Diary Of A Wimpy Kid Author Jeff Kinney Talks About The New Disney+ Movie – Exclusive Interview
One of the definitive children’s book series of the ’00s through today, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” has a new movie coming out on Disney+ on December 3rd. The story of Greg and Rowley going to middle school is now told in animated form, and it’s a charming movie that will appeal to all ages.
Jeff Kinney, the man behind the books, wrote the screenplay and also acted as a producer. His influence shows — not only is the book the most textually close to the original story, the animation style resembles his artwork. That said, there’s also a few tweaks and updates. Although they aren’t core parts of the story, topics such as smartphones, social media, and the fact that people don’t carry cash anymore all come up at some point.
Looper spoke with Kinney in anticipation of the movie’s release. He told us how he keeps the story timeless, the trick to keeping Greg sympathetic, and how small stories pack such a powerful punch.
A light touch
So first, the movie you have is a lot of fun. It’s very cute. I had a great time watching it.
Ah, thank you very much. I’m just meeting just now the people who have seen the film, and it’s really exciting to get that kind of feedback. I’m glad you liked it.
Tell me if I have my accounting right. You have, in the “Wimpy Kid” series, 16 mainline books, a spinoff, four live action movies, a musical, this, and a potential sequel. How do you keep going?
Yeah, it’s crazy. COVID has helped me keep going really, because when there are times of stress or big things are happening in the world, I tend to write. That’s how I kind of express myself and deal with those kinds of problems. So I’ve been my most productive during these past two years.
The movie follows the plot of the first book pretty closely, but there’s little changes here and there. And the biggest change is you mentioned social media, you mentioned smartphones, you mentioned not carrying cash in there. How did you find a way to integrate these new issues all while keeping the core of the story there?
Yeah. I tried to go about it with a really light touch because I want these stories to feel really timeless. And so I thought to myself, “Okay, 20 years from now, what are going to be the issues that kids have?” I think that parents are still going to have to decide, “When do you give your kid a cell phone?” Obviously, social media is going to still be around and people aren’t going to be carrying cash. So we tried to keep a really light touch because we want these things to be relatable. And we want a grandfather [or] a grandmother right now to watch the movie and feel like this could have happened to them too.
The movie is also kind of claustrophobic. It’s about wanting to find space, often physically. How do you go about making things claustrophobic in such an animated environment?
The story is a really small story if you think about it. In fact, the story is so small that half the kids at Greg and Rowley’s school probably don’t even know that it happened. And I think that’s something that’s fun about this relationship between Greg and Rowley is that it is kind of claustrophobic. It’s a little uncomfortable how claustrophobic it is, and Greg is trying to define who he is as a person. So that’s the challenge of this story is to figure out how to keep this relationship together while still carving out space for yourself.
Keeping Greg sympathetic
Greg is obviously the hero and he is sympathetic, but he’s also, in many ways, kind of the villain of the story. He causes a lot of problems, and some of this is a kid coming of age and figuring things out. How do you tell a story where you have the main character do so many objectively bad things and keep him sympathetic?
All right, that’s a good question. Well, first of all, a trick in filmmaking is if you make your main character, whoever the main character is, people are generally going to root for that character. But I think also with Greg is that any faults that he has, you can see them in yourself. Chances are, you’ve done one of the things that Greg he has done. And I don’t think he’s a bad kid. I think he’s a kid who’s messy. He’s a little over confident, and he’s recording his life story in a journal at a time when he really shouldn’t. So he needs to grow up, and that’s the fun of the character. I think there are plenty of kids’ properties where the main character is a hero. They always do the right thing. They’re kind of boring. I like Greg. He’s a little messy.
Speaking of messy, how do you keep Rowley sympathetic in the process? Because he does a lot of weird things himself. How do you keep us rooting for Rowley?
I think that Rowley, you root for Rowley because he’s uncorruptable, right? Greg has an older brother. He’s got a taste of that older life. Greg aspires to be older and to be more free, but Rowley doesn’t. He’s an only child and he really loves being a kid. And honestly, I wish I was more like that as a kid. I was a lot more like Greg, but I wish I was more like Rowley because he’s really rooted in a child’s world.
That leads to another question I have, which is: You say you related to Greg. How much of Greg is actually you?
I think a good part, and I’m having trouble actually discerning or disentangling who Greg is and who I am because I’ve lived with this character for so long. But a lot of the thoughts that I have as an adult, I push them through this filter of Greg’s voice. So I’d say we’re pretty entangled.
There have been “Wimpy Kid” movies in the past, but this is, I think, the most creative control you’ve had over one, probably between the writing and the producing and the fact that it looks just like your artwork. Is this role a burden for you? Is it a joy? Is it a relief? What’s it like having this much control over the property for the first time?
Yeah. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had actually. I love sitting in this position. I love writing. I’ve never really had a chance to write something that got filmed. So it’s also very empowering when you write dialogue that’s spoken by actors, and we have some famous actors in the second movie who I can’t mention yet, it’s really cool. It’s really cool when you write dialogue and then they say it. I got to say, it’s a high.
Are there any particular movies that you drew inspiration from?
I think of “A Christmas Story” and some other movies like that, which are these sort of timeless stories about childhood. That’s the type of story I’d really like to tell. There are some iconic things in “A Christmas Story,” like the BB gun and some other things like that. And there are a few iconic things in the “Wimpy Kid” movie as well.
How it ended up animated
What was behind the decision to make it animated? Why did you make it animated instead of rebooting a live action story?
Actually, we started this project during the filming of the live action movies. I talked to Fox Animation. We wanted to do a primetime Christmas special, and we liked working together so much that we kept at it. And so it morphed many times from a primetime Christmas special to a TV series to what it is now. And I’m really, really happy where we landed.
You came in at a very strange time. It was in the middle of the merger and everything. Was there any concern that it’d be lost in the shuffle?
Sure. You always worry about that somebody champions your work and now they’re gone, and that kind of thing can happen a lot. So I felt really, really pleased that they put A level talent behind Wimpy Kid, they made it a priority, and that they started from the beginning. That’s really cool.
How much of a relief is it that it’s finally out now?
Well, it’s not quite out yet now. So I’m really excited. It’s going to be out very soon, and I am really excited for people to see it. What’s really cool is that little kids are going to see it and grandparents are going to see it. And people sitting around the TV, maybe even older people who never experienced the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books when they were kids, might see it as well. So I’m excited it’s going to reach a big audience.
Middle school and closing thoughts
The movie didn’t necessarily remind me of middle school directly, because that’s going to change for every generation, but it reminded me of the anxiety of going to middle school. How do you nail that specific part?
Everybody knows what it’s like to step into a new situation, whether it’s a new job or being the new kid. But yeah, there’s this metaphor where they’re going up those big stairs and opening the double doors, and they don’t know what they’re going to get on the other side. So I think what’s really cool about fiction is that you can tell the truth better than you can with non-fiction or a documentary. So it’s great to be able to express something like that through animation.
I think I have time for about one more question, which is a nice broad one: What is what is your favorite movie of all time?
Of all time? Boy, I was thinking about this the other day. I’m going to toss out a few. I’m going to say “Ghost,” “Amadeus,” “Glory.” I loved “Raising Arizona.” So those are all some of my favorite movies for different reasons.
Do you think any of those influenced “Wimpy Kid” in any way?
Boy, maybe a little bit of “Raising Arizona,” because it was a comedy. But I don’t see a direct line between them, but it definitely had an influence on me.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” debuts on Disney+ on December 3rd.