Michael Bay, Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson talk ‘Pain & Gain’

(from l to r) Anthony Mackie, Mark Wahlberg, director Michael Bay and Dwayne Johnson at the "Pain & Gain" Press Conference

Two weekends ago, Paramount Pictures invited an army’s worth of nebbish journalists (like myself) to attend a lavish press junket in Miami at the Mandarin Oriental to fawn over the top-line cast and crew of Michael Bay’s latest film Pain & Gain, including Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie and Bay himself. Although I don’t usually get the chance to attend these enticing press junkets, owing to my day job, turning down a big weekend event like this was a bit hard to pass up.

“Critics love to hate me.” – Michael Bay

That quote isn’t too far from the truth. Perhaps no filmmaker in Hollywood gets savaged and mauled by the critics the way Bay does. While people like Adam Sandler, Uwe Boll, M. Night Shayamalan and Rob Schneider have all had their moments in the sun, there seems to be a special level of critical trashing reserved whenever Bay makes a movie. He’s been branded a misogynistic, some find his films racist and homophobic; others say he makes movies for 14-year-olds; that they’re juvenile, frat-boy movies that promote negative stereotypes. Some find his movies the epitome of what’s wrong with American cinema today. One person even went as far as to call him the Devil. WhiIe I wouldn’t go that far, I think the accusations of casual homophobia, racism and misogyny stem from the fact that he does things because they look “awesome” or because they’re “funny” rather than because he has a malicious agenda. It’s the thought-process of the stereotypical ignorant fraternity jock.
Say or think what you will about the man but he’s anything but a two buck hack that studio suits hire to crack out a $100 million blockbuster every two months. I’ll even go as far as to dub him an auteur – that high and mighty distinction critics reserve for the holiest of holiest filmmakers (Malick, Kubrick, Bergman, Fellini etc…). Sure, he doesn’t qualify as an auteur in a traditional sense that critics fawn over but there’s no denying the man’s penchant for excess, zip-cutting and style is unique. You know from a matter of moments that you’re watching a Michael Bay movie. Think about it… when you think about a Michael Bay movie, what springs to mind? I’m guessing its explosions, helicopters, sunsets, objectified women, fast cars, cool explosions, money shots, slow-motion shots, more explosions, right?

Pain & Gain, Bay’s latest opus, a darkly comic crime thriller, hitting theaters on Friday, continues his obsession for all things sleek, sexy and awesome: the slow-motion, helicopters, women in skimpy outfits, sunsets etc… with one major exception. There’s only one explosion in the entire picture, and barely any CGI. At a reported $26 million, Pain & Gain is Bay’s lowest budgeted feature since Bad Boys, his 1995 debut. Bay, who attended the junket interview along with his three muscle-wrapped stars was especially relieved to be working on a much smaller scale this time around.

“It was such a relief and just a dream: Just me with the camera and actors acting, just one explosion and really no visual effects. It was a low budget movie but it was good to be constrained in that box. I don’t think the movie needed anything more.”

And it most definitely didn’t. Based on a trio of non-fiction articles written by Pete Collins and published in the Miami New-Times in the late 90s, Pain & Gain is a relatively small-scale story (in Bay’s terms) that chronicles the horrifying story of three bodybuilders, Daniel Lugo, Paul Doyle and Adrian Doorbal (played by Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie), together known as the Sun Gym Gang, who in the mid-90s plotted and committed a series of heinous crimes that eventually ended up with murder.

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Although the articles the film is based on details a very grisly portrait of the failure of the American Dream, Bay opted for a darkly comic approach instead. In fact, it’s this combination of bizarre dark comedy and the thought-process of the criminal mind that attracted him and the actors to make the film in the first place.

“It was about twelve years ago when I read these very detailed articles, that were bizarrely funny, but in it, I also saw something that was about people who were never happy with what they have,” Bay said. “If you ever talk to criminals, they think sometimes, ‘Hey, I deserve it… I’m not doing anything wrong.’ It’s a delusional world they live in. It’s like when you look at YouTube videos of dumb criminals getting stuck in the chimney trying to rob something. They get millions of hits. People are fascinated with train wrecks!”

Wahlberg, who plays Daniel Lugo, the mastermind of the operation and the film’s primary antagonist, was in agreement with Bay about the story’s unbelievable nature being the primary element that got him interested in the part.

