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.