Michael Bay, director of the blockbuster Transformers trilogy and other huge hits ( Bad Boys 1 and 2, Armageddon) smiles when you tell him Pain & Gain — his self-described “small movie” shot entirely in South Florida on a budget of $26 million (buoyed by a $4.2 million tax break by the state) — is one of the oddest films to come out of Hollywood in years.
“This is a weird movie,” the director said during a recent stop at the Mandarin Oriental to promote the film in Miami. “This is not the kind of movie the studios greenlight much anymore. I wanted to do something small and quirky. But because I’ve made Paramount [Pictures] billions of dollars with the Transformers movies, I told them, ‘I’m going to make this movie.’ They said ‘Why do you want to make it?’ They were scared of it. But I saw something unique in this material. The best compliment I’ve heard from audiences who have seen it is ‘Wow, that was really different.’ Which is cool, because it was intended to be a bizarre movie.”
Pain & Gain, which opens Friday, is certainly different from anything Bay had directed before: It is character-based and performance-driven, with only one brief action sequence and, most shocking of all, just a single, rather puny explosion. In Pain & Gain, the story is wild enough to eliminate the need for pyrotechnics.
Based on an epic three-part story by Pete Collins published in the Miami New Times in 1999 and 2000, Pain & Gain centers on three bodybuilders — Daniel Lugo, Paul Doyle and Adrian Doorbal — who embarked on a crime wave in 1994 involving fraud, theft, kidnapping, torture and murder. The sprawling case got weirder and stranger as it unfolded, culminating in a grisly act of dismemberment by chainsaw and hand axe.
There were too many people involved in the case to squeeze into a single movie, so screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who previously collaborated on Captain America: The First Avenger, had to condense and simplify the story, eliminate some characters (Lugo had a wife and an ex-wife with four adopted children) and turn others into composites.
In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Michael Mann, the script for Pain & Gain might have resulted in a bloody crime saga, a la Goodfellas or Heat. But Bay read the screenplay and saw something different: A pitch-black comedy about the American Dream, with a body count.
“When I read the article, the story was so absurd that it laid out comical,” he says. “When you try to use a chainsaw on someone’s head to dispose of a body, and it doesn’t work so you take it back to Home Depot with human hair on it — it’s so bizarre that it’s funny. It’s like those videos of dumb criminals doing really stupid things that get millions of hits on YouTube. I think people like to watch train wrecks.”
Some of the survivors of the murder victims and law-enforcement officials have been dismayed by the trailers and TV spots for Pain & Gain, which are overtly comical and don’t really hint at the darkness of the story.
“What Hollywood is going to do Hollywood is going to do,” Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle told The Miami Herald in an interview earlier this year. “My thoughts are with the victims. To trivialize this horrible tale of torture and death makes a mockery out of their lives and the justice system.”
But Bay argues that all the laughs in the film come at the expense of the three roided-out killers, never the victims.
“I’ve heard family members say they feel like we’re making fun, but we’re not making fun,” Bay says. “You can’t judge the movie based on a trailer or a TV ad. It’s a story about delusional criminals who can torture a guy they’ve kidnapped one day and have a lovely wedding the next day. We’re not really going into the victims. It’s not about them. It’s a story told through the minds of the criminals and the detectives, and these guys got exactly what they deserved.”
Mark Wahlberg, who plays group leader Lugo, agrees it is the over-the-top nature of the story that gives the film its humorous tone, such as a scene in which Lugo dons a “Kiss the Cook” apron to protect himself from blood splatters while dispatching of a body.
“I knew how outrageous it all was, and I find a lot of humor in things that are ridiculous,” Wahlberg says. “But we never played it for the comedy. I always played it as real as possible. But we were also trying to push the envelope, and a lot of the humor comes from that.”
Dwayne Johnson, who plays Paul Doyle, an easily manipulated, dumb lug fond of wearing Jesus Saves shirts, is a composite of two of the criminals in the case. The casting of Johnson was ingenious, since he usually plays charismatic bad-asses, and his innate likability allows you to engage with the murderous trio — to a point.
The actor, who packed 15 pounds onto his already massive frame, admits he had reservations when he first read the script.
“I read it thinking I would be playing Lugo, but when I spoke to Michael he said he wanted me to play Paul Doyle,” he says. “I was hesitant about that. To play a guy who is so easily influenced with that level of vulnerability, to sink to those depths and commit those types of crimes and grilling body parts and snorting cocaine off a stripper’s ass ... it’s just not me. I was thinking ‘Can I play this role? Is the audience going to like seeing me like this?’
“So I had this big conversation, and Michael said ‘There’s a reason why I want you to play this role. This is where casting becomes crucial. Paul Doyle will be the conscience of the audience, and whenever they see empathy, kindness and extreme measures, they will see it through you. At the end, the audience is going to walk away satisfied that these guys were punished, and I want it to be through Paul Doyle.’ He gave me great confidence with that. He said ‘I need you to trust me.’ I’ve never had a director tell me that. So I did. And now here we are.”
Another atypical thing about Pain & Gain: Bay, who is known for hyperkinetic editing, still delivers the beautiful visuals, but he actually holds on shots and characters’ faces for longer than two seconds, giving you time to take them in.
“It’s really funny,” he says. “People have always given me a hard time on my editing. But if you could do a graph on my movies, you would see how my editing has slowed down over the years. Bad Boys was my first movie, and we cut that quite fast. Back then it was very new for action. Now you see a lot of that imitated. Call it what you will. Yes, critics have given me s--t about it. But when you watch the Bourne Identity movies, they are cut way faster.
“I will apologize for Armageddon, because we had to do the whole movie in 16 weeks. It was a massive undertaking. That was not fair to the movie. I would redo the entire third act if I could. But the studio literally took the movie away from us. It was terrible. My visual effects supervisor had a nervous breakdown, so I had to be in charge of that. I called James Cameron and asked ‘What do you do when you’re doing all the effects yourself?’ But the movie did fine.
“ Pain & Gain stylistically still has a poppy vibe, but often it’s just actors acting and you can just point your camera at them and let them go. And it shows Miami in a really interesting texture. It’s still glossy, but different. They gave me the key to the city, which is kind of cool, because I make Miami look good in the movie, and it gets out and travels around the world. I have a home in Miami, and what I love about this city is that it feels small town in a weird way. I grew up in L.A. and it’s way too big. Miami’s got a lot more soul. It’s one of the greatest cities in America.”
But Bay says Miami is also particularly fertile ground for bad behavior.
“Crazy stuff can happen anywhere, but this story happens to be very Miami. We’re trying to make our bodies beautiful and keep up with everyone else. But then someone like Lugo comes along and thinks, ‘I’m going to steal from that guy and live in his house and then I’m going to be a good person in the community and have a neighborhood watch and play with the kids in the neighborhood.’ And he doesn’t think anything of it. It’s so bizarre.”