By Bonnie Laufer
Since the 1980s, Transformers have held a special place in countless childrens’ (and big kids’) hearts.
The unique shapeshifting toys were a hit on the small screen and the big screen, spawning an animated TV series and five major movies.
Now the focus is on Bumblebee, one of the most beloved and cherished of the Transformers. The new action-packed but heartfelt movie, appropriately titled Bumblebee, centres entirely on the popular autobot.
In it, Bumblebee seeks refuge in a junkyard in a small California beach town circa 1987. Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) — on the brink of 18 and trying to find her place in the world — soon discovers the battle-scarred and broken Bumblebee. When Charlie revives him, she quickly learns that this is no ordinary yellow Volkswagen.
Travis Knight, who previously helmed Kubo and the Two Strings, directs Bumblebee and was adamant about bringing something different to the franchise. Original-Cin’s Bonnie Laufer spoke with Knight about working on the film and bringing some heart and soul to the franchise.
Original Cin: Bumblebee has a different feel to it than other Transformers movies yet it is also very nostalgic. How important was that for you to get across?
Travis Knight: “That was all part of it, I think that is all in the DNA of the movie. We’re telling the origin story about a Transformer so it made sense to set the film around when the Transformers were born which was in the mid-80s which is perfect for me because that is the era that I grew up in. So there was a natural nostalgia that comes with that. I wanted the film to have the feel of those great 80s coming-of-age stories. Movies like E.T., Goonies and Back to the Future, that was the vibe and the spirit we wanted to capture with this movie. So it’s honouring the big spectacle and action and visual effects that we have seen in the other Transformers films but also bringing this great humour and heart and sensitivity from those great 80s films.”
OC: Did you play with Transformers as a kid?
TK: “I played with them a lot! I was a huge fan. I watched the cartoons and I had a little Bumblebee action figure making up my own little adventures and here I am doing it again, just on a much bigger scale.”
OC: Everyone has their favourite Transformer, but what is it about Bumblebee that stands out above the rest? I mean really, who doesn’t love the guy?
TK: “I know, right (laughs)? He’s the one with the most heart, he’s the warmest and the most human I guess. He's always been the one character, the one Transformer who had the greatest connection with humanity, with people. We've never really explored why that is and I think that this film that's an aspect of his character I think is really fundamentally, very interesting. With this film we finally finds out why that is. He's from this alien planet, he comes to earth, and he’s a stranger in a strange land. What is it about him and what is it about us that forges that connection? We find out in this movie.”
OC: Your background is in animation but this is a whole new ball of wax for you. What kind of challenges were you facing, especially for the fact that we really need to relate to Bumblebee? As we were just saying, he is the heart and to make us feel like he is real is quite extraordinary. I honestly felt as though that Hailee was interacting with another human. I didn’t even think of him as a CG robot. How hard was that and what kind of pressure was there to get that right?
TK: “There certainly is an immense amount of pressure but you can’t let that get to you. This is franchise filmmaking so I’m diving into the deep end on this thing. Their relationship is the core of the movie. Hailee’s character Charlie and Bumblebee are the heart and soul of this film so you have to buy into it. You have to believe that it's real and you have to believe that he's real when in fact he's just ones and zeros in a computer. He's just an animated object so to be able to breathe life and to give him character in personality, that's what animators do and that's what I've done my whole career. But having said that, it was pretty tricky because Hailee for most of the film is acting against thin air; there's nothing there. So you never question for a second when you're watching the film you feel like she's always there with him and it's a testament to both her incredible talent and the talent of the animators.”
OC: I want to talk about Hailee. I interviewed her 10 years ago for her very first film True Grit when she was 12 and I remember thinking, ‘This young lady is going places!’ She’s remained so humble and grounded on her rise to success. What was it about her that made you believe she would be perfect to cast as your lead?
TK: “From very first meeting with Paramount producers, I said there is only one actor who can do this and it's Hailee Steinfeld. She was the only the only person I could think of that could carry a movie like this. We just needed someone who was just incredibly charming, who could break our hearts, who could lift our spirits and who could do absolutely anything on camera and make it feel real and authentic. She's fearless as an actor and I knew that she could do justice to the role and of course when she said yes, I was thrilled. Like you said, she's just an absolute joy to work with it was it was a great privilege to be able to you know join hands and jump off the cliff together and try to make this thing work and she was just a great partner in the process.”
OC: Another great addition to the film is John Cena who has great comedic timing. The guy’s really got it.
TK: “He's naturally very funny. He's kind of an ad-lib machine. We would do the scenes, and then we get to the end of the scene, I'm like, 'All right, John, now let's play a little bit,' and he would always do something really unexpected. For this movie, he plays the human heavy. He plays kind of the bad guy. Although he's got dimensions it's not really that black-and-white but I wanted to make sure that the ‘bad-guy’ if you will had charisma and charm and would also be funny and empathetic. John can do all that stuff, obviously he's a formidable physical presence. He's a giant of a man but he's got a lot of humanity underneath all of that stuff. He did a great job and I was lucky to have him in the movie.”
OC: I just have to know, you took over the reins from Michael Bay. Has it passed the Bayhem test?
TK: “I think he's proud of what we did. I have to say that he was a dream producer. We sat down early on and it was great for me, director to director, to pick his brain, to get a sense of his philosophy on the Transformers. He was really respectful and recognized this was someone else's movie, my take on these characters, and the best thing that he could do was to support me and protect me. He let me do my thing, and I'm really appreciative of it. I think he's pleased with what I've done with his baby. I know I certainly am.”
Bumblebee. Directed by Travis Knight. Starring Hailee Steinfeld, John Cena, Jorge Lendeborg Jr., John Ortiz, Jason Drucker, Pamela Adlon, Stephen Schneider. Opens wide December 21.