Transformers: not just another toy story

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      LOS ANGELES–When you're the king of blowing shit up and your giant-robot flick wins MTV's Best Summer Movie You Haven't Seen Yet award, some advance fawning from geeks might be nice. However, when it was announced that Bad Boys, The Rock, and Pearl Harbor director Michael Bay would be entrusted with bringing a live-action version of the Transformers toy-and-cartoon franchise to the screen, there was an eruption of criticism.

      "I did get a lot of flak from fans on the Net, like, 'Michael Bay, you wrecked my childhood', 'Michael Bay, you suck', 'We're going to protest his office.' They protested my old office, apparently. That's true," he said at a news conference in a Los Angeles hotel recently. "The death threats freak me out.”¦I would listen to fans on the Net, I really would. I would kind of hear their comments, but I'm still going to make my movie and I'll still put [painted] flames on Optimus [Prime]." And lips. And change Bumblebee into a Camaro. And give Arcee the old heave-ho. And make Megatron a firearm-free zone. You can almost hear the moans from devoted fans.

      But Transformers (now playing in Vancouver), written for the screen by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, may pleasantly surprise those who grew up with the toys. The film tells the story of teenager Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), who is thrust unwittingly into the bad blood between the shape-altering Autobots and Decepticons. All the T-for-Transformer elements are here, with the movie boasting treads, teens (LaBoeuf), T&A (Megan Fox and Rachael Taylor), testosterone (Josh Duhamel and Tyrese Gibson), and 'tudes (John Turturro and Jon Voight). Topping it all, the tin–Autobot hero Optimus Prime boasts 10,800 working parts–looms tall. Not to mention the universe hangs in the balance.

      Yet before signing on to direct the first of this three-picture franchise (Fox and LaBeouf are confirmed for two sequels) the 42-year-old L.A. native had never worshipped at the feet of a sentient robot. When executive producer Steven Spielberg called Bay and offered him the job, Bay had no interest. "I hung up and said, 'Thank you, I'm not doing that stupid, silly toy movie.'"

      Bay, you see, was discovering girls while other guys were swooning over Optimus Prime. However, he came to like the simplicity of a plot about, as Spielberg had pitched it, "a teen who buys his first car". And after attending the "Transformer School" offered by Hasbro, whose CEO served as co–executive producer on the film to ensure the action figures were interpreted correctly, Bay absorbed the Transformers lore.

      "I've been offered a lot of superhero movies before, and nothing's really appealed to me," Bay explained, "and in the [school] room, because I've been such a fan of Japanese anime, it just hit me that if I make this really real, it could be something very new and different. So I quickly became probably one of the bigger Transformer fans in the world. And I tried to make this movie for non–Transformer fans, okay? And I wanted it to be a little bit more, if you could say, adult, so I'm sure I'm going to get flak for: 'You made an edgy movie on a toy. How is that going to affect kids?' I know there are Transformer fans that are, like, 40 years old."

      Bay said he wanted to nail the film's underlying theme of "no sacrifice, no victory". He was also determined that the robots be imbued with emotional substance and limber physicality, demands that meant relations were not always cordial between the director and Industrial Light and Magic, the visual-effects division of Lucasfilm.

      "There were a lot of angry phone calls like, 'We have to do better. We have to do better.' I just kept pushing them and pushing them and pushing them," Bay recalled, "but we came up with a really good visual thing. I wanted them not to be clunky, lumbering robots. I looked at a lot of kung fu movies.”¦

      "The fans just wanted me to literally take these cartoons and blow them up," he continued. "And it's, like, literally the equivalent of Ghostbusters with the marshmallow man. It just wouldn't work. They needed to be much more complex, the way they are. Y'know?"

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