Nothing is ever low-key when it comes to Michael Bay. But with a budget of just $40 million, his latest film, Ambulance, is a little more down-to-earth than his five Transformers movies, or even his Netflix project, 6 Underground. Bay made the most of his slightly smaller budget, and Ambulance is still full of shootouts, explosions, car chases, and action. But it was more than clever filmmaking that helped Bay stretch his budget. He claims he also has a hidden talent that helped him get the perfect shots, while also saving a bit of money.
“Listen, one great skill I have is talking to cops. Cops love my movies around the world. I mean from Italy to Paris, whatever. They would give me a lot,” Bay told Polygon during a phone interview.
Bay got the chance to flex this skill on one of Ambulance‘s first days of shooting. The film centers on a heist gone wrong, which leaves two desperate criminals and two hostages racing around Los Angeles in an increasingly battered ambulance, pursued by the LAPD and the FBI. As a small crew was filming coverage of the ambulance driving along a freeway at regular speed, several police officers pulled up behind them. This was just the regular escort crew assigned to the film, Bay explains, but it was also an opportunity.
“I’m like, ‘Hey, I would love to put you in the movie. When you guys do a chase, what do you do? What if you’re chasing an ambulance?’” Bay said. “And then they — well, first they wanted pictures. Second, they said they’d love to be in the movie. They literally would block the freeway for me and do a rolling block. We hauled ass at 90 miles an hour down an open freeway. That would have cost a normal movie 350,000 bucks and take two months of planning. It looks real because it is on a real freeway, and we are going that fast. So that’s, like, free stuff.”
Ambulance producer and New Republic Pictures president Brad Fischer wasn’t on set for the incident, since it was so early in the shoot, but he wasn’t surprised to learn about it at all.
“He’s always had a wonderful relationship with law enforcement,” Fischer says of Bay in a phone interview with Polygon. “I mean, look, that’s the kind of thing that it takes sometimes. You have to be clever and use relationships and do everything safely and the right way. […] I think his experience working with the police definitely came in handy.”
According to Fischer, using real police officers isn’t uncommon for Bay at all. In fact, Bay is a bit of an expert on law enforcement at this point, Fischer says. It’s part of how he adds the realism that grounds some of his most bombastic action movies.
“Even from just an authenticity standpoint,” Fischer says, “it’s obviously a lot easier if you don’t have to explain to an actor. A cop knows how to hold and carry himself or herself. They’re just the real deal. It doesn’t always work, but if you look at the tactical stuff they do, it looks real because it is real. […] He knows the difference between when they’re surveilling a group of criminals and when they’re gonna intervene. All of those details were part of the polish that Michael did on the script, and you can identify it onscreen.”
Of course, while a bit of healthy realism and the ability to ground some of the most ridiculous practical explosions and action scenes of the last seven years is certainly a useful quality when you’re making a movie like Ambulanceit turns out knowing who to take photos with to save a few hundred thousand dollars doesn’t hurt either.