The rest of the world learned that Megan Fox and Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly, were an item in May 2020, when word of their romance, and her breakup from husband Brian Austin Green, first hit headlines. But producer-turned-director Randall Emmett — who inadvertently orchestrated the most high-profile on-set romance since Bennifer 1.0 when he cast both performers in his directorial debut, Midnight in the Switchgrass — was clued into their chemistry much earlier. Fox and Baker shot their first scene together on the first day of production in March 2020, and Emmett remembers feeling a palpable electricity right away.
"There was magic in that room, 100 percent," he tells Yahoo Entertainment now. "I sat there behind the monitor, and there were takes where I was so mesmerized by their performances that I would forget to say 'Action!' Megan sometimes had to be like, 'Randall, are you going to call 'Action?' I was like, 'Oh my god — my bad!'"
In interviews, Fox and Baker have both been open about how quickly their mutual attracton sparked on the film's Puerto Rico set. "The second I was in a room with him and said hello to him and looked into his eyes, I knew right away that he was what I call a twin flame," Fox said on the podcast Give Them Lala... With Randall last year. Similarly, Baker told Howard Stern: "I didn't know what [love] was until me and her made eye contact. That's when I was like, 'Whoa.'"
Emmett is quick to say that whatever feelings his stars were wrestling with off-camera, they didn't let it interfere with the shoot. "As a director, I felt, 'Wow, there's some real magic happening there,' but I didn't see any more than that," he recalls. "They're both incredible actors, and their chemistry was flawless. I was just looking at them and thinking, 'Wow, that was a great scene,'" but didn't really think about anything else."
To be fair, Emmett had larger things on his mind anyway. Midnight in the Switchgrass started production in Puerto Rico just as the coronarvirus pandemic broke across the globe. After two days of shooting, the movie shut down and the cast and crew returned to quarantine in the U.S. And that's also when Fox and Baker's romance started in earnest. "It wasn't until after we shut down and went home that the relationship began," Emmett says now.
While it may have resulted in an on-set romance, Midnight in the Switchgrass is the opposite of romantic. Written by Alan Horsnail and based on the true-life case of Texas's infamous Truck Stop Killer, the film casts Fox as no-nonsense FBI agent, Rebecca Lombardi, whose attempts to crack a sex trafficking case alongside her partner (Bruce Willis) and another law enforcement officer (Emile Hirsch) bring her into contact with a serial killer (Lukas Haas) preying on young women. Baker plays a low-level thug who is on the receiving end of Fox's fury not just once, but twice. "I told him that Megan was going to kick his ass," Emmett says of how he initially. pitched the role to the musician-turned-actor.
Fox and Baker only have two scenes in the film, and both were shot before the pandemic-mandated shutdown. Emmett says he resisted adding more material for them after production resumed in June 2020, by which time their romance was public. "They were so good together, I did say to the writer, 'I wish we had more. Maybe Colson's character could come back and try to kick Megan's ass and Megan just takes him down.' But I was only joking: we shot exactly what was in the script."
A year-and-a-half since they filmed their first scene, viewers can finally. experience a little bit of Fox and Baker's "magic" when Midnight in the Switchgrass premieres in theaters and on most VOD services on July 23. For his part, Emmett is just glad the movie is finally out in the world. "It's great that people are excited to see the movie because of them, but I think when they see it, they'll see two really, really great performances. It's fun to say that it happened on my movie and maybe I had some hand in it, but I believe — as Megan believes — that fate is fate. A lot of fate happened on this movie, and at the end of the day it's nice to see two people so happy and in love."
In a wide-ranging conversation, we spoke with Emmett about how Baker very nearly turned down the role that would have brought him into Fox's orbit, and why the Transformers star wanted this to be her most "basic" role.
Yahoo Entertainment: What has it been like having this larger story about your two stars' romance surrounding the movie?
Randall Emmett: They say any press is good press I guess! [Laughs] Because of all the pandemic-caused shutdowns and restarts, I've been involved on a movie that was supposed to be an 18-day shoot for over a year now. So it’s been a journey! I really, really wanted Colson to be in it, but I got rejected by his agency at first. Two weeks before shooting began, I got his number and I reached out directly and told him how much I wanted him for the movie. He was like, "That is so badass that you are this persistent. I've got to do this." So he ended up committing and when he came to the set, he was exactly what I hoped for: a super-artistic person. He just wanted to won the character, and as a director, I couldn't have asked for anything better.
He has since admitted in interviews that he vowed to marry Megan Fox in high school. Looking back now, do you think that's why he said yes when you called him?
