Stealing readers’ hearts along with the Golden Dolphin award, Australian author Aaron Blabey’s The Bad Guys graphic novel series (Scholastic) is hitting the big screen. Directed by Pierre Perifel (Kung Fu Panda) in his feature directorial debut, with a screenplay by Etan Cohen (Holmes & Watson), the film is produced by DreamWorks Animation and is set to release in theaters on April 22 in both 2D and RealD 3D formats. Blabey served as an executive producer with Cohen and Patrick Hughes (Honey Girls; Picture This; Real Housewives of Orange County).
In a world where animals and humans co-exist, The Bad Guys, a close-knit gang of criminals led by Wolf (Sam Rockwell, F Is for Family); his best friend Snake (Marc Maron, Glow); hacker Tarantula (Awkwafina, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings); disguise expert Shark (Craig Robinson, Brooklyn Nine-Nine); and hotheaded Piranha (Anthony Ramos, In the Heights) are famous for their heists. Proud of their criminal ways, Wolf decides to seek revenge against the new governor Diana Foxington (Zazie Beetz, Atlanta) when she insults him during a broadcast. Wolf concocts a plan to steal the Golden Dolphin award from guinea pig philanthropist Professor Rupert Marmalade IV (Richard Ayoade, Disenchantment) but fails and the gang is exposed, resulting in Professor Rupert Marmalade teaching them lessons on how to be good guys.
Pitching the movie was an initial hurdle for Blabey. “It has a very specific, comedic tone,” he said. “The pitch for the books was always ‘Tarantino for kids’ and that is so fraught with misinterpretation. If you go too old it becomes inappropriate, or you could panic and go too young and then it loses its edge.” But fortunately, the team at DreamWorks shared his vision for the film. “From day one DreamWorks has been so inclusive and almost reverent,” Blabey said, “which has been wonderful. Sometimes something would be written or edited that I felt drifted slightly, I would mention it, and they would turn it back around every time. It has been extraordinary.”
Preserving the tone and spirit of the books was of the utmost importance to Blabey. “I’m aware of how fortunate I am as an author because there are horrible train wreck adaptations all the time.” But working with DreamWorks has been a fruitful partnership, with a hint of something to look forward to: “Anything that hasn’t been included [in the film] is already in talks for future movies, if the film does well.”
Working with a team was also another adjustment for Blabey. “When you do it by yourself, it’s awesome because you have complete autonomy,” he said. “But at the same time, you do have days where you feel like you’re losing your mind.”
Blabey credits his youngest son, who was six at the time, for the inspiration for his series. “I was sitting with him and we were reading the most boring book ever written, and I could see his desire to read draining from his body forever,” he recalled. “And I thought, ‘I want to write something that he would love.’ ” A particular fondness for Tarantino and Soderbergh movies contributed as well; and the rest is history. “The Bad Guys came out in the book fairs in the States and instantly exploded. That in itself was life-changing because I had never sold more than 5,000 copies of anything.”
Blabey is not a complete stranger to the screen; he’s best known for his lead roles in The Damnation of Harvey McHugh and CrashBurn. “I was a really bad actor; from the bottom of my heart, I was terrible,” Blabey joked. “I say that because I have a deep love of movies. The only thing that was helpful [from the experience] is having an instinct for others’ [acting skills]. It’s not difficult with this cast, they’re effortlessly awesome. They didn’t need any help from me, that’s for sure.”
Blabey is also proud of the gadgets and the car that appears in the film, Mad Max being the inspiration. “I was talking to our director [Perifel] about the fact that it needed to be a muscle car,” Blabey said. “[Perifel] completely incorporated all the stuff that I was talking about. The breadth of what [animators] do really boils down to realistic physics.”
Blabey hopes audiences will have an enjoyable viewing experience. “It would be so cool to hear that people have gone to see The Bad Guys at the movies and had a really great time,” Blabey said. “When I saw the premiere in Sydney, there were a bunch of kids in front of us and they were really belly laughing at things; that was really thrilling.” Sharp-eyed fans might even see Blabey himself in the theater. “Once it opens, I’m gonna see as many screenings as I can in New York before I go home, just to see it with an audience.”
A new book series by Blabey, Cat on the Run, about the world’s number one cat video star who gets accused of a crime she doesn’t commit, is currently in development at a studio. “I can’t say which because they haven’t announced it yet, but they’ve just signed a writer-director, who I love, to take the project forward.” And it doesn’t stop there. His picture book Thelma the Unicorn will receive its own book-to-screen adaptation, which is in production at Netflix as an animated musical directed by Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite). Pig the Pug will also be coming to TV.
“It’s such a surreal time,” Blabey said. “It’s always been very personal for me. [The Bad Guys] was written for my sons, and then as a happy accident, other kids enjoyed it too. To be in a situation where there are literally millions of kids waiting for the next installment is the most extraordinary thing that I’m really grateful for.”