‘Bumblebee’ film transforms Vallejo - Location Managers Guild International
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‘Bumblebee’ film transforms Vallejo

Reprinted from The Vallejo Times-Herald, September 6, 2017

By Richard Freedman, Vallejo Times-Herald

Jonathan “JJ” Hook may not have a magnifying glass, but every film he’s worked on — roughly 40 and counting — he joins the director in scrutinizing every scene in every script and concludes to the best of his ability: Where should this be shot?

For “Bumblebee,” a spin-off of the Michael Bay franchise “Transformer” movies, plenty of it is in Vallejo. This week on Mare Island, count on evenings with helicopters, special effects and pyrotechnics, followed by two days of downtown action.

The supervising location manager and co-producer oversees around 15 people on his team, though he’s handled movies orchestrated as many as 50 others working simultaneously in numerous states and countries.

It’s not a job for the timid, said Hook, a Los Angeles resident and native of England.

“You are dealing with change and pressure,” he said. “But if you’re creative and have a good imagination, you can climb the ranks quickly.”

Hook started as a personal assistant in England doing a period piece that included a shipwreck.

“My job was running out with blankets, tea and coffee,” Hook said.

Obviously, he did it well. Extremely well, by the looks of his resumé that includes “Love Actually, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” “The Sopranos,” “Mission Impossible III,” “Spider-Man 3,” “Hancock,” “Men in Black III,” “Inception,” “Thor,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and all five “Transformer” films before the spin-off “Bumblebee.” A sixth “Transformer” movie is set for 2019.

As little job security as there can be in the industry, Hook’s apparently nailed down the job on the “Transformer” set.

“It’s funny. After every single movie, there is a bit of insecurity if the phone hasn’t been ringing,” Hook said. You’re always worried, ‘Will I ever work again?’ Eventually, the phone rings. If people want the security of a 9 to 5, maybe this isn’t quite for them.”

The appeal of location managing for Hook?

“I’ve been doing it so long, I’ve kind of forgot,” he said. “It’s not being in one place for that long. My ‘office’ is always changing. One minute, I’m in a desert. Another minute I’m in Vallejo. Next week I can be in a redwood forest in Santa Cruz.”

Logistics alone can be a major challenge, said Hook, who also finds himself in charge of community outreach.

“When we leave, you’re making sure everyone is happy and wants us back,” he said.

The “Bumblebee” synopsis:

On the run in the year 1987, Bumblebee finds refuge in a junk yard in a small Californian beach town. Charlie (played by Hailee Steinfeld) on the cusp of turning 18 and trying to find her place in the world, discovers Bumblebee, battle-scarred and broken.

It wasn’t difficult to create exactly what was needed in town here, Hook said.

“Vallejo has got great bones,” he said of the town’s infrastructure. “It’s an Anywhere America, Back-to-the-Future type vibe. The great thing about Vallejo is there aren’t these huge chain stores. There a few other cities in California like it, but not that many. The city hasn’t been turned into a strip mall.”

Mare Island’s drydocks have been perfect for “Bumblebee,” said Hook.

So good, he noted, “the ending of the movie was re-written after finding the location.”

The “Transformer” films allow the improvisation, he said. Not so with a movie like “Inception,” where “you have a completely finished, polished script before you start and honor every word.”

Because Hook needs to be aware of scenes and sets and scripts, “you plan for the worst and hope for the best. That’s probably the best rules to follow,” he said. “Expect to be let down or given bad information at some point. Have a plan to get out of it.”

And if a day’s shoot is lost because of Hook’s decision, “that’s a big problem on my reputation,” he said. “There’s a lot of pressure to make sure every day is achieved.”

Sure, he said, sometimes you can’t find the perfect site even after looking at 300 different locations.

“Some just don’t work,” he said.

Then there are times Hook finds a location, filming is done, then he’ll find “a better version after the fact and there’s nothing you can do. That always gets to you if you care about your job. It’s a bit of a bummer. You always feel disappointed.”

Though not technically employed by Paramount Pictures, 90 percent of his work is with Paramount, the same company handling the filming for “13 Reasons Why,” which has filmed its first and second Netflix season in Vallejo.

Pinpointing the right site becomes an art form. Or, in Hook’s case, the ability at mastering Google searches.

“We do find a lot through Google,” he said. “It helps steer guys in the right direction.”

Hook credited the late Edward French with locating Mare Island for “Bumblebee.” French, 71, was shot and killed in July in an apparent robbery at Twin Peaks in San Francisco.

“His vision and his creativity brought us to Mare Island and Vallejo,” said Hook.

“Bumblebee” directed by Travis Knight and produced by Transformers franchise veterans Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Bay, along with executive producers Steven Spielberg, Brian Goldner and Mark Vahradian. Chris Brigham is the executive produce. The screenplay is written by Christina Hodson.