All Jeff Kinney wanted to be was a cartoonist.
While attending college at the University of Maryland, Kinney created a comic strip called Igdoof that ran in the campus newspaper. His dream was to graduate from school and draw a syndicated comic strip. When that dream didn’t pan out, Kinney went into creating material for websites and conceived the children-oriented site called Poptropica. At the same time, Kinney continued his cartooning, eventually collecting his drawings and writing in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The 2007 book focused on the misadventures of Greg Hefley and his pal Rowley Jefferson as they enter middle school. The kids encounter Greg’s trouble-making older brother Rodrick, school bullies and a mysterious piece of cheese that sits in their schoolyard.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid took off—big time. After spending weeks and weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it spawned four sequels and a how-to book, with more on the way. So far, the series has sold over 18 million copies.
It’s no surprise, then, that Hollywood came a-calling. The Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie is now opening, but this is not your everyday “Hollywood-options-book—and-radically-alters-it” situation.
Jeff Kinney wouldn’t allow that to happen.
“I only really wanted to do a movie if someone really wanted to be my partner, someone who wanted me to be part of the process,” says the 39-year-old Kinney from a Philadelphia hotel suite. “I was perfectly willing not to have the film made if that wasn’t the case.”
“I felt protective of the characters that I created in print, especially as more and more kids saw them in print. I felt the kids reading these books deserved to have me make sure they weren’t changed too much in the film version.”
Kinney’s hands-on approach led to his executive producer credit on the film that was made by Fox. The author, who lives in Massachusetts with his wife and two children, had—and continues to have—a part in every aspect of the movie, a rarity in Tinseltown now and seemingly forever.
“I was there in the early stages to hear the pitches from the writers and talking to the director candidates and the casting,” says the author. “I saw these guys’ (the leads) casting tapes and rang in with my thoughts all the way through, basically. Up until a few days ago, I was working with animators and providing key frames for the animation. And I’m in on the marketing. So I’ve been involved as much as an author can be.”
“These guys” that Kinney is referring to are Zachary Gordon and Robert Capron, who play Greg and Rowley, respectively. A huge talent search eventually ended with Gordon, a Los Angeles native with extensive movie and TV credits, and Capron, a Rhode Island resident with one movie role under his belt, to take on the coveted roles.
Kinney explains that he was involved in the decision on who should play Greg and Rowley. “I had a say, mostly for the principals,” says Kinney. “When we found Robert, we knew we had our Rowley. Greg was a different process. Everyone had an idea who Greg was. In the book he was just this ball stick figure with three hairs, but he has a very particular voice. He was kind of a jerk and you had to root for him. So we needed to find a kid who could play up that imperfect side of him and pour on the charm as well. So that is Zach.”
In fact, both kids—Zach, aged 12, and the 11-year-old Robert—are charmers, big movie fans and experts at handling the press at their not-so advanced years.
Some of the facts gleamed from a short conversation with them:
Zach’s hero is Leonardo Di Caprio because “he’s so green and environmentally conscious.”
Robert’s heroes include Spider-Man, Batman and James Bond, all of whom he would like to play onscreen one day.
Zach, who has appeared in 24, How I Met Your Mother, National Treasure 2, Georgia Rule and was recently cast in the upcoming Beverly Hills Chihuahua 2, was “really surprised” by how good the finished film of Diary of a Wimpy Kid looked. “Some scenes took three hours to shoot from all different angles, and now it all looks so smooth,” he says. “It’s amazing that three months of shooting (in Vancouver) could all be in a movie that runs an hour-and-a-half.”
Robert, whose previous film role was in Bride Wars, got his acting start onstage, appearing in a play at a local theater company. “I wanted to sign up for a skill class and I signed up for Trinity Repertory,” he recalls. “And I went to Trinity school. And I thought they’re going to teach us, the people at church. I didn’t think that would work at all. The first play we did was Superbabies Save Halloween. I played Spider Baby. I had to wear a diaper. The diaper got stuck. So I had to take the diaper off and throw it off the stage. It was fun, though.”
Zach’s Los Angeles area school is very performing arts-friendly. “We have a drama class in our school and we got to watch old movies and write notes and took tests and had fun–well, except for the tests,” says Zach. “We learned what actors do in the movies. And the teacher asked me to help the kids and offer some tips.”
Robert’s Rhode Island school isn’t as performing arts-friendly. “My school has nothing,” says Robert. “They have basketball, but that’s it.”
Robert’s school reflects some of the incidents portrayed in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “Some big kids pick on smaller kids,” he says. “There’re lots of bully issues. Mostly they use words like ‘You’re a jerk, you’re a loser.’”
But Zack says his middle school “is probably the complete opposite of (his movie character) Greg’s. Greg gets beaten up by a girl and people get shoved in trash cans. That doesn’t go on.”
Robert thinks there are lessons all kids can learn from Diary of a Wimpy Kid. “I think it’s that you are not alone,” says Robert. “You are not alone. You are not the only kid who goes through this. A lot of kids hate middle school because of all the chaos that goes on in there. I think a lot of kids will relate to it (the film). “
So do the experiences depicted in the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and movie mirror Jeff Kinney’s real life?
“It’s not an autobiography, but there’s a lot of child DNA in these stories,” he says. “I had some of the same experiences these characters have had, and I think any child that has gone through middle school can relate to what these children have gone through.”
Kinney and his actors are wishing the film, helmed by Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs), does well enough to warrant sequels.
“We did a lot of work to create this universe of characters and we feel like we have a lot more stories to tell,” says Kinney, who says he and the cast are locked into a few more films if all goes as planned. “Everybody’s hope is that we are gathering back in Vancouver for Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Part II at some point.
Meanwhile, Kinney is working on a new Wimpy Kid installment, writing at night after his publicity chores are over.
“The next book is about puberty and such. And it’s funny polling these guys about the instructional videos in class and what they have to watch. That’s a good topic for these guys.”
“I saw very disturbing videos in fifth grade,” says Robert. “It was in health class. I went ‘Ahhhhhh.’”
“I told them I needed some ideas from them,” adds Kinney. “Then we got into the subject of payment, so I guess I am on my own. I’ve been on a number of book tours and it can be tough, a bit of a grind. But these guys have added so much fun for me. It’s been a joy.”