The Ramona Quimby series have been childhood favorites since the first book, Beezus and Ramona, came out in 1955. Although plenty of those children grew up to be adults who wanted to make these books into movies, author Beverly Cleary wouldn't give up the rights -- until now. Director Elizabeth Allen (Aquamarine), screenplay writers Laurie Craig and Nick Pustay, and producers Denise Di Novi and Alison Greenspan are finally bringing Ramona and her hijinks to the big screen in Ramona and Beezus, which opens Friday, July 23rd, nationwide.
Ramona and Beezus stars Joey King as Ramona, Selena Gomez as Beezus, John Corbett and Bridget Moynahan as their parents, Ginnifer Goodwin as their beloved Aunt Bea, and Sandra Oh as Ramona's teacher Mrs. Meacham.
Allen and I talked over the phone about meeting Beverly Cleary, the appeal of the Ramona books to each generation, and going viral with Ramona and Beezus. She also gave me some details on future projects like Is He the One?, The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, and an upcoming episode of The Vampire Diaries. Plus, she talks about what it's like to direct an episode of Gossip Girl (hint: kinda crazy!).
For many years, Beverly Cleary didn't give up the rights to the Ramona books. How did you guys go about convincing her that you would do her work justice?
I wasn't involved with the project during that point, but obviously I've heard a lot of stories about it. Denise Di Novi and Alison Greenspan had decided that they wanted to pursue the rights to the books with the help of Elizabeth Gabler at Fox 2000, so they went up there, and I think they met with her several times. Alison even brought her second grade book report on construction paper of the Ramona books, and Beverly said, "Well, why did you get an A minus?" She's got sort of a dry wit. Anyway, so they eventually got her to give up the rights, and then the negotiations took a while too, so I think it took a few years.
And you also worked with her and her son. What was that like?
When I flew up there the first time, after I got the job, I thought it would be this warm fuzzy meeting and instead she whipped out her notebook and was like, "What are the themes of Ramona?" You know, just quizzing me. [laughs] She was very hands-on. Malcolm was never really that hands-on creatively; he oversees her estate, and then because she couldn't fly up to Vancouver, he was on set with us at that juncture, and I would ask him questions and he would also relay things to Beverly.
You guys did a really great job of creating a timeless setting that could have been anywhere, anytime. There's no texting, no video games. How much of that was on purpose, and was it odd adjusting to that?
That was one of the things that Beverly and I talked a lot about, because if you read her books, she started writing the series in the '50s, and there's about a decade between each time she wrote a Ramona book, but if you read them sequentially, it feels like one year after the next in Ramona's life... You don't get a sense, even now, that they're set back in the '50s; it really does feel timeless, and I think that's why the books have stood the test of time.
Each generation has claimed it as their own, because they feel like it was written for their generation... It's a little more difficult visually, so any time I needed to feature technology, we would try to have recede [it] into the background, but [we] avoided cell phones, and even with their TV, I put it in the kitchen so it felt like a little less featured and built cabinetry around it... Same with the cars -- I made sure they were beige and the cars that had a few years of that particular model so that it didn't feel like it was really specific to a certain year. And same with the hair and the clothing -- we didn't do anything too trendy or fad-dy.
How did you decide which parts of each book to take from to create your story arc?
Before I started reading the books as an adult, I just opened up a notebook and made a list of all the stuff that I remembered from when I read them at five, because I figured if it stayed with me that long, there were certainly things that would stay with other kids. So I was sort of using my five-year-old self as a focus group [laughs] and then I also talked to a lot of kids, and any time anyone would hear I was working on it, they'd say, "Oh, remember the toothpaste or the boing boing curls!" So I got a real sense of what moments stuck with people and we made sure to put those in there.
The viral stuff that Selena Gomez and Joey King have been doing has been quite interesting and clever, and I was wondering how much of that -- I mean, obviously it's part marketing -- how much of that was something they're into and something that interests them as well?
Selena really has her finger on the pulse, much more than any marketing person does. I think that they're trying to catch up with her. She really does get how to speak to her audience; she has 16 million followers on her Facebook page and she's always making cute little home videos... I think a couple of hers have gotten over 10 million hits on YouTube for just her sitting in her bedroom talking, so she's really with it that way and clearly speaks to that age group at a deep level, and I don't think anyone can quite bottle that. If they could, they'd be rich. I think we're all kind of following in her lead.
So they were smart; they got her a Flip Cam. They gave one to he and one to Joey; I think we gave some to the cast as well, and I had one every once in a while but I just didn't have much time to film, and then they were all given back to the studio at the end of the shoot, and then they cut together the ones -- well, some of them, [because] Joey's mom was constantly filming so she's got a lot of them on her YouTube channel. Joey's sort of following Selena's lead. Selena Twittered Joey's new Twitter [name] and encouraged her fans to follow Joey, so now Joey has over 30,000 Twitter followers and she's always sort of working it too. It's really cute to watch her follow in Selena's footsteps!
