Jeff Kinney‘s dream was to be a newspaper cartoonist, but he had a bad habit of playing video games at night instead of polishing his work to send to syndicates. So he began keeping a journal and inserting drawings into it – and then realized that it might be fun to write a book in the form of a middle-schooler’s journal.
Since then, Diary of a Wimpy Kid and its five sequels have sold millions of copies, and Kinney was named one of Time‘s 100 Most Influential People in 2009. On Friday, the newest in the film franchise, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, will arrive at a theater near you. It follows Greg Heffley as he schemes to have an awesome summer and ends up bonding with his dad in unexpected ways.
Kinney and two of the stars of the movie – Zachary Gordon (Greg) and Robert Capron (Rowley Jefferson) – were in town recently to talk to bloggers (and their kids – my two were so excited about that!). Here’s what they had to say about their work, the books and the film.
Are the books based on real people?
Kinney: There’s bits and pieces of my parents in [Mr. and Mrs. Heffley], and there’s some of myself and my wife in the characters as well. And I think that what I was just trying to do is portray a typical nuclear family or I should say, a family that was typical during the years I was growing up. What matters is that they are parents who care.
Have you ever been through experiences similar to Greg’s?
Gordon: When I was younger, I did Indian Scouts and Trailblazers with my dad. I really didn’t get into as much trouble as Greg did.
Capron: I was on vacation one time with my family and my dad wanted to go saltwater fishing with me. We went on the boat and I was really looking forward to it, and I got seasick. I felt like I let him down.
Why is the Wimpy Kid series so popular?
Gordon: Everyone can really relate to the situations. No one’s family is exactly like Greg’s, but we all do have the sense of the mom that cares but sometimes makes the wrong decisions, the dad that wants to hang out with his children but it’s uncomfortable, and obviously the children who want to be popular and cool but if they hang out with their parents, it’s weird.
Kinney: What I like about the movies is that it’s a throwback. It’s rare to have a movie that’s aimed at kids and families that’s not computer-generated, it’s not in 3-D, the roles are played by real actors, and these guys really bring the characters to life.
Have the books brought Jeff closer to his own children (9 and 7)?
Kinney: [Yes], because the experience that my kids are having is very novel. They understand that this makes them a little bit different than the other kids in school, and they take a lot of pride in it. We’ve also been fortunate enough to do things as a family that are just plain crazy. For example, we’ve been on the movie set together, and then the kids got to be in the movie. We were able to meet the Obama family in the White House. We’ve had these otherworldly experiences as a family.
Is Zachary anything like Greg?
Gordon: Greg and I share some qualities that are similar. We both love video games, we’re both optimistic, we see things differently. [But] we think of life in our own ways. Greg already knows what he’s going to be when he’s older – he’s going to be rich, handsome and famous. I don’t think that way. …And I’m not really a wimp. I’m active, I love sports, I hang out with as many people as I can.
Did you have a “Rowley” friend in middle school?
Gordon: Robert is sort of my Rowley!
Which of the movies was your favorite to make?
Capron: For me, it would probably be the first one just because it was the first. I learned the most about film in general, and it was my first experience being a lead actor in a big movie.
Gordon: I enjoyed filming every single one. They each have a very special memory for me. It’s an experience that I miss.
Did the boys really ride the scary amusement-park ride in the film?
Gordon: I love amusement-park rides and roller coasters. We found this 164-foot-tall ride with a propeller-like arm and it spins its passengers around at 62 miles an hour. I went on it eight more times.
Capron: I went on it once.
How hard has it been for Jeff to maintain a sense of normalcy as a parent?
Kinney: It feels as if I have two lives. On some days I do this kind of a thing – interviews, etc. But most days I’m at home.
I live in a town called Plainville, and I’m the soccer coach and basketball coach for the kids.
How many more books are planned for the Wimpy Kid series? And will the kids grow up?
Kinney: I don’t really have an appetite for the problems that happen to kids when they get older. I like to think of middle school as sort of the last bastion of childhood. For now, I don’t really have a stopping number [for the series]. But there are times when I feel that I would like to create something other than the Wimpy Kid series. I think I’d like to try.
What message would you like the audience to take away from Dog Days?
Gordon: One in particular that [Greg's dad] tries to teach Greg is that you should learn from your mistakes and you shouldn’t be afraid to admit when you mess up. Greg’s grandfather has a saying: “A man who never made a mistake never made anything.” I think that’s some really good advice.
Kinney: For me, the takeaway isn’t so much the moral as that it’s a story about a family.You don’t often see that.
[Photos: courtesy 20th Century Fox, Shana Aborn]
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