“I get the script and it says ‘based on a true story’, and I start reading and I’m like ‘that’s impossible, there’s no way this is a true story’, and then lo-and-behold you start reading the article and doing your research, and you find out that this stuff actually happened,” he says. “That whole world, the world of body building to me is fascinating. It’s such a unique and interesting culture, and everything about it appealed to me.”

The story was so unbelievable that it took actor Tony Shalhoub, who plays Victor Kershaw, the man whom the gang kidnaps and tortures, some time to actually put it into his mind frame that this crime actually happened.

“It took me a very long time to embrace that idea, that all of this could have been actual fact,” he said. “When you’re reading a script like this, you keep wondering how this is going to be, what’s the director going to do with this? And so forth. More importantly, [you ask yourself] is this a movie that I would like to see, is this dialogue I would love to hear, and are these images I want to see on the screen? When the answer to that is ‘absolutely’, then you just want to be a part of it, and your curiosity about how it’s going to jump from the page to the final cut on the screen overtakes you.”

Johnson, a former Miami resident and University of Miami graduate, remembered being in Miami during the time of the case, but only jumped on to play the role after reading the script.

“The script was so well written, and the role was such a departure from anything that I’ve done in my career,” Johnson said.

Indeed, the role of Paul Doyle (who is a composite character) marks a giant step away from the types of roles the actor has been offered since he made the switch from wrestling to acting over 10 years ago. While movies like Fast and Furious 6 and G.I. Joe: Retaliation will continue to be his bread and butter, his interest in roles like this and February’s Snitch illustrate that he’s willing to take chances and step outside his comfort zone.

“I was waiting for a role like this… that had this type of complexity, had these types of layers,” he continued. “I had never played a character before who was this vulnerable, and this easily influenced. To go from trying to find his salvation in Jesus to sniffing cocaine off a woman’s, you know, backside, to then grilling body parts, it was a great not only challenge, as an actor, but something that I was really excited and happy about.”

Mark Wahlberg, Tony Shalhoub and Dwayne Johnson in 'Pain & Gain'

Since all the main characters portrayed in the film are based on real life people, the question of playing real life people was an inevitable topic of discussion. Wahlberg, who has played a host of real-life characters before from The Perfect Storm to The Fighter to Invincible and the upcoming Lone Survivor, said it all depended on the how famous the person is and how much access you had to them.

“In this case I only had a little bit of information about Danny that I learned from either the article, news clippings, and the re-enactment episode that they did, so I was able to kind of bring a lot of different colors and layers to the part and kind of make some stuff up, but this wasn’t like Mickey Ward for instance, who when I was doing The Fighter, was on set with me every day and I was really trying to pick up all of his mannerisms, and the way he walked and talked and all those things.”

Anthony Mackie, who plays the third man on the team, stated that he was able to bring a lot of his own material to the role because not too many people knew anything about him.

“Not too many people knew he even existed. So, I could bring all kind of nuances and things to him that you get from, source material and things like that, but the more popular or known the person is, the more impossible it is. To get it right, that is.”

When prodded about whether he entertained the possibility of visiting the real Doorbal, now on death row, Mackie was quick to answer,

“I didn’t want to… There was a story about Doorbal, where they said that on the day they were being sentenced, [the authorities] looked around the courtroom and there’s no Doorbal, so they look around, and go into the bathroom, and there he is… having sex with the paralegal,” laughs Mackie. “That told me everything I needed to know about that dude. So, that was kinda all he had to tell me.”

Even though this sequence isn’t shown in the movie, there’s enough in the movie to get the sense of how evil and delusional these characters are, even though they are, in essence, the film’s leads. Bay understood this clearly when going into the picture.

I mean, I, I want [the audience] to be conflicted,” the filmmaker said. “If you ever meet criminals, they sometimes don’t think they’re doing something morally bad. It’s bizarre how you could have just kidnapped someone, collected all this money and then have a loving wedding the next week.”

Johnson added, I think it’s just really smart story-telling from Michael’s perspective, because in the beginning you want to feel a sense of empathy. You want to go on journey with these guys; they’re kind-of likeable guys, in the beginning, in this weird, bizarre way. But at the end of the movie, all that gets thrown out the window and you are happy and satisfied that they all get punished.”

Pain & Gain opens in South Florida theaters on Friday, April 26.

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