So let's talk about Is He the One? It's definitely a shift into an older demographic, and I'm interested to hear about the story and what makes it different from other recent wedding movies.
We're working on the script a little bit more, but you know, I think that to be able to really get into this woman's head and understand like, it is kind of a collage of her relationships and how she's grown as a person, and I think you can't really know who the one is until you know who you are, and so there's a lot of growth going on. It's really a character piece rather than a hook-y wedding movie, so if we can get the script there, I think it can be really fun to explore all of that, and I think it's just interesting also to watch how you change when you're in different relationships, too. You become a little bit different, and sometimes it's really about when you're your best version of yourself too, with that kind of simpatico.
Who are you looking at for the lead?
We have a long list, but there's a couple of different options. We could go with someone that's just about to pop where we keep the budget really low, or we might go with a more prominent star and then make the budget match that accordingly, so it's really kind of up in the air, but I've asked them not to really go out to actors until we do this next pass [on the script]. Already I'm getting tons of calls where I have to sit down with actresses that have been tracking it and want to do it, so that's nice. The phone's already ringing a lot about it, and they're very prominent actors that are trying to get meetings with me so that's good.
I read that you're adapting and directing The Pursuit of Alice Thrift, which I added to my list of books to read as soon as I read the description.
Yeah, it's great. Elinor Lipman's a wonderful novelist, and I've built a really great relationship with her. She's amazing. It's pretty kooky, the book, but it's great because it's about this woman who's borderline Asperger's and she's been a straight A student at Harvard Med, but you can't learn bedside manner, you know? So suddenly this girl who's been at the top of her class has to actually function with patients in real-life situations and is falling flat on her face, and then [there's a] romance with this guy -- he's a shameless sort of salesman, he's quite slick... I think that in the long run she grows from him and comes out of her shell even though she's being conned the whole time. [laughs]
I also read that you're involved with a project called My Mother's Boyfriend, which I'd never heard about.
It's a terrific, really dark comedy that a woman named Holly Hester wrote. She's worked in television a lot; this is her first feature that she wrote. Chris and Paul Weitz are producing it with me, and we've had a lot of starts and stops with that one; we almost made it a couple times and had gotten all the financing, but it was at that point where all the financiers started falling apart, so we were actually cast [the roles] and we were prepping and that fell apart two times.
Your TV directing is quite directing that some of your other stuff, like Gossip Girl, Life Unexpected, and soon The Vampire Diaries.
I'm going to do a couple more Life Unexpected -- I'm going to go up to Canada next month to do some more.
Gossip Girl has such a huge following. It must be strange seeing them now as opposed to when you were filming them.
And also I'd auditioned most of those kids before Gossip Girl. I'd met them all; I'd have lunch with Blake Lively a bunch of times and stuff like that when she was a young teen, so it's really interesting to watch all of them grow up and fill those shoes. And they just get attacked.... The New York paparazzi is just so aggressive, and they'd be ruining our shots [in Central Park]. It was kind of crazy because they're so aggressive about getting shots of them. And they would say really offensive things and ruin our shots, which would then upset the actors, obviously, so they could get interesting facial expressions from them, you know, because they're pissed off!
Which episode was it that you directed?
"Carnal Knowledge." [laughs] Basically, coming from sort of goody-goody kids' films, I'd never even directed a sex scene, and I opened the pages and [there's] an orgy and Dan [Penn Badgley] sleeps with his teacher, all in one episode. I was like, "Awesome." [laughs]
How did you get involved with The Vampire Diaries and do you know which episode you'll be directing?
I just know it's at the end of October, and that it's now the highest-rated show, I think, on the CW, so that one's kind of superseded Gossip Girl. I know all that cast as well, and have auditioned a lot of them in the past, and I've just gotten to know them and it's really interesting to see [that] they're really on the cusp. Like, at this point now it's hard for them to walk around, too, especially the boys, because so many girls are into those two guys [Paul Wesley and Ian Somerhalder], so they get attacked on set and stuff. It's a really fun series because it's very epic... Like all those vampire [books, movies, and shows], it's got this epic quality where they can just go so much deeper because they're these love stories that have lasted throughout centuries, and if you turn into a vampire, it's such a huge choice because you're changing your whole existence and you're suddenly going to live forever and also not feel as much. It's set all in a high school. It's pretty fun. You can go a lot deeper than with a normal relationship.
And everyone looks very young and sexy.
Exactly. And they do flashbacks to the 1800s. I thought they would be cheesy, but they really pull it off, and some of them are playing doppelgangers, they're not actually the same character back then, and so they have to change themselves a little, and that's all pretty convincing. It's really fun.