Despite the Walden Media and Walt Disney connection, Bridge to Terabithia (not to be confused with an earlier and vastly inferior made-for-TV version) is essentially an independent production, shot in New Zealand by first-time live-action director Gabor Csupo (a former animator on The Simpsons and creator of the Rugrats and Wild Thornberrys). While I'll admit that I am far from the target audience for Bridge, it is difficult not to be won over by its compelling story and the remarkable performances by its two young leads, Josh Hutcherson and AnnaSophia Robb.
I was able to corner David Paterson at the Ritz Carlton shortly after he arrived in San Francisco, before the final press junket for the film began in earnest early the next morning.
My mother [Katherine Paterson, author of the book] and I started this process by going to Seattle for the American Library Association annual conference. We screened Bridge to Terabithia
for about 250 to 300 librarians, educators and teachers. If they didn't like it, we probably would have had to make a pretty fast exit out of that room because these are the people who love and defend the book. Fortunately, it was very well received.
After that, I went to Sundance to try and make some contacts. People treated me well when I was there with Love, Ludlow. I was hoping that some of the journalists in Park City might want to chat about Bridge since they might not normally be able to get into these press junket things.
Did that happen much?
Actually, I set up about a dozen interviews.
This is typical of your proactive nature, not only as the screenwriter of the film but also as the producer and, in essence, the inspiration for the book.
I'm always working on full thrusters. I figure that you know a lot of people in the independent film business who may not go to big feature films, which this is. But I wanted them to know that I was one of them! [laughs] Someone who just happened to get caught up with this big film. But I certainly love the control that you have with independent films. Obviously, the budgets are much smaller. But with more money comes more headaches and the more people you have to report to. The actual making of the films is very similar in a lot of respects.
I suppose that's true.
With independent films, you can't afford to waste a dime. In the big film business, they go out of their way to waste dimes. They'll use entire rolls of quarters to support a table for the film crew and then just leave it there! [laughs] It's staggering the amount of money that's spent in big business. It's just crazy how money gets burned. It's quite an education. Three years ago, I wasn't even in the film business and here I've written and produced a fairly successful independent film and now I'm doing this one, completely the polar opposite. It's been a quite a film education these last three years.
It's not your average side project for a fireman.
[laughs] Exactly! People ask me, "What's scarier -- Hollywood or fighting fires?" At least I know what I'm up against in a fire. In Hollywood, there are thirty different ways to get burned that you don't see coming.
We started corresponding after Love, Ludlow was released on DVD. I was impressed at the time at your persistence in promoting the film. Despite their brief moment in the spotlight, many films that screen in Utah during late-January are just as rapidly forgotten. You weren't prepared to let that happen.
It was my first film. When I started working on it, I was 38 years old so I certainly wasn't a young man in the independent film business.
I really felt that if I was going to start something, I was going to finish it, too. I was prepared to take it as far as I possibly could. For a lot of people, if they know you have a film at Sundance, they say, "You're in Sundance? You've made it. You're done. You're money, baby!" What they don't understand is that the vast majority of these movies go absolutely nowhere.
We had 120 features at Sundance in 2005 and only fourteen got some form of distribution. Only four turned a profit and Love, Ludlow was the only one that turned a profit without actual distribution. We made our money back because I was able to secure two cable deals with Sundance [Channel] and Starz as well as DVD distribution through an arm of Warner Home Video. Sundance was interested immediately and I used that for as much as leverage as I could to work on other people. Even when I got the distribution deal with Warner Home Video, I personally tracked down the major buyers for Target and Wal-Mart. I sent them an autographed copy of the DVD and I said, "My name's David Paterson and I had this film at Sundance. I understand that you carry Warner Brother titles but they might be more interested in pushing Batman Begins, for instance, than my little independent film, Love, Ludlow. But the interesting fact is that the three leads in my film are in sixteen other titles that you currently carry. I was just hoping that you might do me the honor of taking a look at it, and if it's something you want I would be really appreciative." Believe it or not…
Every single person that I wrote a personal letter to responded by carrying my film. Being so new to the business, some people call it naivete. I just call it stupidity. I didn't go down the traditional routes because I didn't know what they were! All I knew was that I had a computer. I had a telephone. I could make calls. I could send out emails. If other people weren't doing these things, I just don't know why. I thought it was common sense. If someone desperately wants to get their stuff out there, you have to try every avenue. I think a lot of filmmakers don't know their own power -- the power of themselves. I think one thing that film schools really need to teach, and they don't, is how to sell yourself. You could be the most incredible filmmaker in the world but, if you can't put a couple of sentences together to tell a distributor what your film's about, your never going to sell your film. If you don't have that ability, put somebody out there in front of you. Have a mouthpiece who can talk for, even if it's a brother or sister. Someone who can talk about how brilliant your film is. I met with distributors who'd look at me point-blank and ask, "Why do you want to sell this movie?" And I'd say, "Because it's good." "Well, that's not good enough." Meaning, you have some known talent, but they're not stars, they're not naked, they're not being cut in half…
It's not a genre film. Most independent filmmakers are cautioned against making this kind of film because supposedly there is no audience for such movies.
