I honestly didn’t expect much from the film “Bridge to Terabithia” when I saw it back in 2007. I hadn’t grown up with the 1977 novel by Katherine Paterson, which served as the source material and had been a normal part of the curriculum at the elementary school where my dad worked for decades. The trailers promised little more than a standard fantasy adventure yarn, and I was stunned to find myself in tears when the film reached its final scenes. The same could be said of “The Great Gilly Hopkins,” a new Paterson adaptation that sneaks up on you with its poignance and refreshing honesty. The screenplay was written by the author’s son, David Paterson, who also co-authored the “Terabithia” script two years after his feature debut, “Love, Ludlow,” which Roger Ebert hailed as a “Sundance treasure.” That film portrayed the charged dynamic between a tough woman, her charming boyfriend and her eccentric brother who feels threatened by their relationship. David’s gift for crafting authentic and engaging characters is also on full display in his adaptation of Gilly Hopkins. Sophie Nélisse shines in the title role, an embittered kid fighting against the nurturing care of her foster mother, Maime Trotter (Kathy Bates), while dreaming of being whisked away by her estranged mother (Julia Stiles).
In a lively, in-depth conversation, David spoke with me about how Jesse, the male protagonist of “Bridge,” is based on him; why films that are appropriate for families should not be dismissed; and his triumphant struggle to preserve the integrity of his mother’s literary classics onscreen.
What led you to write your debut script for “Love, Ludlow”?
I had never really planned on being a writer. I was an actor and a stuntman when I was younger, and I actually went to London to study stunt work because there were no real programs for it in the United States. While I was in London, I decided to take a playwriting course through King’s College. My instructor was a terrific alcoholic who would show up drunk at every class. He would show us the basic format and then say, “Next week, I want ten pages.” No discussion of themes or anything like that. I didn’t have a lot of money, and there were coin-operated electricity boxes in my flophouse, so I decided to write in local pubs. The very first play that I wrote in a pub was back when the IRA was still active—tossing bombs in bars. All the windows were painted black, there were double doors and everyone smoked, so you couldn’t see more than four feet ahead of you. Amidst all of these English and Irish and Scottish accents, I heard the thickest Edith Bunker “All in the Family” Queens accent from across the bar. I’m from the South, so I was immediately transfixed with this wonderful melodic sound. As the story goes, I went to the bar, there were two blondes, I told a joke, only one laughed, and she and I have been together for about 30 years now.
My wife was—and still is, to a degree—a tough-talking chick from Queens, so my very first play was about a tough-talking chick from Queens and a gentleman caller who tries to bring her out of her shell on a date. She also has to deal with her brother who has some issues. In my mind, my wife was Myra and I was both Reggie [the boyfriend] and Ludlow [the brother]. I could be a very charming guy to her, but I could also be a regular jerky guy. My wife is still a tough-talking chick, but she’s gotten rid of the Queens accent, and is now a lawyer. The play was originally called “Finger Painting in a Murphy Bed,” but very few people know what a Murphy Bed is [a hidden bed that folds down from the wall], so we changed the title to “Love, Ludlow.” It was very well-received and I had shows on and off-Broadway, so I considered myself a genius and thought that someone would discover me. Then 9/11 happened. I was a rescue worker at ground zero and I lost a cousin in the towers. I came out of that experience realizing that yes, I could be an incredible writer, but I could also be gone tomorrow. So instead of continuing to wait for someone to discover me, I needed to do something on my own.
I was not familiar with the film business at all, and I heard that there was this festival called Sundance. I thought “Love, Ludlow” would make a good movie and that it would get in. That’s exactly how it happened, though once it got in, people told me how rare that sort of success really was. I was working as a fireman when the film got into Sundance, and I didn’t tell anyone about it until it was officially announced in The New York Times. In fact, The New York Times called my captain at the firehouse and asked about me. My captain was like, “Well, what did he do now?”, and they said, “No, we wanted to talk about his movie that’s going to Sundance.” My captain had no idea what they were talking about. People in my town knew me mostly as a fireman and a stay-at-home father. I had retired from both acting and stunt work to raise my boys, and I had started concentrating on my writing when I was home with the kids.
