Returning for the fourth Diary Of A Wimpy Kid film – and his third as director – is British-born director David Bowers. Having started with animation – directing Flushed Away and Astro Boy, amongst his extensive credits – Bowers has since been primarily working on bringing Jeff Kinney’s characters to the screen.
Ahead of the release in UK cinemas this Friday of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul, he spared us some time for a chat about the movie.
We started by my asking if he’d been to see the film himself since it was finished…
I went on Saturday to watch it. My mother in law wanted to see it. The guy in front of us, who’d grudgingly taken his seven-year old daughter, was laughing like Robert De Niro in Cape Fear!
Oh lord. Your film is much better than Problem Child!
[Laughs] Well, thank you!
In fact, I can’t remember as pure a family unit on screen in a live action film – a PG-rated one – since The Addams Family. Is that unit a key attraction for you? It seems very strange to say we don’t have films like this anymore, but we don’t really have films like this anymore.
We don’t have films like this anymore!
With my own children, I struggle to find films to take them to that in any way reflect their own lives. In fact, family movies these days are superhero movies – which are great – or animated movies. Which are also great. But they seem to have squeezed live action family movies out of the picture completely.
I think Eddie The Eagle was last year’s, outside of Disney live action fairytales.
Yeah. I thought Eddie The Eagle was great by the way! But yeah, I thought it’d be fun to show a complete family unit stuck in a car. The characters that Jeff Kinney writes… it’s nice for kids to have something relatable to see on screen. It’s fun to see yourself, and your family in a movie.
Much of the press ahead of the film centred on the new cast over the last film. Yet it doesn’t feel like a reboot, just a recasting, and it’s seamlessly handled in the first few minutes. Were you looking for that element of consistency, or did you consider a full reboot?
I wanted that element of consistency. Whenever I talk to anyone about it, I reference the James Bond films. When Sean Connery changed to Roger Moore, bless him, the films were quite different in tone. The James Bonds were different, but they still fitted in the James Bond world. They weren’t completely new. The actors changed, but the characters haven’t.
So is The Long Haul the Live And Let Die of the Wimpy Kid films?
[Laughs] No, I’m just using the example!
But you’re talking to a nerd website, so I have to ask.
You know, I like Live And Let Die. I think it’s the best Roger Moore Bond film. I like The Man With The Golden Gun too!
Can I ask about your relationship with the author of the books, Jeff Kinney then? It’s been five years between films, but do the two of you talk, do you play golf together, do you ignore each other?!
[Laughs] Jeff lives on the other side of the country, so we don’t see each other very often. But when he comes to Los Angeles, we do get together. We do chat, and we do email. We’ve kept friendly between the movies, definitely.
Jeff’s great. I feel very lucky to work with him. He’s a pleasure to be around, honestly.
Where did the impetus for this film come from? Because it has been five years since the last Wimpy Kid film.
I think we thought it was just time. The movies, the first three, have continued to play on television, they’ve been best sellers on home video. Audiences seem really invested in them. Based on working on the movies, Jeff wrote The Long Haul with the intent that it might eventually be a movie. It’s the first book he wrote thinking it’d be a good story to tell on screen. Fox and Fox 2000 though that five years was a respectable amount of time, and that maybe audiences would be keen to see the stories again. The books continue to sell. I think there are 180 million in print now.
I feel like I’ve bought 180 million copies!
[Laughs] You might have done.
I was approached by the producers initially in asking if I’d be interested in working on the script with Jeff.
Usually with films, though, when there’s a long gap, there tends to be a creative personnel change as well. But you’re the glue here.
Yeah, I mean honestly, the films are such fun to make. The creative team, the producers Nina and Brad, it’s like putting the band back together. These are the kind of films I liked when I was a kid. And I thought I had something to say about a road trip, having been on a few myself! It seemed like it’d be fun.
Also, I also try and change the movies up. These one seemed to be an opportunity to be about the whole family for once. And what it’s like to be couped up with them, and what family bonds ultimately can mean. Ultimately with it being a road trip, I felt like it could be a different type of movie. I like road trip movies too.
I think it works well. We had to move to a new cast, of course. But I think these guys gel very well. They feel like a very rounded family to me.
The actual recasting process itself I want to ask you about. The first three films is the best cast of young actors I think I’ve seen in recent live action family films. When you came to recast, were you looking at the previous actors as a template, or the characters in the book?
The characters in the book have a very specific voice. Part of the success with casting the actors in these roles is finding actors who are like the characters anyway. Jason [Drucker], amazing talented, amazingly disciplined, but he’s a little bit of a hustler, he’s super-smart. He’s got a Greg side to him. He’s not selfish in the way Greg is, he’s very considerate. But he knows all the angles, and nothing gets past him!
When it came to Rodrick, Charlie [Wright] is the opposite of him. He’s a very smart guy, a real cinephile, and he’s seen a lot of movies for someone his age. He’s got a Keanu Reeves vibe, which I thought was interesting. Alicia Silverstone, she’s a mum herself, she has a blog – The Kind Life – about leading a healthy lifestyle. She’s a terrific parent, and we needed that nurturing personality to represent Susan. Tom [Everett Scott] is just fantastically funny, and he’s very easy going and laid back. A terrific actor, with great comic sensibility.
I think the true test will be how good the outtakes are on the discs this time. The last three films didn’t let us down there.
It’s funny. For the DVD these time, I’ve incorporated the outtakes into the deleted scenes. I don’t really like deleted scenes.
Why don’t you like them?
Usually, I find you watch them and go I can see why those were cut! It’s often extremely boring or a scene you can understand why it wasn’t in the movie. I think it’s interesting to see deleted scenes when someone’s changed the ending, for instance, because you get to see the filmmakers’ choices. I would like to see the original ending of World War Z, for instance.
I think we’re all on board there.
Your films come in around the 90 minute mark. Are you particularly aggressive about targeting that?
Not aggressively, but I’m not sure they should be much longer. I’m not sure how long the longest of mine is, but I don’t think it’s 100 minutes.
It’s not, not.
I think around 90 minutes is the perfect amount of time for a movie. I think once you’re in the cinema and you’ve sat down and watched the trailers, it’s a good two hours.
Is part of this from your animation background? Every animator I’ve spoken to tells me their films are so drilled and edited before a frame is animated, it naturally brings the running time down.
I wonder. The editor’s assembly of this movie was about one hour 50 minutes, so we went through and tightened it up. Took out scenes, shortened scenes. With animation, you’re in the lucky position where you make your film before you start animating it. In live action, you tend to overshoot a little. The worst you can have is an editor’s assembly that’s 80 minutes! That’d be a bit of a disaster.
What did you lose in the 20 minutes or so you took out? Was there a big sequence you lost?
At the beginning of the movie, we had a longer scene in the restaurant. There were originally twice as many jokes in the introduction! We took it all out because in a movie like this, you want to see them on the road as soon as you can. It’s the same at the end of the movie. As Billie Wilder said, when the story’s over, you’re done. We have a few endings on this one…
… you’re hardly Return Of The King!
[Laughs] No, no! But at the same time, the potential was there to have as many endings!
Where do you personally go now? You’ve done a lot of animated work, a lot of live action. Are you story-driven, or do you deliberately choose which medium you want to work in?
I think it’s about finding interesting stories, but I’d like to do different kinds of movies. I’ve tried to do that throughout my career. I’m not quite sure where that’s going to take me. I have a few things percolating, but nothing ready to go!
David Bowers, thank you very much.
Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is in UK cinemas from Friday.