Bumblebee: Taking the Transformers Series Back to its Roots

Producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura brings us up to speed on all things Transformers.

This December sees the release of Bumblebee, the first spin-off movie from the wildly popular Transformers series. Set in 1987, the movie focuses on the origins of the title Autobot, one of the most beloved in the canon, and his budding friendship with a young girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld). Described as a family-friendly coming-of-age movie, Bumblebee clearly has a much different tone from the five previous Transformers movies.

This one is helmed by Travis Knight, head of the Laika animation studio and director of Kubo and the Two Strings, making it the first of the modern Transformers-related films not directed by Michael Bay. Back as producer is Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who has shepherded the five previous entries to the screen and who spoke with Den of Geek about what makes Bumblebee different from those other movies, as well as the future of the Transformers franchise itself.

Read the Den of Geek SDCC 2018 Special Edition Magazine Here!

Den of Geek: Why Bumblebee? Why go back and look into the origins of this character?

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Lorenzo di Bonaventura: We felt while we were making Transformers: The Last Knight, that it was the last Bay movie, and if you tried to make a next movie in imitation of Michael Bay, you were going to fail. We consciously said, “Okay, we want to take a new direction.” Stephen (Davis, producer) always liked the idea of a girl and a robot. I think that was his original instigation, if you would, and it got in our brains. We felt like, okay, if we’re going to make another of the Transformers movies that it would really have been two characters we could choose from, Optimus and Bumblebee.

Optimus forces you to be more stoic, heroic. Bumblebee’s the more accessible character of the two, so I think that’s really why we settled on Bumblebee as the character. In all of our movies, Bumblebee and Optimus were the two most popular characters for exactly the two reasons that I said to you. The idea of taking Optimus and trying to do an emotional story with him was tricky. There’s a version you could make of an Optimus movie, but we kind of wanted to get back to the feeling of the first movie in the sense of approachability, emotionality, humor.

The other feedback we had gotten, and we felt ourselves, was the fans really wanted to get to know Bumblebee. The fans really wanted to have a deep dive on a character, so that’s when we decided, okay, let’s do an emotional story where we can really get into a character. Let’s choose Bumblebee, and let’s reduce the number of robots in the movie so that we can focus on that character.

How did Travis get involved?

Travis was selected because of the emotionality of his movies, and the attention to detail, and the ability to deliver an animated character, because our Autobots have become so familiar, like they’re our friends or something, that you forget that they are animated, in a way. Travis had a leg up in that respect because he knew how to get the most out of an animated character.

People toss around the word “Amblin-esque” a lot with movies, but this really kind of has that feel, along with the classic coming-of-age type of story. Was that what you were going for?

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No question. What’s interesting is that Charlie and Bee, both of them are missing something in their life and both of them get something in this movie so that it’s a dual coming-of-age, if you would, and they do it together. When you say Amblin, that’s a very accurate thing. When friends in the industry come in to just look and give me feedback, the two movies they mention are Iron Giant and E.T. Now, we have a little more action that either of those two, but the feel of it is that.

Could somebody who hasn’t seen the Transformers movies or know the mythology very well walk into this and enjoy it on its own terms?

Yes. One of the reasons why we chose it to take place in 1987 was because it is an origin story. None of the events of the Bay movies have happened. We were definitely paying very close attention as we were developing the script, and when Travis read it, his immediate reaction was, “Wow, you guys really — if you’re a non-fan, you won’t have any problem understanding this movie.”

He, by the way, is a giant Transformers fan, and particularly Generation One, which was also one of the reasons why we wanted to go back in time so that we could do a nod to Generation One in terms of design.

Which, again, you don’t want to replicate what (Bay) has done, so it has a very distinctive style all of its own. There’s less pieces, it transforms different. We’re trying to get everybody a new experience, but the funny thing was, what we didn’t think about and had to make some small adjustments as a result was the people who had seen the Bay movies were interpreting certain things through that prism even though it happened before. There were a few places where we had to make a small modification to really underline the fact that this didn’t have anything to do with the Bay timeline.

Where would you say things stand now with the overall franchise, and going forward, what do you think might be happening?

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There’s been some implication that (Paramount) lost faith in Transformers. Well, if they did, I don’t see it because they just spent a lot of money on Bumblebee, and they had every opportunity to pull out of it if they’d lost faith in the overall Transformers world.

What’s interesting is we are talking about a movie that made $650 million, the last one. It’s not exactly dead. I think what we’re doing is we’re having a (Transformers) script written soon. We put it aside a little bit because we were all focused on Bumblebee, and that takes a lot of time and creative attention.

Now that we’ve come up for air, we’ve been meeting with writers and sort of formulating where we’re going to go with that franchise. We’re meeting with some of the most successful writers in our business, so they’re certainly not shying away from spending a lot of money on a script. Doesn’t mean we’re going to make a movie, but when you deal with studios, you get a sense of the current. My sense of the current is they absolutely want to make another one. They just don’t know how much they want to spend on it. That’s my sense of it.

Would you say that you might be rebooting it and taking it back scale-wise a bit from where Michael went with his?

It’s possible. I avoid the word “reboot” because I don’t think it’s really accurate, but I will give you a sense of how wide-ranging our thought process is. We have talked about a World War II movie. We have talked about a time travel movie because they can go through wormholes, so you can go to different timeframes from that. We have talked about a lot of different kind of genre concepts to put on it. We have talked about going later in the timeline. What would that look like?

All those things are swirling around at the same time, and we really haven’t settled on a writer, but I just got off the phone this morning, talking about this very thing and coming up with a take. It’s exciting to think that we could do something different. It’s one of the things that’s been fun about Bumblebee, is it’s such a completely different movie. I love the fact that on Transformers we’re talking about all these different possibilities. I trust the process, and we’ll come to the right decision.

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Looking at that bigger universe, what’s happening with G.I. Joe?

We have two scripts being written right now. We have a G.I. Joe movie being written, and we have a Snake Eyes movie being written, not unlike Bumblebee, where Snake Eyes is the prime character.

Would the G.I. Joe movie be a direct sequel?

No, the G.I. Joe will be a different set of characters. It’s definitely not a sequel because it treats G.I. Joe as an organization and has, as you know, wildly diverse characters. But it is not a direct sequel to those other movies. It doesn’t have the same characters. It looks at the world a different way.

Are you involved with any of the other Hasbro properties, like M.A.S.K.?

No, although that’s an interesting property. I was lucky to get involved with Transformers and G.I. Joe before IP became such a sort of siren call, you know? I was lucky enough to get involved in their two biggest properties. But I like a little variety too.

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What you think audiences can expect, and what would you like them to take away, from Bumblebee?

What audiences will come away with is a really strong emotional relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie. It has dimension and has a lot of fun, and that, I think, is going to be the defining experience of that movie. There’s plenty of action for people. There’s plenty of humor. John Cena is really fun. But that’s the thing that will stay with them for a long time.

Bumblebee is in theaters December 21, 2018.