Bridge to Terabithia also has personal origins, considering how your mother based the book on your own relationship with a childhood friend.
That’s one reason early on that I decided not to become a writer. Bridge is very closely based on my relationship with my best friend. She was killed nine months after I had met her, and I was seven years old at the time. My mother wrote the book more out of therapy than anything else. In the book and movie, the adults didn’t know how to deal with Jesse. They avoided him as if he was a broken china doll, and they felt that if they reached out to him, he would break even more. My mom would be the first to admit that a lot of people abandoned me because they didn’t know what to do. She didn’t think that the book would ever get published. She had written three lesser-known works about feudal Japan, and this was an American book about an American story. Her publisher told her that the book needed to be published, and obviously, she was right about that. But the ensuing success and notoriety of the book drove me underground. I was ashamed and in a lot of ways humiliated by the success of the book. We had been dirt poor, and now all of a sudden, I had new shoes, my dad was able to buy a newer used car, we were actually eating meat two or three times a week, as opposed to once, and the only trade off was we had to kill my best friend for it.
When you’re eight years old, and your dad works for Jesus—my dad’s a preacher, by the way—how do you deal with that shame? I decided that I wasn’t going to tell anyone about the book. I stopped reading altogether, and it was a very tough period for me. Eventually you have to start moving forward with your life, but you can never get rid of a scar that deep. I’ve talked to a lot of student groups and they’ve been like, “Oh, you were Jesse from Bridge? That is so cool!” I try to explain to them that it’s like looking at someone’s scar and saying, “That’s really cool!” But you don’t know how deep that wound went to leave that scar. As the years progressed and I saw how widely the book had been embraced generation after generation, I realized that if it was going to be made into a movie, it should be made by someone who will protect the story, and not just someone who wants to do it for a quick buck.
It literally took me two years just to option the book from my mom’s publisher, because they didn’t want to give it to me. My mom was giving it to me for a dollar, and the publisher was like, “We can get a lot more money out of this.” Once I had secured the rights, I wrote a screenplay and got offered money a lot of times for it. But every time, the stipulation was that my mother and I would have nothing to do with the filmmaking, and I refused. If this was all about money, I’d have done it long ago. This was really about honoring my best friend and honoring the book, and sometimes honor is a little more important than the dollar amount. Disney offered me a ton of money in ’94, but they basically said the girl was going to live, because no one would want to see a movie where a little girl dies. Ten years later, they changed their minds, though I still insisted that I had to be a part of the production. The reason it took 17 years from the day I optioned the book to the day of the film’s release was simply because I refused to sell out. I attached myself as a writer and producer because I knew that while writers were expendable, producers are a little more difficult to get rid of.
I think the main reason why the film was so successful was because it preserved the honesty and heartache of the ending.
I literally had conversations where people asked, “Can we just cripple her? How about we cripple her but when we wheel her in a wheelchair on the bridge to Terabithia, she can walk and dance?” Another person said, “How about we put her in a really bad coma, but somehow, he can bring some magic fairy dust from Terabithia…” My stance was, “Guys, the last 20 pages of Bridge to Terabithia are the last 20 pages of the film. Those can’t change. And to be honest, I’m not really interested in changing the 100 pages before that.” It’s a basic rule of thumb: every time Hollywood decides to interpret a children’s book rather than adapt it, it loses a ton of money. Time and time again they have proven when you change the elements of a book to try and get it to a wider audience, it will lose money. Hollywood has not learned that. It’s the strangest thing. Hollywood looks at children’s authors and says, “We love your book. Now here’s what’s wrong with it, and here’s how we’re going to fix it. We know the lead heroine is 12. We’re going to make her 24, size DD. We know it takes place in Paris in a castle. We’re going to put it on the moon and throw in a couple electronic pterodactyls. Trust us, this thing is going to soar!” They really know how to mess things up.
