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Christina Hodson's 'Bumblebee' tackles Transformers franchise with heart and humor

Christina Hodson's 'Bumblebee' tackles Transformers franchise with heart and humor

Listening to Christina Hodson discuss her '80s childhood, you can instantly tell that the nostalgic setting of her new film Bumblebee is one she knows well and remembers with great affection. But even more so, the way our conversations included references to her two nieces, both who inspired the film and main character of Charlie, you know when she speaks about the film’s emotional throughline, she’s being completely sincere. It’s hard on a big budget, studio franchise picture to make something which feels intimate but Hodson and director Travis Knight (Kubo and the Two Strings) pull this off by sticking to the two characters at the heart of the film; Hailee Steinfeld’s Charlie and beloved Transformer Bumblebee. Hodson is one of the women in the genre on the rise in the industry, landing on the Blacklist three times before being tapped for Bumblebee. We’ll next see her name in the DC Universe with Birds of Prey (the Harley Quinn film starring Margot Robbie) and Batgirl. She’ll also be living out a childhood dream: working on an original script with Spielberg.

Lesley Coffin: What was your personal relationship with The Transformers before coming on board this project?
Christina Hodson: I was a child of the '80s so I definitely played with them. I used to get hand-me-down toys with missing pieces which made it hard to transform them. And I’d watch the cartoon a lot. I always took for granted that they were just in the ether.

Lesley Coffin: Did you ever hear that Transformers were toys for boys as a kid?
Christina Hodson: I wouldn’t have paid attention to any of that anyway. Even to this day, there’s this false delineation between boys toys and girls toys. But that’s always been a ridiculous thing to see a boys aisle and girls aisle of toys. When I’d play with Barbie dolls I’d chop off their hair and do weird things to them, pretending that they were robots and dinosaurs. And I’m still a girl and can like some girly things too. My niece Jeanie's the same way, and I think most kids are a mix. I think we’re moving away from that idea of boy's and girl's toys because it is silly and feels very old-fashioned.

Lesley Coffin: My sister and I did the exact same thing to all our Barbies.
Christina Hodson: Of course, they're more fun that way.

Lesley Coffin: When the idea of doing a prequel with The Transformers franchise came up, what concept did you pitch to the studio?
Christina Hodson: I always knew the concept would be a girl and her car, sort of a smaller scale, sweeter Amblin-esque movie about a girl who’d just experienced loss. A girl with a hole in her heart that needs to be mended, and a car that needed to be fixed too, and they’d go on this journey together to become whole again. At one point I thought of setting it in the very early '60s because I love the cars and car culture of that era. But the '80s felt right to me because I was a kid of the '80s, I love that music. It was freeing to be doing a prequel because we didn’t have to worry about continuity.

Lesley Coffin: You mention this being inspired by those Amblin films, first and foremost people would probably think of movies like The Goonies and E.T. What films were a direct influence or just established the film’s tone and style?
Christina Hodson: I’m a huge Spielberg fan, the movies he’s directed but also the movies he produced. They are just baked into my being. I’m a total softie, and I know he’s been accused of being too sentimental too. I don’t think that’s a thing, I love how emotional some of his movies can be. So, I was definitely inspired by a whole host of those movies, but the single parent thing was actually inspired by my niece Sylvie, who lost her mother to brain cancer this year. And her bond with her father is so strong, they are incredibly close and she's taken on his love of cars, his love of Sam Cooke. That’s one thing I’m really happy made it into the movie. That bond between the two of them was key to the relationship Charlie had with her father. It was helpful to have that emotional core because it meant however big the explosions got, we had something deeper driving the story.

Lesley Coffin: Besides the Sam Cooke references, were you able to write in a lot of the pop culture references which made it into the film or did you have to have to use placeholders?
Christina Hodson: I got to write in the majority of references. It was really funny because I knew all that stuff so well. I wasn’t a teenager at that time but I have two older sisters who introduced me to all their music. I was actually trying to figure out the other day how much of the music in the film was in the first draft. And a majority of it made it. The Smiths made it in, I remember falling in love with their music when I was Charlie’s age. The key was to tap into the nostalgia without making it feel cheesy and huge credit for that goes to the production design team.

