Gen­er­at­ing buzz

When Bum­ble­bee di­rec­tor Travis Knight came aboard the Trans­form­ers re­boot, he knew he would avoid the sen­sory-over­load ap­proach of Michael Bay and fo­cus in­stead on the hu­man­ity

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Bum­ble­bee di­rec­tor Travis Knight

You might need to sit down. Bid adieu to Bay­hem. There’s a new crit­i­cally-adored Trans­form­ers film. At the time of writ­ing, Travis Knight’s

Bum­ble­bee spin-off has con­founded fran­chise ex­pec­ta­tions with a 100 per cent rat­ing on Rot­ten Toma­toes, has mus­cled its way on to The Ir­ish Times Top 50 Films of 2018 list, and earned global, glow­ing no­tices: “The best

Trans­form­ers movie by far,” Liz Shan­non Miller rightly records at IndieWire; “Enough wit, play­ful­ness and charm to de­velop a voice of its own, which is no small thing in the con­text of a flashy, lunkheaded stu­dio fran­chise,” writes Justin Chang at the Los An­ge­les Times ;“Bum­ble­bee is ba­si­cally the movie that fans of the 1980s an­i­mated se­ries wanted all along,” notes Peter De­bruge at Va­ri­ety.

We can vouch for that last sen­ti­ment; so can Travis Knight. At 45, he’s just the right age to have read the comics, to have folded a Peter­bilt truck into Op­ti­mus Prime, and to know that Bum­ble­bee is the best Trans­former.

“When I came on board this I started to an­a­lyse it,” says Knight. “Why do peo­ple like Bum­ble­bee so much? I looked back at ev­ery it­er­a­tion of that char­ac­ter in car­toons, in comic books, and in Michael [Bay]’s films. And Bum­ble­bee is the one Trans­former with the great­est affin­ity for hu­man­ity. It’s never re­ally ex­plained why that is. So this film was an op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore that ques­tion. And the an­swer is the re­la­tion­ship that he has with this girl.”

The girl in ques­tion is bud­ding me­chanic Char­lie Wat­son (bril­liantly es­sayed by Hailee Ste­in­feld), a teenager who is still strug­gling to come to terms with the death of her fa­ther when she hap­pens upon a beat-up Volk­swa­gen Bee­tle. The car is, in fact, flee­ing in­ter­ga­lac­tic free­dom fighter B-127, sent to Earth to pre­pare the planet as a new base for his op­pressed Au­to­bot cadres. Char­lie and Bum­ble­bee, as she nick­names him, be­come friends fast. But an un­holy al­liance of US mil­i­tary in­ter­ests (ex­em­pli­fied by John Cena) and ma­raud­ing De­cep­ti­cons are de­ter­mined to hunt the tit­u­lar ap­pli­ance down.

Set in 1987, Knight’s film not only makes ter­rific use of pe­riod de­tails – The Break­fast Club on VHS, the Smiths on cas­sette – it feels like a film that was made some­time be­tween Steven Spiel­berg’s ET and John Hughes’s Fer­ris Bueller’s Day Off. Spiel­berg has been a pro­ducer on the Trans­form­ers films since 2007, but this is the first project where one senses his spirit. The happy sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween high Spiel­berg films and Bum­ble­bee did not hap­pen by ac­ci­dent.

“It made per­fect sense to me that if we were go­ing to tell an ori­gins story about when the Trans­form­ers were born that we would set it in the era when the Trans­form­ers were born,” says Knight. “And of course, be­ing from that era, ’80s mu­sic and ’80s movies were im­por­tant to me. I didn’t want those to just be a ve­neer. I wanted the film to tonally feel like it came from that era. The film that in­spired me to be­come a film­maker to be­gin with was ET. I was eight years old in a movie the­atre with my mom and it was the first movie that moved me to tears. As a kid, I was sophisticated to know that films were ar­ti­fice, but I was pro­foundly moved; it felt like some­one had seen in­side me.”

Fe­male lead

‘‘ It made per­fect sense to me that if we were go­ing to tell an ori­gins story about when the Trans­form­ers were born that we would set it in the era when the Trans­form­ers were born

Bum­ble­bee’s tonal dif­fer­ences from the Michael Bay films are am­pli­fied by hav­ing a

fe­male in the lead role. This is, after all, the same fran­chise that gave the world a close-up of Mea­gan Fox’s thigh-gap, a close-up of Ni­cola Peltza, a close-up of Rosie Hunt­ing­ton’s thigh-gap, and so on. Knight, an an­i­ma­tor and founder at the stop-mo­tion an­i­ma­tion stu­dio Laika, has form in this re­gard.

