Michael Bay Interview

Ambulance is an intense, entertaining action film from director Michael Bay (Bad Boys, The Rock, Transformers).  I recently had the chance to speak with Michael about the project…

Matt:  I’d love to start by talking about editing and your working relationship with Pietro Scalia.  It seems like every big action scene has been shot from a multitude of camera angles.  How do you take all that footage and weave it together into something which feels hectic but also easy to follow?

Michael:  When Steven Spielberg was lecturing to University of Southern California film students, he said “of all the directors I’ve produced, I can always tell through their dailies how it’s going to be cut. The only director I can’t… is Michael Bay.”  I have a weird style that breaks rules and I live by the theory that rules are made to be broken.

I have to be very involved with the editing.  I love Pietro.  He worked with me on 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi and he’s Ridley Scott’s editor.  He’s like a gruff Italian going “no Michael, you don’t need it, no Michael, it’s not going to be funny” and I go “Pietro, we’re going to have funny.”  He’s a fantastic cutter.

Matt:  Is there a lot of experimentation that goes on then in the editing process?

Michael:  Yes.  I could have a messy closet and lose by car keys but I know every single shot I shot in a movie.  I know it better than the editors.  When they lose it, I can find it out of a million feet of film.  I just have this bizarre memory.  I kind of know how I want it woven together but I’ll always let the editor experiment with the footage on their own.  I like to see what they do.  Then I’ll maybe pass it to another editor… and then I’ll have a cut at it… it’s like a merry-go-round.  We’ll then start watching the movie many times on a big screen and keep refining it.  Editing is always about levels – even for the directors I produce.  They think the first cut is the one but you can always go another level and it can always get better. 

Matt:  An important element to the chase sequences is that we get the high shots from above which help show us where they are and where everyone is positioned.  You using helicopters?  Drones?  A mix of both?

Michael:  We invented some new drone technology on this one.  I used these 19-year-old kids with drones and I challenged them to do something different that’s not really been done in movies.  As Spielberg said to me once – “when you show the location and the geography, it sets the action free.”   People need to understand where they are.  It’s always about the motions of the actors in the scene there because otherwise, it’d just be action for action’s sake.

Matt:  It’s a tense film but you can also see it’s very self-aware of the fact it is a movie.  One of my favourite lines with the psychologist and the question is asked “people still rob banks?” – I’ll admit it’s a question I’d thought myself.

Michael:  Believe it or not, Los Angeles is the bank robbery capital of the world.  The rob banks in different ways these days.  They don’t necessarily go to the plexiglass booths, they’ll go in back doors or use computers or blow through a wall into the vault.  They still have some spectacular robberies.

Matt:  We’ve got the big shoot out at the start and the intense car chase which follows.  How easy was it getting permission to shut down major parts of downtown Los Angeles and shooting all this in tight time frames?

Michael:  We shot this in 38 days but the gift I have as a director is that police love my movies.  On the first day, we were doing some inserts of the ambulance driving on a freeway at normal speed.  All of a sudden, 5 real highway patrol cars and 3 motorcycle cops come up.  I walk up to them and say hello and they go “can we take a picture, we love your movies.”  I then said “I would love to put you in the movie.”

To explain to your audience, to shut down a freeway in a movie costs about $300,000 USD and it takes a couple of months to arrange.  I’m like “would you guys let me include you in the movie?” and they’re like “sure” and so I ask them what they’d do on a real police chase.  They then told me how they’d play with the vehicle, go up down, we’d dog it, throw our lights on, provide blockage.  We then shut down a real freeway and they were nice enough to do it for me going 90 miles an hour

Matt:  There’s a reference to a past movie of yours – The Rock.  Is that something you got to throw in or did writer Chris Fedak put that himself into the script?

Michael:  No, that was me.  I throw in a lot of comedy here and there.  Sean Connery had passed away and he had always taken me under his wing.  I learned a lot from him on The Rock.  It’s also a commentary on these kids.  The younger generation can quote my movies better than I can.

Aaron Blabey Interview

The Bad Guys is an animated feature with a timely release in Australia to align with the Easter school holidays.  I recently had the chance to speak with Australian author Aaron Blabey about his much-loved books being adapted for the big screen…

Matt:  I’m sure it’s something a lot of authors think about when writing books.  Was there a point where you thought The Bad Guys could make a good movie or TV show?

Aaron:  The DNA was always in there but when I wrote the first book, I hadn’t had any real commercial success.  It was beyond a flight of fantasy at the time but then, a part of me went “you know what… I love movies so much and I’m going to deliberately write something that is my version of movie except in book form.”  Everyone picked up on that instantly, including movie studios, which is why there was so much interest so suddenly. 

