An old friend of mine from Chicago and the director of films including The Fugitive and A Perfect Murder, Andy Davis made a movie hit from Louis Sachar’s popular and dauntingly honored Holes. Here we talk about how that came about.
ROGER SUTTON: What was it like to make a movie that was based on a children’s book? Because that was something new for you, wasn’t it, with Holes? How did you get hooked up with this project?
ANDREW DAVIS: Teresa Tucker-Davies was working in my company as a producer and head of development. She knew that I was interested in doing things other than action thrillers. And I had a big heart for the themes that were in that book. For example, I was involved in the civil rights movement and interested in how that was being taught to kids. I come from an Eastern European family, so the idea of having this family living together with a “curse” on them, I could relate to that! Having a kid who was basically living with a bunch of neurotic people, trying to make it in the world—that was a great story. And the book also dealt with how children are treated in the criminal justice system. So it had a lot of interesting themes, and it was beautifully written, and very visual and emotional. Anyway, after Teresa had brought it to my attention and I read it, we called Louis Sachar and introduced ourselves as the people who made The Fugitive and other movies, and told him we were interested in getting involved with Holes. At the time there were a couple other directors interested in Holes—the Coen brothers, I think, and Rob Reiner. I think the reason Louis chose us was that he thought I was going to keep it real. That I was going to give it a kind of honesty and integrity that the book had rather than trying to go out on a limb with it. So we made a deal with Mike Medavoy, who’s been instrumental in my career. He worked at United Artists, and Orion, and Tri Star as a studio head, and he had his own company, called Phoenix, at the time. I asked Mike to put up some money for the option. He agreed, and we started developing the script, with Louis. At some point I said, “You know, Louis, this is your story, and you should get credit for the script. And we will help you write the script. We’ll teach you how to become a screenwriter.” And we wound up doing that. There was an interim draft by some other writer who really screwed it up. I mean, he started doing his own movie, messing with the book too much. I said, “You’re out of your mind. Get out of here.”
RS: I don’t know if you ever read The Chocolate War, which was this famous teen novel by Robert Cormier, and it was about candy sales and a fundraiser in a parochial boys’ high school. And just how malevolent the whole thing got. Very Lord of the Flies.
RS: And then someone wanted to do a movie of it, and a script came back to the author, and there were girls in a wet T-shirt contest.
AD: Would have made a lot of money. What was really great about our process was we worked on the script for a while and then I went off and made another movie and came back and we continued, and that’s when I said, “Okay, we’re going to sit down with Louis and we’re going to knock this thing out.” So Teresa and Louis and I literally sat together and put a card up on the wall for every idea and every scene and restructured things and put it together in a form that could work as a movie. Then Louis went and did a draft, and then we would do some editing and work with him on it. It was really Teresa who was responsible for turning me on to the book and then working closely with Louis and me in developing the script. The only thing I changed—the big thing I changed that wasn’t in the book—was I added the role of the grandpa.
When I was a kid, my great-grandmother lived with us for a short time before she died. So my sister, my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and I were in this tiny room, where you could literally jump from bed to bed and on the dressers without ever touching the floor, it was that small. And so I thought that would be a really interesting way—because the book is so much about the curse, and the continuation of generation after generation, and then the breaking of the curse—to have the grandpa actually there. You know, “It was all because of his no-good-dirty-rotten-pig-stealing great-great-grand-father!” And so my father, Nathan Davis, got a role in the movie. Henry Winkler and Shia LaBeouf and Siobhan Fallon, who played the mother, all loved him. He really worked out well. Louis liked the addition of the grandpa a lot, too. But basically whenever there was an issue, if anybody had questions about whether we should do something, or there was a money question, I just said, “Hey, we’re making this book. This is a beloved book.” And that was a big challenge, because people were very pessimistic that it could be adapted properly.
RS: When you told me you were going to make a movie of Holes, I thought, “Wow, it’s a great book, and I think Andy’s a great director, but so much of the book’s success has to do with the structure of the storytelling, which is very much on the page.” Like the fact that we don’t know that the warden is a woman for a long, long time when we’re reading the book.
AD: That’s true. But I did a little bit of it, because in the film the characters talk a lot about the warden before she appears, and her big reveal was showing her boots, and panning the camera up her legs, and you go, “Oh my god, it’s a woman.”
What I was concerned about was capturing some of the book’s intangibles. For instance there’s a lot of the interior voice of Stanley. Or Louis talking about how Stanley is feeling. That’s a very large emotional part of the book. I had to convey it somehow. The movie starts with a bit of a narrative, a bit of a voiceover, and ends with a bit of a voiceover. I tend to like voiceover because it allows you to hear one thing and see and feel another. But we didn’t do it the whole time. I think keeping really involved in the ingredients and the textures of the book and trying to continually put them on the screen was what allowed it to work.
RS: Well, you couldn’t have a voiceover running for the whole movie, because people will just think, “Why didn’t I stay home and read the book?”
AD: Yeah. So that was the big thing, trying to figure out how to keep the book as intact as possible, and retain its texture, and at the same time find a way for the emotional feelings and the dynamics between the kids to come alive on screen.
RS: You got in some trouble because your Stanley wasn’t fat, I remember.
AD: We did look at some kids who fit that description, and I just felt that Shia was the right kid because of his acting ability. And he wasn’t a pretty boy, per se, and he did seem to fit with that family of Henry Winkler and my father and Siobhan Fallon.
RS: Did you have any sense as you were making this, working on a family movie or a children’s movie, that the rules might be different from those of an action movie or a thriller?
AD: Well, I knew that I wanted grandparents to be able to bring their grandchildren to see it. The book itself did not have any content that was going to cause a rating to be changed, like an R or anything like that. But there were tonal things, you know. It is scary. The warden talks about killing these kids. She says, “Maybe we should just shoot ’em.” So it’s not a light movie. And the lynching of Onion Sam was very delicate to do, how we were going to handle that, and the whole issue of race. But kids are used to tough stuff. What I mean by that is even the old fairy tales will scare the hell out of you, you know. The moralistic German fairy tales.
AD: But I just wanted to find that balance between keeping it exciting and real, and at the same time making it a magical journey. Because there is a lot of magic in the story; magic is really critical to the undoing of the curse. It was all in the book, and I simply had to find a way to keep it both edgy and interesting. And what’s lovely is adults like this movie as much as kids do.
RS: All of you in the movie business certainly seem to like trying our part of the planet, children’s books. Why do you think it’s so big now, raiding children’s books to make movies?
AD: I think, first of all, when you make a family movie, or especially a children’s movie, you’ve got something that’s a known entity. Branding is really hard. I’ve got another project that’s based on Don Quixote, which I’m calling Tom Quixote, but families are going to feel comfortable that it’s based on a classic. They’re not going to be worried; it’s got some legitimacy. If you want a movie to travel around the world and have some life beyond its own first release, then you need to be able to do something that people can relate to for a long time.