Welcome to Commentary Commentary, our long-running series of articles exploring the things we can learn from the most interesting filmmaker commentaries available on DVD and Blu-ray.
The fifth film in The Transformers series hits theaters today, and while it’s guaranteed to make oodles of money it’s almost equally guaranteed to be an uninspired pile of CG and testosterone. (I say that as someone who’s seen three and a quarter Transformers films.) Director Michael Bay has dedicated nearly half of his career on these movies, but while that’s unfortunate at least he hasn’t pulled a James Cameron and allowed himself to be swallowed whole by the franchise. Bay still makes other movies, and sometimes they’re damn entertaining.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the commentary for one of Bay’s better films.
The Rock (1996)
Commentators: Michael Bay (director), Nicolas Cage (actor), Ed Harris (actor), Jerry Bruckheimer (producer), Harry Humphries (technical advisor)
1. Cage signed on to the film initially just to work with the producing team of Don Simpson and Bruckheimer. He felt their films had a “timely” sensibility about them.
2. Harris had issues with his character of Gen. Hummel, the film’s antagonist, as the sympathy he had for the character felt at odds with Hummel’s threat of devastating an entire city. “There was a lot of grey area,” says Bay, “and it wasn’t fully explored in the movie.”
3. Humphries helped Harris in reworking some of Hummel’s dialogue to soften the character’s edges and make him more believable.
4. Harris was pitched on the role at Bruckheimer’s house, and the producer “didn’t stop talking” for forty-five minutes as he broke down everything about the character and why Harris should take the role. “It was pretty hysterical actually.”
5. Bay and Bruckheimer first worked together when the director shot a video for them on Days of Thunder.
6. Bay turned down the film six months prior to finally saying yes. “The story just wasn’t serious enough for me.”
7. Cage had grown frustrated with compact discs in his own life and decided to incorporate a love of old-fashioned LPs into his character of Stanley Goodspeed.
8. Directors frequently tell Cage that his ideas are “off the wall, and offbeat,” but Bay and Bruckheimer encouraged it on The Rock in part because the script wasn’t yet finished when the actor signed on. One example saw Cage decide Goodspeed should be wary of having kids. Bruckheimer felt that would be “too dark, and not positive enough,” but when they sent the script to Robert Towne the famed screenwriter agreed with Cage.
9. Cage and Bay differ as to the reasoning behind the early scene of Goodspeed naked with the guitar. Bay says it’s because he knew Cage wanted to show off his body so they decided just to get it out of the way up front, but Cage says he simply wanted to establish that the character was at home.
10. The studio wanted the film shot in Los Angeles with only a handful of exteriors of Alcatraz and San Francisco to complete the illusion, but he refused telling them “I gotta shoot on this island because this island is so fucking bitchin.”
11. Harris could not stop laughing at the actor playing the tour guide at Alcatraz. “I just had the giggles that day.”
12. Picture-lock was delayed as Bay and Bruckheimer disagreed over the number of helicopter shots showing the rogue unit approaches the island. “We compromised.”
13. Bay recalls the on-set catering at Alcatraz and eating steak and lobster in rooms “where men were taken to their lowest existence.”
14. Harris wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the excessive amounts of coverage Bay shot of his scenes. “They shoot you head on, they shoot you from underneath, they shoot you right and left, they shoot you from above, they shoot you on the move. He just loved the camera.” Bay recalls Harris “testing” him during a rehearsal by suggesting the actors are the only ones up on the screen, but Bay told him his name would be up there too. “It’s like two dogs sniffing each other out.”
15. Cage thinks it’s both fascinating and sad seeing “this shift where many directors are coming out of music videos and commercials.” Adrian Lyne, Tony Scott, and Michael Bay are examples of such directors.
16. Humphries cameos at the 24:59 mark.
17. Cage likes words. “Words, I like words. I like the way words sound, and I like funny words. I like to put words together. I like to play with words.”
18. Cage was a wild man in his youth, and he recalls “different experiences with different women. I used to talk about different things with them. For some reason my mind would go in places where I would talk about amaretto cream or peach sorbet.” He compares himself to cheap red wine in that way. “I’m not like that any more.”
