Film award season is right around the corner, and this year two animated features based on picture books have been nominated for Golden Globe Awards. Ferdinand, which is inspired by the 1936 classic The Story of Ferdinand, is up for Best Motion Picture in the animation category. Children’s and YA author Tim Federle co-wrote the screenplay along with Robert L. Baird and Brad Copeland. Also under consideration is The Boss Baby, based on Marla Frazee’s 2010 picture book. We asked Federle and Frazee to interview each other about the adaptation process and seeing their work on the big screen.
Federle: Marla! Such a fan, and I know we’ve been within three panels of each other at book conferences past. Can I throw out a couple questions to you to begin our attempt at a snazzy PW piece? And by the way, congrats on the Golden Globe nomination for The Boss Baby! Pretty thrilled Ferdinand snuck in there, too.
Frazee: Hi Tim! Congratulations to you! And yes, I’m glad you are the one to kick off this piece because I’m going to try and co-opt your snazziness. I’m ready whenever you are.
Federle: Were you asleep when the nominations came out? For context: I never believe people when they say they were, but I actually was! Our Ferdinand premiere was in L.A. the night before and at 6:30 a.m. my agent Brenda Bowen texted me from New York, “CONGRATS!!!!” and for a split second I thought she’d written the wrong client.
How did you find out about Boss Baby (which I loved almost as much as your original book, by the way)?
Frazee: I was awake but unaware. I found out about it because an army vet who I befriended on Twitter posted it and it showed up in my notifications. I excitedly replied to her but like you, I halfway expected it to be a mistake. Once I found verification, I texted my editor, Allyn Johnston of Beach Lane Books. I love how so many of us are often usually asleep or unaware and then assume it is all fake news.
Like so many people (and pacifists), I love the story of Ferdinand. What is it like to be a co-writer? With your theatrical background, I assume you have a well-honed collaborative spirit. I ask as a solitary freelancer.
Federle: Awake but Unaware might actually be my memoir title, now. Or how I want to spend 2018. Co-writing is funny. I did the same on Tuck Everlasting for Broadway, and it’s kind of wonderful to be able to bounce story ideas (and audience feedback) off your fellow nail-biting writers. The blinking cursor is less lonely with more eyes on it. As with so many animated films, Ferdinand took literally hundreds of people (and thousands of hours) to get made. But it started with the classic book and was filtered through the lens of our director, Carlos Saldanha. Knowing that we had a brief but beloved picture book to build off of meant a lot of invention, including all new characters.
For Boss Baby, how much were you consulted? Did you basically hand the baby over and say, “Have fun! And don’t forget to feed it every one in a while!”? I was struck by how the finished film was able to capture the tone and humor of your book, but definitely and necessarily took on a life of its own.
Frazee: You got it! It was an out-and-out adoption. I am a huge fan of animation and in fact worked at Disney for about three seconds (my one and only job-job which I took right out of college, much to the delight of my parents who had no idea what I was going to do with an art degree). So I knew enough to know what I didn’t know. This is in fact a principle that often guides me! I was very curious and excited to see how DreamWorks was going to turn a 32-page picture book into a feature-length film. Damon Ross, who brought the book to DreamWorks, and the producer Ramsey Naito, were so generous about inviting me to the studio to see how it was going at various times over the many years it took to make Boss Baby. It helped that I live about 15 minutes away from the studio. Every time I saw anything, every peek I got, every person I met who was involved in some way just blew me away. So much passion and empathy was bestowed on that baby.
I’ve got to shift gears a bit here. You mention that being “Awake but Unaware” is how you may spend 2018. I’m with you on that. It seems as if both of our Golden Globe-nominated projects are bobbing around in political waters. Since I wrote The Boss Baby in 2008, I didn’t have a clue that when the movie came out the main character would be voiced by Alec Baldwin, who would be impersonating Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, who would be the President of the United States acting like the Boss Baby in 2017. But I did know that a stereotypical white male boss was still fertile ground for satire, as it had been in the 1960s, which is the era in which I chose to set the book. The Story of Ferdinand has long been considered a political allegory and was banned by Hitler and celebrated by Gandhi and Eleanor Roosevelt. How did you balance its complicated history with the political climate we now find ourselves in today? I’m asking a lot, I realize. But the parallels of when it was created and the time we are currently living in are fascinating and disturbing.
Federle: I wish you could see me because I’m reading this on my iPhone and keep saying, “Yes, yes, yes,” and people are looking at me funny. You touch upon so many things that resonate with me, especially the ways that children’s books (and the best animated films) end up speaking to so many generations. In the case of Ferdinand, it was provocative when it was first published in part because of what it said about the way the world sees us (a giant scary bull) vs. who we really are (a big fan of flowers). The fact that all these decades after its publication we are finally-ish having a proper discussion on toxic masculinity feels like strangely good timing for the film to land.
Let’s pause politics for two seconds (but only two seconds), and gossip about Hollywood for two minutes. It sounds like we both had pretty amazing, albeit very different, experiences on the book-to-film journey. Did this make you... eager to dip your toes even further onto the red carpet? And since you used to work at Disney, do you have your own screenwriting ambitions?
Frazee: I like the idea of a two-minute Hollywood gossip break. I learned so much in the first 60 seconds of being on the red carpet that it would be a waste if I didn’t have an opportunity to use some of my new skills (i.e., it is not necessary to make eye-contact and/or wave to all the photographers who are shouting at you). But I’m not eager to repeat that experience. And I don’t have any screenwriting ambitions. The only thing I have ever wanted to do was write and illustrate children’s books. I am continually challenged by that process. But I do love to get a peek behind the scenes of Hollywood—or really anything. Peeking behind the scenes is fascinating. With your wide range of experiences, I imagine that your answer to this will be quite different than mine.
Federle: I think I’m still trying to decide what I want to be when I grow up.
Last couple of rapid-fire questions, Hollywood/publishing edition:
1. Who would play you in the live action movie of your life entitled All I Ever Wanted to Do Was to Write and Illustrate Children’s Books?
2. Did any funny/goofy/surprising things or fan mail happen because Boss Baby became a big hit movie?
Finally, 3. What’s your favorite procrastination technique when on deadline? This is Hollywood-related in the sense that mine is: Netflix and chill (drink wine).
Frazee: OK, lightning round.
1. I’d cross my fingers and hope that it would be Rosemarie DeWitt.
2. When I did an Irish public radio interview about Boss Baby, they told me it wouldn’t air until after Easter because they gave up talking about Trump for Lent. HA!
3. Really, it would take way too long to mention them all.
One last question for you: What were you wearing on the red carpet for the premiere?
Federle: No big designer. I wore a tweed blazer (felt writerly) and dark jeans (felt like “dressing up” for L.A.?), because the premiere was at 11 a.m. Gotta love a student matinee. And my mom wore a red leather coat because it seemed like something a matador would wear. We Federles love a theme. And don’t even ask what I’m wearing now because I’m a freelancer and it rarely involves pants.
Marla, congrats again on worldwide domination, baby style. I’ve been a fan of yours for so long that I’m a little starstruck even having this conversation. Move over, Alec Baldwin!
Frazee: And congratulations to you on your amazing opening weekend! Put on some pants.