Interview: Ransom Riggs

Ransom Riggs chats about having his novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children adapted into a movie directed by Tim Burton (and out September 29th 2016).

I guess when the name Tim Burton was first mentioned in terms of directing the film of your book that’s got to be a good moment?

An enormous moment. I didn’t believe it at first!

I hear the book was optioned before it was published because of the buzz around it. So explain what happened then?

Yes, the rights were optioned a few months before the book was published, and while that was very exciting, it happens all the time in the book world, and in 95% of cases no film ever gets made – so I tried to be realistic and keep my expectations modest. Modest expectations were a theme for me from the beginning of this book. I had a small publisher in Philadelphia. They didn’t have a lot of money for advertising and marketing. They hadn’t really even published fiction before. So when the book debuted on the bestseller list, I was surprised. But it still wasn’t a huge smash hit. The book’s popularity was a slow, gradual thing that took a couple of years to build organically. It was mostly about word of mouth.

I didn’t know Tim Burton interested in directing until about six months after the option deal. I think Fox was playing safe because he still hadn’t signed on officially. For months and months the most I heard was “Tim is circling the project.” I didn’t know what “circling” meant, but I knew that big directors like him often have a lot of projects in their pipeline, so even if a director like Tim is attached to the movie, it doesn’t mean it’ll definitely happen. So I was telling myself it wouldn’t happen just to armour myself against disappointment. Then the release date was announced and he started casting the film, and it really looked like they were going to make the thing. It was all very surreal. To think he had even read my book was surreal. I’ve been a serious fan of Tim’s movies since I was a kid, and the pairing of book and director seemed so right that I thought surely it can’t happen; this is a pipe dream. And then one day they were shooting and I was on set watching it happen.

Was there ever any thought about you adapting your book for the screen?

Only in my own head, and only very early on. When I learned that Tim was involved, I knew it was going to be a massive project, and I didn’t feel I was experienced enough. Also, I think I was too close to the book to be truly objective, and in book adaptations, to make the best possible movie you often have to be a bit brutal with the source material. It’s like asking a doctor to do surgery on their own child!

Did you talk to Tim or the screenwriter Jane Goldman at that point?

No, I never talked to Tim or Jane.

So did you kind of step back and think ‘OK, I’ll let them interpret my book the way they see fit?’

Yeah, that’s the conclusion I came to. As a filmmaker, I understand that when you adapt a book for the screen you need to internalise that story and make it your own. To make a film that stands on its own as a piece of art and not just an uninspired copy, it’s necessary that the filmmaker find and express their own personal vision of the story. And that’s what Tim has done so brilliantly. If it had been anyone other than Tim and Jane, I think I would have been a lot more nervous. But I so trusted Tim’s sensibility that I was able to say, ‘okay, take the keys and bring the car back in one piece when you’re done …’ And that’s more or less what happened

Q: Did you get to visit the set at all?

My wife and I visited the film set four times over the course of a five-and-ahalf-month shoot. We visited the Florida set first, which was only an hour or so from the town where I grew up, and where the first chapters of book are set. The Florida portions of the book take place in a sleepy little fishing village called Englewood. The crew filmed in Tampa, which isn’t far away, and was quite close to the place where Tim shot Edward Scissorhands. He told me he hadn’t been back since. It must have been surreal for both of us! It was mind blowing to meet him and watch him work, and to watch the amazing people he collaborates with work. They’re masters of their craft, and many have been working with him for decades. As a film nerd, of course I knew about Colleen Atwood, the Oscar-winning costume designer, and Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer, who has shot some of the most beautiful-looking movies of the last two decades, and on and on. To watch these people giving their all to bring my little book to life was indescribable. What an honour. And that – watching them on set that first time – that’s what made it start to seem real. It was great to start in Florida because it was a modest set; just a little house. It reminded me of making films in film school, where you would use shoot in a friend’s parent’s house, and do your best to cram cameras and lights and crew and actors into a little bedroom — except there was this massive team of legendary craftsmen and Hollywood actors and Tim Burton running around with wild hair and dark glasses, Tim Burton-ing. It was insane.