That's what they said! "Who's the audience for this?" And I said, "Well... uh... people who like movies?" Distributors don't really appreciate that sort of answer. I jokingly started telling people that my next movie was going to be about a topless serial killer. Not much dialogue, just a really good soundtrack. I figured that it would sell before I even started shooting with a pitch like that. "Sounds great! I'm in."
But that is definitely not the picture that you made as your second film.
No, I actually ended up making a PG feature based on a children's book! Actually, I don't consider it a children's movie. I don't even consider it a family movie. I consider it a good movie, just like my first one. It's a good movie. The problem with distributors and a lot of people in the film business is they really don't want to even talk about it unless they can put it into a certain category.
Right. They need to "understand" it.
They want to say "Is this a horror film?" No. "If not, then is it a thriller? If it's not, then what is it?" They want to be able to put it in a very tight box.
At least part of the success of your mother's book could be attributed to the fact that it doesn't fall neatly into these sorts of categories. It's a very intelligent book for young adults. The kind of book that doesn't get written very often. The kind of book that supposedly shouldn't be written because, again, the people holding the purse strings claim there isn't an audience for it. Clearly, that book, and the movie that was made from it, prove the opposite.
To be honest, I've been working seventeen years to make Bridge to Terabithia. I wrote Love, Ludlow eighteen years ago as a play. I don't want my next film to take fifteen or twenty years. I really don't. When I was first shopping the script to Bridge, they would say, "It's a kids' book." "No, no, no, it's young adult fiction but I'm really trying to push the story." This is the honest truth, but fourteen or fifteen years ago they said "There is no money in adapting children's books to a feature film. There is no money in family entertainment. There's just no market for it." I'm not trying to be a theatrical soothsayer or anything. but I said, "Yes, there is!" Most importantly, it's just a good story. I appreciate what you said about the writing because I do think that it's very unique. It treats kids with the respect and dignity that's usually only given to adults. But, in the children's film business, they tend to dumb stuff down. Usually when an adult says, "I'm taking my kids to a kid's movie," they say it as, "Oh my God, I'm going to be miserable."
They're there to supervise. They're not there to enjoy the film themselves.
Right. They are going there to suffer for the good of their children. That's what they're saying. I don't think that has to be the case. One reason it took me so long to make this is because I was not going to start it until I felt I could put in enough safety measures so that it wouldn't get away from me. I think most movies start with the best of intentions but once the producers and directors and everyone else starts getting their hands in -- and this is even with independent films -- the writer can lose control of their project. I think some of the best intentions start with making a book into a good, entertaining film, and they just rip it to shreds. A problem with Hollywood generally is, "I love your idea. Here's what's wrong with it."
The death by a thousand cuts.
They'll take a 17th century romance thing and put it on the moon with a monster that's going to chew through the wall within twenty minutes because they think that's going to sell more tickets. They look at taking book projects in two different ways. They either adapt it or interpret it. Ninety-nine percent of the time they interpret. They take a couple of characters, put them in a different environment, maybe toss in a cheerleader and really muddy up the original story. When they actually take a good book and turn it into a good adaptation of that book, they usually have a pretty successful film. You would think that's not so difficult to figure out.
