From director Travis Knight and writer Christina Hodson, the action-adventure flick Bumblebee is set in 1987, when the young Transformer ends up in a small Californian beach town and in the garage of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), an 18-year-old who’s struggling to figure out her place in the world. When Charlie discovers that her junkyard yellow VW bug is no ordinary car, her and Bumblebee end up on a wild adventure that helps them each find their own voice.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, screenwriter Christina Hodson talked about how this film evolved, what put her on the radar of the folks at Paramount, what inspired the film’s female protagonist, what Hailee Steinfeld brings to Charlie, how the music of The Smiths became a part of the story, creating personalities for the Transformers, and her favorite moments in the film. She also talked about the process of writing Birds of Prey and that crazy long title, what excites her most about the character of Batgirl (which she’s also writing a film for), working on an original project at Amblin with Steven Spielberg, and how she ended up transitioning from a development executive to a writer. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: I had so much fun watching this movie. It’s absolutely delightful!
CHRISTINA HODSON: I’m so thrilled. Thank you!
This seems like a different kind of project than what we’ve seen from you, up to this point. How did you get the job writing this? Did you have to pitch your idea and develop it from there, or were you specifically asked to do this?
HODSON: This was born out of the 2015 writers room. The first couple of things that I wrote were psychological thrillers, which is honestly not what I wanted, but it felt like a good place to start. I used to be in development, and I was honestly trying to make smart business decisions. I was like, “They’re make-able, but not very much money, so let’s start there.” Those two movies that I had to my name, that I don’t like to talk about much, are literally the first two scripts I ever wrote, but I always wanted to be writing big franchise tentpole movies. I love big, fun explosions, and fun. My favorite movie is Terminator 2, which I think is the perfect balance of big, huge, fun tentpole, but also really small and intimate. I wrote a sci-fi/action movie in 2014, called The Eden Project, that was a spec that sold, and that was what put me on the radar with Lorenzo [di Bonaventura] and Mark [Vahradian], and the folks at Paramount. I was a part of that writers’ room because I had written in this space before. I’m sure they put me in that room thinking that I would write something focused on big explosions, but I actually am a huge Amblin fan. I grew up as much on those movies – all the ones that Spielberg directed, but also the ones that he produced – and I knew, going into that writers’ room, that I wanted to write a very sweet, small Amblin movie that was a story of a girl and her car. And then, as that room progressed, it was born out of there. At the end of that process, I pitched the movie, and luckily they loved it.
That’s awesome! You completed your first draft back in 2016, so how different was that script from what we see now? What were the biggest changes that happened?
HODSON: Weirdly, not that much. A lot, and not much, at all. I probably can’t go into the secrets of what was in those drafts. When I first began, there was really only one Transformer – one in the prologue, and Bumblebee. We added some stuff and built some things out. We got to explore Cybertron, which was super fun. That came later in the process. Half of it was always very much the same. There were many scenes in the movie that were in the initial pitch, even when it was just a one-page idea, particularly the moments when Charlie and Bumblebee meet in the garage, the family story, her awakening and the emotional throughline with her father, falling in love with Bee, and the way that the two of them heal each other. I always was drawn to that idea of these two broken people coming together and healing each other, and both of them finding their voice. Obviously, it’s very much a coming of age movie for Charlie, but also for Bumblebee. The core pieces were the same, since day one, which has been very gratifying.
Whose idea was it to have a throughline of The Smiths? I very much appreciated that.
HODSON: Basically, when I was 18 and in college, I loved The Smiths. They’re weird and quirky and fun and kind of strange, but also pretty alternative. My best friend went to a screening in New York, and texted me saying, “I was crying when she was air drumming and brushing her teeth because that’s what you used to do!” I love that Charlie basically is slightly off center. She’s not your typical heroine. She’s not mainstream, in many ways. She feels like she doesn’t fit in totally, and she doesn’t quite know where she belongs. Having that bridge and that moment where, at the end, it comes around and Bee is really saying something to her has been the same, since day one. I’ve always loved it.
When so many of these big action movies are centered around boys, what made this the perfect story to center around a young woman, especially one who’s strong and smart and capable, but also weird and different?
HODSON: I’m very happy to hear you say that because that’s very much what I wanted to do. The character Charlie is inspired by my two nieces, one of which is my English niece, who was only three or four, at the time, but was already this fascinating combination of different things. Generally, in these movies, girls, and especially teen girls, tend to be one thing or another. They tend to be the hot one, or the nerdy one, or they just fit into these neat little boxes that none of us actually belong in. Watching my niece grow up was so interesting because she would play with the Transformers boys’ toys, but also wear a tutu. She didn’t belong in any one category. I was like, “I want her to grow up in a world where she sees female characters on screen that represent who she is, which is a nuanced, complicated, interesting, different, other thing.” Between her and my other niece in America, who just recently lost her mom and has an incredibly close bond with her father, those were the two inspirations for that character. It’s weirdly a very personal backstory in a big franchise movie.
I absolutely adored Hailee Steinfeld in this. How did you picture Charlie when you were creating her and writing her, and what do you think Hailee brought to the character?
HODSON: Everything! She is so talented. We were so lucky to get her. She has such an incredibly expressive face. She’s doing such an incredibly difficult thing, essentially acting against nothing. Most of the time, it was just her and a tennis ball, so to be able to emote the way that she does, even without words, is so incredible. The moments where she’s hugging Bee, or touching him, are so tender and sweet. She also is very good at the humor and the action, and the big stakes stuff. That’s a very hard balance to find. When I was writing it, I definitely didn’t have anyone in mind. As a writer, I’m someone who tries to put casting out of my mind, as I’m writing, because you could end up relying on that as a crutch, but I can’t tell you how happy I was when we got her. She’s so fantastic. There’s some overlap in her character in Edge of Seventeen and Bumblebee, and completely by coincidence. I was just like, “Thank god, we have her!” She’s so talented.
What are the challenges in creating and writing a personality for the Transformers characters? Do you write for them like you would any other character, or are there things that you can’t do with them because they’re Transformers?
HODSON: Honestly, it’s not that they’re Transformers characters. Writing for the Decepticons was just so much fun. I love the dynamic between Dropkick and Shatter. The challenge with writing for Bumblebee is that he’s non-verbal, and that’s always super tough, but it’s also a really fun challenge. He is trying to find his voice, over the course of this movie, and I was trying to find his voice while writing this movie, so it was fun to use other forms of communication, like using the head cock or the eyes. Luckily, (director) Travis [Knight] is so unbelievably good at doing those little physical gestures that convey so much emotion. A lot of it was in using music as a universal language to convey tone and emotion, even without words. And then, over the process of the movie, having him learn to use select words from the radio was really fun. It was a challenge, but a good one.
Do you have a favorite scene or moment from the script, that you were most excited to see brought to life?
HODSON: The scene where Bumblebee first transforms in the garage. There’s something nice about the joy that Charlie has already felt with having a car. I remember, as a kid, desperately wanting the independence and freedom of having a car, and she’s already gone through that. She’s annoyed because he’s a clunker, but then she gets in the garage and she’s underneath, and she sees his eyes light up before he just transforms over her. I love that. I love the sweetness of it. And when the kite falls down and goes over his eyes, the way Travis did that scene was incredible. He brought so much emotion and warmth to that moment, it was beyond my wildest dreams. It was one of the first things he showed me in pre-vis, and I was blown away. That’s definitely my favorite.