A few months later we visited the set in London, where they had built all of these big beautiful sets in a studio, and then we went out to Cornwall where they were shooting in a bog. It was quite something. We also visited the house Tim found in Belgium, which was perfect as Miss Peregrine’s house.

You made a teaser for your book and looked at many houses yourself. What did you think of the house that they had chosen for the film?

I thought it was amazing. And even better actually than the one I used to make the Miss Peregrine book trailer, because that place was a death trap! It was about to fall down. I’m told that Tim and his crew actually did scout that house, but they came to the same conclusion I did. The house they ended up using was only a few miles away, and its architecture felt very similar – only it was in much better condition. Also, it had a little lake and streams surrounding it and all sorts of features Tim could play with, which made it even better.

What did you make of Tim?

Incredibly nice. A gentleman. He has tons of energy and it seemed like he was buzzing with electricity all the time. He was like a big kid on a giant, lifesized play set, just having the time of his life. He was totally in his element. And I say this for everybody on the set: there were no big egos and it felt like everybody was really comfortable with what they were there to do and not threatened by anyone. I think because over the years Tim has been able to choose the people he works with very carefully, and they’ve become like a family. It was inspiring to watch.

Ransom Riggs & Tim Burton

Ransom Riggs and Tim Burton

Let’s talk about the cast. You’ve created these characters on the page and suddenly actors are being chosen to play them. How does that feel?

It was very strange. I’ve had the experience, on a small scale, of casting actors to play characters I’ve written, but this was such a different calibre. It was, ‘here comes Sam Jackson and Judi Dench and Asa Butterfield…’ these people I knew. Eva Green is a great choice as Miss Peregrine. She seems to be channelling Katharine Hepburn at times – if you crossed Catherine Hepburn with a bird! She has an incredible gravitas you wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone as young as she is. It’s perfect for the character. I think a lot of people read the book and thought Miss Peregrine was older than she really is. But she’s not. There are photos of her in the book – she’s not old, but she has the authority and maturity of an older person, which is appropriate since she is hundreds of years old.

When I read the book, I was intrigued that you chose an island off Wales for the location of the house. Where did that come from?

I knew I wanted to set the book in a place that felt magical, somewhere you might plausibly find the entrance to a hidden world. America felt too unmagical, too new, to be that place. Naturally I looked to the UK. Scotland was taken: Harry Potter and his friends live there. England might’ve worked, but seemed like too much of a known quantity. Apart from Arthurian legends, though, Wales felt fictionally uncrowded. It was terra incognita for American readers; someplace I could invest with magic and stories of my own.

And let’s talk about the powers that the children have. They are peculiar powers so why did you resist the more traditional super hero powers like the flying and strength and so forth? Why did you want them to have ‘peculiar’ powers?

I didn’t think traditional “super-powers” were very interesting. I wanted to play with the line between ability and disability, the grey area between them, and to make many of the kids’ peculiarities handicaps as much as “super” abilities. In any case, they are all handicapped inasmuch as their peculiarness has made them outcasts.

You said that the book was a slow burn but it has become a huge success. What’s that meant for you as a writer? It was your first novel and it’s dream start…

It’s so motivating to have people read and enjoy your work, and to tell you, over and over again, that they want more – more of the world, more of the characters. (I’ve been happy to oblige!) I also think the gradual, word-of-mouth nature of the book’s success has been perfect for me. I’m so glad it wasn’t an overnight sensation – those tend to be trends that burn out quickly. I feel like the slow but steady growth of the fan base has mirrored by own pace as a writer. I took my time writing these books. I was discovering the world as I wrote it, exploring and poking around its nooks and crannies – and it felt to me like readers were discovering it at the very same time I was. I feel a kinship with them in that, like we’re all exploring the peculiar world together. If it had exploded in popularity overnight, I would have felt pressured and rushed; I fear I might have done it all wrong and messed up the sequels. So it’s been perfect for me.

