"I never imagined myself in an action film of this magnitude," says LaBeouf. "Not that I'm giving myself kudos, but 90 percent of the actors I know could not have done what Megan and I did in this film. I mean there are action stars who wouldn't have been as dumb," he laughs, "hanging off the roof of a 15-story building from a single wire with nothing below but the asphalt alley. It was insane!"
Bay's excitement and enthusiasm for monstrously large stunts seems to infect the entire cast every time. Sooner or later, on every film, actors find themselves agreeing to participate in acrobatics and physical feats they would never normally envision themselves attempting.
Even 60-something Jon Voight loved what he calls "the physicality of his role." Similar to the rest of the cast, Voight hit the ground running when need be and literally hit the floor as well. In one scene when his character is seriously injured, Voight shocked the crew when he threw himself to the cement floor of the soundstage as though he'd actually been shot by a stray bullet.
"He kept pace with every 20-year-old on the movie," says Michael Bay.
"I think Jon was trying to sell it a little hard," says Anthony Anderson, "making us younger guys look bad. Michael would look at Tyrese and me and say, 'Look, if Jon can run down there, you can run there!' I'd tell Jon, 'Relax, you could break a hip,'" he jokes.
"It's like playing when you're a kid," says Voight. "When I was growing up, I liked physical comedy and I'm still amazed when I see people do anything extraordinarily physical. But you get shot, you fall on the ground. The only shocking thing is that I'm a little old to be playing at this kind of stuff, but I really like it. I'd hear the guys say, 'Hey, did you see that?' and I'd tell them, 'Guys, I'm not gone yet, I'm still in the game here.' I mean we're not Cirque du Soleil."
LaBeouf landed the role of Sam Witwicky while he was shooting DreamWorks' "Disturbia." At the time, he weighed 130 pounds but despite the action of the blockbuster thriller, the young actor needed to strengthen his body in preparation for this next job. He began working out five days a week for three months and gained 25 pounds of solid muscle by the time he arrived on set in New Mexico. His first evening, LaBeouf spent the night being chased by guard dogs around a dilapidated lumber mill. He quickly realized that his training, which had focused on building bulk and mass, was not what he needed. His role required stamina and speed.
"It was all running. I should have been doing calisthenics. And there's the pain tolerance," he laughs. "That's not something you can train for."
Actress Megan Fox swears that she gained 10 pounds of solid muscle during production from all the running and strength training the role required, and she gives the camera crew special accolades for keeping up with the pace. "They really deserve a lot of credit," Fox says, "for being able to follow us the way they did. They'd give us general directions where to run and we'd head where we were told, but it's almost impossible to hit exact marks on a movie like this."
LaBeouf calls co-producer/stunt coordinator/second unit director Ken Bates a savior. "He's the only reason I am alive," LaBeouf jokes.
Bates disagrees. "Shia was very focused," he says. "He's a strong, agile kid and he's smart. He pays attention and follows directions well, and he has respect for what we do, which really contributed to his being able to handle his own stunts."
When Bay extended a challenge to LaBeouf to perform his own stunt at the top of the building, he knew his young star would never turn down the offer. To prepare LaBeouf, Bates put him on a wire to give him a feel for the system and had him walk a small parapet wall. Once the young actor was comfortable in his movement, Bates taught him to focus on the wall in front of him and pay attention to nothing else. When LaBeouf was steady walking a plank, Bates took him to the top of the building.
"That was all Shia up there," says Bates. "In the midst of explosions and charges going off he remained calm and focused. It was a personal challenge that Bay put forth and Shia came away a winner."
"But you've got to do things like that because Michael puts the cameras so close," says LaBeouf. "The best part is that he puts the cameras in bulletproof boxes so they don't break, but it's your face right next to the camera and you start thinking, 'Hey, they're protecting these cameras and I'm sitting right here. Why don't I have a bullet proof box? What the heck is going on?" he laughs.
Bates has been working with Bay since 1989, overseeing the stunt work not only on Bay-helmed movies and commercials, but also on his Platinum Dunes productions. Obviously familiar working with stunt people and actors, Bates also spent a good deal of time discussing action sequences with visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar. "We worked hand-in-hand, putting scenes together," he says, "because half the fight sequence was built in CG. That direction isn't written on a call sheet for people to follow. We work it out during prep, and then again once the film starts shooting and again when we rehearse right before we shoot. And with Michael, you always have to be three steps ahead."
