Verge Meets – The Screenwriters behind Transformers: The Last Knight

Screenwriting is an essential part of the filmmaking process as without it, there would be nothing to work on in the first place. The story and imagery for a film are pieced together slowly and once it is all complete that is when the next big step can be taken into bringing it to life on the screen.

Ahead of the release of Paramount and Michael Bay’s fifth instalment in the Transformers series (Transformers: The Last Knight). Verge was lucky enough to attend an advanced screening and then sit down and talk to not one, but three of the films screenwriting tea, consisting of Matt Holloway, Art Marcum (who have both previously worked on Iron Man) and Ken Nolan (who previously had worked on Black Hawk Down.)

Verge: What’s it like bringing emotion and personality to the transformers? Do you imagine them as people? 

Ken: Definitely. They are characters with yearnings and wantings and relationships. It wasn’t difficult, they are very specific. Bumblebee would do this but he probably wouldn’t do that. Optimus is the leader and suddenly his leadership is in question. He’s in crisis and how do we write scenes towards that.

Matt: I think especially with characters like Optimus and Bumblebee, we always thought they are the real characters as Ken said with wants, needs, desires. Through the course of the franchise, they’ve had a little bit of a father and son relationship. That’s how we thought about what we were going to do with them in this movie. Bumblebee is finally going to have to step up, find his voice and lead and take on this father figure if he is going to bring him back. In doing so, he will finally grow up in a way and discover a part of the past he didn’t know. So in that sense, we always talked about them as robot’s  but also human characters without any pandering between the two.

Art: Those characters already pre-existed for four movies before so we don’t have to worry about establishing what they are like, everyone knows that already. So you get to go out and have some fun with them, they built the car and now we get to drive.

V: That leads onto my next question – What was it like writing for a franchise as big as Transformers and it being the fifth film? Was there more pressure?

Ken: There was a lot of pressure. We have a timeline we have to get there. We worked really hard, every day. I remember we said to Michael, let’s work tomorrow which was a Saturday and he was like, you wanna work tomorrow? Yeah, I’ll work with you guys tomorrow. We were like yeah we gotta do this.

Art: But you are also fitting into a machine that pre-exists. They’ve four of these before this and Michael knows everything. He knows everybody’s job and he knows exactly what he is doing. So you fit into a pre-existing thing and you feel the pressure but on the other end of the spectrum, you know you are in great hands. As much as we are hurtling towards the corner, we are gonna stay on the tracks because these guys know how to do this. You feel it and it motivates you but you just get your head down and get it done.

V: So a good kind of pressure?

Art: Yeah a great one. It was really fun and invigorating. Stressful as it was, it’s awesome cause as screenwriters often the process is very different. You get a job and you go off into your cave for two months and you write it. Then you turn it in and cross your fingers and hope it gets made. Most of the time it doesn’t, sometimes it does and you aren’t even part of the process. This was the exact opposite we were part of the process all the way along. We got to work with the artists, production design, help create some of the trailers and marketing. We got to do everything and for a writer that is the dream.

Matt: In terms of how do you come up with something new? It is very much Michael’s franchise and him more than anybody, demands of himself and of those around him that he isn’t going to do something he has already done. Like if you pitch anything even close, he just has an encyclopaedic knowledge and can just be like did that, done that, thought about doing that but rejected it two years ago. He wants to put something new on screen, otherwise, it doesn’t interest him. Which I think we all really respect that about him. Creatively we are pushing ourselves and he is pushing us. You need that reason to come to the cinema. We can’t feel like we are just delivering the same but just a different flavour.

Ken: That was by far the most intimidating part at the beginning, where he is sort of pacing around like how are we going to outdo ourselves. I’m there like how are we going to outdo what he has already one? I mean have you seen your movies? It literally seemed impossible. Michael was right there with us, through those dark moments. But we had a lot of fun. At some point you just let that fear go and you write. Sometimes I would write a twenty-page scene and hand it to these guys and they would edit it. Then they would hand me their very nice five-page scene and I would expand it. It became a good writing process. Michael would then read the pages and laugh or not laugh. I remember once he was like you gotta write like you are writing Black Hawk Down. It snapped me out of this fugue I’d been in for the last ten years, I was being shoved to be better.

V: So were you all fans of the Transformers franchise before doing this movie?

Matt: I was a fan as a kid. I loved the cartoon.

V: So was this like a dream to do for you?

Matt: Yeah. You think back when I was in whatever grade I was in, in 1983. I was watching the cartoon and I had the first generation of the toys. I never thought that someday you are going to be writing one of the chapters of this franchise. You don’t really think about it that way. Now I have an appreciation, that kid back then would have thought that it was the coolest thing ever. It’s a weird thing when it comes around like that but in a great way.

Ken: The thing for me was I never thought I’d be working with Michael Bay but also Stephen Spielberg would show up and I would get so tongue-tied and nervous. I saw Jaws in the theatre in 1975 and it changed my life. Now I’m sitting there, talking Stephen as if we are colleagues. It is a very weird feeling. But you have to get rid of that and be a professional. Even if it is always in your mind. I didn’t know much about Transformers before this.

