AMBULANCE is now out in cinemas and we were lucky enough to have a chat with Michael Bay who most of you will know from behind the camera on films such as The Rock, Armageddon, The Island, 13 Hours in Benghazi, the Transformers franchise and many many more. Obviously, we chatted about the film but we also dived into some of the history with his previous films and he provided anecdotes about working with Sean Connery, John Krasinski, Will Smith, Martin Lawrence and the legendary Bruce Willis. We get an insight into how he works on a set, how many shots he does in a day, working with his editor and how he’s able to charm the local police to becoming actors for a day.
It was a fantastic interview, that was supposed to happen earlier in the week, but the timing didn’t work out and it became necessary to reschedule. This worked out better because Bay was super-relaxed, chilling at his house in LA and we got to chat for a solid thirty minutes instead of what would have been a mere ten minutes in the normal film junket environment. So enjoy the interview, and as Accessreel’s Darran says, “I sure had a great time doing it”.
Over one day across the streets of L.A., three lives will change forever.
In this breakneck thriller from director-producer Michael Bay, decorated veteran Will Sharp (Emmy winner Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Candyman, The Matrix Resurrections), desperate for money to cover his wife’s medical bills, asks for help from the one person he knows he shouldn’t—his adoptive brother Danny (Oscar® nominee Jake Gyllenhaal, Zodiac, Spider-Man: Far From Home). A charismatic career criminal, Danny instead offers him a score: the biggest bank heist in Los Angeles history: $32 million. With his wife’s survival on the line, Will can’t say no.
But when their getaway goes spectacularly wrong, the desperate brothers hijack an ambulance with a wounded cop clinging to life and ace EMT Cam Thompson (Eiza González, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Baby Driver) onboard. In a high-speed pursuit that never stops, Will and Danny must evade a massive, city-wide law enforcement response, keep their hostages alive, and somehow try not to kill each other, all while executing the most insane escape L.A. has ever seen.
You can read the transcription of parts of the interview or listen to the interview below to hear the full chat with Michael Bay. You can also do a search on most ‘podcast’ platforms for accessreel.
Accessreel.com: You filmed Ambulance in the height of the pandemic, how hard was it to put together? Because it looked like a big shoot.
Michael Bay: You know what? Okay. I said, because we had a very limited budget, COVID was very expensive to do COVID testing. It’s like four million bucks. It’s just crazy. So I basically, “Okay, this is what I got, I need this many cars. Okay, I can get maybe 40 days. Okay, lower it down to 38. Let’s do some micro days.” Micro days is like Kubrick vibe where you’ll do 10 people, 15 people. I started doing that on 13 Hours. Not every day, but just some days where you make it a little more cost effective. So basically, you just dull out the money and this is what you get. You get like one helicopter day. Okay, I pull a helicopter scene out of my ass and I’m like, “Okay, I need another helicopter day.” And that’s how you do the budgets. And I’m really good at staying on target, really good at managing my days. And for all my movies, I’m one of those directors I know I’m just rambling about budget, but-
Accessreel.com: It’s all right.
Michael Bay: … I know I’m very good at knowing the time, like where we’re going to go over. It’s just that some directors are very aloof to it, don’t care about it, but I do. And it was at the height of the pandemic and people thought I was absolutely crazy. It was a year ago, January. I think it was the second week. LA at that time was the highest COVID in the world. But I thought, “Okay, that’s great. Everyone’s local here, there’s nothing to do, and it’s going to be safer. All you have to do is go to a movie set.”
Michael Bay: So it works out.
Accessreel.com: So did that work to your advantage because obviously Los Angeles had lockdowns and all that stay-at-home sort of things. Obviously, was that easier because you can use the streets?
Michael Bay: Yeah. Well, listen, LA is a pain in the ass to shoot. Okay, that said, first day of micro unit, we were 10 people. We were just shooting some insert shots about an ambulance driving on a freeway at speed, in traffic at speed. To get a real freeway to film on, it would be about 400,000 bucks, two months of planning, and my line producer is saying, “This is going to be really expensive toward the end. Okay. We’ll do the freeway at the end.” But low and behold, I’m not kidding you, low and behold, the location manager, for safety purposes, five highway patrol cop cars show up and then three motorcycle cops, and I’m like, “Hello.”
