Jane Goldman on Adapting Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
We chat with Jane Goldman about working with Tim Burton to adapt Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
For many years, screenwriter Jane Goldman has been director Matthew Vaughn’s mostly silent partner, collaborating with him on his adaptations of Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess’ Stardust, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr.’s Kick-Ass, and recent hits like X-Men: First Class and Kingsman: The Secret Service.
That’s four mostly well-received comic adaptations right there, and for the movie version of Ransom Riggs’ bestselling young adult novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Goldman found herself collaborating with none other than director Tim Burton.
In the film, Asa Butterfield (Hugo) plays Jake Portman, a bullied introvert from Florida who finds himself travelling to Wales with his father (Chris O’Dowd) in search of a mysterious place that his grandfather (Terrence Stamp) would tell stories about. Jake soon finds himself at the home of “peculiars”—children with strange powers—which is run by Miss Peregrine (Eva Green), a headmistress who can transform into a bird and control time. As Jake gets acclimated to the home’s strange inhabitants, a dangerous man named Barron (Samuel L. Jackson) tries to find Miss Peregrine for his own devious means.
(You can read David Crow’s review here.)
Den of Geek sat down with Ms. Goldman on the roof of New York’s McKittrick Hotel, best known as the location for the “Sleep No More” experience. We spoke to her about working with Tim Burton and also touched upon a few other things like the upcoming Kingsman: The Golden Circle sequel,and the proposed movie based on Nate Simpson’s comic Non-Player.
Den of Geek: I think I read that Tim Burton was involved in some way when you started adapting Ransom Riggs’ book.
Jane Goldman: Yeah, almost. I think there was certainly talk that he was considering directing it, and yeah, very quickly he did become involved. I can’t remember if I wrote a draft before I met with him or whether we met and chatted, and I started the draft. I’m sorry, I can’t actually remember, but yeah, from the get-go, there was always talk of him being involved, and it was lovely working with him on the development process and throwing ideas around with him.
So you had a few meetings with him before you started to write the script?
I’m trying to remember if I did write a draft first, but we certainly had numerous meetings throughout the process where I would throw ideas at him and see what he thought, and we would have ideas together. It was a really lovely collaborative, creative experience.
Did you meet Ransom at all during these early stages? Did Ransom want to have any involvement with the process of making a movie? I honestly don’t know if Ransom is a “he” or a “she.”
No, Ransom’s a guy. He’s here. He’s a very tall good-looking guy, and he’s around somewhere. I didn’t meet him until the movie was actually finished. I know that he was very much in touch with the producer and had been incredibly supportive, and he was kind of in the loop on what was being done on the movie, but he stepped back and has just been incredibly supportive. And now, quite rightly, he’s very involved in promoting, but he was really lovely during the process. His feedback was always positive.
I think I’ve mentioned this before about how I like that your adaptations capture the voice of the original writer, whether it’s Neil Gaiman or Mark Millar.
I haven’t read this book, but I imagine you tried to capture Ransom’s voice but you’re also writing something for Tim Burton, and we all have some idea what a “Tim Burton film” should be, and I’m sure he’s trying to do something different. What’s it like to keep Ransom’s voice but also cater it to Tim’s sensibilities?
For me, it’s always about keeping the spirit of the book, which does wind up being about preserving the author’s voice, but with Tim, it was just a pleasure, because I think he and I have very similar tastes and sensibilities to begin with, so it wasn’t about pandering or “I wonder what he would like?” I think I just worked, thinking, “Well, I know what I would like to do here with this,” and then we tended to be on the same page, which was great.
Anytime he threw ideas my way, I always adored them, so it was sickeningly pleasant. It was a really good experience.
When it comes down to it, he’s directing it, so if there’s anything he wants to change, he can change it while filming.
Sure, but actually Tim’s a director who, because he’s such a meticulous planner and he does a lot of storyboards, and actually, nothing changed, I mean, more than any director I’ve worked with. Everything that was planned was in. There were no on-set changes, and in terms of rewriting while it was in production, I think it was the fewest during-production changes, and even then, the only additional writing I did while it was in production was Samuel L. Jackson had started his stint and was so great that Tim just said, “I wish we had more of him in it. Let’s do more for him to do,” and that was the only change. More than any other director, Tim has a plan and really sticks to it.
You mean he doesn’t start filming until the script is right.
Right, right. He gets the script the way he likes it, and his storyboards the way he wants them, and then just motors on through. It’s very impressive.
You worked with Matthew Vaughn so much, and he’s also a director/co-writer, so you probably aren’t as used to that kind of way most screenwriters work, where they write the script and hand it off, and they have no idea what’s happening with it until it’s already filmed.
Obviously, Matthew and I have a unique relationship in terms of the relationships I have with directors, because we create together, and as you say, I’m on-set a lot with Matthew. But yeah, I think all directors work differently, but they’re all good relationships. I’ve been really lucky not to have a duff experience with a director.
This film has a lot of elaborate set-pieces, whether it’s the big fight on the pier between the Hollows and the skeletons or the first time we go under the sea and go on the boat. Was a lot of that stuff in the book, and Tim was trying to figure it out during the writing phase? I assume there’s stuff in the book that’s so complicated that you just don’t do it.
Actually, weirdly, that stuff isn’t in the book. I think Tim, in common with most directors—just always the idea comes first and then worrying about budget or practicalities comes next. I think for most directors, and Tim is no exception, it’s what will be the best and most fun, and most magical thing to do here? And then we worry about how we’re going to do that.
