Director's Chair: Michael Bay - '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'
Issue: January 1, 2016

Director's Chair: Michael Bay - '13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi'

Audiences flock to Michael Bay movies. His credits include the Transformers franchise, as well as Bad Boys, Armageddon, Pearl Harbor and The Island, which have collectively taken in more than $5 billion at box offices worldwide. That said, his newest film is quite the departure from the big-budget, VFX-heavy films he’s so well known for.

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi — set for release by Paramount Pictures on January 15th — is based on the true story that took place on September 11, 2012, when the United States embassy in Libya was overtaken by Islamic radicals, who killed four US nationals, including ambassador Christopher Stevens. The subject is something Bay is very passionate about. He was one of the first to use real members of the military when he directed The Rock (1996), and today has many friends in the armed services.

When Post caught up with the director right before Christmas, he had just put the finishing touches on 13 Hours — what some are calling “the most accurate” war film ever made. Here, Michael Bay talks exclusively to Post about the filmmaking process, his home studio and his continued passion for storytelling.

Where is 13 Hours at this point?

“I literally just finished the movie a couple of minutes ago. Literally! The post supervisor was asking, ‘Are we done? Are we done?’”

You have set-ups in both Miami and Santa Monica?

“I am here in Miami, where my edit room connects me to my Santa Monica edit room. You should see [it]. It’s a pretty phenomenal deal. I don’t want to go off subject, but it’s like a ‘mission control.’ It links to ILM. I can do color timing. It links to London, New York, LA, with a special Dolby TV. I’ve got my Avid, which is run through Santa Monica. I’ve got Cisco Systems. There are 14 monitors connected to Santa Monica. It’s pretty neat. I can work here and get a lot of work done. You are by yourself here. I have a residence in Miami, but there is a big screening room where it’s kind of my edit/office room.”

13 Hours is not what audiences are necessarily used to seeing from you. Did you approach this film differently, with a specific aim for accuracy?

“Stylistically, yes, that’s exactly what I set out to. I tried to. The camera work was decidedly not precious. It was not to take itself too seriously. It was very raw. You feel like you are right behind these men, like you are really in the battle. It’s like ‘the art of sloppy.’ I gravitate to beautiful imagery and there is a lot of beautiful imagery, but it’s got a sloppiness to it that was put into it. It’s kind of funny, the thought that we put into ‘sloppier.’”

Do you have a preferred acquisition format?

“I was a very, very long and steadfast film proponent. I thought I would never switch away from film, but when the labs and Kodak start to shut their facilities down, you go: ‘I’d better not be the last one on the ship here. I’d better learn digital.’ But I go back and forth regularly. I mix the mediums. You really can, and it can be pretty imperceptible. I do special curves on my digital work, a special formula, I guess, that gives it more of a film kind of thing.

“For this picture, (DP) Dion Beebe wanted to go digital because it’s more ‘run & gun.’ I needed small units and small cameras, and we had a lot of night work. It would have been too costly to do this [on] film. There’s a lot of what I call ‘night blue.’ It’s right when the sun goes down. You have that window of 45 minutes of that cobalt-blue sky. We were down in the Mediterranean, shooting in Malta. You really have to shoot fast. You really have to be organized. You think sunsets are hard? 8:02 we are here. 8:04 we are over there. 8:07 the camera is moving to that roof over there. It’s to the minute.”

What are you shooting with?

“I own a bunch of Red Dragons. We used a smaller Sony for some kind of ‘screwed up’ looking [footage]. I use a little GoPro stuff, and some of my [Arriflex] 235.”

So you are incorporating some film?

“There is a little bit, yeah. But digital was the way to go and it served this movie well.”

Have you worked with drones at all? 

“Yes. We used quite a bit. It all comes down to the operator. There are many bad operators. You are only as good as that operator. We kept flying them in from Europe. We were close, in Malta. We used quite a few. We used a new one — it’s brand new. I was the first person to use it. It’s not out on the market yet.

“I couldn’t afford a helicopter. I had a helicopter for one day. It was a conscious decision. I try to restrict myself on budgets because it’s just better for the movie. I wanted this to be where it didn’t have all the toys. It doesn’t need the toys...It just helps the movie make it more visceral and real.”

One would think you would have almost anything at your disposal, if you wanted it?

“It’s just better. You want to be responsible. I am very responsible with my budgets, and I always come in on-budget. It needed to be a reasonable budget just because it would be better for the movie.”

Let’s talk about editing?

“I have an Avid at my office in Santa Monica. I’ve got one here in Miami. Then we take one on the road with me. In the post world, people are bewildered when they come to my house here in Miami. ‘How do you do a movie here? You’re by yourself? 

Where’s your crew?’ They are all on their computers, but they are controlling it all in Santa Monica.

“On this movie I brought up a guy who was an assistant on a lot of Transformers — Calvin Wimmer — who started the movie, and then we brought in Pietro Scalia to close the movie. We had Mike McCusker come in for 10 weeks or so before he had to go on another movie. The thing was, I couldn’t get a lot of my normal guys on this movie because I geared it up so quickly. We got the movie prepped really quickly and said, ‘I am going in.’ Boom! We were in production. On movies, there’s a long lead out. [Editors] get booked up.”

Tell us about the shoot?

“It was a 50-day shoot. We shot five days in Morocco, and the rest in Malta. There was no stage work. It was all built. We shot buildings that were built on-site.”

How did you decide what would be captured in-camera and what would be a visual effect? Did it come down to safety?

“There’s a way of doing it safely, and I’ve done enough of it in my life. It’s amazing how fewer and fewer people know how to do that stuff. I love that old-school stuff. Whenever I can, I make my shoots more realistic. The way you do it is by shooting it all in-camera.”

Can you point specifically to VFX shots?

“There are really two stylized shots. At a certain moment in the movie there are two or three stylized moments, at a very crucial moment in the movie, otherwise that realism is just [bullet] tracers and different squib hits, certain blood elements. Nothing spectacular, but just to make it real.”

Was this achieved through color treatment?

“We set our look and it was all pretty much controlled through the lighting. We were doing it on our sets and through different color temperatures, and mixing different color temperatures in the night work...We were lighting close to a mile-and-a-half set, on a little movie too, but it was really efficient for night. The way Dion Beebe lit it was really efficient.”

Did turn out as you had envisioned?

“I am getting a lot of really good response from really tough people. These writers who saw it in DC yesterday and in New York — these are journalists writing, they are not film critics.”

You mentioned being friends with many members of the military. Did that inspire you to work on this film?

“Listen, I was very, very passionate about this subject…These special operators are a very special breed of people and very selfless in their dedication. This is a movie that’s really about a rescue mission. People think they know Benghazi. I am a news junkie and when I read the book, I had no idea. There is so much we don’t know about it. There’s so much of that night that was never told. There’s an amazing, heroic story there that people did not hear. It [was] a crazy night — the worst night of your life. These guys saved 30 Americans. No one knows that.”

You just finished this up, but you’ve got Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — Out of the Shadows coming this summer, and a new Transformers in 2017. How do you stay so energized?

“Today I finished this movie, and I am dead tired, and I had three Hasbro people at my house going over stuff and talking about the movie I am about to embark on, and my mind was going a mile a minute. It’s crazy! The thing I always say is, ‘I get to dream for a living.’ I love assembling the crew and shooting. I love using my imagination. It’s really a fun job.”