Why Bumblebee Steers the Transformers into a New Era

We spoke with Bumblebee screenwriter Christina Hodson about reinventing the franchise. Plus Birds of Prey, Batgirl and more…

Bumblebee: Transformers Movie

Bumblebee is a major step away from the all-out sensory assault of the first five Michael Bay-directed Transformers movies, a family-friendly, character-driven yet still action-filled adventure that serves as an origin story for one of the franchise’s most beloved Autobots. When Bumblebee flees a war-torn Cybertron and hides out on Earth, he is soon befriended by a grief-stricken teenage girl named Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) who’s got problems of her own at home. As two Decepticons arrive on Earth to track and kill Bumblebee, the two new friends must fight together to survive.

The movie is directed by Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) and written by Christina Hodson, who was part of a writers’ room set up by Hasbro to develop new ideas and spinoffs for the Transformers movie universe. Hodson’s idea was what eventually became Bumblebee, a story about a girl and her car that harkened back to the roots of the Transformers’ canon while also channeling the spirit of the Amblin films of the 1980s.

Hodson is a writer on the rise in Hollywood. Her first three scripts made the vaunted Black List — the annual survey of the town’s favorite unproduced screenplays — three years in a row. Bumblebee is her third produced script (following Shut In and Unforgettable) and she has recently been writing Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) for Warner Bros./DC, star/producer Margot Robbie and director Cathy Yan. Her work on that project landed her the job of writing Batgirl, which at the moment is still seeking a director and star.

Den of Geek had the opportunity to speak with Hodson during the recent press day in Los Angeles for Bumblebee, where we discussed the movie’s journey to the screen, having women at the wheel, her work in the DC universe and more.

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Den of Geek: Were you approached about this or did you pitch it?

Christina Hodson: It all started with the 2015 (Transformers) writer’s room. It was in the summer of 2015. We were brought together to explore new avenues and new ideas. The thing that was really great for me was that the studio, the producers, everyone was being incredibly supportive of me. This is a risk. It’s a very different kind of movie. Creatively as a writer what was great was I got to think freely. No one was constraining me. Luckily they liked what I came up and then it’s been, I wouldn’t say smooth sailing, it’s been a lot of hard work, but it’s been really, really great.

We heard a lot about that writer’s room a couple years ago when it was put together.

I knew as much as you guys all did going into that room. There were a lot of articles and I knew that Spielberg had always loved the idea of doing the Bumblebee standalone. I’m a huge Spielberg fan and a huge Amblin fan. Even before the room began I knew I wanted to do a story that was about a girl and her car. I didn’t know if I would be allowed to make that a Bumblebee movie, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do as a much smaller, more intimate Amblin-esque. Obviously this movie is set in the 80s, but it’s also a timeless feel.

That was what I wanted: that small town Amblin-esque, timeless, little bubble movie almost. The fact that I was able to tie that into making that the Bumblebee standalone was wonderful. It was daunting but super exciting.

Did you have any investment in Transformers as a kid?

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Just with the toys and the cartoons. I was the third of three sisters, so my toys were hand me downs, I’ll be honest. I loved Transformers because you get two toys in one and because I was also weirdly obsessed with the idea of robots. I always like the idea of having a robot that you could bring to life and have as your buddy. Weirdly I did have a personal connection to it even though I wasn’t so steeped in the lore. There was also something nice about coming into it a little bit fresh. I’d obviously seen all of the original movies, but I wasn’t so wed to particular mythology or any one particular element.

Further Reading: Taking the Transformers Series Back to its Roots

What were some of your cinematic influences?

Honestly, just scroll through Amblin. All of those movies are really the ones I loved and grew up with and watched again and again and again. Goonies, Back to the Future, E.T., so many of those movies have that fun and wonder and spectacle, but are also really intimate, affectionate, sweet and heartfelt, honestly. Those are the movies that I watched with my sisters growing up. Also, the one non-Amblin movie that weirdly did end up coming in, and I wasn’t expecting it to, was Lost Boys, which was a movie that I would watch again and again.

What is the intangible ingredient about those movies that you wanted to capture?

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I think it’s a genuine joy and wonder, and those were two things I very much kept in mind as I was going. I remember the first time I put the keys in my dad’s car when I was, I don’t know, probably 12. I was washing it. I remember turning the key and just that buzz through your whole body of that simple wonder of bringing a hunk of metal to life. I tried to infuse that in the script, take that to the next step. Imagine that you turn that key and then it turns into a robot.

I never saw it as a studio assignment. It was always a passion project. There was always real love behind it. I think for Travis too. It’s a hard thing stepping into an existing franchise, but he came to it with that same love and joy and excitement. I think having that from the writer and the director just built into the DNA, then you add on top of it all the love and hard work that people put into it afterwards, but having it baked in there, I think, hopefully comes through.

There are also now female characters in this franchise who have agency and who are driving their own cars, so to speak.

