'Bumblebee' Screenwriter Christina Hodson On Making A Timeless 'Transformers' Movie [Interview]

The Transformers spin-off Bumblebee is very different from the five Michael Bay films. Notably, there are fewer Transformers – it's mainly Bumblebee and the two Decepticons who chase him to Earth in 1987. The heroic Optimus Prime only has a cameo.

Bumblebee also spends most of its time in the small Northern California town of Brighton Falls, where Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld) buys a fixer upper automobile, only to discover it's actually a transforming robot. Charlie has lost her father and has trouble relating to her mother, so Bumblebee becomes her confidant.

Screenwriter Christina Hodson wrote the Bumblebee movie and she spoke with /Film about this new take on the Transformers franchise. She also wrote the scripts for Birds of Prey and Batgirl, which we also asked her about in our interview.

Did doing a prequel write you into a corner because the 2007 movie was presumably our first encounter with Transformers?

You know, I didn't feel like it painted me in a corner at all. I actually felt really liberated by being able to set it in the '80s. It meant that I didn't have to worry too much about the continuity. I just didn't have to tie myself down too much in plot. Obviously, because this is kind of a smaller in scale movie, it stays very much within Brighton Falls. It's not international the way the other movies are. I felt pretty free in a good way and the studio were great. I knew they would have my back in terms of not treading on toes that I wasn't supposed to tread on, and I just got to have fun with it.

Why was 1987 the year decided to set the movie?

The honest answer is I actually set it in '86 originally because that was the summer the cartoon came out. I'm not entirely sure why [director] Travis [Knight] shifted it to '87 but I knew I wanted to do '80s specifically because I was a kid of the '80s. That was when people fell in love with Transformers. I'm a huge Amblin fan and I think a lot of those movies that were made in that period were touchstones for me, were references for me. Also honestly for me even though there's an '80s setting, I always wanted it to feel kind of timeless. That was the beauty of a lot of the Amblin movies that were set in these small towns is they're kind of outside of time in some ways. They feel a little bit like fables almost, like they exist outside of any specific period or politics.

Did you specify all the music and concert T shirts in the script?

Actually, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the music was written in the script originally. There's lots of things obviously they had to toy with in post but The Smiths and Sam Cooke were two real strong corners of the scripts that I really wanted to keep. Just because emotionally they have so much resonance for Charlie with her connection with her dad ,but also just who she is, defining herself and being slightly alternative. And the fact that Bee comes around at the end of the movie and speaks to her in her language by using The Smiths, that stuff was always in there.

Did you also write the Easter eggs into the script?

Some of them, yeah. What we wanted to do I think was really create a movie that you could watch completely fresh, having not seen any of the other movies, but for younger audiences and also for audiences who had just never thought to go and see any of the Transformers movie so it would stand alone. But then for people who were returning, either from the movies or just from the cartoons and the toys, there would be these little things that would be fun, that people get excited about.

Does HASBRO still have a Transformers camp like they did for the 2007 movie?

I did not do that. I was part of the 2015 writers room where we all learned about Transformers. A big chunk of that was learning the lore, learning what had come before us in the cartoons, the comics, everything.

During that writers room, when there was the idea of giving Bumblebee his own movie, were you raising your hand to volunteer?

I went into the room knowing that I wanted to do the story of a girl and her car. I, of course, would have loved to have done Bumblebee but I wasn't sure if that was going to be available. Then when it all lined up and I was able to make the story of a girl and her car and that car turns out to be Bumblebee, I was over the moon because he was always my favorite.

That's so interesting because Spielberg's note on the first movie was "a boy and his car."

I would love to take credit but that was what connected me to it. I remember reading in 2007 because I remember people being like, "Oh, Spielberg, this doesn't feel that much like your other movies." And I remember him saying, "I was always drawn to the idea of the story of a boy and his car because it's such a simple, clean bond." I think all of us remember our relationship with our first car. A car does represent freedom and responsibility and adulthood. That's such a strong connection that that was the thing I always tapped into and was excited about.

Are there different themes to explore when a teenage girl gets her first car?

I mean, yes, but I also just think for me there were two things. One is I just wanted to really have the canvas, which I did in this movie thankfully, to be able to really focus on one human and one robot and give them the room to have real depth and explore all the different nuance of that dynamic and to have their two arcs going together. Then separately, I just like generally having more female characters like this. So often in these movies, not the Transformers movies, but just generally in Hollywood, the girl is along for the ride. She's literally in the passenger seat and she's lucky if she comes along and maybe she'll get kissed at the end. I don't think that is right. I don't think that's how it should be. I think girls love car chases and explosions as much as boys. I think it's sort of a misconception that these movies are for boys and men and girls and women just want to see rom-com. Boys and men want to see emotional stuff too and girls and women want to see explosions and car chases. I'm trying to just blur it all a bit.

They do, and did you want to give a boy the role of being along for the ride and maybe he gets kissed for once?

Listen, why not? We've spent decades being in the passenger seat. Let the boy be in the passenger seat for a while and he's so winning and so likable.

Were you able to play with real teenage parental concerns like when your mom borrows your car without asking, which is a problem even when it's not a robot from space?

Yeah, totally. I very much wanted to lean into the stuff that we all know about. The Charlie that we meet at the beginning of the movie is a very typical teenager working that sh*tty embarrassing job that she just hates so much, having to look after a brother who she finds annoying who she loves but is a pain in the butt. I really wanted to tap into all those normal family dynamics and play with them.

Were there any autobiographical elements in Charlie?