And the good thing about me, one of my true director skills is that I could sweet-talk people into anything. I could sweet talk Egypt to give me the Giza Pyramid. No one has shot on that thing in 60 years. I can talk to NASA. They’ve never given the space shuttle to anyone and they gave it to me twice on two movies, Armageddon and Transformers. And for some reason, cops around the world really like my movies. We were just in Paris doing press and a bunch of cops with machine guns who guarded the president’s house and they stopped me on the street. “Oh, Michael Bay, we want to take a picture with you.”
Accessreel.com: Well, you’ve got an incredible relationship with the military and the police and NASA and all that because of the amount of times you’ve worked with them.
Michael Bay: Yeah. And they know I do it right, and they know I represent them… I just make it accurate and they appreciate that. And they like Bad Boys. I guess as they grew up as kids and I’m sure they’ve all seen it. But anyway, so I say to them, I said, I go, “Hi, I would love to put you in the movie. What do you guys do on a chase? Can you tell me how it goes? What do you do?” They go, “Well, wow, we’d love to be in the movie.” They said, “Well, we dog with the car we’ll run blocks and we’ll do a rolling block.” “Really, really like a rolling block where there’s this one police car?” I don’t know if you have them in Australia where they go in like an S manoeuvre on a freeway and have all the cars stop. Have you ever seen that?
Michael Bay: Yeah, okay. So, literally we are shooting, they let me go on a freeway, granted it’s a little less empty than it was. It’s a little more empty than it would normally be because of COVID, but they let us go 90 miles an hour and they were dogging with us. And it looks totally real, because it’s all real cars, real freeways and going 90 miles an hour and they’re doing what they do on a chase. Now that’s free. So that’s how I’m (crosstalk)
Accessreel.com: Wait, it looks good too. It looks bloody good.
Michael Bay: Yeah. No, it does, because it looks real and authentic, and I’m just shooting at a little a crappy van in the back strapped, strapped up with the cameras and bolted down to the floor and we’re going 90 miles an hour, and I’m going to my system cameraman, and I said, “This is crazy, man. This is crazy.” He goes, “Yeah, it looks great. It looks great.”
Accessreel.com: But that’s what I love about your film-
Michael Bay: That’s how we get-
Accessreel.com: … Michael, is that you shoot the shit out of a film, it always looks good, I know your style, and I appreciate that. I appreciate that when I’m sitting down to watch a Michael Bay film, I know it’s going to tick those boxes. So that’s one of the things I enjoy
Michael Bay: I’ll definitely have like really little shots and I’ll have gorilla-type stuff. And this is where more, we had to shoot it very fast, and that’s another skill that I do have. I’m not here to brag about myself because I hate bragging. I’m not the Hollywood guy that pats himself on the back, but I am a very fast shooter. A normal movie shoots about 20, 25, 30 shots a day. And I’m the type of director, I don’t have a director chair, I don’t have a trailer, I don’t have video village, I don’t even look at playback, because I just know when I’ve got it. And when you’ve been doing it long enough, and I could be a cameraman myself and I’m operating camera, so… What was the point of the story? The story was, we were talking about…
Accessreel.com: Oh, shooting with-
Michael Bay: Oh, hang one, we were talking about… Yeah, so 120 shots a day, that’s hard. That was the pressure, Cooker, for me, because we’re shooting winter light hours. But the benefit of it, it helps the actors because when you’re running actors at such a high tension level, because the movie’s very intense and the whole idea was like a study in tension, it’s not necessarily about action, it’s about the study of tension in this claustrophobic incredible world, it helps them just performance wise because they’re not going back in the trailer, you’re doing it fast, and leapfrogging the cameras and they can keep that energy up. Because I’m telling you, actor-wise, it’s exhausting-
Accessreel.com: I bet.
Michael Bay: … if you go back. There are some days I was really shitting it, where like, “Oh my God, I’m not going to make it. I’m not going to make it.” But it keeps you young.