Walden Media’s motto was to faithfully adapt children’s literature to the screen. This was the first Hollywood company I had ever seen that actually wanted to involve the author with the making of the movie, and I told my mom that we should work with these guys. Interestingly enough, there were still moments where I had to fight tooth and nail with some of the executives. They would just pat me on the head and do what they wanted, so I’d go home and e-mail my mom about what had happened. I’d copy a couple of the executives on the e-mail, and they’d call me within 35 seconds, saying, “Why are you calling your mommy? That’s so uncool!” I told them, “No no, I’m actually notifying the author that her book is undergoing some changes that she didn’t authorize.” Then they’d call my mom, who would tell them that they should listen to her son. This wasn’t a legal issue, but it was the fact that the company was so pumped on promoting the author’s backing of the project that they were required to have the author onboard.
The other thing that saved the film was the low budget. “Bridge” was only shot for $28 million, and we had to go to New Zealand to shoot it for that cheap. Had we shot it in the states, it would’ve cost between $75 and 80 million. All the executives wanted more Terabithia, but we just couldn’t afford it. In the book, Terabithia is only talked about in eight or nine pages, yet people will still come up to my mom or me and say, “I loved that battle with the trolls when the dragon came through.” We’re like, “That wasn’t in the book,” and they would insist that it was. Anybody reading a book is actually a filmmaker. They’re actually making their own movie in their head, which makes it especially dangerous when you’re adapting a book, because you have millions of filmmakers out there who already have created their own vision of the story. People who read the book probably saw the trailer and thought, “This has nothing to do with the book.” But that’s one of those compromises that you must make. I didn’t love the trailers, but I was aware of their purpose. We heard that a lot of faithful book readers initially didn’t go to the movie because of the trailers, but eventually the positive word-of-mouth led them to check it out. I don’t want to call the trailer a bait-and-switch, but to a certain degree, that’s what it was.
How did you handle the studio’s inevitable request for a sequel?
When it was released over President’s Day weekend, “Bridge to Terabithia” did unbelievable numbers, and it’s still one the top 15 highest-grossing films ever released on that weekend. The studio contacted me and said, “We need to capitalize on this, we need to announce a sequel.” And I said, “A sequel to…you guys saw the movie, right? The girl’s dead.” And they’re like, “We don’t even care about the story, we just need to announce a sequel.” I said, “Look, as much as I like money and guaranteed work, I’m going to say no because my mother is going to say no. The fact that we made a great tribute to my friend is wonderful, but a sequel would be cashing in on her gravestone.” They hung up on me, and then the billionaire who owns Walden Media called my mother and said, “Katherine, I’m a businessman. I’d like to think you are a businesswoman. Is it a question of money?” And my mother said, “No, it’s not a question of money. It is a question of ‘no.’ I keep saying no and people keep questioning it. I have many other books that I would love to discuss with you, but as far as I’m concerned, I have no interest whatsoever in a sequel.” He hung up on her and we were immediately told by my agent that we were now known as “difficult people to work with.”
Would I do it all over again? Well, I’ll tell you that I did not know that the writer’s strike would happen soon afterward. But yes, I would still do it again. I’m lucky enough to have a wife, kids and several other jobs that make me happy. I don’t need to compromise my soul, at least at this point. I’ve got plenty of friends that went to Hollywood early on and are the shadows of who they once were because of the things they had to do, but I didn’t have to do that. The crazy thing is, there may be a sequel to “Bridge to Terabithia” down the road, because the studio does own those rights. However, the motto of both Walden and Disney was to “faithfully adapt.” Obviously, a sequel without the author being behind it would be a complete violation of their motto and their policy. They could just be lying low for five or ten years and then make a sequel. They have that right, but my mom and I will not be leading that charge.
I was struck by how Myra in “Love, Ludlow” and Gilly in “The Great Gilly Hopkins” are both strong-willed, closed-off characters who are gradually worn down by the kindness of strangers. What attracts you to exploring this type of character?
