Like just about everyone else, Michael Bay found his entire working life upset by Covid-19. The Hollywood film director behind such behemoths as the Transformers franchise, The Rock, Armageddon and Pearl Harbor, was planning his latest epic Black Five when the pandemic broke. Immediately, the project was derailed, with the industry in flux and Bay caught in limbo.
“It was so hard to be creative,” Bay recalls. “And everyone was so scared.”
It’s hard to imagine Bay terrified of anything. A former director of music videos and commercials at Propaganda Films, the Los Angeles native has been making movies since 1995’s seminal cop drama Bad Boys, with Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. Now aged 57, Bay's films have grossed close to $6.5 billion across the world.
“I could retire,” he says. “But it’s fun! I mean, I like shooting. I really do enjoy it.”
Yet the pandemic stopped Bay dead in his tracks. Unable to shoot Black Five, he went back to his team. “I said to my agent, ‘Goddamnit, I just want to get out and shoot something fast. I’m tired of being locked up at home.’”
Thankfully, he was reminded of a script, based on a Danish film released in 2005, called Ambulance. A visceral heist movie, that could be filmed swiftly and economically.
“It kind of suited my needs,” he says.
The story sees decorated war veteran Will Sharp (Abdul-Mateen II), in need of money for his wife’s surgery, approach his adoptive brother Danny (Jake Gyllenhaal).
"They had a dad who was a bank robber [and] was pretty vicious,” explains Bay. “And one started to go on the straight and narrow and one kept going the darker way.”
Soon enough, Danny is leading Will into a lucrative bank robbery in downtown Los Angeles.
Unsurprisingly, the heist goes wrong, and the brothers find themselves in a stolen ambulance, carrying a cop who has been shot in the ensuing chaos. Bay calls it “a study in tension”, especially when Will and Danny run into an emergency medical technician or EMT (emergency medical technicians) played by Mexican star Eiza Gonzalez (Baby Driver) in the stolen ambulance.
“She’s really tough in this movie, which is good. Women really, really like her a lot," says Bay.
The director has already screened the movie to select audiences and says women have loved it.
Whether that will translate to box office gold is another matter, but with a bonafide A-lister such as Gyllenhaal and rising star Abdul-Mateen II, there’s every chance it will. In the case of Abdul-Mateen II, he’s enjoyed a remarkable past year, after taking the lead role in horror remake Candyman and co-starring in The Matrix Resurrections.
When Bay first saw him in 2018’s superhero tale Aquaman, he knew of his potential.
“I’m like, ‘That guy’s gonna be a star. I want to work with him'," he says. “I’ve worked with so many famous people in my lifetime and it’s just like I told him, ‘Dude, you are so humble. And you just have a spark about you. Don’t lose that.’ He really is just a humble guy. Just salt of the earth.”
He felt the same about Gyllenhaal, an actor whose diverse credits range from Donnie Darko and Zodiac to Spider-Man: Far From Home.
“We really hit it off,” says Bay. “Just great energy. He brings his A-game. I’ll embrace his different ideas, and he’ll give me different things.”
The chemistry with the two leads is there for all to see, he says. “Jake is fun to watch. Even though he’s out of his mind and Yahya ... the audience just loves him, and they just latch on. Even though their characters are doing something bad. It’s weird.”
Around his actors, Bay sprinkled real-life law enforcers to add to the verisimilitude. Yet, what really gives Ambulance its energy is the fact that he shot it on the hoof, in only 38 days.
“These smaller movies are hard because they challenge you, because you’ve got less of everything but it’s good,” he says. “It puts a lot of structure in the things. This is all you’re gonna get and you’ve got to make it work.”
The only time he’s done anything similar was 2013’s Pain & Gain, a riotous comedy-thriller with Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson.
“I mean, that was just running around my place in Miami with actors. And that was a pretty shoestring budget," he says.
Bay is also thriftier than you might think.
“I’m a type of director … I do not go over budget. I come on budget. And I don’t like spending more than I absolutely must. On big movies, there’s so much waste, it’s ridiculous,” he says. “You’re creating such a big world for so many people on payroll.”
It’s why he loved scaling back on Ambulance, with a smaller crew. Often, he’d jump in a car with just a soundman and a camera operator to shoot some footage.
Even his company, Platinum Dunes, that Bay co-founded in 2001, is devoted to producing low-budget horror movies, including John Krasinski’s hit film A Quiet Place and its 2021 sequel. Does Bay hanker after a grimy horror himself?
“I would love to do a scary movie,” Bay says. “But I’m wondering what I’m going to do next. I think it’ll probably be a big movie … but I don’t know.”
Ambulance is out in UAE cinemas on March 17