By Anthony Breznican, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — Throughout history, great leaders have stood in marvel at the foot of the pyramids of Giza —Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte. Now it’s Optimus Prime’s turn.
Moviegoers who helped Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen earn $200.1 million in its opening five days, just short of record-holder The Dark Knight, know the computer-effects-heavy film plays a lot of tricks on the eye. One thing they’re seeing for real are the pyramids, because director Michael Bay was determined to shoot the shapeshifting-robot finale on the surface of the ancient structures.
“The studio was saying: ‘You can’t do that, you can’t go there. It’s dangerous. A-lah-lah-lah-lah,’ ” Bay said recently as sound editors tweaked the roar and grind of robot carnage as the battle in question played out on a giant theater screen before them.
“They always try to discourage an American crew from going to a Muslim country. “But that’s kind of flawed, because when I went on a scout, it’s very different than people perceive in the news. It’s a great place, and people are very friendly there.
“I almost put it in my contract that I’m not doing this movie if I don’t shoot in Egypt. I finally got their word: ‘OK, you can shoot there.’ “
That wasn’t the last piece of red tape to be cut through. Though the producers had contracted with Henry Kissinger’s consulting firm to negotiate access more than a year in advance, the permit they had been promised wasn’t ready when Bay and Co. finally arrived.
“My producer was panicking because they said ‘Yes, you’re approved,’ and we had went through their state department, prime minister, the major generals … everything. They kept saying ‘It’s OK, it’s OK.’ But then you get there, and it’s not OK when the police surround your trucks,” Bay says. “No one wants to take responsibility for anything. No one wants to say, ‘Yeah.’ “
Some voted to go home, even with millions of dollars on the line, Bay says. “But I said, ‘We are going to shoot on those (expletive) pyramids!’ Somehow, by the grace of God, there was a loophole.” They reached out to the head of the nation’s ancient cultural heritage, who gave them the green light.
“Dr. (Zahi) Hawass, who controls all the antiquities in Egypt, he can say whatever goes,” Bay says. “So we were finally invited in to shoot, literally, on the pyramids.”
In the final cut, much of that scene is dominated by CG-animated alien robots, including Devastator — the new villain made out of seven individual robots who hide in the form of construction equipment. But the flesh-and-blood actors also got to romp on the pyramids.
Bay himself stood on a high ledge filming scenes with actor John Turturro (reprising his role as the blowhard former government agent who’s a Transformers expert). “We’re 30 rows up, and it’s just neat. Pictures don’t do justice to it, but on this movie, you get the scale of what the pyramid really is because John’s right there,” Bay says.
The filmmaker says it was overwhelming for both of them, a feeling that struck a few days later when they were in Jordan shooting atop a mountainside-carved temple in the ancient city of Petra. “(Turturro) was looking at Petra, and it was the morning of, just setting up, and he had a tear in his eye. I was like ‘What’s going on?’ ” Bay recalls. “He said, ‘You never get to do this. I was at the pyramids just the other day, and now I’m here. You just never get to do this.’ “
That was the final problem: an awestruck crew.
“I actually had to yell once: ‘Anyone pulls out a (expletive) video camera again, you’re going home!’ We were shooting on top of this palace right next to the pyramids. The sun has just dropped, and you’ve got literally 15 minutes of light — one chance, and you’ve got to get the scene. You have to be ready to knock it out. But the crew is there with the video cameras, posing and taking photos, because it’s a once-in-a-lifetime place. I was like, ‘Guys! This is my time now!’ ” he says, laughing.
“It was the end of the show, and it was funny,” he says, shrugging. “We barely made it.”