Producer Brad Fischer is no stranger to big movies and big personalities.
Before he was 30, he worked on “Zodiac” with David Fincher (an adventure chronicled in a recent book by Robert Graysmith called “Shooting Zodiac”) and has overseen big commercial movies like Roland Emmerich’s “White House Down” and smaller, more personal fare like Luca Guadagnino’s deeply brilliant “Suspiria” remake from 2018. His newest movie, “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 as an escape), giant explosions and equally oversized emotions, but it’s also something of a contained thriller, with a budget of only $40 million. (By comparison, “The Northman” cost $90 million and was directed by the guy who made “The Lighthouse.”)
TheWrap spoke to Fischer about what it was like pulling “Ambulance” together, Gyllenhaal’s recent interest in action movies, and whether or not there’s a Michael Bay cinematic universe.
After I watched 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 it’s not far off the mark. This was my first movie with Michael Bay. And I say with absolutely no irony that I truly had a great time working with him. It was crazy and intense and all of that. But we got on really well and I’m really proud of the film and excited. And I feel like he elevated it exactly how I hoped he would. And that went beyond just the action and the intensity and the grand visual spectacle and the city and all that he brought to it. But really, I mean, when I was thinking back to his films in the 90’s, from “Bad Boys” to “The Rock” to “Armageddon,” those were real platforms for larger-than-life characters, as much as they were for all the spectacle.
I feel like his career became more and more defined just by the spectacle and that part of his skillset, which is incredibly strong, not that it was forgotten, but it just wasn’t… It didn’t have as much of an outlet, as much of an emphasis in some of the other films that he’s done more recently. That was a big thing that I think he really achieved here with this film. And in terms of your original question, he is so disciplined when it comes to the budget and incredibly obsessive with what’s going on the screen and making sure that there is no waste. On any film, just because there’s so many people in so many departments that there’s always going to be some inefficiencies somewhere. But from the beginning, it was very, very clear to me that one of the things that he was excited about with this was the challenge of doing something with fewer resources.
There were no trailers. Nobody had a trailer on the movie. Everybody was a self-drive, including the leads. We were shooting at the height of the pandemic at a time when LA, and downtown LA in particular, was taking its turn as the world center of COVID. It was LA at that point. Everybody was in lockdown. But the motion picture industry was considered an essential business. We were able to work and we had an amazing team of epidemiologists and health experts to guide us through. And even more of a reason to make sure our footprint is even smaller.
Watching this movie, everybody will probably try to figure out how you shot it. My guess was that you filmed during the pandemic when nobody was on the roads.
I mean, that was part of it. That was definitely part of it. But we did still film on weekends when we were really occupying major centers of the city, like the bank robbery stuff. Because there was still activity. It wasn’t a total ghost town. But I would certainly say that any benefit that we had from things like that were, challenge wise, were definitely outweighed by everybody who was filming at that time were being the canary in the coal mine for COVID production. We had a very rigorous testing regimen. We ended up not having to shut down once, which I think is a testament. Because it got to the point where it was almost just the way it goes that if you’re filming at some point, you’re going to end up having to shut down.
I think because we were testing so rigorously, especially on our A zone, we didn’t have to make any assumptions that if somebody showed up as positive… Let’s say somebody showed up as positive on a Wednesday, because we were also testing Tuesday, we didn’t have to assume that they were positive Tuesday and then pull out all their close contacts for both days.
Was there any fight to keep it R-rated?
Nope. That was built in from the beginning. And so was shooting in LA. Because we did not get the California tax credit just because of how quickly it came together and the way that those, in order to apply, it’s a lottery system. We just didn’t have time. Because by the time he said yes, and we had a window to go, the window to apply and get an answer wasn’t available. And over the history of the project, there were several budgets done at different times for different locations. It was always written for LA. And that was my hope was that we would be able to film in LA. But we also knew that if we did, we’d probably be leaving some money on the table. But I don’t know. It feels like LA is such a character in the movie as opposed to just shooting it in some US metropolitan city. I think it was worth it.
There’s a reference to “The Rock” in this movie. Does this suggest a Michael Bay cinematic universe?
The Michael Bay meta universe. Tarantino went there, right? Why not? No, I think it’s great. I think it actually is a nod just to the tone of the movie. And, of course, there’s Mark the older police officer and Zach, the younger one. And Mark is talking about “The Rock” and, of course, Zach thinks he means Dwayne Johnson.
Who also worked with Michael Bay.
Yeah, exactly. There’s this generational divide and the snake ends up eating its own tail at a certain point there. I was thought it was fun. I even thought, while some might suggest that that was enough, I did actually enjoy the one very low angle shot when Zach was getting out of the car and it’s almost like Michael basically, saying to him, “Okay, I’m going to shoot 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’ve got a few more projects coming up with him. I was wondering about him leaning into these action projects and what that evolution has looked like and how you have encouraged it.
Yeah. I mean, Jake has a first-look deal with my company, New Republic. And he’s, as you said, we worked together on “Zodiac” years ago and we’ve always kept in touch and talked about doing other stuff together. What I love about Jake, not only as an actor, but as a producer is that his taste really does mirror mine in that it swings between prestige and all audience, really big, accessible fare, entertainment that I think just has a quality where it feels like it’s stories that will transport the audience. And they are all stories I think that lend themselves to ambitious directors, big filmmakers. The slate of projects that we’re developing, we have a comic called “Oblivion song” that was written by Robert Kirkman that we’re doing that I actually think it encompasses both.
It’s world-building, it’s spectacle, it’s everything that you would come to expect from a graphic novel and a Kirkman graphic novel that really is grounded in character. And I know people say that a lot, but the whole engine of the story is really about these themes that ultimately force these characters to confront what it is to be human, what it is about grief and suffering that also leads you to appreciate the joys in life. And so there are heady themes, hat can still elevate really commercial fare and genre fare. And I think he’s drawn to that the same way a lot of filmmakers, like some of the directors that we’ve worked with together and separately, are as well.
“Ambulance” is now playing exclusively in theaters.