19. People told Cage he could never work in an action blockbuster because he was “too quirky.” He took that as a challenge.
20. Sean Connery suggested that Bay “needed to rehearse more and just slow down in the morning,” and the director took the advice.
21. Connery approved of Cage changing his character’s name from Bill Goodspeed to Stanley Goodspeed.
22. Cage’s line delivery when he tells the guards to remove Mason’s (Connery) handcuffs stemmed from an Elvis Presley story he had recently told the older actor involving girls in white panties wrestling chimpanzees. “Sometimes these ideas come from strange places.”
23. Bay flew the Concorde to the UK to pitch Connery on the role but was still nearly late for the meeting.
24. Bay does an absolutely horrible British accent in his attempt to mimic Connery’s Scottish accent.
25. The car chase was inserted after early screenings revealed “a big flat hole.” Bay recalls wanting to add the car chase to appease younger film goers, and one of the writers took issue with the director “talking about demographics.” Bay adds that “this is a writer who’d never had a script made into an actual movie,” so he shut him down saying “this is a business.” Of the three writers listed on IMDB only Mark Rosner had no previous feature experience (or since).
26. “The car chase in San Francisco turned out to be the biggest cluster fuck I’ve ever done in my entire filming career,” says Bay. He says getting clearances for even a two-block stretch required thousands of signatures, and when they fell behind on the shooting schedule it resulted in a trio of studio reps arriving to give him a talking to. Luckily Connery offered to sit in which tempered their “reaming” somewhat.
27. Bay makes car engine sounds while filming car chases.
28. Cage thinks Connery has far better posture than he himself does. He credits the older actor’s passion for golfing. “I have no passion for golf.”
29. Bruckheimer makes movies for himself. Take that, audiences and critics.
30. Cage improvised a pratfall for Goodspeed during the scene where he and the Navy SEALs plan the raid on Alcatraz, but despite finding it hilarious and trying to find a way to work it into the scene Bay ultimately nixed it as being a bit too twisted. They kept Cage’s suggestion to have him vomiting immediately after though.
31. Bay walked off the movie for a couple of hours once — and was threatened with a $60 million lawsuit — when the studio tried scrapping the scene where the SEALs approach the island from underwater. He held his ground though, and they budged first.
32. Michael Biehn, who has played Navy SEALs or some variation thereof on multiple occasions, apparently grew unsure of himself while acting for the first time here against real SEALs. He told Bay he was freezing up pretending to be the leader in front of them as well as in Connery’s presence.
33. Cage was concerned that he “looked like a little Japanese schoolboy” in his SCUBA gear while the other actors all looked cool. Bay admits to intentionally making him look ridiculous.
34. “There’s a major logic flaw in the movie,” says Bay. “Why are the boilers working on the Rock when this island hasn’t been used for years?” He answers his own question saying “Screw it, it’s entertaining don’t you think?”
35. Connery wanted the water heated to ninety degrees for those interior sequences after they gain entry, but after the crew caught the stomach flu within hours of each other the doctor identified the water as “a big incubator.”
36. Bay was not pleased that their set became a hot spot for visiting studio execs from outside studios.
37. Harris points out that he worked with Biehn on The Abyss saying “that experience bound a lot of us together, almost like being in a war of some kind.”
38. Connery doesn’t like water or guns.
39. It took a while for Bay to convince both Cage and Connery to go underwater while flames blasted above the surface at the 1:22:40 mark, but both actors eventually agreed. There are safety divers immediately outside of frame during the sequence. “It was very frightening,” adds Cage. “And Sean wasn’t happy about it.”
40. Simpson died during the film’s production, and they tried at first to keep the news from Bay until he finished the day’s filming. Cage accidentally broke the news to him.
41. It was in Connery’s contract that his coverage would be filmed first, “and that’s great,” says Cage. “I’m fine with that.” The day of the morgue shoot-out though was a long one, and Cage was dead tired by the time it came to his turn and began having trouble with his excess dialogue.
