Critics say he represents everything wrong with Hollywood, but when it comes to playing with fire, the young, hotshot director of Armageddon is damned good.

by David Hochman
July 10, 1998 / Entertainment Weekly Features

It makes perfect sense that Michael Bay would own a dog like Mason. The colossal English mastiff, easily 200 pounds, galumphs around the 34-year-old filmmaker’s Brentwood bachelor pad with all the reserve of a Clydesdale on Viagra. Everything about Mason is gigantic: his branch of a tail, his Pavarotti-esque woof, his Jacuzzi-size doggy dish. There is no escaping it: This dog is bigger than your dog. This is the biggest dog in Los Angeles. Let’s get real, this is the biggest dog on the planet!

Bay, whose new $135 million Armageddon–Disney’s most expensive movie ever–has a chance of being the biggest hit (or biggest dog) of the summer, would have it no other way. Since his feature debut with 1995’s Bad Boys, and with 1996’s The Rock, the longhaired, 6′ 2″ director has been all about size: big stars, big spending, big explosions, big box office; nearly a half-billion dollars grossed worldwide so far. “At a test screening last week,” Bay says as Mason pins a visiting journalist against the couch, “the movie got interrupted nine times by cheers. Nine times! What it’s all about for me is seeing a packed house and feeling if they like it or not.”

Call it big-dog moviemaking. It’s what sets Bay apart from virtually every other young filmmaker working today. He’s a rising director who doesn’t do any of the things rising directors are supposed to do to gain credibility. He doesn’t have some pet independent film project, and he doesn’t talk about pushing the envelope with daring script choices. He doesn’t even seem to mind catering to other people’s artistic visions, particularly that of his three-time boss, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, even if it means Bruckheimer gets the credit. Case in point: Touchstone is insisting that the way to refer to Bay’s latest is, in fact, either Armageddon: A Jerry Bruckheimer Film or Jerry Bruckheimer’s Armageddon. Ouch.

Bay is that rare breed of director who seems proud to flaunt his keen commercial instincts. “I don’t see anything wrong with spending a lot of money to make big action movies to entertain people,” he says. “Yet somehow, I come under special scrutiny. I mean, why don’t people get upset if Dow spends $300 million to invent some new chemical? Audiences like popcorn movies. What’s wrong with that?”

As far as the studios are concerned, nothing. “Michael gives people what they want and we like that,” says Walt Disney Studios chairman Joe Roth. “He’s straight down the middle of the highway. That’s not to say he’s always safe, but his main objective is to please audiences, and yes, I guess that makes him somewhat unusual these days.”

Tom Gorai, a producer who’s collaborated with Bay, puts it this way: “Michael’s interests line up perfectly with what the American public wants. I think a lot of directors would be like that if they could put away their artistic guilt.”

Still, making movies by applause meter and then turning them into two-hour commercials for testosterone doesn’t exactly improve Hollywood’s image as a culture-clotting, intelligence- sapping behemoth. And the critics have not been generous. Bad Boys, The New York Times said, was “stitched together, like some cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, from the body parts of other movies.” And the Los Angeles Times said The Rock “epitomizes trends in Hollywood filmmaking that have made many people very rich while impoverishing audiences around the world.”

Bay’s ethos is startling even to his colleagues. Earlier this year director Barry Sonnenfeld joked to Newsweek about the size of Bay’s movies and noted, “I hear he has a very large penis.” Bay tries his best to laugh off his detractors, but clearly he’s a bit hurt. Driving from his house to a nearby Santa Monica restaurant in one of his many steroid-fed vehicles (a GMC Yukon sport ute; his real weakness is $200,000 Ferraris), he defends his sensibilities. “I love it when people get really mean and call you a ‘hack,'” he says. “It’s like, don’t they see how well these movies are doing? They make an impression around the world. I met this guy in Bali who lives in a hut with a TV, and he loved The Rock. That means something, doesn’t it?”

Other directors push actors to connect with their inner psycho killer. Bay’s priorities are more pragmatic on the set of Armageddon, an epic about what happens when a Texas-size asteroid comes hurtling toward Earth.

