Producer Brad Fischer is no stranger to big movies and big personalities.
Before he turned 30, he worked on “Zodiac” with David Fincher (an adventure told in a recent book by Robert Graysmith called “Shooting Zodiac”) and oversaw major commercial films like Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down”. and smaller, more personal. fare like Luca Guadagnino’s deeply brilliant remake “Suspiria” from 2018. His latest film, “Ambulance,” falls somewhere in the middle.
Yes, it’s a Michael Bay movie with giant stars (Jake Gyllenhaal and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II play bank robbers who hijack an ambulance to get away), giant explosions, and equally over-the-top emotions, but… It’s also something of a content thriller, with a budget of just $40 million. (By comparison, “The Northman” cost $90 million and was directed by the guy who made “The Lighthouse.”)
spoke to Fischer about what it was like putting together “Ambulance,” Gyllenhaal’s recent interest in action movies, and whether or not there is a Michael Bay cinematic universe.
After watching the movie, I read that the budget was only $40 million. Did it really only cost $40 million?
I mean, look, you know they don’t like it when producers talk about budgets, but that’s not far from the truth. It was my first film with Michael Bay. And I say without any irony that I really had a good time working with him. It was crazy and intense and all that. But we got on really well and I’m really proud of the movie and excited. And I feel like he raised it exactly the way I expected. And it went beyond the action, the intensity, the great visual spectacle, the city and everything he brought to it. But really, I mean, when I thought back to his movies in the ’90s, from “Bad Boys” to “The Rock” to “Armageddon,” they were real platforms for larger-than-life characters, as much as they were for the whole show.
I feel like his career has become more and more defined solely by the show and that part of his skill set, which is incredibly strong, not that it was forgotten, but it just wasn’t… He didn’t have as much outlet, as much emphasis in some of the other movies he’s done more recently. It was a big thing that I think he really accomplished here with this movie. And regarding your original question, he’s so budget disciplined and incredibly obsessed with what’s on screen and making sure there’s no waste. On any film, just because there are so many people in so many departments there will always be inefficiencies somewhere. But from the start, it was very, very clear to me that one of the things that excited him about it was the challenge of doing something with fewer resources.
There were no trailers. No one had a trailer for the movie. Everyone was an auto-drive, including the tracks. We were filming at the height of the pandemic at a time when LA, and downtown LA in particular, was in turn becoming the global hub of COVID. It was LA then. Everyone was confined. But the film industry was considered an essential activity. We were able to work and we had an incredible team of epidemiologists and health experts to guide us. And even more reason to make sure our footprint is even smaller.
Watching this movie, everyone will probably try to figure out how you shot it. I assume you filmed during the pandemic when no one was on the roads.
I mean, that was part of it. It was certainly part of it. But we were always shooting on the weekends when we were really busy with the big city centers, like the bank robbery stuff. Because there was still activity. It wasn’t a total ghost town. But I would certainly say that any advantage we got from things like that was, in terms of challenge, definitely outweighed by anyone who was spinning at the time was the canary in the coal mine for the production of COVID. We had a very rigorous testing regime. We ended up not having to close once, which I think is a testament. Because it got to the point where it was almost like that if you film at some point, you’ll end up having to stop.
I think because we were testing so rigorously, especially on our A-zone, we didn’t have to assume that if somebody came in as positive… Let’s say somebody came in as positive on a Wednesday, because we were also testing on Tuesday, we didn’t have to assume they were positive on Tuesday and then remove all of their close contacts for both days.
Was there a fight to keep it R-rated?
No. It was built in from the start. And filming in Los Angeles too. Because we didn’t get the California tax credit just because of how quickly it came together and how those, to apply, it’s a lottery system . We just didn’t have the time. Because at the time he said yes, and we had a window to go through, the window to apply and get an answer was not available. And over the history of the project, multiple budgets have been established at different times for different locations. It was always written for LA. And that was my hope was that we could film in LA. But we also knew that if we did, we’d probably be leaving money on the table. But I do not know. It looks like LA is such a character in the movie instead of just shooting it in a US metropolitan city. I think it was worth it.
There is a reference to “The Rock” in this movie. Does this suggest a Michael Bay cinematic universe?
Michael Bay’s meta-universe. Tarantino went there, didn’t he? Why not? No, I think it’s great. I think it’s actually a nod to the tone of the movie. And, of course, there’s Mark the oldest cop and Zach the youngest. And Mark is talking about “The Rock” and, of course, Zach thinks he means Dwayne Johnson.
Who also worked with Michael Bay.
Yes exactly. There’s this generation gap and the snake ends up eating its own tail at some point. I thought that was fun. I even thought, while some might suggest that was enough, I actually enjoyed the one low angle shot of Zach getting out of the car and it’s almost like Michael is saying to him, ” Alright, I’ll film you like movie stars in ‘Bad Boys’,” which is pretty much their line.
You worked with Jake when you were very young on “Zodiac”, and you have a few other upcoming projects with him. I was wondering if he was looking at those action plans and what that evolution looked like and how you encouraged it.
Yeah. I mean, Jake has a first deal with my company, New Republic. And he’s, like you said, we worked together on “Zodiac” years ago and we still kept in touch and talked about doing other things together. What I love about Jake, not just as an actor but as a producer, is that his tastes really mirror mine in that they oscillate between prestige and all audience fare, really big and accessible, entertainment that I think just has a quality where it feels like it’s stories that will transport the audience. And those are all stories that I think lend themselves to ambitious directors, great filmmakers. The list of projects we’re developing, we have a comic called “Oblivion song” which was written by Robert Kirkman that we’re doing and I actually think it encompasses both.
It’s world-building, it’s spectacle, it’s everything you’d expect from a graphic novel, and a Kirkman graphic novel that’s really grounded in character. And I know people say that a lot, but the whole engine of the story really revolves around these themes that ultimately force these characters to come to terms with what it is to be human, what it is is grief and suffering that also leads you to appreciate the joys in life. And so there are heady themes, which can further elevate truly commercial fare and genre fare. And I think he’s drawn to that in the same way that a lot of filmmakers, like some of the directors we’ve worked with together and separately, are as well.
“Ambulance” now plays exclusively in theaters.