Well, I have 15 titles published with Samuel French, and I’ve written a bunch of other screenplays. Most of my characters are independent minded women. Not only is my mother a writer, but since I work from home, my wife and I have reversed roles. Over the years, I’ve seen how much more responsible women are than men overall. I feel that women are far more interesting characters. They have to deal with so much more crap than the average Joe does. I lecture at a lot of film festivals, and one my lectures is entitled, “How to Stay Under Budget and On Schedule: Hire Women.” I’ll tell the audience, “Guys break s—t and try to hide it. A woman will dent something and offer to cover it.” You’d be amazed how many times a male PA would leave with $500 to go buy something that’s $100. They’ll come back with $12 in their pocket and they don’t have a single receipt on them. That’s one reason why I would hire a woman over a man 100 times over. I’ve watched my wife climb the corporate ladder—being stepped on, kicked, grabbed, groped by men. I’ve gained such respect for women by observing all the challenges they face.
What’s interesting about “Gilly Hopkins” is there are a lot of women, both in the book and in the film, who try to reach out and help the heroine because that’s what happens in real life. I thought the cast was so female-heavy that I changed the role of the social worker. Since there were so few compassionate men in the film, I thought that a lead character should be male. There was no interest to distribute the film because it was so female-centric. One French distributor said to us, “This film is full of old women and black people. Who in France would want to see this?” We encountered that reaction on this side of the coast as well, though not as blatantly racist and bigoted as that. The film doesn’t have any action heroes or other huge marketable elements, apart from being a really nice film. If it’s not about a Marvel comic hero, what is the hook in selling a movie? I hate the phrase “family film” because it causes people to look at your movie all wonky-eyed. I prefer to say that “The Great Gilly Hopkins” is a film that you can take your family to.
You found the right director in Stephen Herek, whose 1995 tear-jerker, “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” is a great “film that you can take your family to.”
When you are in a foxhole, that is the man that you want with you. As a producer and a writer on a project, you initially hold the reins, but once the money people come in above you, that grip starts to give way. You have to lose some control in order to get the film made. “Bridge” never would’ve gotten made had all my demands happened, and the same is true of “Gilly.” I did not have final say with “Gilly,” but what I did have, in addition to my mother, was a director who was on my side. When producers came in to propose changes, Stephen said, “Let’s try to stick with the book.” One of the first times I sat down with him, he said, “I see a great movie here in this book. I read the script, I read the book, and that is the film I want to make.” To have a director not only come out and say that, but to also stick with it, is so rare.
I also loved “Mr. Holland’s Opus.” I don’t want to steal any credit from the writer, being a writer myself, but when you can see a film like “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” you can sense that the director has a strong, warm hand on the shoulder of the script. I dare anyone to go to “Mr. Holland’s Opus,” and come out saying that they hated the movie. Both that film and “Gilly” hit on core emotions that we all have. Yes “Gilly” is about a 13-year-old girl, but we all share her need to feel loved and her desire to have a place she can call home. Those are the most basic emotions that every human has. You could walk into this movie by yourself or with a date and still enjoy it. Even young boys have been dragged kicking and screaming to “Gilly” because it is “a girl’s movie,” and they have come out loving it.
Sophie Nélisse delivered one of the greatest child performances I’ve ever seen in Philippe Falardeau’s French Canadian film, “Monsieur Lazhar.” What impressed me in “Gilly” was not only her performance but her flawless English.
To be honest, I was completely against casting Sophie when they first mentioned her name. She was French Canadian, and I thought she was too old for the role. It’s very tough to get an actor—even an adult actor—to shed any trace of their accent, but I was very surprised by how well she did it. There were days where she got tired and you could hear a little French Canadian sneak in there, but we’d just shoot the scene again. I thought she did a terrific mid-range, middle Atlantic American accent. The fact that she is older than her character was originally written allows her to show that anger of abandonment. I wrote the line in which Ellis, the social worker, tells Gilly that she’s too old for this crap, and that she’ll end up in a teen facility because she’s too old to be adopted. There are over 400,000 foster kids in the system in the U.S., and most of them are shuffled around from foster home to foster home. Either they find a permanent residence, or they are emancipated into the world. It is tough to be that age, and you tend to be pretty darn angry.
