LOS ANGELES — A billion-dollar director so ill that he couldn't shake anyone's hand wore a shirt reading: "Giant F---ing Robots Are Coming!"
Hundreds of beautiful people fled down the street, turned around, and then ran back. The downtown intersection of Broadway and Ninth was drenched in ominous green smoke, while a truck filled with Furby dolls exploded repeatedly.
After witnessing the full-scale chaos that took place here over the past few days, one might imagine the "Transformers" cast asking: "So what did you do with your weekend?"
"This isn't f---ing 'Freaky Friday,' " grinned Shia LaBeouf, taking a break between explosions. "You want to create a pop film but not sell out. ... This is a popular film with a following."
The recent launch of the film's teaser trailer crashed Paramount servers as die-hards scrambled to catch an all-too-brief peek at the photo-real "robots in disguise." A recent Internet announcement of the Autobot and Decepticon supporting players similarly sent tongues wagging (see "Did Your Favorite Make The Cut? 'Transformers' Writers Reveal Robot Roster").
"There's Ratchet right there," director Michael Bay pointed out, sticking a flu-ridden finger in the direction of a pimped-out greenish-yellow ambulance with enormous tires and the world's biggest cow-catcher affixed to the front. "That's Ironhide, the black [GMC] truck. That's a newly transformed [orange-yellow] Bumblebee that started out as an old Camaro and becomes a new Camaro — there's a reason for that in the script — and we've got Jazz right here."
That last comment ended with a wave toward a slick-looking gray Pontiac Solstice, one of the four untransformed "characters" sitting in the middle of the road, surrounded by decrepit buildings and store façades. As a stuntman practiced donuts in a taxi, the Furby truck (an in-joke arranged by Hasbro, the company behind both toy lines) was lifted up and down to simulate an explosion knocking it backward. The scene will eventually appear near the end of the flick, as five disparate human story lines finally come together.
"I play Sam Witwicky, a.k.a. Spike," LaBeouf revealed of one such story line, revolving around the teenager who first uncovers the Transformers' plans to bring their epic battle to Earth. "He's the liaison between the government and the robots, because it's too outlandish for the government to cling onto this idea of this alien [invasion], and they're too close-minded to latch onto it, so they use me as a liaison between the idea of what these things could be and what they actually are.
"They make first contact with me because of my great-great-grandfather, Captain Archibald Witwicky, who made first contact with [Decepticon leader] Megatron in the 1800s and had language and maps burned into his glasses through a laser," LaBeouf continued. "The glasses were passed on through lineage, and they wind up with me, and I'm trying to sell them on eBay, as well as other items, like his compass and his sextant and other things a 19th-century seaman would use. They come after me to retrieve these glasses, which have the directions for where the Energon cube is at."
This Energon cube — a black-and-gray box small enough to be tucked under an arm — acts as the movie's MacGuffin, since both armies of battle 'bots long for the rare and potent substance. Bay has filmed LaBeouf hanging off buildings, running through battle-torn streets and under others states of attack, all while hugging the highly sought-after square.
"He's not the nerd in school, but he's that offbeat guy," said newcomer Megan Fox, who plays LaBeouf's no-nonsense love interest Mikaela. "My character is dating the jock, and there's a fight between the two of them because I'm stuck in the middle. Each of them has an interest in me. He ends up helping me out in a specific situation, and through his personality, I start to fall for him. ... I get caught in the middle of this chase, and that's how I get dragged along and become a part of the rest of the film, with the interaction with the robots."
The cast also includes Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Jon Voight and a surprising number of veteran comedians. "Dane Cook, I think he plays a gas-station attendant," LaBeouf revealed. "It's a small cameo. But there's a lot of cameos. The way Mike [Bay] works is it's action, and in the middle of all that action there's a joke. ... There's a lot of comedians here. Bernie Mac's got a big cameo."
But the real stars — as Michael Bay's T-shirt insists — are the Giant F---ing Robots. "When you see Bumblebee, you can't not be a fan," LaBeouf said of a full-size model that exists as a post-transformation robot. "It's like seeing Batman's car. You're in."
"When you have full height on Jazz, I think he's about 13 feet tall," Bay said of the transformed robots. "Bumblebee's about 16, 17 feet tall; Ratchet's about 23, 24 feet; and Ironhide's very wide when he's transformed — he's about a 26-foot tall robot — and then [Autobot leader] Optimus is 28 and Megatron is 34."
The transformations will be achieved using the aforementioned models and a heaping helping of CGI technology.
"Bumblebee has the most screen time of any of the characters," producer Don Murphy said of the charismatic Camaro who makes first contact with humans through Witwicky. Murphy said the Decepticon is most likely to be a breakout character. "[Jet transformer Starscream] is the one leading the Decepticons in trying to free Megatron. ... Character-wise, he's just the most ruthless. When humans are in the way, humans must be destroyed."
"Transformers" will shoot "Armageddon"-esque world-under-siege shots in Boston, New York and other major cities — as well as at the Pentagon, which would make it the first post-9/11 movie to do so. Several of the filmmakers expect the flick to get a PG-13 and also mentioned hopes for a sequel in 2009 that would reveal additional characters.
Also in the works is another trailer, which would likely debut around the holidays and feature a transforming Bumblebee, Optimus Prime speaking and the same "wah-wah" noise that signified a transformation in the classic cartoon show.
" 'Transformers: The Movie,' that was my sh--," an enthusiastic LaBeouf said of the 1986 animated film. "It was that and Yogi Bear. That's what I grew up on. Those were my movies, and I'd watch them over and over again. I must have seen 'Transformers: The Movie' 70 times. ... I know what it means to you guys. I know what it means to the fans."
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