One of the most dangerous sequences of the film was shot at the end of Interstate 210, currently called the Foothill Freeway. Many film and television companies shoot on this section of the freeway in San Bernardino near the 215 junction because it remains unfinished with no end date in sight as construction seems to stretch further and further eastward. The sequence is one that Bay had in mind since he first accepted the movie - the robots transforming at 80 miles an hour - and he and Bates worked tirelessly to plan a stunt that would surpass Bay's chase over the MacArthur Causeway (that links Miami with Miami Beach) conceived for "Bad Boys II."
In the third act, as Megatron® realizes that Sam, Mikaela and the Auobots® have escaped with the "Allspark," a chase ensues. Despite thorough planning, the stunt team had only one day to actually test the bus gag.
In the sequence, stuntman Richard Epper drives the bus as Bates follows in a camera car the crew lovingly calls the "Bay Bomber:" a small, souped-up go-cart that sits low to the ground in order to shoot a vehicle's first-person point of view.
"Richard was towed into the action at 60 miles per hour," Bates describes. "Once he reached speed, he threw the bus sideways, hit a charge, and cut away the tow cable. As the bus blows up, it splits in half and slides sideways, at which time Richard hit another button that triggered a 'bomb' that detonated three canons in the back of the bus that sent that back end tumbling end over end. The front half of the bus hits the median, jumps up and comes back down.
"The bus sequence on the 210 was something we've never done before," says Bates. "Even though we planned it down to the last detail, we had no idea what the bus would actually do. Frazier's guys rigged a separate set of wheels on the front of the bus so that Richard could brake when it snapped and he would have some form of control. But no one really knew what would happen. The effects guys made us look good."
Bates, Epper, Corey Eubanks, and Steve Kelso were the main drivers responsible for the spectacular stunt driving throughout the film.
Bay's usual agenda is to put safety above all else, but also to allow the scene, even a dramatic action sequence, to unfold realistically. Talent are given strict guidelines in terms of where and when to run as explosions are detonated, but they never know exactly which "bomb" will pop at what point during the scene.
"It's like being on a football team," LaBeouf says, likening the adrenaline rush of running a 100-yard field for a touchdown. "The effects guys point out every bomb, so that no one is in danger, but you never know which will go off first, second, third, fourth. I'm just a normal kid," he says in mock desperation, "I'm not supposed to know how to do Jet Li-style acrobatics."
LaBeouf got so deep into the action he would show up on set on days when he wasn't scheduled to work. (He would also bring friends and sneak onto the stages to show off the phenomenal sets or into the garage to ooh and ah over the astounding cars and trucks.)
During Fox's audition Bay asked her questions about her physical abilities. "He wanted to know if I could run and he asked if I had a nice stomach," she laughs recalling their interview. "So I figured, all right, I'm going to be running in a belly shirt, but I had no idea I would be doing most of my own stunts and I am not a girl who likes to work out. I'm lazy. So to be honest, my stunt double did some incredible things that I can only pretend to have done. It's just that Michael would rather never use stunt doubles if he can help it.
"My knees had no skin on them," she says. "I ran, I jumped, I crawled around the Los Angeles River for days. At a certain point it was 90 percent running and 10 percent acting, but I think that's appropriate because people are coming to see the action and the Transformers™, not Sam and Mikaela."
Fox does, however, take umbrage with her character for not wearing a seatbelt. "Mikaela never once wears a seatbelt, except when she's sitting on Sam's lap, and you should definitely wear one when you're driving 130 miles an hour in an alien robot car. It is the law," she says in hopes of reminding her audience to always buckle up.
SHIA LABEOUF IS SAM WITWICKY - (USERNAME: LADIESMAN 217)
when Shia LaBeouf first heard that a movie version of the beloved Transformers™ franchise was on the horizon, he immediately assumed the worst, but he wasn't as worried as many who complained vociferously on Internet websites dedicated to lambasting the filmmakers. He was less concerned about which robots would be showcased and didn't care overmuch about the specific vehicles or their paint jobs; he just hoped the big screen version would not lose the heart of the comic and the toy line, and wondered how in the world a live action movie would be able to make those amazing transformations so feasible in the world of animation.