Lesley Coffin: Why did you feel it was important to focus on just one Transformer? I imagine being someone who loved the toy as a kid, there would be a temptation to throw in everything you’d loved but it sounds like you wanted to take that approach from the beginning.
Christina Hodson: Honestly, for me, it was just about getting to know a Transformer really well. Reading about fan reactions, I saw a majority of loyal fans had deep connections to two of the Transformers: Optimus Prime and Bumblebee. People see Optimus Prime as a father figure, that comes up a lot. And people have a much lighter, sweeter connection to Bumblebee because he felt like a kid when we were kids. Bumblebee is basically a cross between a kid and a Labrador puppy. That really comes through when he gets into the house and has no idea how big he is, it’s like when a puppy doesn’t understand how big he is and runs through the house. And I knew that focusing on Bumblebee was the character that would honor those fans who remember loving these characters as kids. It gave us a chance to explore the relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie, and give that relationship time to breath.

 

Lesley Coffin: One of the other Transformers is voiced by Angela Basset, who plays the main villain Shatter.
Christina Hodson: Oh, isn’t she so cool?! She is like the coolest person in the world. In my wildest dream, I never thought we’d get that lucky.

Lesley Coffin: And she's a great voice actor. Was one of your goals on this project to have a female transformer and have a female villain in the film?
Christina Hodson: Absolutely, it seems crazy that we’ve never had a female-voiced Transformer. And, I love having a badass female in a film, and she is just evil in this film. I love that the dynamic between her and Dropkick, she’s very much the leader and he’s more of the meathead.

Lesley Coffin: How involved were you during the filming? Did you have an opportunity to be on set most the time?
Christina Hodson: Unfortunately, I wasn't. My sister-in-law was very sick at that time so I didn’t have the opportunity to travel to set as much as I would have typically liked. I did get to go to the Santa Monica boardwalk, though, and that was really special. I’d written that the boardwalk would be like the boardwalk scenes in The Lost Boys, I loved that movie growing up. I watched it over and over again. And when Travis was in pre-production he kept turning locations down and said: “I really want one that feels like that scene in The Lost Boys.” And they just said, well let's film the movie there. And that was amazing because I got exactly what I wanted, it was like Travis and I was in perfect sync.

Lesley Coffin: It sounds like you and Travis were on the same wavelength regarding the tone and emotional impact the film should have. When he was hired to direct, how did you collaborate during development?
Christina Hodson: He actually came over to my house. I work out of my garage a lot and we had a talk, just the two of us. We’d, of course, met at the studio, but it was nice to just be together with a whiteboard. It’s funny although this is a big action movie, we’re both pretty emotional and we completely agreed that the key to this film would be the relationship between Bumblebee and Charlie. Everything else was fun and great, but knowing that his priority was my priority was a huge relief.

Lesley Coffin: I’m just trying to imagine how you write action scenes when you don’t know the physical restrictions you’ll have or technology they’ll be using during the production. What is your process for writing action and fight scenes?
Christina Hodson: I like to get pretty granular and nitty-gritty. Things change during production, but I like to be as detailed as possible when writing it. I knew the big fight scene would take place at the marina, but pieces changed as we picked our locations. I love writing fight scenes actually, it was fun to write the fight scenes for Bumblebee because he is physically smaller than the other Transformers. I imagined him being almost like Bruce Lee in the way he fights, always looking for opportunities to surprise with a kick and punch. I watch a lot of martial arts movies as preparation. I think you have to start out writing with as much specificity as possible, keeping in mind that things will change when they’re filming on set.

Lesley Coffin: Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers on the film and I know you’ve signed on to work with him on another project already. One of his greatest collaborators was Melissa Matheson, who wrote E.T. and BFG. But there haven't been as many women working in the action/adventure genre, as writers or directors. Did you find it difficult to break in that area of the film industry?
Christina Hodson: There are definitely still a lot of stereotypes and in the beginning, when I was just starting out in the industry, it was hard to get people to listen when I told them what I wanted to do. But I was also a brand new voice and hadn’t earned it yet. It was when I wrote my first sci-fi action spec script that I proved to people that I was capable and they started taking me seriously. There aren’t a lot of female voices working in this space, but that’s been increasing and there seems to be an excitement about seeing what we’ll bring to the table. And a lot of us have befriended each other and want to encourage more women to explore these genres. I think it kind of goes back to what I was saying about boys toys and girls toys. There is a false delineation in genre films too.

(C) Lesley Coffin (12/21/18) FF2 Media

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures