Transformers is going back To basics wiTh The ’80s-seT BumBleBee, as direcTor Travis knighT Tells richard edwards
Transformers rewinds to the ’80s as everyone’s favourite weaponised Herbie gets his chance to shine.
Star Wars toys were always the top of any Christmas list, he-Man figures had their particular pumping-iron charms, and even the a-team’s miniaturised incarnations came with cool little accessories such as backpacks, walkie-talkies and, er, multiple assault weapons. how we loved it when a plan came together on the kitchen table…
But for a certain generation, few toys could compete with transformers. Not only did you get a cool-looking robot for your parents’ money, the fact they were famously “in disguise” – along with some impressive feats of small-scale engineering – meant you also got a lorry, a sports car, a metal dinosaur, a replica of a cassette player, or whatever else Japan’s best toy designers could come up with.
“I was a child of the ’80s,” says travis Knight, director of new transformers movie spin-off Bumblebee. “I grew up loving these characters, knowing these characters and their stories. when the transformers first arrived they were unlike anything I had seen before. I thought they were completely awesome, this idea that there are these things hidden in plain sight, that all of the articles around us have an inner life. I thought that was really fascinating.”
the Bumblebee of the title is one of the original generation of transformers and a key player in the five Michael Bay-directed movies. as a long-standing fan of the franchise, Knight believes ’Bee, with his characteristic yellow livery, was the logical choice to headline the first spin-off movie.
“of all the transformers, the one that had the greatest affinity for humanity was Bumblebee,” he explains. “he was the one who was most like us, he was the one who resonated with me as a kid. of all the transformers, he was the one.”
“I think it’s the combination of the fact that he’s this fierce tough soldier, he’s optimus prime’s right hand, but he’s also just incredibly sweet and loving and loyal,” adds Bumblebee screenwriter Christina hodson. “there’s a youth about him, he feels younger than some of the other autobots.”
and for those kids who grew up on those original transformers back in the ’80s, the new Bumblebee is designed to hit plenty of nostalgia buttons – having gone through Michael Bay’s live-action transformers movies in the sleeker, more top Gear-friendly form of a sporty Chevrolet Camaro, he’s reverted to his original stylings as a beaten-up Vw Beetle.
“For me Bumblebee was always a Volkswagen Beetle,” Knight tells SFX emphatically. “that’s the way I was initially exposed to him, that’s the toy that I played with. that’s Bumblebee.”
REINVENTING THE WHEELS
of all the big movie franchises, transformers is an anomaly. Five instalments in, it’s been lucrative to the tune of billions of dollars – and has made in-roads in the Far east that other sagas could only dream of – yet its mix of slow-mo robot-on-robot carnage and complex mythology has tended to leave critics cold. It’s also struggled to attract the deep, unconditional love
30- and 40-somethings will always lavish on Star Wars and the MCU. paramount realised a few years back, however, that if they were going to prolong the brand’s big-screen presence they probably had to explore new directions. their bright idea? Bring together 14 scripters in a Tv-style writers’ room to thrash out future ideas for the saga. last year’s King arthur-inspired the Last Knight was the first project to emerge, with Bumblebee the second. “there was nothing wrong with the cycle we were in, but we were a little trapped,” transformers producer lorenzo di Bonaventura told SFX last year. “I’ve been involved in a lot of movies that have been successful enough to get to sequels, and you sort of fall into a pattern unintentionally. you’re trapped in a way by your own imagination, and adding other people’s imaginations changed the course of it. I think for all of us one of the hardest challenges to keep going on a franchise is how you keep yourself personally interested and excited about it.”
so if you’d lost faith with transformers movies that had become progressively more bloated and overwrought since the Camaro model Bumblebee first came into shia Labeouf’s life 11 years ago, this might be the film to win you back.
It centres on mechanically gifted teen Charlie watson (hailee steinfeld) getting her first car on her 18th birthday, falling in love with it… and then discovering that it’s actually a 20-foot-tall metal alien from the planet Cybertron. that means major echoes of the original, where executive producer steven spielberg suggested the focus should be “a boy and his car” as much as robots in disguise.
“that’s very much what inspired me with this one,” says hodson, who also has DC’s harley Quinn-fronted Birds Of Prey movie on her slate. “I remember the first time I turned the keys in my dad’s car when I was 14 or 15, and that amazing feeling of bringing a big hunk of metal to life. It feels so incredible, so to take that one step further and make it a robot is the greatest thing in the world. I was always inspired by that small, intimate connection between the two of them.” the spielberg connection didn’t end there. “those great, powerful amblin films of the ’80s, when I came of age, really stuck with me,” says Knight. “they really excited my imagination, and got me to think about storytelling in a different way. the classic amblin films would always evoke three beautiful responses in me. It was wonder, it was laughter and it was tears. transformers fused with that filmmaking philosophy of those great amblin coming-of-age stories of the ’80s felt like a perfect marriage.”
In other words, think Et or Gremlins with the cute friendly alien/furry creature replaced by a cute friendly giant robot who’s more likely to guzzle gasoline than raid the contents of your fridge.
“the film is a two-hander,” explains Knight. “one of the hands is hailee steinfeld’s hand and the other is a computer-generated hand, and they’ve got to be as compelling as each other. you can’t have hailee giving this beautiful layered performance and then Bumblebee being a visual effect. he’s got to be
as much an actor as hailee is. I’m so proud of the work that the crew did, because you absolutely buy into him as a living, breathing emotional thing.” as an autobot scout on earth, Bumblebee’s here on his own while optimus prime, Jazz, Ironhide and the rest are still back on their home planet of Cybertron. In transformers movie chronology, that places the action in the late ’80s, some 20 years before the first movie, when the robots in disguise are yet to become city-trashing headline news. “[setting it in the ’80s] felt consistent with the direction of the story we were doing,” explains Knight. “the mid-’80s was when the transformers first arrived on our shores, and it felt like if we were going to go back to the beginning to show where this character came from. this was a natural place to begin. It was also a pretty exciting time both in terms of the music and the fashion, the design, and yeah, the nostalgia. “we also had a great GoBot gag that alas didn’t make the final cut,” Knight laughs, alluding to tonka’s rival robots-in-disguise toy line. “It was self-indulgent, and more for me than anybody else, but I’m sure it’ll make the DVD extras if anybody buys DVDs anymore!”
Does setting the film in the ’80s mean Knight sees it as a prequel?
“I did want to make sure that an audience could come into this film knowing nothing about the transformers and still know what was going on. It doesn’t pre-suppose any familiarity with these characters, but there’s all kinds of layers in there for people who are fans of the franchise, both in terms of the original cartoons and Michael’s films.”
as well as Bumblebee getting a Beetley makeover (see plan Bee overleaf ), Decepticons such as fighter jet starscream and cassette player (yes, really) soundwave come in a colourful livery more in tune with the ’80s cartoon than the Michael Bay movies, where the vast majority of Cybertronians came in the same brand of dirty silver – in apple terms, it’s probably space grey.
Bumblebee was a very polite dinner party guest.
Travis Knight puts his own spin on the Transformers.
Hailee Steinfeld plays Charlie, the teenage girl who discovers Bumblebee.
They could only meet in rooms with high ceilings.