"My childhood was 'Yogi Bear' and the 'Transformers' shows," describes LaBeouf. "I was eight years old and I would play the tapes over and over again."
His favorite Transformer™ was always Bumblebee™, with Decepticon Frenzy™ running a close second. When asked about the controversy over changing one or two of the vehicle models and updating some of the design aspects of the robots and their characters, LaBeouf is philosophical. "You have to keep up with the times, you have to update," he says. "You can't keep the story in the '80s. It might work for 25 hardcore fans, but for the rest of the world, you can't portray Megatron® as a handgun. Cinematically speaking, you need to amplify the danger. Megatron® is now an alien jet the likes of which you've never seen before."
There's no American mythology," he goes on to explain. "There's no folklore, and for some, no religion. A lot of people in my generation didn't even read Catcher in the Rye. But most of them know about Barbie®, Lego®, Tony Hawk and the Transformers™; it's pop culture. The scary thing about jumping in to pop culture is you don't want to sell out. But once I met with Mike, I saw that we weren't going to make a film about some guy in tights and a cape. It was more a movie about the fact that we, as humans, don't know everything; the idea that machines can, in a certain respect, overpower humans."
During production, LaBeouf became close to veteran actor Jon Voight who gave him a book abut the theater. "In Greek, the word 'theater' means 'the seeing place,'" LaBeouf explains. "People used to come to the theater to see something they weren't experiencing in life; to see exaggerations on social situations, on mechanical possibilities, on the human condition. But every exaggeration begins in truth, which is what Michael and I talked about."
When the two first sat down together, they discussed Sam Witwicky's coming-of age-story and the dilemmas he must face when finding himself at the center of a war of two worlds. "It was never a discussion of technology," says LaBeouf, "or 'Let's talk about the robots.' The first thing we talked about was how to make Sam's story real. How do we make the characters honest? How do we make the relationships work so that the audience can follow the story? Because if you don't give a crap about the characters, even the animated ones, you're not going to watch the movie."
"Sam is just a normal kid," says Bay. I didn't want him to be the stud or the geek, just a normal Joe. He's the type of guy who finds his edge through humor. He's a little awkward, but you immediately like him.
"And like every guy, he's consumed with getting his first car," says Bay. "When I was growing up I had to save for my car fund and when I built it up enough my Dad was going to match it, just like Sam. I got a VW Scirocco and I had it painted at this place called Keystone Body Shop in Santa Monica, which coincidentally is the same building, the exact space in fact, where the edit bays in my office now sit. How bizarre is that? I remember walking in with my $900. Picking up that car was the most important moment, just like picking out the car for Sam.
"At the car dealership he gravitates to the Camaro®," he continues, "because it's got the slick wheels and a racing stripe and it looks semi cool, but we do give a wink to the VW when Bernie Mac tries to sell him the bug. But you know immediately there's a connection between Sam and that Camaro®."
"Sam becomes a messenger for the robots," LaBeouf says. "He referees the entire situation between the Autobots® and the Decepticons®. He's the human anchor for the movie so that you can have this outlandish plot of two kids in high school with no special skills, no cape, no big gun, who get the upper hand over evil robots, the government, hackers, everyone.
"Robots aside, Sam is very sheltered," says LaBeouf, "he hasn't seen much of the world, so he's searching for an adventure. Of course, in his mind adventure comes in the form of a girl named Mikaela, but he finds out soon enough that his adventure is more than finding a girlfriend. When he's first approached by Optimus®, it's not something he's ready for, but through the course of the film he becomes a man. Sam starts as a kid with no responsibilities and big dreams, but his focus changes. His friendship with this girl grows from a shallow infatuation to a very intimate relationship and he finds a best friend and a guardian in these robots."
Di Bonaventura who knew LaBeouf from working with him on "Constantine," believes the actor's likeability quotient is enormous and allows audiences to root for him which is essential to the story's progression.
"There's no question that having grown up in the movie business Shia has learned how to make a character his own," he says, "how to interpret the character's choices and how to create the character's inner world. For his age, Shia is beyond sophisticated."