42. Cage showed Bay and Bruckheimer Jaws to highlight Richard Dreyfuss’ performance as what he wanted to do in the bomb-dismantling scene. “I admit that I steal from other places. I think that actors should be allowed to do that.”
43. The “mine” cart scene was initially meant to be a big chase with carts hanging from a ceiling track as opposed to ones on traditional rails, “but we ran out of money.” Remnants of it are seen in the hanging cart that Goodspeed lands in.
44. Humphries arrived onset one day to find a man suspended in the air and consumed by fire. He immediately grabbed an extinguisher to put out the flames only to hear Bay yelling at him for interrupting a stunt. “It’s the movies man!”
45. Mason stabs Hendrix’s (John C. McGinley) hand and pins it to the cart, but they removed the shot for being too gruesome and out of character.
46. Bay is still not happy with the second unit’s work with the obvious dummy falling out of the cart at the 1:33:21 mark.
47. Harris is still not happy with Bay’s occasional preference for tight shots while he’s acting with his entire body.
48. Cage wrote his dialogue for the scene where the soldier has a gun to the back of his head just minutes before the shoot, and he had his lines on cue cards. Bay immediately said no to the presence of the cards, but Cage said he’d been doing it for years in a pinch, and the director relented. It’s the scene starting at 1:46:35, and Bay said he could see Cage reading. “I don’t believe it,” says Cage. “I think that was just a phobia of his.”
49. Bay heard from James Cameron once that various crew members had told him the two are very similar on-set. Bruckheimer says Cameron’s a “total asshole” when he’s working and asked Bay why he’d want to emulate that. “For some reason he liked the image of being like the tough guy, the guy with the whip, the yeller and screamer, but Michael’s a good guy. He’s so obviously a sweet guy at heart. Talk to the crew they’ll give you another story, but as far as the actors are concerned they never had a hard time with him.”
50. Jonathan Hensleigh (Die Hard With a Vengeance) was denied a writer credit on the film, but Bay believes he “made the movie that Hensleigh wrote.” Aaron Sorkin did some punch-up work as well.
51. You can see Harris land on a blue safety mat at 1:55:58. “It’s there when you slow your laser disc down.”
52. Goodspeed’s “Eat that you fuck!” was originally “Did I ever tell you I was gonna be a dad.” Cage hated it but tried the line out at the request of Bruckheimer who conceded it didn’t work as well as what replaced it.
53. Cage took inspiration from Matthew Modine’s performance in Birdy for the bit where he’s holding the flares and yelling at the jets.
54. The “room 26” reference is a “private message” to Cage’s son who was born on the 26th.
55. Bay’s idea for a sequel involves a now-married Goodspeed in possession of the microfilm evidence who finds himself pursued by the government, and with nowhere else to turn he’s forced to ask Mason for help. I smell a National Treasure / The Rock mash-up.
Best in Context-Free Commentary
“Ed Harris is the most underrated actor in Hollywood.”
“I always like to get sucked in right when I sit down in my seat.”
“I thought it would be interesting to have an action hero who’s a Beatlemaniac.”
“The image of a naked man with a guitar and a glass of wine at home, to me seemed like a good image.”
“Seems like the way Hollywood’s going these days. We’re green-lighting movies before we have a fully-developed script.”
“You can not bullshit a guy who’s done more movies than the years that I’ve been alive.”
“Look, a Ferrari’s doing battle with a Humvee, you gotta watch that.”
“I took him into my trailer.”
“I don’t like talk shows.”
“I’m definitely not mean. I’m tough.”
“I wanted to have a broader appealing movie than Crimson Tide.”
“I mainly tried to get a lot of women to see it at my house.”
Buy The Rock on Blu-ray from Amazon
The Rock remains one of Bay’s top three films, and this commentary offers some fun insight into its production. It’s of the “edited together” variety meaning the speakers aren’t in a room together conversing, and while that’s not the ideal plenty of informative and entertaining thoughts get through. Fans should definitely give it a listen if they haven’t already.