Matt:  So how does it work?  How do they contact you and say “we want to buy the rights to your books”?

Aaron:  We had heard whisperings that a couple of studios were interested.  The book had done well very quickly in American schools so word had got around that way.  I flew across and had the strangest week of my life and the end of 2016 and met the heads of all the studios.  A number of them were aggressively pursuing it.  Dreamworks kept rising to the top of being the obvious choice.

When my eldest was little, Kung Fu Panda had just been released and I always felt the tone of that was perfect.  It was what I was hoping to achieve with this.

Matt:  Do you give up full creative control once you sign the rights over or are there things you still get a say over when the script is being written and the film being made?

Aaron:  That can certainly happen but I had a deal as an executive producer so I’ve been across each draft of the screenplay, each cut of the movie, and each major discussion about the film.  If the studio decides to go rogue there’s not much you can do about it but Dreamworks have been sensational from the start and incredibly inclusive and respective to the point of almost being reverent about the source material. 

Two of the major gags from the trailer are directly from the book.  It blows my mind that gags I came up with 8 years ago are now suddenly everywhere.  It’s the most wonderful thing.

Matt:  With an animated film I guess you see parts of it being put together but when did you finally get to see the finished product? 

Aaron:  I’ve seen the whole thing in various forms many, many times but because of COVID-19, I haven’t been able to travel back and forth to the United States and so I’ve been watching it all on my laptop with “property of Dreamworks – do not copy – do not copy” written all over it.

It was a couple of weeks ago when I got to sit in a cinema with a small audience and see it on the big screen.  It was pretty sensational.  It’s only just been finished with the final sound mix and that added a whole other layer to it given movies in many ways are 50-50 between sound and visuals.  I’m not very good at pretending to like things if I don’t… but I think they’ve hit this out of the park.

Matt:  Did you get to take family and friends along to that screening?

Aaron:  No, that’s happening this coming weekend.  I went down to Melbourne to do some media but the actual Australian premiere will be in Sydney.  That’s where my family will see it for the first time.  My two boys made a conscious choice to not see it until it was fully done which is impressive for a couple of kids.  I kept telling them how it was changing and evolving and shifting and they said “we just want to see the movie” so were happy to wait.

Matt:  The animation is top-notch and the voice cast have been well chosen.  Do you have a favourite character from the movie?  One that translates best from your books?

Aaron:  It’s really hard to choose which is a great situation to be in.  I feel like they’ve nailed all of them.  My personal favourite, because it’s always been my favourite character, is Mr Snake.  He’s the most troubled by the situation they’re in and, in many ways, he’s the centre of the book series.  If my book series was Star Wars, he’d be Anakin Skywalker on his Darth Vader journey.   He’s that guy.  I love what they’ve done with him but the whole cast is extraordinary.

Matt:  The same question I have about the movie also applies to the books – how do you get in the head of 6-year- old or 9-year-old and know the best way to target a story towards them?

Aaron:  I have to time travel now because my kids have grown up but at the time, it was about what would make my two kids laugh and what would hold their attention and make them want to know what comes next.  That was it really.  That then opened a whole bunch of doors about what would have worked for me at that age and that’s what led me to muck around with the iconography of stuff from older age groups.   That’s how I end up doing a mash-up which I’ve described as Tarantino for kids from the start of the book series. 

Matt:  Your books are already very popular.  Do you hope this will spur even further interest in them?

Aaron:  That’s the big question.  I dread to think.  All on our own, we’ve sold 30 million books across 8 years.  It’s significant this giant movie is about to drop but who knows?  It’s a win either way.

Matt:  If this movie is a big success as we hope, is there a chance we’ll see further movies?  Do Dreamworks have the rights to that as well?

Aaron:  Yeah, they’re in the whole way.  Yes, it will entirely depend on the response to the first one but if it is popular, I’m sure you’ll see a bunch of them.

Cyrano, a new musical from director Joe Wright, is released this week in Australian cinemas.  I recently spoke to one of the film’s stars, Kelvin Harrison Jr, about the project…

Matt:  What interested you most about the role of Christian when you first heard about it?

Kelvin:  I got an email saying Joe Wright wanted to meet me and I was like “huh, that’s an email I don’t get every day. I’m interested. What’s he want to talk about?”  I finally had a Zoom call with him and he said they were going to do an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac.  I told him I’d never heard of it.  He then sent me the screenplay, I read it and I fell it love with those three characters, especially Christian.  I gave him my interpretation, did a self-tape, and then next thing you know, I was in Scilly.