"Shia's quite a sensation," Voight agrees. "He's the real thing."
ACTING WITH TRANSFORMERS THAT AREN'T REALLY THERE
As visual effects become more sophisticated and computer-generated characters become more and more a part of mainstream films, the question remains: how does a real-life actor act when there's no one on the other end of the conversation?
"People ask me all the time how do you know when you're overacting," says LaBeouf about his experience working on "TRANSFORMERS," "but how do you determine what overacting is when there's supposed to be a robot in your backyard? How can you be minimal about that?"
LaBeouf, Fox, and the other actors spent a good deal of their time craning their necks, looking at the top of an extension pole that could be lengthened to accommodate the height of any robot -- 20 feet for Bumblebee™, 40 feet for Optimus®, etc. Sometimes the visual effects crew would tape a mask of the robot's likeness to the top or stick a tennis ball onto the end of the pole, but more often than not, the cardboard cutout fell off or the tennis ball was forgotten in a trailer on the other side of location and the actors were forced to keep their eyes on the bare end of the pole.
"You've got to be in love with that pole," says LaBeouf. I asked Turturro and Voight about it. Where do you pull from? How do you find the right place to go? These guys are legends, so I thought they'd know how to do this, but they were just as lost. It's like soft dirt - you don't know exactly where to step. It's a completely different form of acting. But that's also where the fun comes in because Michael will give you the freedom to play for six or seven takes just to see what works."
"Sometimes it was a little weird," says Turturro about the makeshift robot stick. "And for some reason that's always the last thing anyone thinks about: where is the person, the image, the situation for the actor to react to? It's the difference between having another actor off camera or having no one there during those close ups, it can really make your performance. It really helped when Michael had the guy [actor and voice-over artist Mark Ryan] on set doing the austere voice, but you would think that someone would invent a giant animated puppet for the actors to work with, but even that would pale by comparison to the robots that the audience will eventually see in the film."
Fox, who does not like watching her own performance, is looking forward to seeing the film if only to watch a scene in which Mikaela and Sam spend the entire sequence in conversation with a group of Autobots®. "We were in an alley talking to nothing for three days," recalls Fox. "It was just Shia and me talking to the sky. I'll watch that for sure."
Tyrese Gibson agrees, "It's kind of wild, talking to robots that aren't there, but that's acting!" he says succinctly. "It's our job to make you believe that Superman or Megatron® is coming down the street, even if we don't see him. It's all in a day's work."
"The animatics that Michael would show us from time to time really helped to give me a point of reference," says Anthony Anderson, "especially when you hadn't been on set in a few days. Michael enjoys showing people playback of scenes anyway, but he was great about having us watch the animatic or a piece of something the editors had cut so that we could get a grasp of what we were doing at any given point in the story."
The comedian also points out that he is equally experienced at working opposite inanimate objects and animals. "Ever since working with a kangaroo, nothing seems too difficult," he says. "Working with a tennis ball or a cardboard head on a pole doesn't seem so bad. I am the consummate professional," he jokes.
LaBeouf also points out that his job was not simply memorizing dialogue, but memorizing movement and motivation as well. "I needed to break it down line by line," explains. "I would say line 1, 2, 3 standing here, looking up. Then the robot is going to flip me over and jump here and I need to say line 4 and 5, and then he's moving here and he's going to have this emotion, so I will say line 6, 7, 8 in reaction and then move away from the robot so that he's behind me. It's a choreographed dance. It's difficult to maintain that continuity of character from scene to scene.
"My biggest concern was that the robots would be playing straight men to the actors," he continues. "The acting was so extreme that ILM needed to match that intensity. They needed to think like an actor rather than just a technician or artist, or worse, a button pusher, and they did. I think the people at ILM did an incredible job."
Michael Bay had his own taste of what it was like to direct actors and crew who weren't really there when he came down with a horrendous bout of flu during production. Determined not to leave the set and lose a day in the shooting schedule, Bay assigned Dave Deever, his video assist, to hook up a remote video/sound system that allowed him to rest in his trailer parked outside the stage while watching scenes and talking the cast and crew through every move. The experience gave him a brand new perspective.
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