You were given the task of taking the children’s classic Ramona & Beezus and translating it into film. Tell us some of the trials and tribulations in doing that.
When I was five, I got the chicken pox, and my mom bought me the whole series. [Ramona] was a very pivotal book series for me; it influenced my life. In fact, I often blur my own memories with memories of Ramona. So it was pretty easy for me to translate the book. I also was able to draw from my own family. I have a younger sister who’s sort of Ramona-like. And Beverly Cleary, who’s in her nineties, was very involved in developing it with me. That’s not to say I didn’t take a big pause when they offered it to me because I understood the responsibility of translating the book to the screen and because I care for [the story] so deeply I didn’t want to screw it up.
How relevant is this film even though the book was written a long time ago? And how do you think it represents family life in a way that everyone can relate to?
Everything is cyclical, obviously. When Beverly Cleary was growing up in the eighth grade, her father lost his job. I came up with the idea [for the movie] that the house was in jeopardy and the mortgage, and I was worried it would feel like a plot contrivance because I developed it over three years ago when the mortgage crisis occurred. When I screened [the movie] in front of families, people came up to me weeping, saying, “Thank you for bringing such important things to the screen and watching how families deal with them.”
Technology (cell phones, computers, etc.) is missing from the movie. Why is that?
Beverly asked for it. Every generation thinks the Ramona book are written for them, and we tried to do the same with the movie. There’s no trendy haircuts, trendy clothes, trendy cars. Even the flatscreen TV – because Ramona’s obsessed with commercials – we had built it into a piece of cabinetry because the Quimbys are struggling financially. I wanted the [movie] to feel really contemporary but also stand the test of time.
You’ve done a lot of work with adapting books to film and a lot of that has been with children’s movies. What draws you to kid films?
It’s a wonderful form to work in because the audience is appreciative, imaginative, and impressionable. And since I’m actually kind of a goodie-goodie with really strong family values and beliefs, having a young, impressionable audience is fun. I get to ignite their imaginations. I get fan letters a lot written in crayon – no adult director can say that!
When you made this film, how did you try to get into the minds of children?
I asked that question of Beverly Cleary. When you read the books, especially as an adult, it’s unbelievable how real they feel, like she’s in Ramona’s head. And I’m like, “How?”
Beverly told me that even more than what happened last week, her memory of what happened to her in those impressionable years is so incredibly vivid. And I would say the same about myself. Her memory is more verbal, mine is more visual. Beverly’s able to articulate [memories], and I’m able to feel them and see them. So it actually works out nicely because it translates to the screen. It’s weird; I can remember every feeling I had when I got in trouble for something in second grade, but I can’t remember where I had lunch yesterday.
Do you have any advice for parents who might have a trouble-making kid like Ramona?
Read those books. I probably enjoyed them even more as an adult than I did at five years old because there are so many extra layers. They ignite all these memories.
Also, be in touch with your inner kid. If you let go of your self-censorship a little bit and play with your kid, it’ll all come flooding back. I found that working with Joey. She and I would be talking about scenes, do a little jog around the house and talk about what her fears are. And a lot of times I’d do “substitution” with her, which means if she hadn’t had something identical happen in her life, we’d talk about something similar so she could feel the same emotions. And a lot of that substitution was me feeling like a kid again.
Since you don’t have kids yourself, where do you draw your inspirations from?
Mostly from my memories. When they offered me the movie, I refused to let myself read the book again until I got out a notebook and wrote down everything I remembered. That impacted me as a five-year-old. It was the one chance I had to talk to my inner five-year-old, because once I read the book again, other themes came up that resonated with me as an adult and would have interfered with what a kid would have enjoyed. So I was lucky. How often do you have the luxury of transporting yourself back in time?
It’s basically like your five-year-old self is your test audience.
Did you find yourself playing “Mom” on the set with all the kids around?
In a way I was their mom but they also were my mom sometimes. As a director you’re very focused on just getting this baby done, so I needed those caretakers to make sure I got fed and went to the bathroom. Otherwise we don’t have time.
Is a family in your future?
Directing movies and TV is time-consuming. You have to be on the road a lot and pick up and move wherever they tell you. It’s a round-the-clock kind of job with so much responsibility that I marvel at people that are able to [juggle both]. But now that I’ve done this movie, I can slow down and maybe try for that. I just finished up foster parenting certification. It takes a long time and its a really harrowing process. So what I’d like to do is be able to help out – at the very least – with that.