Premaking 'Transformers 4,' the Blockbusterest Film of Our Age

by John Lichman

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On Friday, Michael Bay will give us another 164 minutes of 3D-IMAX robots riding robots riding robots as they blow shit up in America — Detroit and Chicago — and China — also Detroit, actually — while Mark Wahlberg has to grapple with the fact his name is Cade Yeager. A fete of more than just Bay’s extraordinary vision for setting General Motors vehicles and American military hardware against perfectly golden sunlight shining over a canyon as they race from one Optimus Prime death scene to the next, Transformers 4: The Age of Extinction is both the nexus and the prototype of a new kind of cinema-industrial complex that spans from Hollywood to Beijing.

That’s the focus of Kevin B. Lee’s “desktop documentary,” Transformers: The Premake, which documents the production of Transformer 4, mixing Lee’s own footage of Chicago sets with sources from YouTube, and intricate cartographies of the movie’s shooting and funding. In other words, it’s a documentary about the concept of modern blockbusters and how they are made, not just by Hollywood, but, in some ways, by their most devoted fans. So we a long talk about that, why everything’s coming up China in movies right now, and also what the hell is up with Grimlock.

So what inspired the premake?

I wanted to do a film project that would involve actually being in physical spaces — to have a physical experience related to cinema. It just so happened Transformers was filming in Chicago the first semester of school. I spent six weekends in September and October just hanging out on the production and seeing what I could capture. What I did not expect was the degree of access people had: Where people were filming, all these spectators were just standing around watching, like I was. Gradually, I realized that they were not only filming and taking photos, but putting a lot of this on the Internet.

You’re taking in all of this footage and then what? Is this how the “desktop documentary” started?

I ended up hauling in 355 YouTube videos that were some form of documentation of filming Transformers in all these different locations in the world. I started to play with the footage and and map it out — physically, on a map — to see how many videos were made on a given day, at a given location. It raised all these questions like, “What are they doing in Detroit? Why does Detroit look like China? There’s all this stuff that takes place in a Chinese setting; why don’t they just film it in China or Hong Kong?” By asking those questions, I uncovered all this information about how this movie is engineered to appeal to a Chinese box office, which is supervised by the Chinese government and the demands they have for a big-budget Hollywood movies.

In the film, you get into the Chinese aspect of this pretty fast. Did you come across that in the same way as the original videos?

One little discovery would lead to other questions. What really surprises me about Transformers that I did not anticipate or realize was the extent to which China has essentially co-opted the infrastructure of Hollywood global big budget filmmaking. What I mean by that is that they want to be up there with Hollywood in terms of quality and popularity and impact of their commercial films. It’s just that no one took their films seriously because of the quality of the CGI or the stories or whatever it is people like about Hollywood.

What’s happened with Transformers and these other blockbusters that you’re seeing now is due to the circumstances of China wanting — imposing these demands on Hollywood: “If you want your films to play in the second-largest box office in the world, then you need to follow our stipulations as far as meeting our co-production requirements or being acceptable to our censors.” The thing is, Chinese audiences already like Hollywood movies, so it’s not like they’re necessarily demanding these films to be more Chinese. It’s really an alibi that the Chinese authorities have imposed to make these films more Chinese.

I think where that really matters is in terms of these films being distributed worldwide, because the version of Transformers that we’re going to see is the same version that China is going to see. That’s very different from Iron Man 3; there was a Chinese-only version of the film where they slapped on four extra minutes of two actors talking in Mandarin that caused all kinds of outcry among Chinese critics and audiences. That experiment failed.

The new ground rules are, “Okay Hollywood, you want to make a movie to pass our censors and meet our requirements? It has to be the same movie everyone else sees.” In other words, that Chinese content has to be baked into the definitive version of the film. What this comes down to is the whole world is going to see Hollywood movies with more Chinese content in it.

You feature an interview Michael Bay gives to the Chinese media about filming in this national park and how explicitly it was his choice, not China’s or a producer’s. It’s such a weird moment because he sounds so defensive about the production but he’s clearly filming with the government’s help.

One way I like to think about this is in American terms: What if China spent the equivalent of two million dollars to shoot for two days in Yellowstone or Yosemite or the Grand Canyon? We don’t even do that with Hollywood movies, we don’t even open those sites up. It’s stunning to think money can make that happen in China. But as far as his line — do I agree?

