Over the years, Hollywood came calling many times. And in every case, Judy Blume said, “Thanks, but no thanks.” Then, two years ago, someone finally persuaded her to make a feature film based on one of her 28 novels. That someone doesn’t call her Judy, or Ms. Blume – he calls her “Mom.”
“There has always been a lot of interest – people who wanted to adapt Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, or, especially, the Fudge books,” said the author's son, Lawrence Blume. “But I think she finally decided, ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ and she wanted to be on location [during the filming], which is really grueling. It wasn’t ‘now or never,’ but it was close.”
Mother let son choose which film to make. Tiger Eyes, based on Blume’s 1981 novel about a girl whose life is upended when her father dies violently and her mother moves the family from New Jersey to New Mexico, will be released on June 7, in theaters in 10 cities and simultaneously via video on demand.
“It has always been Larry’s favorite,” said Judy. “He feels very close to it because he came to live in New Mexico as a young teenager.”
The two Blumes collaborated on the screenplay and share billing as co-producers. The financing came from giant British grocery chain Tesco. “Because they sell so many DVDs, for about five seconds they thought it would be an interesting idea to produce some material in-house,” Larry said. Shortly after Tesco gave the green light, the company shut its entertainment division. That left the Blumes with complete creative control – and total responsibility.
“We made the movie with nobody looking over our shoulder, but it’s been hard to wear every hat,” Larry said. “We not only wrote and produced the movie, but had to be directly involved in the minutiae like deciding which theater in Albuquerque it should play in, or putting the font in for the green band [the trailer title card].”
All that work resulted in a film that completely satisfies the author, who admits she has teared up at every screening. Because she co-wrote the screenplay, Judy says the finished film is probably more faithful to the book than most adaptations, though the main character, Davey, was aged up a few years. The Blumes had just one day in Los Angeles to cast the female lead but made a shrewd move to use the casting company that found Jennifer Lawrence for the producers of Winter’s Bone. “We figured they’d seen everybody worth seeing,” Judy said.
At 23, Willa Holland already had an extensive resume as a model, as well as supporting roles in TV’s The O.C. and Gossip Girl. Playing Davey Wexler was demanding since the novel is written in the first person; Holland appears in every scene.
“I learned very quickly I could get images of her that really expressed the deep emotions Judy wrote about in the novel,” Larry Blume said. “If a picture is worth a thousand words, she could do 10,000 words with a look. We took great advantage of that. Any scene she wasn’t the center of got cut out.”
The film also stars Tatanka Means, the son of the late Native American actor/activist Russell Means. Tatanka Means plays Wolf, a college student visiting his gravely ill father in the hospital where Davey is volunteering. Russell Means came to the set for one day to play Wolf’s father in a cameo, the last film he made before his death last October. “He told us, ‘You guys can’t afford me,’ ” Judy recalled, “but I think he liked the idea of doing this last film with his son.”
The two Blumes had worked together once before, adapting Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great for ABC Television in 1991. But that was a 30-minute Weekend Special, not a feature film; Tiger Eyes took two years to complete and required 23 days on location in the canyons north of Los Alamos, N. Mex. Both agree they had only one bad afternoon as collaborators.
“We were having trouble getting a scene in the can, and even by rehearsing it, it just wasn’t coming together,” said Larry. “My last film [Martin & Orloff] was 85 percent improvised, so I asked the actors to try improvising, which caused great anxiety for Judy. Her whole creative life hangs on words and we were messing with the words.”
In the end, he said, “the scene we wound up using is exactly what Judy wrote.”
Even so, mother was willing to abdicate control to son when it was called for. “We both vowed if we took this on we were going to come out of it still loving and respecting one another, and we did,” Judy said. “Without getting gooey, I know who’s in charge on a set: the director. I learned a lot from him. He taught me to turn off the sound and watch the pictures, and the movie he made is visually beautiful.”
The final challenge lies in marketing. Though Tiger Eyes is about a teenage girl, a “huge part of Judy’s audience is 25 to 35, the so-called ‘nostalgia audience,’ ” Larry said. Random House is publishing a movie tie-in edition with photographs and a behind-the-scenes diary written by Judy; a dedicated Facebook page is targeting the young women who grew up on Judy’s books.
The author is hoping the release of her first feature-length film will be cause for celebration among her devoted fan base. “My dream is [for there to be] a lot of Tiger Eyes parties on June 7 where a dozen women and their daughters or their sisters or their mothers all get together to watch it.”