Michael Bay reclines on a white lounge chair on a 14th-floor balcony at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on Brickell Key. To the east, a sheet of piercing rain swallows Key Biscayne, thunder cracks overhead, and a lightning bolt shoots above the choppy waves. The sudden monsoon provides the perfect backdrop for the 48-year-old blockbuster director to talk about Pain & Gain, his dark passion project.
Based on a three-part Miami New Times cover story of the same name, Bay's adaptation retells the true story of the Sun Gym Gang, an ambitious, sadistic group of bodybuilders who used torture, extortion, and murder to get rich during a gruesome criminal run between 1994 and '95. The tale has all the elements of an only-in-Dade caper: muscles, steroids, erectile dysfunction, exotic dancers, luxury cars, offshore bank accounts, ambivalent cops, copious narcotics, and dismembered bodies dumped in the Everglades. Carl Hiaasen and Dave Barry couldn't make this stuff up.
For Bay, who lives part-time in a $17 million Miami Beach mansion, the story afforded the perfect chance to break away from CGI-fueled action via his favorite star: the city of Miami.
Two weeks before the movie's national release (this Friday, April 26), Bay sat down with New Times for a Q&A interview.
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Cultist: When did you first read the story by Pete Collins?
Michael Bay: I read it about 12 years ago. Instantly I was drawn to this cast of characters; there's people looking for the American dream in all the wrong ways and I just had this interesting style I wanted to do with this movie. I just saw it my head right away. I gave it to some young writers. They had a really good voice with the script. A lot of good actors wanted to do it along the way. I called Pete Collins, told him, "yeah, we're gonna do it." That guy hung on there for years. Almost thought I was bullshitting. It came a point after Transformers 3, I just told the studio, "you know what I am going to do this with 25 million bucks. It's fun. It's fast.
From the trailer, it doesn't look like you're really going to get dark with it. Yet you do.
You suggest more than you really see, you know what I am saying? It could have been a lot darker. The studio was scared of it. It's a really interesting movie. You are with the victims a little bit. But it is really through the criminals' minds. You talk to criminals and they all think they are doing something morally right or they think they are better than everybody else. They have a twisted sense of right and wrong.
So what happened right after you read Pete's story?
Right away I called the agent who sent it to me because I wanted a small quirky movie. I said I know what to do with this thing. I gave it to Sherry Lansing, who at the time ran Paramount Studios. She really liked the article. She saw the twisted tale. People say, "Do you feel bad you are making fun of a crime?" Well, when you read the articles, it was so absurd that it was inherently funny. Who uses a chainsaw and returns it with hair in it when it doesn't work to Home Depot? I didn't make that shit up. There were a lot of other great parts to the story I couldn't include.
Was that part of the reason it took so long to make? You don't really have a sympathetic character.
Well, that's true. It is a bizarre perspective. You go through the cop's perspective. You go through one of the victims'. It is not your normal movie. I think people weirdly appreciate it. The thing I get from a lot of the audiences who have seen it is that it is really a different movie.
What was your experience shooting your first movie, Bad Boys, which was filmed here in Miami?
Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and I were kids on the street on Alton Road. We were so innocent. I was 27. I remember [during one shoot] Will was jumping over a car, his shirt was open, he had a gun in his hand, and I was watching the take. I told Will: "Dude, you gotta see this; you look like a movie star." This was his first movie. He saw the playback and he was like, "Damn, I do look like a movie star." So I always had a fondness for Miami.
What is it about Miami that you like to draw out as a character?
Well, it is a character. It is this weirdly beautiful, textured, culturally diverse place, but there is some seediness to it, you know? This movie is Miami's underbelly.
Did you shoot any videos or commercials in Miami before you made Bad Boys?
No. It was my first time down here. I just love the texture of the city. City is great about not ripping things down. In Los Angeles, they'd rip down an Art Deco building. Miami is great how they preserve a lot of stuff down here. There is a really neat light down here. There are great skies. There is something vibrant about the city.
What made you want to have a home here?
People enjoy life down here. Los Angeles has no soul. It's too big. I feel it is a small town in a weird way. I know a lot of people here. It is weird because it has an international but small town feel.
What do you do when you are in Miami?
I hang out my house, the great restaurants. I go to the beach. I work out. One of my buddies owns LIV. Another one owns Mynt. I just like to hang out. My life is so fucking busy. Sometimes hanging out is all you need.
Are there any other wild and crazy tales about the Magic City that you're planning on bringing to the big screen?
I don't know. I have to do Transformers 4. I am just glad I got to make this one. This is a different, cool movie. The actors did a great job. It is a conflicted movie. You're watching it and oh my God, this is a bad guy, but I kind of like the guy. You talk to people who knew these guys [the Sun Gym Gang] and they were like, "That guy was nice" or, "That guy was charming" or, "That guy was good to the community."
Who did you talk to in order to get a sense of who Sun Gym Gang members Daniel Lugo and Adrian Doorbal were?
From Ed DuBois and Pete Collins, who was very detailed about it. I knew a couple of people in Bad Boys 2 who were involved in the case. Some of our extras literally worked out at Sun Gym and knew those guys. I never felt the need to meet these guys on death row. I didn't want to give them credibility. I hope they never see it.
Is Dwayne Johnson's Paul Doyle a composite character?
He is a composite of two people. A movie when you have too many characters, you do things like that. I hear one of those guys is trying to apologize to the victims. He was just recently out of prison.
The Rock is great in the movie.
He was scared to do the role a week before we started shooting. The character was way out there for him. He's like, "I want Mark's role." I said, "You feel more comfortable in Mark's role, but you're going to be great in this other role. You're my secret weapon."
You shot the Wynwood Building in the movie and for a Victoria Secret's commercial. What is it about that building?
I like the building. But the client wanted to change the whole concept, so we went to places we knew and shot around Wynwood. I heard the location where we shot the gym was an old Rat Pack hotel. It is a pretty crazy place to put a hotel. You'd think it would be on the beach.
What is going on with your HBO series Cocaine Cowboys?
Part of the problem when someone runs a studio at HBO and they get fired, the new group doesn't want to take the old group's stuff. So it just sits there and languishes. So Jerry Bruckheimer is trying to set it up somewhere else. That is an interesting tale too. There is some fun character stuff in that one. What's her name, Griselda Blanco, called up Bruckheimer's office and asked him, "Would you like to meet me?" They were like, "No way." I don't think anyone could find where she was. She was in hiding. She finally got killed. She is a crazy, interesting character.
What does Pain & Gain say about the pursuit of the American dream in Miami?
Well, in this particular movie dealing with trainers and body builders there is that sheen on looks and presentation, but it is not really earned. There is a lot of superficial stuff. I liked the idea about the world of body builders where they think, "God, if my triceps were a little more ripped, I'd be a happier person." People aren't happy with what they got. They want a little bit more and a little bit more. For Lugo, it was all about perception. His biggest fear was being called an amateur.