You would think.
But since filmmaking is "art by committee," it really depends on the committee. If you have a lot of people who really don't know what the hell they're doing, you can lose control of your project.
For as long as it took to take this project from book-to-script-to-screen, how much of a partner was Walden Media in getting your script to not greatly deviate from what you wrote?
To be honest, and I'm not saying this simply to promote them, I quite literally had to wait for Walden Media to be created to be able to make this movie.
I figured as much.
Their goal is to faithfully adapt children's literature to the screen. Period. But the other caveat is that they actually want to encourage reading. They start marketing two years before we even start shooting. They went after schools, asking, "This is what we're thinking of doing, any suggestions?" Of course, most of them said, "Don't screw it up!"
Usually, when someone options a book from an author, they shut them out of the whole project. Whereas Walden doesn't do that. They want the approval of the author. They wanted my mother to be pleased with the adaptation. They wanted me to actually have some form of control. In the end, I had to sign away pretty much everything. It could have gone down a very bad road but it didn't. Even when my tantrums didn't work the full effect that I wanted, I called my mom [laughs] and all she had to do was make a phone call and say, "I understand there are a couple scenes Dave is not happy with and I understand they're not in the book. What's going on?" And they would listen. That never happens, really. A lot of credit goes to Walden… and Disney, being the huge company that they are. I think they initially didn't know what they had. I think they initially thought, "Okay, here we've got this kids movie," but, without saying numbers, they tripled the P&A budget after they saw it. Because they were like, "Oh, we might actually have something here." I can't credit myself. It's the fact that we were able to capture my mom's book on film. I couldn't improve on that story.
She even mentions Narnia in the book [and Lloyd Alexander, if I'm reading between the lines correctly.]
That's right, she does.
Which is not mentioned in the film but, coincidentally, both were produced by the same company.
Exactly. And the book was written thirty years ago. I always wanted to make the adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia, not an adaptation of Bridge to Terabithia. That's very important to me because some of the stories are actually based on me as a child. Not only did I have to honor my mother and a really terrific novel but I had to honor other people who were a part of my life when I was eight years old. This was never just about getting the movie made. I probably burned some bridges by not being as cooperative as maybe some thought I should've been during this whole process. But since I had no training [laughs], I said what I thought. When I was pissed, I would say it. I guess in Hollywood there are more creative ways to do that but I haven't learned that yet…
You can ask for forgiveness later.
They won't care after opening weekend...
I would tell my brother some of these stories and he would say, "You're making no friends here." I said, "It's really not about making friends. It's about making the film that should be made and, if we do that, I really think it might be successful." If it's not, they're going to blame me for being so meddlesome and troublesome but, if it takes off, they'll take all the credit for it! [laughs] And that's okay…
I see some similarities in the primary female characters of both films. They're both free-spirited and independent, really unlike anyone else around them. I realize, since Bridge to Terabithia is loosely taken from your childhood, there are certain aspects of the story which we don't want to discuss. I wonder, considering the popularity of the book, how possible is it to keep that aspect of it secret?
We've been getting phone calls or emails from all the Disney press saying "Please don't give anything away." That's hard to do when you're dealing with the plot of a book which most people could find out online in a few minutes. But rather than ruining the story or giving it away, I've always focused on what the film is truly about -- the gift of friendship and imagination. That's in both the book and the film, regardless of everything else that happens. That is the most important thing that I wanted to come through. I'll say it [slight spoiler]... Bad things happen but bad things happen everyday. Certainly there were people at the beginning who wanted me to change a lot of things in the book.
I'm sure they did.
They wanted me to make it a much more carefree and pleasant experience for all. But that's the genius of my mother's writing. She writes about real life and some things don't have answers. Sometimes parents don't have answers for kids, and kids can't find answers for things that make no sense at all. That's what life is about. I think that's why the book sells as well today as it did thirty years ago. The story resonates with those most basic emotions. Am I worth something on this planet? Why don't my parents love me more than they should? When you read it, you remember those moments. Either it just happened to you as a kid last month or, as an adult, you remember those specific moments in your childhood. She's able to trigger that through her writing. I hope some day to be as good a writer as her. Or half as good. [laughs]