The world of childhood, according to many movies and TV shows, is full of preternaturally cheery moppets who sing and dance and make calculated wisecracks. That's not the world inhabited by sixth-grader Greg Heffley, the hero of the bestselling "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" books.
For Heffley, school is a perilous jungle, where he must navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of prepubescent humiliation and failure, while trying to climb the ladder of popularity. "I'll be famous one day," notes Heffley in the first book, "but for now I'm stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons."
Some parents complain about Greg's many moral lapses, his devotion to laziness, his perennial lack of social responsibility, but that hasn't stopped 30 million copies of the laugh-out-loud books from being sold, lodging them semi-permanently atop the bestseller lists. Now this Friday comes the Fox 2000 movie, one of the first Hollywood films in a while in which the kid protagonist is most definitely not "the chosen one."
"There are plenty of kids in children's literature who are miniaturized adults, who always act heroically," says author Jeff Kinney, an executive producer on the film. "I wanted to create a character who's more relatable. He's not a bad kid, but he's not a fully formed human being. All the humor comes from his flaws. One of the producers compared Greg to a young Larry David [from 'Curb Your Enthusiasm']. His character acts sort of despicably but gets you to root for him anyway. That's the trick."
"We had to be true to Greg as a character. That would be a big disappointment to the fans if we violated that trust," adds Nina Jacobson, who produced the film with Bradford Simpson. "Jeff Kinney has always described Greg as selfish, lazy and judgmental. That was our mantra."
Indeed, the film, directed by Thor Freudenthal ("Hotel for Dogs"), is a faithful, if less episodic, adaptation that cleverly incorporates Kinney's drawings and the books' iconic moments, along the narrative spine of a "bromance" between Greg and his roly-poly best friend, Rowley, who's as sunny as Greg is scheming.
"It's been a very unusual collaboration with Jeff," says Jacobson. "I really can't even describe the level of involvement. It so greatly exceeds what was contractually owed him." Like most bestselling authors, Kinney had extensive approval rights on the movie, but the filmmakers went beyond their contract and wound up consulting him whenever "we would reach a place where we'd feel that the moment didn't feel or sound like Greg. We would call him and he would write scenes for us, or dialogue or voice-over." Kinney was also on the Vancouver, Canada, set for about half of filming. "He was an extraordinary resource, and also worshiped by the kids in the movie."
This said, Greg's forays into selfishness were more explicitly contextualized to avoid alienating the audience, says Freudenthal. "We had to dig a little deeper why he's mean, his urge to be accepted and belong, to be someone in the world. Basically deep down, he's a very vulnerable character. It's a self-protective measure in this very dangerous time he enters."
Finding the right 11-year-old to play Greg took more than six months and involved seeing 5,000 candidates, including mostprofessional child actorsin the right age group in the United States and Canada. They also held open casting calls all over the country and pored through thousands of online video auditions. It was difficult to forge a consensus among the filmmaking teamover what Greg should even look like, notes Freudenthal, because all you have to go on is "a stick figure, a circle and two dots."
Like many kids, Zachary Gordon, who won the part, felt an immediate affinity for Greg when he read the book several years ago. "I told my mom I wanted to make a movie about it, to write, direct, and produce -- to do everything that would involve me in the film," says Gordon, now 12. When he found out that Fox was actually making the film, "I was a little bummed because I wanted to make the movie, but I was happy. Because I'd have the opportunity to go out for Greg. I thought I looked like him. I'm pretty small and thin. Greg is small and thin."
A professional actor who'd appeared in small parts on TV and film, ("24" and "The Brothers Bloom") and lives in the suburbs of Los Angeles, Gordon says he spent eight months auditioning. "I slept with the books under my pillow," and later attended "Wimpy Kid camp," where they "cut my hair and dressed me like Greg." A platoon of stylists were then employed "just to make those three little hairs stick up," like they do in Kinney's cartoons of Greg.
Says Freudenthal, "Zackwas the only kid who delivered the monologue (which opens the book) with painful urgency. It came from the gut."
Gordon certainly identifies with Heffley's middle-school apprehension. He just started at a public middle school, though he missed the first two months because of filming.
"Greg's school was terrifying," says Gordon. "I didn't want my school to be like that. I was extremely scared and nervous and anxious. My first day, it wasn't that bad. The lunches were better than in elementary school. I saw some kids get picked on, which I wasn't happy about, but thankfully it wasn't me."