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INTERVIEW WITH JUDY MOODY AUTHOR MEGAN MCDONALD AND PRODUCER SARAH SIEGEL-MAGNESS  

Based on the wildly popular book series by children’s author Megan McDonald, the PTC Seal of ApprovalTM–winning movie Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer opens June 10th. The PTC recently interviewed Megan and the film’s producer, Sarah Siegel-Magness, who also produced the 2009 film Precious.

 

PTC: Megan, you wrote all the Judy Moody books. What was it like to write the screenplay for the movie?

MEGAN: This [pointing at Sarah] is very convincing woman. (Laughs) In the first five minutes, I knew she was the right one to do Judy Moody, because she had so much enthusiasm and passion for this project, so any trepidation I had went out the window. It was a little terrifying when she invited me to write the screenplay myself. At first it was so daunting, but then I realized, “What an opportunity! How could I not rise to this?”

SARAH: My fear was that, without Megan, we wouldn’t get the creative juice from the books. They, and Judy’s character, are in a very original voice, and without her, I couldn’t see anyone else translating that vocabulary, or anything else that’s in the book series.

PTC: Sarah, what led you to Judy Moody?

SARAH: It was required reading for my daughter’s class. And this is the truth: it was the only book that made me laugh while I was reading it with my daughter. I would laugh out loud at Megan’s writing.

MEGAN: I love that Sarah came to the project from reading with her daughter, and reading aloud to her daughter. A while back I was doing a book tour in Virginia and there had been a hurricane, and I can’t tell you how many people came to me and said, “We discovered Judy Moody because the lights went out. There was no power, and we couldn’t go to our separate rooms and use electronics, so we played board games, and we read aloud. We read Judy Moody and thought they were so much fun!” And I thought, “I’m sorry it took a hurricane, but…” Reading aloud as a family, I can’t imagine a family without that. So that’s a very important component for me.

PTC: Sarah, how do you go from a very serious film like Precious to something as light-hearted as Judy Moody?

SARAH: I know its hard to believe, but there are some similarities. First and foremost, [Sarah’s production company] Smokewood Films is about making films with a positive message, and with strong independent females in the lead. Judy Moody is obviously all-around positive, but Precious was another film that had a positive ending and a positive lead character and a positive message. Second, if you remember Precious, she had her little fantasy moments just as Judy does in Judy Moody. There’s a scene in Precious where Precious is being surrounded by visions of Martin Luther King. It was a real learning moment. And we had the same thing in Judy Moody; you see Judy surrounded by numbers as she’s adding up her “thrill points.” They’re very similar scenes, actually. Different movies, but the same themes.

PTC: Did you try to make Judy Moody a film that will appeal to parents as well as children?

SARAH: No, we set out to make a kids film, not an adult film. I think what’s happened to the kids market today is that companies are making kids films, but they’re making them for adults. I think it’s really hard to entertain both. This is a kids movie. It’s made for kids, by kids, and kids were all over the set! At the end of the day, that’s who our client is. We’re just trying to entertain kids.

PTC: With kids all over the set, did they have any input into the film? Was there ever a time when a kid came to you and said, “Hey, could this happen?”

MEGAN: Yes! There’s a scene where Judy decides she’s going to spend the summer in her room, because everything’s going wrong. So they did a little Monday-Tuesday-Wednesday-Thursday fast-forward sequence, and they had Jordana [Beatty, who plays Judy Moody] slump on the bed. And Jordana said, “Hey, could I wear that bathing cap that’s been sitting around on the set?” It was one of these hideous retro old lady bathing caps that’s covered with flowers. And so she put the bathing cap on, and then she says, “Can I be like Pippi Longstocking and lay backwards on the bed?” And then she put her feet in the little raft, and it ended up becoming a great sequence. But it all started because she just wanted to use some of the strange costumes and props we had around the set.

PTC: How concerned were you about translating the book and illustrations to the big screen, and getting a cast that would really personify the characters you have loved for years?