Consider this is a guy who will go with whatever option gets him the most bang for his buck. In Transformers 2 he put in stuff from the sponsors and military because they were giving him such unprecedented access to planes and troops.

It’s stunning that in Chicago, those are military sub-contracted helicopters strapped with 3D cameras that he’s using to capture that footage. He’s using US military resources on the one hand, and Chinese government resources on the other. It’s stunning when you think a Hollywood production can reach seemingly opposite ends of the geopolitical structure to put its film together. I don’t know what to make of that other than it’s just really audacious.

I’d like to go back to what makes this a “desktop documentary.” It’s shown entirely from your home screen and incredibly different than a video review. How’d you come to that setting?

It took a while to get to that point. I was trying more conventional approaches.The first thing I wanted to do was this “Frederick Wiseman”-style of a series of long takes using the footage I had shot, and treating the footage the YouTubers had captured as Wiseman-like documentary footage — a flat-out sequence with very little manipulation. But it seemed like there was more that could be done with it. I tried to do similar to what I’ve done in video essays: Take these clips and narrate over them and analyze them using voice over. That felt too much of an imposition. It was putting too much on the footage. I just started thinking about my whole experience and what was key to discovering the realizations that I made in the process of researching this film; I realized that the Internet had a huge part of providing the raw materials and means by which to investigate them. It speaks to an experience of reality that a lot of us take for granted: We’re constantly looking at the Internet and our mobile phones, our desktops, all the time to learn stuff and understand things. Given that documentary, by definition, is a genre of film that deals with how we look at reality and real-life things, well, the way we look at real life is pretty much through a screen.

People sometimes try to make money off the shakycam footage they’ve caught of movies being filmed, especially if it’s “exclusive.” In the premake, you show that Paramount took down some of these videos but still leave hundreds of others up. What’re the apparent rules for a takedown now?

Maybe there are no rules? They’re being made up as we’re going along about what you’re allowed to monetize. My entire account was shut down at one point because overnight it got three strikes. They had implemented a new copyright enforcement policy because Warner Brothers had filed a list of their properties. Whatever database YouTube had installed overnight instantly came up with three strikes on my account before I had a chance to do anything. That wasn’t a user-friendly implementation — and what I mean about the rules being made up as they go along.

That seems like the best way to talk about your breakout voice: Mr. San 44 Man. He’s so happy about the footage he’s found and how “exclusive” it is. Then you pull back and show four other views of the same location in Detroit made to be China.

I feel like there’s something in our contemporary social media culture that is positioning us as the protagonists of the movie of our lives that we’re constantly making. That’s why it’s called YouTube, not WeTube or UsTube. It doesn’t give you the perspective of other people. Mr. San 44 Man wants to be a star. I connect with that. All of us have this dream of seeing something no one else has seen and wanting to share it, wanting to create something awesome. There’s a little San 44 Man in all of us. I love how uncensored he is in how he presents himself to the world. He really believes he’s got the awesome shit.

When you take in the larger situation that he’s in — he’s in Detroit, there’s not a whole lot of opportunity there and if you look at his YouTube channel, all of his videos are about life in Detroit — he’s trying to make something interesting about a fallen city, trying to be a spokesperson for a city that’s been left behind. It’s just funny when something like Transformers comes along and he says in his video, “Oh yeah, you know I know all you people at Paramount are watching because I met you all and gave you all my card.”

Oh, and you’ve adopted Grimlock as an avatar. What gives?

He’s rumored to be the first Transformer to speak Mandarin because Michael Bay let out in an interview that there will be one Transformer that speaks Mandarin. All signs point to Grimlock — just the design in the movie is very Chinese-inspired. He’s got these horns that resemble Chinese dragon horns. This idea of him being re-engineered and transformed into this different version of himself embodies what this movie is and what it could be.

I love Grimlock. He’s so primitive and so lovable in his clumsy, idiotic, luddite way. He’s considered the dumbest of the Autobots and all the Transformers. I feel like he stumbles upon things, causing all of this havoc by accident. He has this tremendous potential. That’s what I see in this project: stumbling through the world of Transformers and how it’s effecting the world. Not having to be an insider or member of Hollywood cultural elite. Just being a dinosaur, romping through it and seeing what could come through it.

John Lichman is a writer and occasional producer. He has a site he barely updates.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.