Matt:  Christian is an interesting character.  He’s a nice person and a well-intentioned person but that’s not to say he’s not a deceitful person.  How did you approach that with Joe Wright in working out how to portray the character?

Kelvin:  One of the things I loved about Christian is that he came into this with so much innocence and sincerity.  He’s a very trusting young man.  What he gets mixed up in is not necessarily having the confidence or the understanding of how this particular community works and entrusts his relationship with Roxanne in Cyrano.  I think Joe wanted to keep him kind of naïve and innocent.  That’s why he almost falls into this trap of deceit and it’s not that he was out to fool the girl he loved.

Matt:  We saw you work with a vocal coach and sing on screen last year with The High Note. Did it feel more comfortable this time around or was it a different beast as a full-blown musical?

Kelvin:  It was different.  The High Note was cool because you feel like a real pop star.  You go into the studio and you work with big producers like Darkchild who’s worked with Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson and you go do a music video recording on set.  With Cyrano, we’re singing live, and we’re dancing, and the music is so much more intimate in so many different ways, and the lyrics are so profound.  It feels like you’re doing a proper musical but you’re doing it all day with many different takes.

Matt:  Singing on set, as opposed to in a recording studio, seems to becoming more common and that’s the approach director Joe Wright used here. Was it easy to embrace?

Kelvin:  I think it’s more natural.  With pre-recording, it’s like a safety blanket for actors so they don’t have to worry about how they sound on set because they’re not proper Broadway singers… but I also think it’s unnatural to lip-sync to your voice that you recorded three months ago.  You may not be feeling the same way and you don’t even know if it’s going to sound right in that location. 

Matt:  There are some beautiful locations used as part of the production. What can you tell us about the Sicilian town of Noto?

Kelvin:  It’s beautiful.  They invited us into their home in the middle of the pandemic.  They were so hospitable.  They fed us, the gave us a good time, they had street musicians playing, we had dinners and stuff like that.  It was just nice to be in this world that felt kind of fantastical and supported this Cyrano space we existed in.  You could walk down the street and see Ragueneau’s Bakery, Roxanne’s apartment, and De Guiche’s house.  It help us immerse ourselves in this fantastical space that Joe Wright created.

Matt:  This film was shot last year during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Did it have a big impact on the shoot and perhaps what you could and couldn’t do off-screen?

Kelvin:  It was a proper lockdown where we had to quarantine and everyone was wearing masks.  I think the biggest difference for performers is that so much of our job is about connection and relating to the crew and talking to the other cast members.  When you had red zones, yellow zones and green zones, it was a little more isolating but at the same time, any obstacle can be a gift because it forces you to make the most out of the moments you have.  When those masks come off, you’re really hungry for meaningful connections with your cast and crew.

Matt:  I read an interview with Joe Wright where he spoke about shooting war scenes near at active volcano, Mount Etna, which did erupt during the shoot. Were you there for that?

Kelvin:  Oh yeah.  Mount Etna gave us trouble from day one.  As soon as we decided to shoot up there, Mount Etna was like “ah, I don’t know about that, fellas.”  We were in a hotel a little bit away from the volcano but on the third day, I remember looking outside the window and seeing it spout out lava.  We were like “are we working today?” 

Matt:  This is a love story but of the cast, you seem to spend the most time alongside Cyrano, played by the Peter Dinklage. You’re both terrific and so how did you bring the best out in each other?

Kelvin:  Pete is just a great dude.  He’s a professional and he’s one of the most brilliant actors of our generation.  It’s such a gift to work with him.  We just kept the banter going.  Early on I said “Pete, how do I stay in your good graces?” and he said “just keep laughing at my jokes.”  Easy enough!

Matt:  With any period-piece movie, one of the fun parts are the costumes and we see you here wearing baggy clothes with big puffy sleeves. Are the clothes actually comfortable?

Kelvin:  It’s cool at the fitting.  I had a sword and cool boots and beautiful shirts.  And then on day 15, you kind of go “my back hurts” from how heavy it all is.  You’ve also got 5 people dressing you every day because it’s so detailed.  I respect the craft.

Matt:  You were in my neck of the woods recently shooting Elvis under the guidance of director Baz Luhrmann. What can you tell us about it?

Kelvin:  I love Australia.  It was beautiful.  I finished this movie, did my quarantine, and dropped in there.  I got out the day after New Years’ and I cried because I was so glad you guys followed the COVID rules and I could go outside to restaurants and eat like a normal person.  Elvis is going to be sick.  Baz is Baz.  Baz is an event in one person.  You know his films are going to be a spectacle and exciting.  The cast is incredible and I had such a great time making that movie.  I know everyone is going to love it.

