With 2017’s Transformers: The Last Knight stalling out at the box office and becoming the lowest-grossing entry in the multi-billion-dollar film franchise, it was clear that the Transformers series needed something to push it in a new direction. Fortunately, development was already underway on Bumblebee, a spin-off prequel based on one of the universe’s most enduring and popular robotic characters and a movie tasked with giving the series a whole new feel.
Bumblebee is an origin story that tells how the yellow-and-black Autobot escapes a war on Cybertron, comes to Earth and befriends a teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), with the two of them finding a way to communicate and bond even though “Bee” (as Charlie nicknames him) loses his voice. The film is set in the 1980s and steeped in the warm atmosphere of the films produced under the Amblin banner, the Steven Spielberg company that yielded movies such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Back to the Future and many other genre favorites.
The movie is directed by Travis Knight, founder of the groundbreaking stop-motion animation studio Laika and director of that company’s triumphant 2016 film Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight makes his live-action directorial debut with Bumblebee, focusing on the characters, the story and a smaller playing field in terms of the action without discarding any of the thrills or visual effects inherent to Transformers. But he has made easily the best of the series, a superior film to the five Michael Bay-directed movies that sacrificed cohesion and wit to spectacle and juvenile humor.
Den of Geek spoke with Knight at the recent press day for Bumblebee in Los Angeles, where we discussed making his first live-action film, working with Steinfeld, his own love for Transformers and that recent rumor (which Knight has debunked) that he has been approached by Marvel to direct Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 in the wake of James Gunn’s dismissal.
Den of Geek: Were you looking to do live action, or was this offered to you?
Travis Knight: I was absolutely not looking to do live action. I got some interest once Kubo came out and people saw the film. I think they were intrigued by what I might do in a live action movie, so people started sending me scripts and stuff. You know, I would read things just out of curiosity more than anything else, but I was running my shop up at Laika. I was producing our next movie. I was developing more films to come down the road, so again, that was my single minded focus. So I got this call essentially out of the blue from Paramount and the producers of the Transformers franchise.
I was shocked. I was surprised as anyone that they’d be calling. I thought that they had gotten the wrong phone number, like why would they talk to me? I’ve seen all the Transformers films, and those aren’t certainly the kinds of movies that I make. So it just felt like it was potentially an odd fit, but the more that I sat down and spoke with them, the more I realized that they were interested in doing something different within this universe, to tell different kinds of stories within this big, expansive mythology.
Then that’s when I started getting excited because I was a child of the 80s. I grew up loving these characters. That first wave of Transformers in the mid-80s, I watched those cartoons. I played with those toys. I read the comic books, and so the opportunity to tell my kind of a story within this big universe was really exciting, and to tell a story about a character that I’ve loved since I was a kid.
It seems like people who grew up with the Transformers, with the toys, really hold them near and dear to their hearts. That connection finally comes across in this film.
It’s a funny thing. I think back to when I was a kid, and I see with my own kids, and the toys that they would play with. A child’s beloved plaything essentially becomes a part of them. It’s a vessel that we pour our thoughts and our creativity and our love into. So we imagine that these things that we love, our dolls or our toys, our action figures, that they have an inner life. You see it with kids when they’re telling little stories about these characters. It’s all in their brain, and they’re imbuing these little plastic, metal things with a part of themselves.
I think something that we love, it just becomes a part of us, and so I have that kind of connection with these characters because they were characters that I loved. I would create little stories with my Optimus Prime and my Bumblebee action figures. So to be here over 30 years later and essentially doing the same thing, just on a very epic scale, it’s this weird, surreal experience. It’s a dream come true. I didn’t know that I wanted to do this, but now that I’ve done it, it’s been one of the greatest things in my life.
The other thing that comes across is that Amblin feel that people talk about a lot, but is often hard to recapture.
It’s very tricky. The first movie that actually did affect me emotionally was E.T. It was the first film that moved me to tears. I saw it when I was eight years old with my mom in theater, and I remember just being a sobbing wreck. I’d never experienced anything like that in a movie before, and it startled me that a movie could affect me that deeply, could make me feel something. I think a part of it was that the story that I was watching unfold on screen, it felt like someone had burrowed inside me, found a little aspect of me that I kept hidden, and then put it on display for the world. It felt like, “Oh my god, that’s me. That’s my story. Someone else feels like I do.”
It was a really transformative experience for me, and I think on some level, that experience got me thinking about things and looking back. I think it set me on a path to becoming a filmmaker ultimately. I didn’t know it at the time of course, but just it fascinated me. It channeled my imagination, and that, to me, is the quintessential classic Amblin Spielbergian coming of age tale. It’s very hard to capture that kind of magic. I mean those films would evoke wonder and laughter and tears. They had a sense of wonder and magic, and it’s tricky to capture that, but that’s what I wanted to try to pay tribute to in this movie.