MEGAN: Well, Sarah knows my biggest concern. I said in my first five minutes, “This is a character with a lot of moods, but I walk a very fine line in the books. Even if it’s a brother-sister dynamic and Judy’s angry at her little brother Stink, I never have her say ‘shut up’ or ‘you’re stupid.’ I try to make it something creative. She’ll call him ‘Stinkeroo’ or ‘Stinkerama’ or something Judy would make up.” It’s so important, when you have a character with moods -- and many are good moods, but some are everyday bad moods -- that if it were overacted in the least bit, it would not be fun to watch. It would be obnoxious and snotty. From the beginning I said, “All I really, really want is to make sure this character is handled with care, and not overacting too much of a bad mood.” And Sarah completely heard that, and completely agreed. She said, “Of course! We wouldn’t want to watch the character if she’s obnoxious.”

Then Jordana came to the part, and she IS Judy Moody! She’s very nuanced as an actor. I’ve seen the film several times now, but every time I notice different nuances or expressions on her face. It’s so much fun to watch what she does on each word. And she goes from joyful, on-top-of-the-world moments to stomping up the stairs and slamming the door and yelling “roar!” I thought it was really deft, how she didn’t overplay any of those bad moods.

PTC: How did you find Jordana?

SARAH: We had a really hard time finding Judy Moody. When we started, I wanted my daughter to play the part, but she grew out of even looking in the realm of Judy Moody. So we went on this exhaustive search all over the United States looking for a Judy Moody, and none of them came even close to what we were looking for. It’s really hard to find an actor who can pull this off. So I was really frustrated and called Megan, and said “Do you have any ideas?”  And she said, “There was this girl who got the part of Eloise in the Uma Thurman movie that didn’t get made. She looks exactly like Judy Moody. You’ve got to find her!” So we were like, “Oh geez.” But we found her, Jordana Beatty. She happened to be in Australia, but we tracked her down and interviewed her on Skype. Actually, the first thing I did is introduce her to my kids, and watched her interact with them. Then I talked to her a little bit, first a general meeting, then I put her together with the director [John Schultz] and watched that. When I watched John work with her, she took a lot of direction really well, and there was a lot of magic, so we gave her the part. We only first met her in person when we started filming the movie.

MEGAN: I have to say, what I love about John is that he’s a big kid. He brought so much to the script. Because we weren’t sure, “are you allowed to drop a giant papier-mâché elephant head on a car?” And he’s like, “Go for it!”

SARAH: I think without John our movie would’ve been much more dialogue-oriented.

MEGAN:  We were more concerned about, “Let’s get a strong girl character,” and John comes in and he’s like this big overgrown boy, and he says, “Let’s have car chases! Let’s have the biggest roller coaster! Let’s go after Bigfoot!” So that really helped us get into  he whole spirit of it. And he really got into the books and knew the characters inside out.

PTC: What’s the most important message you want to send with this movie?

MEGAN: Well…Judy’s very strong-willed, and very independent and knows her own mind, and she’s very much a leader, she’s the one with all the ideas, and all the creativity, and she’s the person in the corner whom everyone gathers around because there kind of a light that comes off them…through them. So I want the character herself to be inspiring; but after having written about a character with moods for many years, it’s really important to me for Judy to feel very real. Things aren’t always perfect. You don’t win every contest. Life isn’t easy, especially for a kid. A lot of things go wrong for Judy Moody, but she meets adversity with a sense of humor. That’s what I hope kids will take away. There are a lot of disappointments or frustrations, but Judy always finds some kind of creative way to take that and turn it around.

SARAH: Also, another really important thing we wanted to do as filmmakers was to encourage kids to read, and go out and have adventures, not in their room with an Xbox, but out in the real world. Touch and feel the environment, and start interacting with what’s around you, not creating it in some virtual world.

MEGAN: Kids today are so structured. And in many ways they have to be, because that’s the world we live in; but now, they talk about kids who are nature-deprived. There’s a whole book about “nature deficit,” where kids can’t just go out in nature anymore. We used to run through the woods to the swimming pool, but today some parents say, “You can’t do that!” When I think of that now, it was really important to hearken back to that simplicity, a little bit more of an unstructured world, where you can go out and have adventures by catching toads or riding the roller coaster or trying to sit through a scary movie. That’s the spirit of adventure, of optimism and encouragement and “let’s see what’s out there!” that I hope Judy Moody encourages kids to try.

 

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