I know a lot of writer-directors, when they’re writing, they don’t care about the budget or how to do stuff when writing. So I was wondering how that was when you were writing for a director who then has to figure out how to do it.
Honestly, I think most directors are about, “Let’s do the most fun and effective thing here and figure out how afterwards.” Most directors are great problem-solvers, and Tim is no exception. There’s always a way to approach anything. These days, we’ve got amazing CG, and there are so many great people around to do practical FX of the kind that Tim uses as well. I think most of the time you can make something happen, and it’s about not letting your imagination be limited by that.
Obviously, if you’re on a much lower budget film, you can’t suddenly say, “Let’s have this epic battle happen,” but the film had a generous budget, and we were fortunate in that.
I liked how he used Enoch’s powers to pay tribute to other stop-motion animators like the Quay Brothers and Ray Harryhausen, so was that something that was being discussed while planning?
I think Tim certainly has such an emotional connection with stop-motion that I think that was the way he was going to approach that scene with the little dolls fighting, and that’s a section he really enjoyed working on, I think.
Since I haven’t read the book, were all the Holocaust references part of it?
Yeah, that’s really integral to the book, and I felt it was important to preserve that. That was something that was important to Ransom, and I think it would be wrong to lose that.
When do you start talking about a sequel? Do you have to wait until Monday?
[Laughs] I think so. Certainly not before.
I’m sure that Fox would like to have another franchise, and there are more stories to tell from the books.
I guess. I think most of the time, no one wants to jump the gun. [Laughs]
Sometimes they do and then it never works out, but you never know. I hope this does though since I like the characters a lot.
Were there any characters created specifically for the movie or were they all taken from Ransom’s books?
I’m just trying to think. Actually, Sam Jackson’s character is a little expanded and created for the movie, in a sense, although he very much takes the same role. It’s an expanded character, but it’s really hard to describe without being too spoiler-y. I think there was an element of there not being one antagonist in the book in the same way that Barron is carried through, but the children, who are the important characters, they’re all very much from the book. There have been some minor alterations in terms of ages and also, Emma in the book had the peculiarity of creating fire, which is now Olive, they’re switched.
Other than that, the characters are unchanged. And Emma, in terms of who she is in terms of a character and person, is unchanged.
I imagine that once you start casting and when you have Tim Burton, I’m sure he can get anyone he wants since everyone knows his work and wants to work with him…
Yeah, and he’s renowned as being someone who is really lovely to work with, so I think actors are always keen to work with him.
How do you feel when you have someone like Samuel L. Jackson playing a role that may not have been originally envisioned as something that insane?
Oh, I don’t know. I was super, super excited but also having worked with him on Kingsman, so I felt it was a crazy amount of luck to work with him twice.
With Kick-Ass and Kingsman, you and Matthew started with Mark Millar’s original idea then you went off in your own direction. So now with the sequel to Kingsman, that’s not based on anything Millar has written, as was the case with Kick-Ass 2.
There isn’t anything to adapt, so this is an original story, the Kingsman sequel.
How’s that been in terms of figuring out what to do? Had you talked about what might be possible while writing the original Kingsman?
No, I think we had some ideas about if we did a sequel, this would be fun or that would be fun, but the story itself was just a process of just sitting down and writing it, which we both really enjoyed. It was a fun experience.
I was thinking you’ve only written one movie that wasn’t an adaptation, The Debt. Is that right?
No, the things Matthew and I have worked on have all been adaptations with the exception of this Kingsman sequel and other things I’ve worked on have been largely adaptations, some staying closer to the source material than others. But yeah, I really enjoy the process of adapting, but also, I really enjoyed writing an original story as well.
You’ve written quite a few books before your movie work. Have you ever talked about adapting some of those into a movie?
Oh, no, they’re not good enough. [Laughs] Nah. Always move forward.
I thought Matthew at one point was going to do a movie based on Turf, Jonathan’s [Ross, Goldman’s husband] comic book. Is that true?
I think it’s something they’re still talking about. I don’t know if Matthew would direct it, but I know he likes the comic very much, and it’s something they’re still having conversations about, I’m sure, but I don’t know what happened with that down the line.
Have you ever thought about getting into that world?
Yeah, like writing something original or a spin-off of one of the things you’ve done as a movie.
Oh my goodness. I don’t know. I love reading comic books, but I’m not sure—I think it’s a different form—
Sure, you’re working with artists rather than a director—but I’ve heard from many writers how difficult it is to collaborate with artists so…
That seems to be quite a common theme, I have to say, from the little I know. That seems to be a theme.
It’s kind of like working with musicians. You just need to know how to talk to them and get along with them…
Yeah, so I gather. [Laughs] No, no. I enjoy the medium of film, and I think I understand it well, and I like working with directors, so yeah, I think I’ll stick with this.
What are you working on next?
Annoyingly, nothing that’s at the stage where I’m allowed to talk about it, which is annoying. I’m so sorry.
I know you have a lot of stuff you’ve been attached to like an adaptation of Nate Simpson’s Non-Player.
Yeah, I was really sad that it didn’t—it’s just one of those kinds of things that just never materialized. I adored that comic.
Did they ever even release a second issue?
There is now a second issue. Nate is just so talented and brilliant, and obviously does all his own art—therefore solving the problem that you were talking about. But he’s such a huge talent, and God, I love that story, but I don’t think that’s happening in the foreseeable future.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children opens nationwide on Friday, Sept. 30. You’ll also want to check out Den of Geek’s interview with Ransom Rigg.