There’s been much hype about Kenneth Branagh’s new film, Belfast, since it won the Audience Award at the 2021 Toronto Film Festival.  I recently had the chance to speak with the film’s 11-year-old star, Jude Hill, about his first movie role…

Matt:  I believe this is your first ever movie.  How did you find out about it and get the chance to audition?

Jude:  I do speech and drama lessons on Wednesdays and my teacher saw it somewhere and decided to put me forward for it.  I sent through the initial self-tape and then did about 6-7 call backs after that.  The casting process was quite intense at times but I’m glad I waited.

Matt:  Do you have an acting coach you work with as part of the movie?

Jude:  No, I didn’t.  I think my acting coach was my mum because every night, she’d go over the lines with me and that really helped me learn them.

Matt:  What was the hardest part of making the movie?  Was it memorising the lines or was there other stuff which was difficult too?

Jude:   I think the hardest part of the movie was saying so many good things about Tottenham Hotspur.  It was very hard saying those lines.

Matt:  (laughs) So who do you support then?

Jude:  I’m a massive Liverpool supporter.

Matt:  The film is set in 1969 – a major part of Ireland’s history in the early years of The Troubles.  Was it something you needed to learn about as part of the movie?

Jude:  I decided to go onto YouTube and search up documentaries about the time.  I wanted to get in the head of someone during The Troubles.  I also watched TV shows.  It was a very hard time for Ireland but the film Belfast gives The Troubles the justice it deserves.

Matt:  You’re working alongside some great actors and I particularly loved the scenes you shared with Judi Dench and Ciaran Hinds.  Did they each you a few things?

Jude:  Oh, definitely.  Every single day I’d ask them questions and they always gave the answers.  The thing about Ciaran and Judi… as soon as they walk into the room, the entire room starts smiling.  They’re like a beacon of happiness and I’m glad I got to work with them.

Matt:  And you get to work with Kenneth Branagh as well who is a terrific director.  What was he like?

Jude:  Kenneth Branagh was probably the nicest man you’ll ever meet.  He sat me down during the audition process and talked about his childhood and what he would have done in all of those scenes and what happened to him as a child.  Belfast is seen through Kenneth Branagh’s 9-year-old self’s eyes and I think it’s portrayed beautifully and the script writing is on point.

Matt: Did you go off the script the whole time or did you get to do a little bit of improv and have a little bit of fun with what you might have wanted to say?

Jude:  With a lot of the bigger scenes, there was more room for improv.  Ken loved it when we all did improv because it was quite funny at times.  One of the funniest lines that wasn’t in the script was done by Judi Dench when Buddy and Granny are watching A Christmas Carol play and she says “who wears jeans that size” and we had to do a couple of takes because we all couldn’t stop laughing.

Matt:  The film was shot over a year ago.  What’s it like looking back and watching yourself on screen?

Jude:  Every time I see the trailer, I remember seeing it through my own eyes when filming each scene.  I find that really cool but it’s also kind of weird seeing myself on the TV and on posters.  I’m just going with the flow and taking it all in my strides.

Matt:  What was it like when you got to show the film to your family and friends?

Jude:  My friends are going to see it tonight with each other.  My family saw it at the Belfast International Film Festival and wow, that night… there were no words to describe it.  Everyone was just happy and it was so heartfelt and emotional.  I think we needed that little bit of reassurance from all the Belfast people that we were doing it right.

Matt:  Awards season is coming up in the United States with Belfast already nominated at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.  Will you be travelling there for some of the awards?

Jude:  Hopefully but as I’m a kid, I can’t be vaccinated yet.  It’s very iffy but I really do hope I get to go over.

Matt:  How are you finding the PR side of things?  Do you enjoy doing interviews and talking about the film?

Jude:  I love it.  I love talking to people like you and spreading the story of Belfast around.  I just enjoy talking.  Full stop.  I like making people smile.

Matt:  What’s the plan going forward?  More acting?

Jude:  Definitely.  No doubt about it.

Matt:  Any projects you’re looking at?

Jude:  I’m done two projects since Belfast actually.  One was a film called Mandrake and I was playing the main character’s son.  The second was Magpie Murders where I play a murder victim.

Matt:  (laughs) Well you’ve got a lot of experience already with a wide variety of roles from the sounds of it.  For the moment, we can enjoy your wonderful performance in Belfast.  Jude, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Jude:  Thank you very much.