What were the actual technical, physical and mental challenges of directing a live-action film for the first time?
There are many aspects of the process that are analogous to the things that I’ve done in animation over the last 20 years, and other things are totally different. I mean the obvious difference is just the speed of it. I mean my last film, Kubo, took me five years to make. This film, we were done with the principal shoot in a matter of months, so it’s much quicker. You’re just blasting through material much quicker. So there is that constant urgency and energy and frenetic movement going around you as you’re trying to make your day. You got this huge machine that you’re trying to operate, and you got millions of questions that you’re being bombarded by, and you still have to capture the moment.
So there’s a lot of things going on in any given time, and on some level, I was prepared for that aspect of it just because I’ve run a company for 15 years. There is kind of a manager or administrative quality, a CEO type mentality that you bring to one of these big films, but at the same time, you’ve got to be an artist. So it’s kind of what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, but there are definitely things that I hadn’t done before and things that I hadn’t been exposed to, and I was mildly terrified every single day coming to set.
The days are long. They’re grueling, but when you can capture something, when you know that you’ve captured a moment that’s special, like when Hailee would have this beautiful, quiet moment acting against thin air, and you knew there’s something very special about this, it just feels like magic to me.
She’s an exceptional actress.
She’s so good. My very first pitch meeting with Paramount and the producers, I sat down and talked about my vision for the movie, and I only mentioned the name of one person, and it was Hailee Steinfeld. I knew that if we were going to do this, you would have to center it on someone who was just exceptional. I think she’s one for the ages. She’s such an incredible actor, and I’ve been very impressed by everything I’ve seen her do, but I also knew that in order for this film to work, it just had to have an emotional core that was solid. You had to have someone at the center who could give this beautiful, authentic, emotional performance who could be funny, who could break your heart, or lift your spirits.
I hadn’t seen anyone in her generation that was as good as she is, and I knew it had to be her. Of course, you actually have to make that happen, and once she agreed to be a part of the movie, I breathed a huge sigh of relief because I knew at least that aspect of the film was going to work, that she was going to be great.
Most of her scenes are with something that isn’t there.
I had no doubt in my mind she was going to be great, but it’s a tricky thing. She hadn’t done anything like this before. Her principal relationship in this movie is with something that isn’t there, and so I think that was daunting for her, but we talked it through. As an animator, I see these things all the time. I see things that aren’t there. Working with the crew and with the actors to try to get them to crawl inside my brain, so they could see what I’m seeing, that was an interesting process.
Ultimately, we got there pretty quickly, but with Hailee, I knew that she was a little bit intimidated by that prospect, but we sat down, we talked these things through, and she pulled it off amazingly. I mean I would be moved just sitting there watching the monitor just seeing her emote against the air. She’s incredible.
Your name came up in the rumor mill a couple weeks ago related to a certain Marvel film. Having done this now and stepped into one franchise and put your own stamp on it, if you were approached to step into another franchise, do you feel confident that you could stay true to what it’s about and also put your own spin on it?
Yeah. I mean anything that I do, anything that I’ve ever done, and anything that I do moving forward, it has to be something that I love and something that I think I can do something meaningful with. I’m not out there with a sign looking for gigs. I’ve got a day job. I mean I run a company, so anything that I take on that’s potentially outside of Laika, it would have to be something that means something to me.
My focus is on continuing to grow and build my company. My focus has been split between that and this film for the last couple of years. I’m really, really proud of what we’ve done. But you hear about something like the Marvel thing — I know some of those cats over there. I’m a big fan of what they do, so it’s no surprise at all. I was a big comic book geek growing up. That takes no one by surprise. I love those stories.
I’ve always thought, with what I’ve done in animation but generally in film, that I want to tell a story in every genre before I shuffle off this mortal coil. I love exploring something new. I love to grow, and that was one of the great things about this process, is me being exposed to different things, and then being able to take that experience and those tools that I developed over the last couple of years, and then apply it to everything that I do moving forward, animation or otherwise.
So yeah, I mean I’m not intimidated by taking on a big thing. On some level, it’s scary, and this was scary. It was exhilarating and also terrifying, but I don’t find that daunting. I don’t blanch at the idea of that, but I’m also interested in telling different kinds of stories. So it’s impossible to say what the future holds, but I just want to tell the stories that connect with people. That’s my goal.
Bumblebee is out in theaters this Friday (December 21).
Don Kaye is a Los Angeles-based entertainment journalist and associate editor of Den of Geek. Other current and past outlets include Syfy, United Stations Radio Networks, Fandango, MSN, RollingStone.com and many more. Read more of his work here. Follow him on Twitter @donkaye