“I think back to the very first film that I made,” he says. “I started my com­pany about 15 years ago and [the] first film that we tried to get off the ground was Co­ra­line. It was based on this beau­ti­ful book writ­ten by Neil Gaiman. And at the cen­tre of it was this nor­mal girl. Noth­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary about her. I didn’t think that was in any­way re­mark­able. I just wanted to tell this great story with this girl at the cen­tre of it. And we go down to Hol­ly­wood and met with ev­ery dis­trib­u­tor there was and ev­ery ma­jor stu­dio and ev­ery in­de­pen­dent of note. And I was shocked by some of the things I heard back. They wouldn’t sup­port the movie be­cause there was a fe­male at the cen­tre of it. And ap­par­ently you can’t do that in an an­i­mated film be­cause boys won’t go to see it and girls won’t go to see it un­less she is a princess or a fairy. I was heart­ened when we re­leased the film and peo­ple re­sponded as pos­i­tively as they did. And dis­heart­ened that 15 years later we’re still hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions. And I’ve had a lot of those con­ver­sa­tions about Bum­ble­bee.”

He’s full of praise for his 21-year-old Os­car-nom­i­nated star, Hailee Ste­in­feld, who has been on a roll (The Edge of Seven­teen, Pitch

Per­fect 2 and 3) since her break­through turn in Joel and Ethan Coen’s True Grit: “There are very few peo­ple can carry a big fran­chise film. Fewer still could cre­ate such an in­cred­i­ble emo­tional per­for­mance with noth­ing there. You for­get there was noth­ing in the frame, that she never ac­tu­ally shared a scene with Bum­ble­bee.”

Travis An­drew Knight was born in Ore­gon into a fam­ily of high achievers. The grand­son of lawyer turned news­pa­per pub­lisher Bill Knight and the son of Phil Knight, the founder and chair­man of Nike, Travis dab­bled in mu­sic be­fore em­brac­ing the busi­ness of doo­dling and dolls at Laika.

“I can say for cer­tain but I don’t think it was part of my fa­ther’s grand de­sign,” smiles Knight. “That said, the Knight boys do have a long his­tory of dis­ap­point­ing their fa­thers. My dad’s dad was the pub­lisher of Ore­gon’s sec­ond largest news­pa­per and when his son told him that he wanted to be a cob­bler, ef­fec­tively, it broke his heart. He was dev­as­tated. For­tu­nately, my grand­fa­ther lived long enough that he saw my fa­ther have some mea­sure of suc­cess. But I did think back to that ex­change when I told my dad that I wanted to play with dolls for a liv­ing.”

Popvul­ture

I can’t help but note that, as the son of Nike’s Phil Knight, tech­ni­cally he didn’t have to play with dolls for a liv­ing. He might have just par­tied ev­ery­day, right?

“Oh, what might have been,” he laughs. “That’s not the way I was raised. My fa­ther al­ways worked hard. There’s a no­bil­ity in hard work. When I think about the most tal­ented artists or sports stars I’ve ever met, they are the peo­ple who work the hard­est. Raw tal­ent can only get you so far. If you’re given a gift, it’s an of­fence to not work hard to im­prove it. My dad told me early on find the thing that you love, the thing that you were put on your Earth to do. Don’t seek a job; seek a call­ing. It makes the hard­ships eas­ier to en­dure, and it turns the fail­ures into fuel.”

On Knight’s watch, Laika has re­de­fined fam­ily en­ter­tain­ment with the beloved stop-mo­tion fea­ture films Co­ra­line, ParaNor­man, The

Box­trolls and Kubo and the Two Strings. “What drove me to start Laika in the first place was see­ing the kinds of things my chil­dren were ex­posed to when they were very young,” he re­calls. “Look­ing through the prism of be­ing a dad and see­ing the kind of films that were be­ing geared to­ward kids and fam­i­lies, it was ap­palling. The en­ter­tain­ment geared to­wards the most im­pres­sion­able among us was just pop vulture and con­fec­tion when we should be telling sto­ries that would in­spire them.”

In this spirit, it’s not too sur­pris­ing that Knight has man­aged to cor­rect course with the formerly unlovely Trans­form­ers se­quence. An ar­tic­u­late, unas­sum­ing, and im­pres­sive chap, he not only makes ter­rific movies, he can list ev­ery hotspot in Port­laoise; Maryse, his Ir­ish girl­friend of some years comes from there so he has a cheat sheet.

“My very first ex­pe­ri­ence in a tra­di­tional Ir­ish pub was pretty awe­some be­cause there’s noth­ing like that in Amer­ica,” he says. “I’ve been to Ir­ish pubs in Amer­ica and they’re bull­shit. To me, a proper trad ses­sion was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. For my lady, it’s not a big deal but for me it was in­cred­i­ble.”

PHO­TO­GRAPHS: PARA­MOUNT PIC­TURES; JOHN PHILLIPS/GETTY IMAGES

Left: Hailee Ste­in­feld with Bum­ble­bee (voiced by Dy­lan O’Brien) and, right, with the ro­bot in dis­guise. Be­low: di­rec­tor Travis Knight.

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