Screenwriter Rob Lieber loves turning novels into splendid cinematic adaptations. So it was pretty much a no-brainer when Judith Viorst’s beloved 1972 children’s book, ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY, came across his desk. The film tells the tale of Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) and his horrible, terrible curse being a total klutz. Fed up with his family’s flippant attitude about his good run of bad luck, our titular hero wishes Dad Ben (Steve Carell), Mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner), sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) and brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) to endure similar mishaps and mayhem he’s been suffering from for the past 12 years. Hijinks and hilarity ensue – as does some familial healing.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I spoke with the affable writer about everything from his love of adaptations, to Dick Van Dyke’s cameo, to building out the world Viorst created.
VeryAware: I know the book has a huge fanbase. Was there a lot of pressure to include those iconic moments from the book?
Yeah. I definitely wanted to honor it. Most of what I wanted to keep consistent was the character of Alexander. I knew I was going to have to change so much of it that I gave myself the freedom to do that. I felt as long as we honored the tone and the theme of the book that that was what was important.
VeryAware: There are things like cyber-bullying, unemployment, and ADHD. How much of a challenge was it to put modern day elements into the film with a light, subtle touch?
It wasn’t a challenge because none of that was in the original book. That was just me writing. I was just trying to figure out what modern day kids would talk about – what would make me laugh. That was it. It wasn’t so much a concerted effort. It’s a present day movie and these kids are in high school and middle school and what’s going on with that? That’s how I approached it.
VeryAware: In the book Alexander has two brothers. But in the movie, you’ve given him a sister. Was that something that came together organically when you were building out the world?
It just came together very naturally. I just felt the book was very boy-centric. For a movie, it made sense to have a female character. So we added Emily and also the girlfriend – just trying to make it so the whole family could go and enjoy it.
VeryAware: You’ve adapted other books before (Septimus Heap and Jeremy Cabbage). What speaks to you about adaptations?
Oh I love adaptations. They are so great because you have a start and you typically have something that’s already working. For me, it’s easy. It’s much more fun to take something you spark with that has a great foundation and to build off it. I find that easier than just starting from scratch.
VeryAware: When you read through the books, do you highlight what speaks to you the most?
Not at first. Typically I go with my gut instinct. Pretty much once I read it, I know not necessarily what the movie is but that I can figure something out. That definitely happened with ALEXANDER. Once I saw the book and knew that it was available to make into a movie, I was like, ‘Yeah. It’s a movie about a family going through a terrible day and you figure it out from there.’ Once we knew the movie was getting made, to go back to those iconic images and say, ‘Do we have enough representation?’
VeryAware: Was this a project that was homegrown at Disney or did this come to you through Shawn Levy’s production company?
It was a pitch myself and one of the executive producers, Jason Lust, found the book. The rights came available; people have been trying to make this movie for a long time. I came up with a pitch and we attached Shawn Levy’s company, 21 Laps, and The Henson Company optioned the book rights and then we went out with it as a pitch. Sold it to Fox. Ultimately Fox didn’t make it, but we had got in Steve Carell by then and a different director. It was a crazy, crazy process. Soon after Fox said they weren’t going to make it, Disney stepped in and said they would – which is great because it felt like a Disney branded movie.
VeryAware: You spoke about having to tone down the “Thunder From Down Under” scene. Were there other scenes that skewed more adult?
Once it became a Disney movie, yeah. They definitely have a different standard and a brand of wholesome family entertainment. Some things were scaled down, but the movie is basically the same. Thunder From Down Under was one of the elements we tamed and some of the dialogue and stuff like that. No storylines changed, or anything like that.
VeryAware: I liked that they pushed the envelope on this.
There was! And also when you have Steve Carell and Jen Garner, you want to give them fun stuff. It’s definitely more than just focusing on Alexander. The hope is that it’s a fun family movie that everybody will enjoy.
VeryAware: One of my favorite scenes in this is when the Coopers are gathered around the dinner table because you don’t often see that in modern cinema.
VeryAware: I feel like it’s this lost sentiment. And it also nails the tone of the movie perfectly.
Right. It’s interesting you say that. I think in the screenplay it’s eight pages. That doesn’t exist in screenplays now – it’s like 3 pages and you’re done. It always was one of the centerpieces – one of the first things I thought about when coming up with it. It’s tricky to do. But you’re right. There’s not a lot of seated around the dinner table – especially in family films now. I wanted to get that feel of reality, even though it’s so crazy everything that happens. It’s important that it’s somewhat plausible. That nothing left the realm of what could possibly happen.
VeryAware: There’s that little hint of a supernatural element, but then Jen’s character has that line of “there’s nothing weird going on!’
Right. It’s not really a curse. It’s sort of he thinks he cursed his family, but really it’s just a bad day.
VeryAware: Did you have to adapt any of the characters to fit more in line with the actor’s strengths?
Not really. I think we might have given a little more to the parents once they were cast because we got such great actors. Kerris [Dorsey], Dylan [Minnette] and Ed [Oxenbould], they just really brought the roles that were there to life and made them even better.
VeryAware: Was Dick van Dyke always in the script or was it “insert famous cameo here?”
Yes. It was ‘Famous cameo; we hope we can get Dick van Dyke.’ [laughs]. Luckily he said yes.
VeryAware: It’s funny to see him in this as this iconic Disney persona…
And he’s amazing. He’s still so with it and completely spry and quick and funny.
VeryAware: I heard the author had loved what you’d done.
Which I’m really happy about.
VeryAware: What a relief! Have you ever had a terrible, horrible, very bad day?
Every day. No, that’s not true. I have a five-year-old and a two-year-old so there’s an element of this movie every day of my life. Every day there’s some family chaotic moment that I deal with.
VeryAware: Would this, or will this, be your way to explain to your kids too of how to deal with bad days?
Yeah. We’re not totally there yet so it’s not that intellectual yet. [laughs] But my five-year-old loves the book and we’ve talked about the character and he’s super excited to see the movie. Hopefully the movie will be that teaching tool.
VeryAware: Tell him, “My works speaks for itself. Go watch my movie, child.”
[laughs] Exactly! ‘Having a bad day? Why don’t we put on ALEXANDER?!’
ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY opens on October 10. Check out our review here.Read More »