Accessreel.com: Oh, that’s it. The movie looks great and it’s intense. And within 10 minutes of the film starting, you hold onto the chair and you don’t let go till the end. So yeah, I’m with you on that a 100%. But there was some, I did read that Jake actually grabbed the camera in a few sequences. Is that correct?
Michael Bay: No, he didn’t do it. Listen, some writers sometimes, I was hearing them saying, “Well, Michael hates, he thinks these effects are shit.” No, that’s not true at all. There’s like a couple shots that I hate. There’s two shots. There’s very little effects in the movie. So, they make it this big thing. And then you see variety saying, “Michael Bay hates these effects.” I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s so over the top, that’s not true.” I get things get taken out of context.
No, the ambulance was small. We would sometimes have 10 people in there. Yahya would be driving or the stunt man would be driving, and we’re going 60 miles an hour or 70 miles an hour, there’s a lot of metal in there, and we get 10 people in there and Eiza is trying to act and she’s trying to save a life and we got a gun at her head, it’s, we’re trying to put cameras all over that thing. And there’s times where he was acting, Jake was acting and he’s holding it on his lap to look at Yahya, and there’s times where I had put it to down by your ankles to try to get your face.
Accessreel.com: It’s just great that, that basically you are a director, that’s like, “Here you go, this is the camera we need this shorter shot,” and Jake and go, “Okay, I’ll grab that and do this.” That’s what I think’s cool about it.
Michael Bay: There was some fun in this movie. Jake and I laughed a lot, but there’s one scene where Eiza talking to Yahya, and they’re doing an emotional scene up front, and Jake and I are in the back of the ambulance and we’re driving around. The sunlight was great, so I wanted to do two things at once. I was streaming in through the light of the windows, and Jake was like, he says the vampire princess line, we’ve got the coffee sign, he’s rolling off the thing. So Jake is being a smart ass. I’m laughing, and Eiza is getting really irritated, because she’s doing some emotional scene up front. We’re doing two different things simultaneously. That was just fun. It felt like you were doing film school in a weird way.
So I like doing… There’s a true joy in doing things like that. Like when I was doing Pain & Gain, it was a very small movie. Walberg was a great driver. We took the van and had Dwayne Johnson in there. We had a dead body. We had Anthony Mackie. There was me and a sound person. And Mack just kept illegally driving, we had no cop and it was just like, he’s a charm to Miami police. He sees a female cop and he goes, “Oh baby, hi.” And she’s like, “Hi honey.” And we’re just going through the city. But it’s just fun. It’s just a great way to make a movie sometimes. It can’t all be like that, but that’s a fun time.
Accessreel.com: Oh, for sure. And obviously aerial photography in the film’s incredible. And the drone work in the film.
Michael Bay: Yeah. So I’ve worked with drones before. There’s a little boring work with drones and I’m like, “How can I redevise this? And how can I up the game on this thing?” And I didn’t have a lot of money for toys, and we would’ve really tight budget on it. I could get a crane for maybe seven days. We had some drone guys. I’m like, “All right, they’re going to be my little secret weapon on this.”
I found this drone racer, this world best drone racer who is 19 years old. And I just kept pushing him. I’m like, “Yeah, you’re going to fly that thing a foot off the ground, and you’re going to go fast. That police car over there is going to jump off this ramp, it’s going to jump two feet and you better time it.” And he says he’s going to practice? And I say, “No, you don’t get to fucking practice. You’re going to do it because I’m jumping this car once.” I put pressure on him too. But they were great. They were like wide-eyed and like, “You want us to fly through an explosion?” And I’m like, “Yeah.” He’s like, “We’ll lose the drone.” I’m like, “Okay, we’ll buy you a new one. We’ll buy you another one.” Anyway.
Accessreel.com: So, with working on these films, let’s just talk about Ambulance specifically, is there any rehearsal time or you just have a chat about something then straight into it?
Michael Bay: I do. It depends on the actors. We do rehearse. We will block it out. No, I like to, we talk about the dialogue first, I talk about what I’m really trying to hit, what’s the point of that scene for me? I talk about how I’m going to shoot it and I let them start doing their thing. And it’s very quickly. We start rehearsing and it’s, we’re digital, I’m like, “We’re shooting. We’re shooting just to get us warmed up too.” And there’s maybe something I can use. It’s like, and when you say the word action or rolling, everything gets more serious on the set, people quiet down and the game is up. Even though it might be rehearsal still, but I’m still rolling.
