Friend-of-the-Blog The Bitter Script Reader has written a book: Michael F-ing Bay: The Unheralded Genius in Michael Bay's Films. I asked him 5 Questions about his inspiration, his favorite Bay film and what we can all learn from the director that people seem to love to hate.
How did you get the idea for the book?
It was born of a few things. I'd toyed with the idea of an e-book for a while, but for various reasons I really didn't want to make my debut with a "greatest-hits" compilation of material that was on my blog. I knew if I was doing an e-book - as opposed to having a big publisher who'd shoot this out to brick-and-mortor bookstores - I'd be relying on my existing fanbase to generate sales. It didn't seem either right or feasible to just repackage what they'd already gotten for free and expect them to buy it.
The idea of examining Michael Bay's career grew out of my observations of the reaction to the most recent TRANSFORMERS film. Even before it came out, I kept seeing tweets from people expressing a sentiment more or less like, "God, I hate Michael Bay. Man this movie looks bad..... Seeing it at midnight on opening night!" There's just this fascinating thing where this audience exists that despises him and still can't get enough of him. And THEN they walk out of that movie three hours later acting shocked at how much they disliked it!
I wasn't what you'd call a Michael Bay fan or a defender. Truth be told, until soon before I started this book, I probably fit more comfortably among the detractors. Seeing all the pre-hate for TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION actually made me feel a little bad for it. It seemed to have no chance of getting a fair shake, so I decided that I'd go see the film with a completely open mind. It was an experiment to see if at least some of the hatred for Bay's films comes from people see in them what they expect to find. I decided to presume that there was something meaningful buried in the movie and all I had to do was let it talk to me.
I've grown tired of reading reviews written by the same people who've spent months writing stories all about production problems or studio clashes or whatnot on the same films. If someone's spent a year being snarky about the behind-the-scenes of a film, it's hard to imagine their viewing is completely untainted. Heck, maybe you could argue that they need that particular film to be bad in order to justify their pre-hate. So this really began with that one viewing experience and I found that if you're trying to find some sort of deeper meaning or metaphor in TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION, you can make a pretty good case for some theories.
The blog post that spawned quickly became one of my most-read posts ever and from there it was a short hop to "Hey, maybe there's a book to be gotten out of re-examining all of Michael Bay's films that way."
Was it hard to write a book when you're used to writing scripts? Or did it feel similar to your blog writing?
Not at all. If anything, I've been doing this style of writing a lot longer because it took me back to writing examinations of The Scarlet Letter in high school, or dissecting the buried themes of Hitchcock's work in college. I wrote a lot of papers in college, many of which were about taking a position on one critical read of an author's work -- so it was largely effortless. And of course, as you point out, it's similar to the style I use on the blog too.
The only real challenge was the volume. In college, I'd have balked at having to write essentially 11 thesis papers over about two months. The blog was really good at training me to be able to just sit down and write, revise and know that I'd have to come back the next day and start totally fresh. For the first half of the book, I typically gave myself a week to work on each film, but by the second half, I was turning out two essays in that time.
What's your favorite Michael Bay movie?
This is probably going to be clear to everyone who reads the book, but THE ROCK wins hands down. It's got one of the best premises that Bay's worked with, and probably his strongest cast. Sean Connery is basically doing a riff on James Bond, how do you not love that? Nicolas Cage is also the perfect counterpoint to Connery's character and there's a lot of smart writing in their dynamic. The dumb version of this would have been Connery as an unstoppable badass and Cage as the tag-along comic relief, but they're both fleshed out beyond that. It's also a stroke of genius that while Ed Harris is the antagonist, he's not a terrible person and you kind of feel sorry for the guy. There's a part of you that can really empathize with why he's taken these hostages and what he's after. It makes for a much richer story when characters aren't reduced to two-dimensions just to keep things easy on the audience.
You can definitely make a case for some of Bay's films having deeper, more profound readings, but THE ROCK is the clear favorite.
What do you think new writers can learn from Michael Bay?
Let me qualify that by saying my answer probably would be more accurately "what they can learn from Michael Bay movies." Bay definitely takes a strong hand in the development of his films and the writers are there to serve him. I don't want to minimize their contributions. Having said that, I addressed some of this talking about THE ROCK, but I think having vibrant characters is a big component. The two leads seem to be archetypes, but there's a power dynamic between them that allows the upper hand to change hands a number of times.
Oh! To relate this back to the book, I'd say that if you're trying to tell a "message" in your script, you'll probably have a better movie if you make sure it works as an entertaining story first. In discussing his films, I find that several of them have hidden meanings, such as THE ISLAND being an allegory for the Hollywood development process, or ARMAGEDDON being about man's relationship with God. I'm willing to be that not many people who saw those films would have picked up on that subtext. It's there for people who are hungry for deeper meaning, but the film doesn't beat you over the head with it.
Action movies don't have to be stupid, You can deal with bigger themes, and it's even better when you don't shove those ideas in the audience's faces. I think it leads to more interesting discussions, post-film. I loved NIGHTCRAWLER, but there's really no debate that the film is an indictment of current media culture. Try talking that over with friends after the movie and you don't have much to discuss but to point out all the well-done moments in the film.
Try starting a conversation about how PAIN & GAIN is actually a very personal confession and plea for absolution from Michael Bay and THEN you have a lively debate. It forces you to be more engaged with the film and to parse it carefully. To young writers, I'd say, "don't be afraid to make the audience work to find the meaning of your film."
Do you have any other book ideas percolating?
We'll have to see if anyone buys this one first!
But seriously, as I was wrapping this book up, there was this little voice in the back of my head saying "And for the second book, maybe you could do Brett Ratner or McG!" Then the next I had lunch with my buddy Scott Towler, and after I told him about this book, he said "For the sequel you could do Brett Ratner!" So I get that it seems like a logical way to go.
However, in doing research I realized that Bay is the second most-successful director of all-time, if you go by domestic box office. In fact, five of the top six directors in that category also have Oscars for Best Director. Bay is the lone exception. So there's at least some correlation between box office success and artistic recognition. At the very least, it draws a distinction between the sorts of movie Bay makes and the films Ratner and McG makes. If big, loud action was an automatic ticket to huge sucecss, those two men would be up there with Bay. But they're not, and Bay's in the company of Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, James Cameron, Peter Jackson and Ron Howard.
That doesn't necessarily mean that Bay IS as gifted as those other men... but it does make a case that Spielberg, Cameron, Zemeckis and such are more accurately Bay's peers than other purveyors of loud, dumb action. So that's a roundabout way of saying I wouldn't really expect to find the sort of depth in Ratner's work as I did in Bays. If I did write another book, it probably wouldn't be about finding depth in another director's action films. Bay's one of a kind.