Art: I’ve loved all of Michael’s movies. Bad Boys 2 is like one of my favourite movies of all time. I loved Transformers, I remember seeing the trailer to that first one. You didn’t know what it was going to be, then you see just the transformations themselves and it is like wow…

Matt: Something that was never done before.

Ken: One of those Matrix moments where you realised you can do that on film. That’s insane.

V: With this film, in particular, you’ve got a lot of myths, legends and parts of history so what was it like for all of you trying to work that in? Was it clear from the start?

Ken: There was a clear but vague plan, that is like any idea you have. We know we want to get here and have this, and this but how do you get there. Discovering it by talking and trying things.

Matt: It was a desire to have the Knights, which was something Ken came up with in the writer’s room.  Then the World War Two element which is something we gravitated to in the writer’s room was just something that came out because we wanted to give Bumblebee that arc. We had sort of known that is what was going on in Bumblebee’s past at least how we imagined it and so that is how that came in there. Then just the idea of that timeline, the idea that there is this secret history of the Transformers was something that we all discovered in the writing room together. When Hasbro came in and said look there are 14 billion years of history of this franchise, the beginning of the universe, to the time we live in now. Akiva Goldsman who ran the writing room told us to lay out that timeline and imagine what movies exist inside that timeline. That idea of the Witwickam’s, the secret society was in our minds. Then that became the hub for the movie. So we based the plot along those lines and it suggests boundless movies in the future. If they have been here forever then any of these things can happen.

V: So for the future of the Transformers series are you all set to carry it on?

Matt: Can you tell that to the president of Paramount?

Ken: We don’t know what’s going to happen, It would be great to be asked to do more.

Art: I think we are all part of the Transformers family and hopefully we will get to be involved. We had a great time.

V: Now we see in the trailer Optimus has taken a strange turn. So how did it feel turning Optimus Prime a beloved hero, rogue for part of this? Did you feel any guilt writing that?

Ken: The Best part was seeing everyone’s reaction to it in the trailers. It’s one of those things where we got to stand on the shoulders of the people who came before us. Everybody knows Optimus was created as this character who always does the right thing, a virtuous guy. So yeah it’s a cheap little thrill for writers to completely subvert that and have fun with it. Obviously, we couldn’t have done that, had he not been so well represented before that.

Matt: The trick to pulling something like that off is to make sure it doesn’t just feel like a cheap gimmick. To show that you’re not using it just to say look see we are doing something different. That’s why having Bumblebee as a fan favourite character is great because it took him to bring him back. I personally think that was a nice character defying moment. It really helped me say, okay I think we can do this. Instead of just, oh, of course, we are going to just turn Optimus back by the end.

Art: That was never something we had as a goal, to begin with. It wasn’t like, hey we are going make Optimus bad it was the fact that Optimus had left to go find his creator. He is the one leaving. He’s not on earth, you can do anything you want with him and it creates a massive opportunity to say he’s going to go back to Cybertron. This way he can find anything he wants. meet anybody he wants and even become anything he wants.

Matt: He’s swayed you know, in a way that is not totally of his own volition. But when we say he’s been fighting for earth for four movies, he actually has a home and that home has been destroyed but there is a chance to save it, that’s an actual dilemma. So again it felt like we were putting real emotion and real character dilemma in for the stakes. That is something that made us feel good about this decision.

V: So my final question, I liked that there was a lot of definite teases of a past and a sort of War for Cybertron feel. So would you want to do something like that or did you just want to tease this backstory to them? There’s a great moment that got me excited between Optimus and Megatron that reminded me how much I want a War For Cybertron movie.

Matt: In the writer’s room, that is one of the periods, one of the early cybertronian eras that we had talked about. There’s a lot of excitement about that, there’s a great story to tell. A Cain and Able type of story. That would really enrich Megatron and Prime. I absolutely think there is a big story to tell there.

Ken: Two of the Ant-Man guys in the writer’s room were going to write that. I don’t know if they ever go round to doing it.

Art: I think there is still a plan to do it. At some point, that story will be told. Whether it is with them now or somewhere in the future. It is too good of a story, everyone loves it and everyone is excited the same way you are.

Ken: I think it’s just very expensive to have just the Transformers on screen. So that might just be some of the stumbling blocks. How would you do a two-hour movie where there are no human beings? But it was a cool idea and it got me, so I hope to see it too.

Matt: But we got to take a bit of that and just suggest it, in this movie. But it is teased and it’s great idea that came to the writer’s room, that was being worked on. That’s one of the benefits that room offers which is because we talked about so much, that it became like if we reference this like you picked up on which I think is great. It really adds a lot of depth in both history and character.

Ken: Then you get a thirst to see that whole story.

Art: Easter eggs, I think we called them.

Ken: I called them hatchlings…okay, I just made that up.

Thank you to Paramount for this opportunity

Transformers: The Last Knight is released in the UK on 22nd June.

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