Shia LaBoeuf's car accident delayed production, and his hand injury was written into the film

Michael Bay remembers the day that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen nearly fell apart. It was Sunday, July 27, 2008. ”I always look on,” says the filmmaker. ”And there it was: Shia LaBeouf in a car crash…. Oh, God. I read it and thought, ‘No, this can’t be true.”’

But it was. The 22-year-old star, who was about one-third of the way through shooting the sequel to Bay’s 2007 hit Transformers, had seriously injured his left hand in an early-morning traffic accident in West Hollywood. He’d been taken to a hospital, where he underwent a four-hour emergency operation. Not exactly what a director wants to hear when his movie is locked in to a release date the following June — and no fun for the actor, either. For LaBeouf, the consequences of the smashup are still playing out. Even now, nearly nine months later, the actor’s fingers aren’t back to normal — and most likely never will be (see Q&A).

While he was naturally concerned about LaBeouf’s health, Bay also had a movie to finish. With his leading man’s cooperation, he moved decisively to keep from shutting down the production, and a bandaged LaBeouf returned to the set after just a few weeks — against the advice of one of his doctors, the actor says. The screenwriters tweaked the script so that his character — high school dork-turned-college dork Sam Witwicky — gets hurt in a sort of teleportation device called a ”space bridge.” LaBeouf agreed to postpone additional surgery on his hand until after the shoot wrapped in October, and he was outfitted with a custom-made hand cast designed to be both photogenic and superprotective. (There had even been talk of replacing LaBeouf’s hand with CG; Bay says it was ruled out as too expensive and ”a pain in the neck.”)

Shooting the film’s demanding action sequences posed a serious risk for LaBeouf, since any further damage to his hand could have led to amputation of some fingers. Still, the whole team agreed to take the bungee jump together. Bay and his team had to rejigger the production schedule — filming non-Shia scenes earlier, which also idled costar Megan Fox, who returns as Sam’s girlfriend, Mikaela — but the plan allowed the director to stick close to his time-table, not to mention his $200 million budget (about $50 million more than he had on the first film).

Seven weeks after LaBeouf’s accident, the actor is hard at work on Revenge of the Fallen, his face, arms, and one good hand covered in fake sweat — that is, Vaseline. He looks filled out, handsome, confident. He’s sitting with Fox, so beautiful in person she seems genetically engineered, in one of the few shady spots on a massive outdoor set. They and several dozen uniform-clad extras playing soldiers are nestled among desert dunes in a picturesque corner of New Mexico near the White Sands National Monument. The military uses this stretch of gypsum-sand wasteland to test missiles. Signs warn of unexploded ordnance that lies beyond yellow-tape barriers, which feels fitting for a Michael Bay movie.

”We’ve blown up so many things,” says LaBeouf, squinting hard in the reflected sunlight. ”A fish tank, a helicopter, concrete tubes. We blew up a library. This set you’re looking at? This will all be gone.” Indeed, the buildings were constructed with charges built right into them. They’re dressed up to look like an Egyptian village, which will later be intercut with IMAX location photography of a real town near the pyramids in Giza. That’s the site of the film’s final showdown between the good-guy Autobots and bad-guy Decepticons, including the title character, a Lucifer-like figure actually called the Fallen. (Does that sound like it makes much sense? It probably doesn’t need to, given the first film’s $708 million global gross.)

While waiting for the crew to set up some explosives for a big attack scene — minus the rumbling, shape-shifting Transformers, which all have to be added later with CG — LaBeouf dumps some icy water down Fox’s back. As he scampers away, she hurls a full-liter water bottle right at the small of his back — wham. It’s lucky she doesn’t hit his injured hand. Generally, LaBeouf doesn’t look to be in any pain, even though he’s forgoing painkillers. ”Can’t,” he explains later. ”I’d be slurring my speech.”

Standing atop a dune, Bay is barking into a megaphone at some crew members who’ve gotten a little too chatty. ”Let’s have some quiet and some respect!” he yells. ”It’s not many sets that have live F-16s flying over!” Minutes later, six F-16 warplanes thunder past overhead, piloted by military personnel — though not at taxpayer expense, Bay hastens to point out. (The Air Force loves Michael Bay movies.) For the rest of the afternoon, LaBeouf runs like hell across the set. He holds his left arm at a careful angle. A fusillade of rigged pyrotechnics goes off, and sonic concussions rattle the buildings. LaBeouf does not trip.