Accessreel.com: Okay. So you pretty much shoot everything?
Michael Bay: Well, I’ll rehearse a little bit, but then very quickly when they’re not even warmed up, I’m starting to just roll just to get a feel, “This is what I’m trying to get.” I’m looking at the light so I can maybe make some adjustments before they start getting good.
Accessreel.com: Okay. So with Ambulance, when you get into the edit room per site, what was your original makes for the film? How much did you cut? Because it just sounds that you shoot a lot.
Michael Bay: I really wanted it to be to… I think I hit my target. I wanted it to be 206. I literally said that before. Actually, no, I said I wanted it to be two hours. I wanted it to be two hours. This is what I said when I signed onto the movie, I said, “I’m going to make a two-hour movie. I’m fucking tired of my long movies. My mom is tired of my long movies. I’m tired of them. Two hours. We can’t sustain anymore.” And it just increases a little bit because I started adding, I added the kids, some of the emotionality at the end. Yeah, so there you go. And Pietro Scalia, he’s Ridley Scott’s editor. I’ve worked with him on 13 Hours. He’s an amazing editor. He’s the type of guy who’s like, “No, Michael.” He’s very gruff Italian. “No, we get to shoot on later, but you do not need that shot. You do not need that shot. No, I’m not let you put that in.” So we’ll fight. We’ll fight. I’ll be on my avid in Miami and he’ll be in my office in Santa Monica, and it’s all video.
Accessreel.com: Yeah. Looking at your body of work, do you have a favourite film of yours or a favourite sequence you’ve shot?
Michael Bay: It’s such a hard question. Every film is different. The experience of shooting at Pearl Harbor, I was just talking about the shot yesterday that’s why I’m bringing it up, where it’s 350 events, explosion events on seven ships, old retired ships, and 20 real planes in the air. They’re flying glow, dynamite in the water, shutting down freeway in between puffy clouds in Hawaii where you’re trying to get the sun before it goes behind the puffy cloud, it’s a massive shot. Something that you’re not going to get to do again in movies. Movies won’t do that ever again. They’ll never do something that big. They’re going to make it all digital and they’ll do some practical. That experience was interesting. Diving the Arizona, and that’s like diving the Titanic. It’s like, you start shaking under water because there’s still 1,200 people buried under there. Shooting a NASA, it’s awestruck. It’s just like, “Oh my God, when you’re on that gantry and Bruce Willis is walking out on that shuttle with the shot prepping the shuttle for one hour, it’s like, “You got to be kidding me.” It’s like you want to pinch yourself.
Accessreel.com: Oh for sure. Yeah.
Michael Bay: But then there are moments like literally last day of the shoot, John Krasinski, he was crying when he was calling his wife. And we’re in Morocco, the sun’s going down, it’s looking beautiful, I’m on the camera, and I’m like, “John, are you ready?” And he goes, “Yeah.” And I have the cam, the focus polar is under a black carp on the ground, and it’s a very small crew. It’s maybe 10 people, because the crew was packing up because it was literally our last hour of the show, and the dolly’s pushing into his face, and he starts crying, and it’s a slow dolly, and everything needs to be right. And it’s like, I’m crying at the camera because I’m under a black thing looking at it because the sun was behind my head so I was trying to block view through my camera. And we’re going in, so it’s just a great, great performance. And I pull off the tarp and I looked at the focus puller and I said, “Did you get it? Did you get it? Did you get it?” Because I was using a very sensitive lens and it was like, you can miss the focus very easily. And he goes, “I think so.” And I’m like, “Well, we’re not that again. That was fucking great.” It is the best feeling, it’s so amazing.
And I just remember there’s another out of body experience and just, it was John zipping up his dead friend, and there’s a plane coming behind him and it’s really loud, and I just, I’m holding the camera, my DP is holding the camera, I’m not the one, I’m operator, and my DP. Well, the three of us are holding the cameras, and a gaffer guy’s holding a little light, little panel light. And it’s just, everyone’s like huddled together, and we’re all making these pieces, and I just looked around and I’m like, “The sun’s going down.” I’m like, “This is fun. This is teamwork.” So those are moments that you just remember.