On the 108th day of shooting last winter, as Bay runs around the massive asteroid set on Disney’s lot in Burbank (Disney had to dig a hole four stories underneath Soundstage 2 just to contain it), here are his chief concerns:

–That enough Cocoa Krispies are sprinkled on the asteroid “surface” so that a crunch is audible whenever an actor-astronaut takes even one small step.

–That real astronaut food–freeze-dried asparagus, liquid-carrot packets, etc.–is stashed in pouches around the space-shuttle set, even in places the camera will never see.

–That Ben Affleck does not pass out or, worse, throw up in his fishbowl space helmet.

–That the cannons full of cornflakes and Styrofoam are ready to blast Affleck when he gets kaboomed by a methane explosion.

“There’s pain in every shot of this movie,” Bay says. “The space shuttle, the suits, the air systems, the debris, the 100-mile-an-hour fans. It’s months and months of technical work and planning and designing behind every shot.”

None of this is easy on the actors. “There’s never more than a two-page scene of dialogue in this whole movie,” says Affleck. “If you don’t want to be terrible in [a movie like this], you have to work really hard.”

It’s not easy to find irony in his straight-faced shoot-‘em-up action flicks, but there’s one great irony in Michael Bay’s life. This art-be-damned showman may well come from Hollywood royalty. A search for his natural father led Bay, who is adopted, to one of the industry’s most revered directors. Though Bay says he’s confronted the man, he prefers to keep his name private. “You can probably hurt a lot of people by saying [who it is],” he says. “He’s got a family and it would probably f— a lot of people up.”

In fact, Bay doesn’t seem particularly hungry for a Hollywood father figure. As a teen, he interned on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (and candidly admits he didn’t think the film would work); later, after graduating from Wesleyan University, he eschewed California’s mentor-heavy film schools for Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design, best known for its advertising department. There, he produced a lavish 90-second ad for Coca-Cola set on V-J Day in 1945. That impressed the folks at Capitol Records, who hired the then 24-year-old to direct a comeback video for Donny Osmond; soon after, Aerosmith, Meat Loaf, and others came calling. “I was suddenly being paid a lot of money to do work I really loved doing,” says Bay. “I always knew there’d be time to do other types of projects, maybe something smaller or more artistic, later on.”

What followed were more explosive offers. Coors, Nike, and Pepsi all wanted Bay for his up-tempo visuals–heavy on the slow-mo and shimmering with inspiring shafts of light. His hard-sell style appealed to Don Simpson (who died in 1996) and his partner Bruckheimer, so they hired Bay to direct Bad Boys, a buddy movie starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. “I made Bad Boys because I thought, I’m not going to go out there and be arrogant and make a Schindler’s List,” he says. “I’m going out there to make a movie that could be entertaining. That’s what I was good at.”

Critics reviled Bad Boys, but it made a fortune (the $18 million-budgeted film, which took in more than $65 million domestically, was, according to Bay, Columbia’s most profitable of 1995). Which meant that headier projects would have to wait. “I felt things were going well,” Bay says, “and I wanted to test myself in other ways–with bigger budgets, bigger actors.”

It’s no surprise that Bay landed The Rock with a $75 million budget. Nicolas Cage and Sean Connery. Nuclear warheads. Bad guys. “It played,” Bruckheimer says, “to all Michael’s strengths.”

The question now is, how long can Bay go on wowing audiences with mind-blowing pyrotechnics? He has the track record and clout to make any film he wants, so he’s still thinking big. He’s talking with James Cameron about directing Planet of the Apes and just signed a two-picture deal with Disney to turn out more high-octane blockbusters. (He’s also developing a one-hour TV drama series, Quantico, about the FBI training academy.)

Anything more, uh, artistic in his plans? Well, no…but Bay insists we shouldn’t count him out yet. “People have a hard time believing I’d ever want to do a small movie, but I would love to do something funny and quirky,” he says. “I’m a huge Coen brothers fan. But good small-movie scripts are hard to come by. Maybe if I could get through all these space-shuttle scripts I’m constantly being sent, I could do something really different.” Now, if only Sundance were ready for a few good nuclear explosions…