don’t let people in too much.”

Then the door opens. A phalanx of high-powered dark-suited agents from the Endeavor talent agency has arrived. They file into the office and file out again, amid handshakes, though no brilliant smiles. It seems that Bay is unhappy with his current representation at CAA. He has let this be known. So now every agency in town is after him. On some days, he looks at his phone sheet and sees the names of 60 agents. They send him gifts – puzzles, fruit baskets and computer spreadsheets that show how his life will turn out if he joins their agency, and it would be a very luxe life indeed. It’s beginning to drive him a little nuts. To relieve the stress, he sometimes goes to the gym. But even there, it’s difficult to find peace.

“You run into business people there,” he says. “They tell you about their movies and about your movies. They say, ‘There’s someone I want you to meet!’ It’s like, ugh. I hate it. It’s the same when you go out to clubs. Someone says, ‘Your movie is going to be great!’ And I’m like, ‘How do you know? You haven’t seen it.'”

Not that Bay really cares who his real parents are, but when he was 20 he thought it might be interesting to learn a little more about them. “I was going away to school,” he recalls, “and I’m literally thinking, ‘OK, gotta pack this, gotta pack that, wouldn’t it be cool to find out who my parents are?'”

He went to the adoption agency, and the agency lady said, “I really think you should try to meet your dad,” and Bay said, “I just want to meet my mom,” and when he did meet her, he found the experience “weird, weird” and “interesting, interesting.” Eventually, he began wondering about his real father and who he might be. He knew his dad was some sort of Hollywood big shot; for a while, he figured it was either Sydney Pollack or Glint Eastwood. Finally, someone told him it was John Frankenheimer, the legendary director of action movies and thrillers, among them The Manchurian Candidate, Grand Prix, Black Sunday, Ronin and, most recently, Reindeer Games. Who told Bay it was Frankenheimer? “I got it out of my mom, I think,” he says late one afternoon in his office. “Anyway, it’s now this big rumor around Hollywood.” He drums his fingers on the chair. He drums them some more. He says, “It’s interesting, I guess.”

Michael Bay

He has never talked about this stuff, or any stuff, for that matter, with a shrink, but if he did, the shrink would probably come to Bay Films and they would talk there, with Bay’s assistant, Carolyn McGuiness, sitting in a cubicle not too far away.

“Michael, how often do you masturbate?”

“Wow. This has gotten out of hand. Like every other normal guy, I suppose.”

“When was the last time?”

“Carolyn? He wants to know when was the last time I masturbated.”

“How am I supposed to answer that?” she asks. “It could have been this morning.”

“It could have been. But it wasn’t. And it wasn’t last night, either. Let’s just say I have a very healthy drive. But, really, it all depends on how much real.”

“Do you enjoy your bowel movements?”

“I don’t take much notice. I mean, I don’t dis-enjoy them. But, generally, I’m in and out.”

“OK. Now, John Frankenheimer denies that you are his son. How do you feel about that?”

“You know what? I think we both deny it. It’s easier. We don’t have to deal with it that way.”

“You two have met only once, at a dinner. Tell me about that.”

“A friend introduced us: ‘Hey, Mike, you know John Frankenheimer?’ I go, ‘Yes.’ Frankenheimer just looked at me.”

“What did you two talk about?”

“We said hello. We were in front of a lot of people.”

“Didn’t you step aside and have a private talk?”

“A little bit. Yeah.”

“What did you say then?”

“Nothing. I said, ‘It’s really nice to meet you,’ and he said the same.”

“There was no …”

“No. I don’t know.”

“Did you look into his eyes to see if you saw yourself?”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“And did you see yourself in there?”

“Don’t know. Can’t tell. Maybe. It’s weird, that’s all, and bizarre. Again, this stuff is interesting, I guess, but I’m not obsessed with it.”

Time’s up, the session’s over and Bay could not look more relieved.

But, really, what the hell is Bay’s problem? Why can’t he engage the Frankenheimer matter in any kind of serious, subtle, thoughtful or feeling way? Maybe this is to be expected, given the types of movies he has made. But maybe even those movies, at a cost of many millions of dollars, are simply giant-scale expressions of denial, a furious pushing away of everything that makes him uncomfortable. Maybe, too, they are Bay’s big-budget cries for help, and so far no one, certainly none of the critics, has heard his sorrowful yaps. Could this be?

“Listen,” he says, “I can be very reserved about things. My business side isn’t shy. I can be like a general. But I’ve got a shy side. I’m also a lot deeper than people think, and a lot more sensitive. But I don’t let people in too much.”

The next day, Bay arrives at his office in his Ferrari. Out of the blue, he announces that he’s thinking of selling the Ferrari as well as the Porsche. “I need a more sensible car,” he says. “Maybe I’ll buy a sedan of some sort.”

A while later, his girl, Lisa, drops by. She is, of course, a blonde. She’s wearing a supertight, curve-hugging red dress, with a classy peekaboo cutout about chest high, and to say that she is hot hardly does her justice. She is something else entirely. But all too soon she is gone.

“I’m at that point in my life where I definitely want to get married soon,” Bay says afterward. “I’ve got my dogs as surrogates, but I’m ready for kids.”

By that afternoon, he’s again laboring over Pearl Harbor, trying to lock down just one reel. A couple of days ago, at a test screening, the audience said it wasn’t too thrilled with the movie’s ending. “I kind of screwed up on the ending,” says Bay. “There was too much about the love story. I kind of emotionally went somewhere else, leaving the audience in another place.”

So he’s working on the emotional stuff. It’s going to be tough, getting the emotional stuff right. But if he does get it right, with his trimming and rearranging, then maybe that ought to say something about where he’s headed. If he doesn’t, then the failure will either mean nothing or it’ll mean something gloomy. He ambles off to one of the editing rooms, and pretty soon he’s in the dark, with nothing else to think about but the images on the screen.

In This Article: Ben Affleck, Michael Bay


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