Yeah, so Charlie's actually based on my two nieces. My British niece who at the time was very young, she's only three or four, but already at that young age just based on the toys she would gravitate towards and the things she would draw and things she was interested in, she didn't fit into one neat box. She was neither a tomboy nor a girly girl. She was kind of athletic, kind of mathematic, kind of arty. She was all of these different things and that's honestly how I was as a kid. I was never easily definable. I think so often the female characters we see on screen are just in a box. They are one thing or the other and there isn't that much nuance to them. So what I wanted to do was create a character who, like Jeanie, was many things so that Jeanie would grow up in a world where she's watching characters save the world and kick ass and drive the car and do all the big fun stuff who are a bit more realistically nuanced like her. And then also based on my niece Sylvie who is now 12. She'd recently lost her mother but her bond with her father because of that very much inspired Charlie's relationship with her father. She's kind of adopted his love of cars, his love of Sam Cooke. That was a real nod to that so they really were the emotional North Star for me as I was writing this, heading towards that

I agree there aren't enough female roles like that and we need more. Is the goal to ultimately get to a point where we're not talking about male and female roles and they're all equally great?

Yes, 100%! It's not that I only want to write women and I've got a big political agenda. I personally love writing women and it's fun. I obviously know what it's like to be an 18-year-old girl better than I do an 18-year-old boy but yeah, I just want it to be so that it's not a "oh my gosh, it's a female fronted Transformers movie." It's just a Transformers movie and the heroes and heroines we see in these movies aren't all just 35-year-old hunky straight white men. There's a whole variety and a whole spectrum.

Right, I am a 40-year-old straight white man.

And also hunky.

Aww, thank you. But that's not all I want to see in movies.

You don't only want to see that, yeah. I do think it is a myth that men and boys will only want to watch the story if there's a man in the middle of it. I just don't think it's true. Even just based on some of the reactions I've had so far, there are grown men who are getting choked up and that's a really gratifying thing even to hear as the writer, to know that it is touching people like that. That is what I believed going in but to get that feedback is awesome.

bumblebee early screenings

How did you come to diving as Charlie's sport?

Mostly because I wanted her to be athletic in some way and to have something that she'd given up, something that her father was proud of but that she'd stopped doing. But I also liked the idea of it being something unusual, not a team sport. Something solitary felt right and something that shows that she was bold so that it doesn't come out of nowhere at the end of the movie when she does step in and do something big and heroic, because high diving's really scary. So I love the idea of hinting at the fact that she's already got that facet to her character in the beginning.

When Bumblebee does speak in the beginning, how did you make his few words count?

I mean, it's tough because it's a big responsibility giving Bumblebee words because he's never really spoken before. Figuring out exactly how that opening would work was really tough because we see three versions of Bumblebee in this movie. We see the Bumblebee who's the war machine and the soldier. Then we see the completely broken lost Bumblebee and then by the end he's kind of the healed version of himself and he's closer to the Bumblebee that we knew. So honestly it was just a lot of trial and error and dialing things up and down and working really closely with Travis who has always had such a strong vision of who that character is that working with him was a total pleasure because we were very much on the same page about building him out and shaping his arc.

You also embraced when Bumblebee gets into some childish mischief with Charlie. Did that come from the Amblin tone?

Very much came from the Amblin tone and just from the fun of it. I love that stuff. I find him so cute. I always thought of Bumblebee as kind of like an oversize labrador puppy who doesn't quite know how big his limbs are. He's just very enthusiastic and excited and curious and all over the place. I love that sequence just because for me that is like the overgrown puppy that you left at home that you shouldn't have left at home.

You're on a roll with Birds of Prey. Was the long subtitle your idea?

I don't think I'm allowed to comment on that but I love the title.

Did Birds of Prey evolve from the Gotham Sirens idea David Ayer was developing?

No, totally separate.

Will your Batgirl movie connect with that?

I cannot comment I'm afraid. I wish I could tell you these things but I can't.

Your first scripts weren't tentpole type movies. Were those the kind of movies you always wanted to write?

No, I came from a background as a development executive. When I started writing, I was honestly thinking kind of strategically about what are movies that I can write that can get made. The throughline I think with everything I write is that there are these strong nuanced flawed complicated female characters. So that's been something. The only thing I really care about is the character stuff. It doesn't matter what genre it is but honestly, career-wise I've always wanted to write big action movies. Like Terminator 2 was one of my favorite movies growing up. I've always wanted to write big, fun spectacle that has real heart and real character at the center of it.

How did you end up in the Transformers writers room?

In 2014 I wrote a sci-fi action spec script called The Eden Project that I think put me on the map as a female writer who can write big action movies. That was the thing that shifted the perception of me a little bit and probably put me on the radar with Lorenzeo [di Bonaventura] and Paramount. So they took the chance on me and put me in that room and it was great.

When it came to writing the big spectacle set pieces were you able to write anything and know they could make it happen?

Yeah, that's the fun of writing one of those movies. There's a team behind you that you know have done it before and can do it again. I got to dream big and they made it amazing and brought it to life in such awesome ways.

It's sort of a recent fun thing. 10 years ago or more they'd have to figure it out for every new script.

Whereas now it's just like yeah, anything is possible.

I think people are going to want to see more of Charlie and Bumblebee.

I hope so.

Do you imagine there's more room to revisit them before 2007?

I totally think there is but it's up to audiences to go and see the movie and show that there is a demand for it and there's an appetite for it. I guess we'll see how it does but yeah, I would love to revisit them. I love those characters and I loved writing them. There are endless adventures they can go on.

I've gotta ask, in Unforgettable, did you specify those salt and pepper shaker chess pieces in the script?

[LAUGHS] The chessboard salt and pepper, it's amazing, isn't it? No, I didn't and it's awesome. When I went on set they had that and I was just like, "I want that in my house" but that's the funniest and least expected question. I love that.