I was surprised by how little screen time Gilly’s mother has in the film, but it does reflect how much of a non-presence she is in her daughter’s life.
That was actually one of my regrets. In both the book and the original screenplay, there are fantasy sequences of Gilly dreaming about what it would be like to be with her mom. We actually shot three of them, but only one survived. I’m bummed because the fantasy sequences added a lot of levity, but when you are under a time constraint, you can only fit so much into the film. The sequence that we kept in the film is the most important because it shows how Gilly idealizes her mom. She will be a rock star to her mom, they will have a rock star life, and all problems will be solved. All her mom needs to do is show up. I fought to make sure that sequence stayed in there because you needed to understand Gilly’s thought process. Though she may be a young woman, she is still a child in so many ways. She has never had the chance to be a child except in her own mind, and that is what has led her to have this ridiculous fantasy. It’s devastating both in the book and the film.
One thing I’m very proud of is the sequence with Trotter and Gilly at the end of the film. In the book, it happens on the telephone from the airport. Gilly excuses herself to go to the bathroom, she calls Trotter and explains that her grandmother only paid her mother to show up. Most of the lines that are in that scene in the movie are actually from the book, but I told my mom, “The audience will leave this theater hating us if the movie ends on a phone call to Trotter and you never see her again. Let me take Gilly back to Trotter’s house so the audience can see them face to face.” I don’t know about you, but I get pretty teared up every time I see that scene with Trotter basically having to give Gilly away while telling her how much she has grown.
What moved me most of all in that scene was how Trotter, as a woman of faith, refused to impose her religious beliefs on Gilly, insisting that she loves the girl for who she is.
I credit my mother with that. I mentioned my dad was a preacher, and his dad was a preacher as well. My mother was studying to become a preacher, and there are many other preachers in the family. My older brother was supposed to become a preacher, but he went into advertising to make money, which my dad was okay with. When I told my dad that I wanted to become an actor, he wept openly because that was the one job that made less money than a preacher. Faith has always been a huge element in my mom’s life. All of the characters in her books refer to their faith on one level or another, but she’s not a Bible beater. Her characters have faith as the vast majority of people do. Some people wear it on their sleeves, other people wear it quietly. My mom always saw Trotter as a woman of faith and a woman of love, but a woman that would never try to force her faith on anyone. Trotter saw her job as one of love and protection, but as a guardian and not an owner of the child. It’s her house, and she has the kids pray at dinner, but she’s not trying to convert Gilly. If anything, she just wants to show Gilly that there’s hope, and that she can have faith in others.
What future projects do you see on the horizon?
I formed the company Arcady Bay Entertainment after “Bridge” so that my mother, my brother and I could work together—not because you should work with family, but because our mother’s work is very good and there’s no reason to make it bad just to put it in another medium. We know her work translates very successfully—look at the last two we’ve done—but if someone is going to do it, it should be family. We should protect it not only for my mom, but the millions upon millions of readers who have read her books. As for our next projects, we’re currently looking at two properties. It’s either going to be Come Sing Jimmy Jo, which is set in the world of country music and follows a young boy who is forced to become the front man for his family’s singing group. The other one, Jacob Have I Loved, won the Newbery Medal in 1980. It’s a period piece that takes place on an island during WWII, where two twin sisters are vying for the affections of one of the few men on the island.
Putting my producer hat on, I see the difficulty in making a period piece set around water, as well the expense of making a film featuring country music. One way or another, we’ll figure out what to do. My mother has written over 27 novels and 30 or 40 short stories, so there’s no lack of material to choose from. I’m also working on projects that I have written myself, and will be directing one of them in the spring. As you know, it takes a long time to get a movie made. “Bridge” took 17 years and “Gilly” took 9, so I’m hoping the next one will take a little shorter than those two. But the simple truth is that there is no short route toward making something good. It will always take longer. Just ask any baker.
“The Great Gilly Hopkins” was released in theaters and online platforms on October 7th and was one of the top ten independent films on iTunes during its first week.