Did you make a cameo appearance in the film?

No, there was talk about it but it never happened. And that’s fine! My Welsh accent is crap anyway.

You studied English at Kenyon College and then film at the University of Southern California (USC). So did you always want to be both, a writer and a filmmaker?

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was really young. And I did write – picture books at first, then short stories, then novellas, all written long-hand in stacks of spiral notebooks. I wanted to be C.S. Lewis or Stephen King. I entered young writers’ contests and was part of a writing group that met at my local library in Englewood, Florida. I was twelve; everyone else in the group was retired. I was writing horror-fantasy, crazy stuff. They were writing memoirs. I’m pretty sure they thought I was nuts. Anyway, my obsession with Stephen King led me to seek out all the many movies that were based on his books, and eventually I got around to watching The Shining – I think I was about fifteen – and that changed my whole focus. I had never seen anything like it. Then I went and watched all of Stanley Kubrick’s films, and by the time I was done, I had decided I wanted to be a movie director instead of a novelist. One of my friends had an old video camera, and we started making movies. Every weekend we made a little film, and I was always the one behind the camera. I kept writing, of course, and I loved books and went to school to study English literature – but always with an eye toward going graduate film school. Then I moved to Los Angeles and did film school, but all the time I was writing – partly paying for school with freelance writing jobs, working for blogs and magazines and things. So I was always doing both at once. Even now, in between books, I’ve been making short documentary and personal essay films, just to scratch my film itch.

You’ve talked about how you would like to direct a feature one day. Is that still the case and if there was another couple of films from your books could you maybe direct one of those?

I really love writing books, and that’s my focus right now. But if the right opportunity comes along one day, I would love to.

Would you say that Jane Goldman’s screenplay is faithful to your book?

I think it’s quite faithful in many crucial ways, and it captures the heart of the book as well as its tone, which is no easy thing. There are certainly areas where the movie departs from the novel, but when it does it’s always in the service of making things tighter narratively or more cinematic.

Your wife, Tahereh Mafi, is a very successful author too. Is it true that you write in the same room?

We often do! We have a very long desk (laughs). It’s a long and thin and we sit side by side with a few feet between us and noise cancelling headphones so we can retreat into our own worlds. No peeking at the other person’s screen!

And is there cross-pollination? Do you help each other with ideas when you are stuck?

We’ll often read one another what we’ve written at the end of the day. It’s great to have that instant feedback. And that will often influence what gets written the next day.

When you started to write Miss Peregrine, were there themes you wanted to explore or were you starting with the characters?

I’ve always loved stories about secret worlds hidden within our own – special places that can be found if only you know how and where to look. I knew I wanted to tell a story like that, and with these strange photographs as a guide to the sorts of people who would inhabit that world, I knew I needed an outsider character – an ostensibly normal person — to discover it all. That was Jake, who was essentially a young version of me, feeling strange and different in this oppressively normal town in the most un-magical place I could think of, which was where I grew up – suburban Florida. (I think Tim, growing up in sunny, suburban Burbank, felt much the same.) It would have been the ultimate wish-fulfillment fantasy to discover that I really was different, on like a cellular level, that I was connected to another realm, and then embark on a great adventure to discover that place. So in a way the book was a gift to that younger self, trapped and dreaming of other worlds and fantastic escapes.

Who were the authors that you read growing up?

C.S. Lewis. Stephen King. I loved The Secret Garden (by Frances Hodgson Burnett) and some of the classic stuff like Ivanhoe (by Sir Walter Scott). I guess you don’t read Monty Python but that was always a huge influence. Somehow Miss Peregrine is like the strange love child of Stephen King and Monty Python and C.S. Lewis (laughs).

You must be looking forward to seeing the movie of your book?

I’ve seen an early cut of the film. And it is fantastic.

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