Michael Bay's films have grossed more than $5 billion, but critics have dismissed the man behind the recent 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi as one of America's worst directors. Roger Ebert called Armageddon "the first 150-minute trailer," and in his review of 13 Hours, Rolling Stone magazine writer Peter Travers derided the film as "sound and fury signifying nothing" (incidentally, this same Shakespearean description was employed by Vanity Fair writer Richard Lawson to describe the fourth Transformers movie). But these writers fail to credit Bay for having created a unique, prolific set of films that have both escapism and a distinctive style.
Although Bay has gained a reputation as a harbinger of Hollywood's over-reliance on familiar franchises, he's only directed one series, the Transformers movies. Bad Boys, Armageddon, and The Island all tell original tales; Pearl Harbour and 13 Hours are based on history; and Pain & Gain is adapted from a feature story from a South Florida alt-weekly.
Known for his style of jump cuts of high and low shots, Bay is fond of stories about common men overpowering the elites. In 13 Hours, for instance, the soldiers frequently mock their superior's Ivy League credentials. The soldiers go on to save the day. The motif follows Armageddon's story about cowboy astronauts who outsmart NASA in their ability to blow up an asteroid. These men – Bay films are always about men – save the day for the good of humanity, just like Transformers' Autobots.
His stories appeal to mass audiences for the same reasons Donald Trump has won over a certain demographic of working- and middle-class voters. As Bay's movies have grown more popular over the past 15 years, the income of middle-class Americans have declined. People pay to watch Bay's films because they offer a fantasy world where they can outsmart politicians and bureaucratic powers that be who have obliterated their chance of retiring. The American dream might be dying, but for at least 120 minutes every few years, Michael Bay offers an escape where degrees and deliberation matter less than guts, decisiveness, and a clear moral compass. Factor in Bay's box-office record, and you have one of the most successful auteurs in American film history.
Earlier this week I spoke to Bay about his editing style, the similarities between the Benghazi soldiers and Bruce Willis, and why he loves West Side Story.
VICE: In 13 Hours and in Armageddon, street-smart guys outsmart Ivy-League, government types. What draws you to this theme?
Michael Bay: People sitting at desks are not always the smartest ones—it's people in the trenches that figure stuff out. We've learned that through history. I was in a geology class taught by a world tectonic expert at Wesleyan, and he said a very poignant thing one day. He [said], "Listen: If we have a nuclear catastrophe, it's going to be the carpenters and plumbers that fix this world." [The theme is] a wish-fulfilment thing, but it's also reality and a lot of facts and a lot of stories that I've heard.
In 13 Hours and the Bad Boys films' car chases, you cut from high to low angles. How did you develop that technique?
I liked getting more speed. It was a cut style I started doing when I did Bad Boys. I got a lot of shit for it, from what I remember, but you look at car chases nowadays, and [most action directors] seem like they're doing it now.
Did you start developing this cutting style as a music-video director?
You start honing your techniques [as a music-video director]. Music videos, for me, were always a stepping stone – I always wanted to be a feature director, and it was just how I was going to get there. A misperception would be, "Oh, he's just a commercial director, he's just a music-video director." No, I was a film student that became a music-video director, that became a commercial director – all while knowing I was going to be a feature director. It was just how I plotted my path.
When I did Bad Boys, even though it was such a low-budget movie, I shot over 500 days. I was very young – I think I was 27 or so – doing my first movie with a low budget with two guys who were not stars. It was a movie [with black lead actors, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence]. Remember: African-American [actors] didn't work overseas. It was the first movie that actually worked overseas where we had two black stars.
Your film style has evolved over the years. How is 13 Hours different and similar from your previous films?
My movies are always about the person wanting to do the right thing, or the people wanting to do the right thing – people who are very selfless, who try to save others. [The characters look at] the biggest picture; [they] do it for the greater good. There's a lot of hero archetypes in [13 Hours and the other movies], but remember: Benghazi is not made up. That's what happened. It's written by five guys who were there, and they were just trying to do the right thing.
I like people who are not these über-studs. They relate to a normal person doing extraordinary things.
How would you define a hero?
When you watch [13 Hours], that's pretty definitive of a hero. These are people that didn't have to go [to Benghazi]. They could've gone home. They're ex-military. Their leader said, "You don't have to go, but we're the only help they've got. It's their only chance." And they suited up, and they volunteered to go. They're all young fathers, and they put their job – or put what they believe in; they're noble kind of guys – before their families to try to save others. To me, that's a hero. [Heroes have] gotta have nobility, they've gotta have strength, and they've gotta have a conviction.
Who are your favourite heroes?
Sean Connery in Untouchables with [Kevin] Costner, Indiana Jones, even Bruce Willis in Die Hard. Bruce was a normal Joe that was put in an extraordinary circumstance. Harrison was an archaeology teacher who was just put through the rigmarole. I like people who are not these über-studs. They relate to a normal person doing extraordinary things.
I'm a very down-and-dirty, get-dirty kind of director.
Why is West Side Story one of your favourite movies?
It's one of 'em. It's a fun story, and it really uses [filmmaking] techniques. It takes style, and it just creates its own kind of content. There's a lot of value you can learn from musicals. I took a class at Wesleyan on musicals. We watched [films] from the 40s and 50s. I just vividly remember some of [the shots]. I think it was the Twentieth Century Fox musicals – there was one, I'm forgetting the name, where it's the longest shot. It's three minutes where it goes in an apartment building, coming out another window, going down to another window, going in and out, in and out. It's a beautifully composed shot; we would have so much trouble in modern-day filmmaking doing it as well as they did it. There are moments like that where it's just beautiful. Some of the lighting is beautiful in musicals – it goes from story to fantasy. [Musicals are] fun to watch.
Is lighting a big part of your action movies?
I always think so. To me, a lot has to do with lighting and how you perceive the world. I started very young in photography. When I was 13, I got my first camera. I was always about composition, and in my movies I basically set up every single shot, meaning I put my eye through the lens. I'm not one of those directors who just sits in a chair and tells people to do their stuff. I'm actually right there, right with the camera, right next to the camera operator. I'm a very down-and-dirty, get-dirty kind of director.
The standout composition in 13 Hours is an American flag on fire in Ambassador Christopher Stevens's pool. Do you think critics sometimes miss these images?
I think they say a lot of stuff about my movies. Sometimes they're not even talking about the movie, if you actually read some of the things closely. A long time ago I learned, from very, very smart people, don't read the good, don't read the bad.
I thought it was a poignant image. Just 'cause it's an American flag, then [critics will say], "Oh, he put it in Armageddon. Oh, he must have a fetish with American flags." No, it just happens to be the type of movies I was doing. You see American flags in American bases, and a lot of my movies have [been set in] American bases.
What is the biggest misconception about you as an artist?
When you do Transformers and all my other movies – when it makes that type of money at a box office – that means about 100 million-plus people saw the movie. I could be misperceived, but I have fans, and that's who I make movies for. There are a lot of haters in the world, [but] you reach a point in life where you don't really give a shit what haters say, and you just kind of do your thing. I work my ass off [doing] my thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mitchell Sunderland is managing editor of Broadly. Follow him on Twitter.