I don't know! I've read that recently, too. I did not know that he said he was going to marry Megan Fox when he was in high school, but he definitely knew Megan was in the movie because I told him who was in the cast, and also that Megan was going to kick his ass. [Laughs] So he definitely knew, and he had read the script, but we didn't have a conversation about that he was going to marry her. The one thing about Colson that I realized and others will as he does more movies is that he's an incredible artist. He really gives a s*** about the work, and when he committed to this movie, he committed to it. And then the rest kind of just fell into place. So it was a win across the board, I guess!
We haven't seen Megan Fox play this kind of role before. How did you decide on her as the star of the film?
She was my first choice. It's weird because as a producer, all I do is make lists [of actors]. When you produce a movie, you come up with 10 names, sit with a director and say, "I need to get one of these names to be able to raise the financing, and get the studio on board." I'm like the business person, and the director is the creative one. Since I was the director on this one, I was also the artist.
I remember reading the script and her agent had pitched her, and my casting director had pitched her. I was like, “Oh my god, Megan Fox would kill this.” It's a strong role with a lot of vulnerability, and she's got all those gears that you haven't seen from her. She’s a superstar, and this is a meaty role. I didn't think she'd be interested, but when we offered it to her, her agent called me and said, "She loves these script and wants to do it. We think it’s going to be something special."
The first time I met her was in Puerto Rico when she came in for rehearsals and fittings. We had to do this scene where she's locked up in chains, and I remember telling her: "I'm really an authentic director, so I want to put real chains on you to make you feel what this woman is going through — not in a Hollywood way with fake chains. If you're not comfortable with that, you have to tell me." She looked at me and she's like, "Do you know the kind of movies I've done? There's nothing you can do, that's going to freak me out." And I'm thinking, "This chick has fought robots, she's been thrown through walls, she's jumped off buildings!"
That's who Megan Fox is. She really, really loves making movies and playing characters that she believes in. When she's in it, she's all the way in. Working with her was an incredible experience. She already is incredibly talented so it makes my job easy, but at the same time. I wanted to push her to try things and be open. She would always just look at me and say, "Just tell me what you need, whatever it is." For a director, especially a first-time director, you couldn't ask for better.
As a performer, she's very aware of her on-screen image. What conversations did you have about how she'd appear in this film?
We talked about her being really basic — an FBI agent who doesn't give a shit what she looks like. This will be the most basic wardrobe anyone will ever seen on Megan Fox! [Laughs] I remember the day we filmed the scene where she goes undercover as a prostitute, I gave her a bunch of choices for the wardrobe and the more conservative one you see in the film was the one she picked, and it was also my first choice. She really got the character and wanted to embody an FBI agent who is all about justice. Rebecca is one of those people in law enforcement who care about saving the day, and saving girls who don't have voices. I didn't want that to get lost, and Megan felt the same.
To that point, Midnight in the Switchgrass is very grim in the way it presents a story of sexual violence and trafficking. Is that subject matter you felt was important to address right now?
I definitely think it's important, and something that's not being discussed. A lot of these girls don't have voices: they're thrown away by society because they're addicts or prostitutes or runaways. Society doesn't take an interest in them, because they feel they've made this decision for themselves, and that's the part I have a hard time with. The truth is they need to have a voice, even if they're experiencing hard times or made bad choices. That doesn't mean they're not human beings — and that's what I loved about this story.
It was nice to see Witness star Lukas Haas back in a major role as well.
Lukas and I were friends before this movie. He's such an incredibly giving actor and his body of work before the age of 18 is remarkable. He's popped up in a few movies here and there over the last decade, but now he’s really back. One thing I told him is: "When you're a great actor, it doesn't matter if you're kind of quiet for a little bit." Just look at Robert Downey Jr. a few decades ago and look at him today — he's the biggest box-office star in the world. So I feel like Lukas is really going to have a couple of great years coming up. He's shooting a new movie with Brad Pitt now, and I'm really excited for him.
You've produced numerous movies that feature Bruce Willis — what was it like directing him for the first time?
As a producer, when I walk on a set and see Bruce, I give him a hug, sit in my chair, watch the director direct and then we go to dinner and I go home. When I was directing and Bruce walked onto the set, I was petrified! He's a guy that I've known for 15 years, but I had to talk to him in a very different light. If I didn't like something, I'd have to tell him. So it was a whole other psychology, but it ended up being better than I expected because he's a giving actor.
He did this as a favor to me, not for the kind of money that he takes on all of his other movies. I mean, he's Bruce Willis — he doesn't need a lot of direction. That's why I wanted to cast great actors in this: half the battle is already won there. It's not like I had to teach anybody how to act! I was the one taking lessons throughout this whole thing. Your job as the captain is to steer the ship and that's what I tried to do, and I feel very lucky that everybody was very open to an artistic process on my first film.
Midnight in the Switchgrass premieres July 23 in theaters and on digital and on demand services.