It’s really about the family experience when you’re on a movie. It’s about accomplishing that shot. Like when I was a kid doing a commercial and we’re shooting up near San Francisco with the beautiful Hills, the wine country, and I needed one last shot. And the sun is going behind a mountain and so it’s creeping up the hill that we’re trying. And then we had a big horse fence and I’m with the whole crew, I’m like, “Grab the fences.” Literally 30 people grab the fence. “Run up the hill.” And we’re trying to [inaudible] and we get it. But those are the fun moments, because it’s just, I don’t know, it’s just the teamwork thing that’s fun.
And you make imagery that is like, “I’ll go back to one more shot.” It’s that shot when I did, we’re driving in a van with Bad Boys. I’m a punk kid with two other punk kids, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence, and Sony had no faith in our movie, we were driving in the van and the line producer hated us, and we’re driving and I see a shot and I just come up with a shot and I see just this art deco thing and I’m like, “Stop the van, stop the van, stop the van. Get out. Martin, pull over, pull over.” I stand here in line and people are just, “Michael, what are we doing? What are you doing? We’re going to be late.” I said, “This is going to be a trailer shot.” And it became the most famous shot. Literally, it just came to me as I was driving. And I just changed course immediately. And he’s yelling at me like a school teacher.
Michael Bay: And I had to fight for my own shot.
Accessreel.com: Well, the thing is those shots that you just talked about, everyone that’s watch your films remembers those shots. The ones with John, especially in 13 Hours, I love those shots.
Michael Bay: Right. And believe that’s only one take, one take.
Accessreel.com: Well, that’s zipping up the bag side-
Michael Bay: Then we shot another take.
Accessreel.com: … and it hits me every time, and the one when he calls his wife like, I’m in tears during that.
Michael Bay: Yeah, I know.
Accessreel.com: Yeah. And then lastly, the recent news with Bruce Willis is tragic. I just wanted to know if you have any anecdotes of when you worked with him on Armageddon, a moment in the film where you’re like, “I’m working with Bruce Willis?”
Michael Bay: Yeah. Well, okay. I’ve been asked the Bruce Willis question a couple times, but not from Australia yet. So we shot, the cast is amazing, Billy Bob, Ben Affleck, Peter Stormare, Steve Boscemi, Owen Wilson, William Fitchner, Will Patton. It was a great group and fun group people. And Mike Clarke Duncan, and we shot for a month and then Bruce comes and the movie slows down to just a halt. We were going at a good clip and it was like, Bruce was just trying to exert his top dog thing.
Michael Bay: Like, “Okay, I wonder how this is going to go.” And he’s a movie star. I liked working with him, but he was tough on me, and it wasn’t fun the first three weeks or so. And I liked what I was getting with him, but it wasn’t fun. And then Jerry Bruckheimer, my producer says, “Hi, Michael, just show him some scenes. Show him some scenes.” And so I went into his trailer and showed him some stuff and he goes, and Bruce is a funny guy, he goes, “Mike, if you would’ve showed that money earlier, I would’ve been a little nicer to you.” We got along after that great. He was really funny. He has a great sense of humor and he was just… Yeah, I don’t know. I grew up with him, Die Hard, that was one of my inspirational movies and it’s like, “Oh my God, there’s a Bruce Willis, oh my God.
Accessreel.com: So great.
Michael Bay: Yeah, so he was a real movie star.
Accessreel.com: Oh, Michael-
Michael Bay: So, it’s very sad to hear.
Accessreel.com: Yeah, it is. But we’ve had a half an hour with each other and I really appreciate you taking the time.
Michael Bay: Its fun talking.. shooting the shit huh?
Accessreel.com: Oh mate, I could talk to you for three hours. Michael, thank you very much and you enjoy the rest of your weekend.
Michael Bay: All right, man. It was nice talking to you, take care. Take care. Bye-bye.
Accessreel.com: Thanks, mate. Bye-bye.