It’s very important to me and it’s very personal to me. As a kid growing up and watching all these movies, the girls so often were along for the ride. They were literally in the passenger seat. They were mostly there to be the love interest. They weren’t the drivers of their own stories. It’s very hard talking about this without the bad car puns.

They write themselves.

Yeah, they do. That’s really been one of the goals throughout my career, is putting women in those roles. Not even for any political agenda, just ’cause I love it and a piece of me goes into all of these characters. Charlie is actually inspired by my two nieces, so she’s based on real female presences and it means everything to be able have a big movie like this have a female lead. For young girls like my nieces to grow up watching these movies and see girls being strong and capable, but not like extraordinarily strong. She’s also broken in some ways and flawed and complicated and nuanced and seeing that nuance in a female character driving the movie, hopefully is going to be a good thing for young girls growing up and seeing that there are adventures that they can go on; that they’re the lead, not just along for the ride.

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Further Reading: The Quirky Brilliance of Transformers: The Movie

Do you sense that the times are finally changing with respect to that?

I really, really hope so. Personally in my career I’m doing it and I’m very grateful for it and there has been an openness to it. But it really depends on the audience. We need audiences to go see the movie and to show that they do want to see a Transformers movie even if it’s female lead.

My sisters have been keeping me in the loop on what’s happening on Twitter, ’cause I’m not on social media, and so far the men seem to be reacting really, really well. I think historically there was a fear that boys aren’t going to want to watch a girl drive a car, but I think that’s nonsense. I think they just want to see a good character. They want to be sucked into an emotional story that has depth and has something to latch onto.

You mentioned earlier that you and your sisters grew up watching these movies. But people have had this ingrained idea for so long that boys watch action and sci-fi and the girls watch the princess movies.

It’s so not true. It’s such a deeply, deeply ingrained problem. All of the fairy tales we always grew up with, the girl was being saved and the guy was doing the saving. The girl was the lead, but she was always the damsel in distress. I’ve seen some really scary statistics even about kid’s books where it’s animal characters, where you’d think it’s not a boy-girl thing, but so often it is the male characters that are going on the journeys and the female characters are like the mother that they come home to, or the princess they save along the way.

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I think it is so deep in our culture and it’s something that we need to start shifting, ’cause it’s not true. Watching my nieces grow up, I’m seeing how much they naturally gravitate towards the same toys in the beginning. It’s society that’s pushing them away. But we love fun and action and spectacle just as much as the boys. Of course we do.

I did not write down the full title of the Birds of Prey movie before I came here.

Birds of Prey and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.

That’s still the title?

Yep.

What’s it been like working with Margot Robbie on that?

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Amazing. She is such a joy to work with because she has so much genuine passion for it. I think actually this speaks back to that earlier point about genuine joy in what you’re doing. She really has love for that character, but also for this idea of doing a girl gang movie. That was the thing we first bonded on when we first met, is doing something different, doing something that is about female relationships and that centers on that. We both just fell in love with the idea of doing that and it all started from there. Now it’s very exciting. It’s all coming together. We’ve got our cast and we start shooting in January.

Did you have to do a deep dive on the other characters?

Yeah. Some of them I was familiar with before, some of them I wasn’t. DC has an amazing library. I would just do a huge amount of reading on each of the individual characters. Some of course I would read about where they come together, then take that research and then liberate myself a little from the shackles of “you have to stay true to this one story line,” because a lot of these things have been through so many iterations already that there is no one canonical thing. It’s the same with Transformers, actually, trying to honor pieces that have already existed in the cartoons and the toys and the movies, but also be free to do something that feels fresh and different and exciting.

You’re also working on Batgirl. What’s interesting to me is if you look back at the ’60s Batman TV series, for the era, she had agency. She just went and did her thing and she was not just following Batman’s lead or whatever.

DC actually have been really good at that, like Wonder Woman and Batgirl were both feminist icons in a way that was shocking and new and exciting. To see them coming back around now and being that, it was so great, just as a female movie lover, to go and watch Wonder Woman and see her in all of her glory was so exciting and I hope people will feel like that when they see Batgirl too.

Is it an origin story?

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I cannot say anything, I’m afraid. I wish I could.

Would you like to direct at some point?

I don’t know. We’ll see. Right now I’m focusing on writing and producing. That’s the next frontier of what I want to do and what I want to focus on. I’m loving it. It’s really fun. I love working with other writers, I love being collaborative, and producing is enabling me to do that in a great way. Directing, I think, is probably further down the line, just because when you direct you give everything to one project for two years at least. I love keeping my doors open and working on the different things that I’m working on.

Would you keep playing around in the Transformers world?

Let’s see if they’ll have me. I loved writing Bumblebee so much and I have a real affection for him. If there is appetite for a sequel I told Lorenzo (di Bonaventura, producer) to call me anytime, because I’d love to. I’ve really, really enjoyed writing this one.

Bumblebee is in theaters now.

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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