Chris Van Allsburg Question and Answer with Writer Chris Van Allsburg
With a trio of movies, writer and illustrator Chris Van Allsburg’s best-selling children’s stories have attracted Hollywood’s top talent, from Robin Williams and Bonnie Hunt in Jumanji to his latest effort, director Jon Favreau’s Zathura, on DVD next week. Van Allsburg talked about those experiences, The Polar Express and his many books in an exclusive interview by telephone from his New England home.
Box Office Mojo: Why didn’t Zathura do well at the box office?
Chris Van Allsburg: Marketing and timing. It’s competitive. They were looking for a weekend that was far enough away from [Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire], and they probably opened it up a little earlier than it should have. It’s actually a pretty good movie. It’s a rare kids’ movie that can hold the attention of adults. I think [director] Jon [Favreau] did a good job. Little Jonah Bobo is such an appealing whiner. This was essentially a variation on the theme that game boards come to life. I thought it would be more interesting to see another game rather than another Jumanji game. Zathura is somewhat of a sequel to Jumanji. I’d been reading about old game boards produced in the first part of the 20 th century, and they would put the game on the other side of the Jumanji board, and it’s Zathura. Before I even finished the book, Sony had optioned it, and I did know it was going to become a movie. A partial motivation was kids writing to me and asking what happened to [characters] Danny and Walter. For a kids’ book, it had terrific sales, and it had a wide enough exposure. There’s more taking a kid’s attention, too. If kids are spending millions of dollars on [video game] Doom 3, that’s less money for going to movies.
Box Office Mojo: Faith and fantasy based on children’s literature has recently had success in the movies with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Have you seen the movie?
Van Allsburg: No. I read all seven Chronicles of Narnia, and I did some book jackets. I’m familiar with the stories. I enjoyed them. I don’t find the experts’ discussion about their symbolism especially interesting. It’s a fairly obvious interpretation—but it seemed to me like sort of a ginned up controversy. If the DVD weren’t coming out in four months, I’d probably have seen it already. I’ve got a decent flat screen TV, and I’ll probably see it at home. There’s the price of admission and the hassle, but I still go to the movies. Even with surround sound, watching at home doesn’t really measure up.
Box Office Mojo: How is your children’s faith fantasy, The Polar Express, different from Narnia?
Van Allsburg: The Polar Express is more about belief that, as an adult, you can have the same innocence and bliss you had as a child—the fabulous feelings that attend belief that the world could include something like Santa Claus—it’s not about belief in Santa Claus, per se. Your own reason leads you to conclude that there could be no such thing as Santa Claus but [when one learns the truth] you’re also kissing goodbye the possibility of the miraculous and the extraordinary. So, to me, it’s about feeling that the world holds things as remarkable and that you live in that world. It’s about the belief that there’s some magic and mystery.
Box Office Mojo: Zathura was your first book in seven years. What prompted the writing?
Van Allsburg: First, I make the decision to set aside the nine months to do the book. Then, I decide from among a lot of ideas partly because I like the idea of reconsidering a theme, and there’s this idea of refinement, making the visual art closer to the ideal. When I look back at Jumanji, the only thing I’d really established in terms of character was the children deciding to play on despite it being a perilous game. This time, I wanted to load up the characters with conditions that were more stimulating. That was my variation on the theme of a game board coming to life.
Box Office Mojo: What’s your favorite part of the Zathura movie?
Van Allsburg: This one visual moment—a classic cinematic moment—when Danny goes to the door of the house and slowly opens it and says 'Walter, come here,' and they open it and you see the rings of Saturn.
Box Office Mojo: Had you seen Zathura director Jon Favreau's previous picture, Elf?
Van Allsburg: Yep. My younger daughter had picked it out, and we saw it on DVD. I liked it. It has the same sensibility [as Zathura]. It’s a little bit more sentimental.
Box Office Mojo: Whose books do you read?
Van Allsburg: Holes was a good book. I don’t read children’s literature that much. I got into doing children’s books through art. Since I started doing these books in 1979, I’ve seen a lot more books published every year, and the quality of illustration has certainly improved. I’m not sure the storytelling has improved.
Box Office Mojo: Who is your favorite children’s author and illustrator?
Van Allsburg: As a child, I had a favorite book, which was Harold and the Purple Crayon. It doesn’t have fancy drawings. It’s just a fabulous concept; the idea of a young boy with a purple crayon—if he wants to take a ride in a sailboat, he draws it. I see it as a metaphor or representation of the power of the artist’s imagination. I think empowerment also appealed to me—the idea that you’re in control. When I was kid, I didn’t really draw that much. My principal activity was building models—cars, boats, electric trains, planes, everything. I was very good at it. While I was building them, they worked on my imagination. When I built the HMS Victory, I imagined myself fighting side by side with Lord Horatio Nelson, commander of the British fleet, or I’d be sailing with Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle. There was some historical data in the boxes.
Box Office Mojo: You’ve said you start a story by beginning to think. What exactly do you mean?
Van Allsburg: I don’t use a blank piece of paper to motivate me or as a place to deposit my thoughts. You can actually hold on to a pretty complicated story in your head, and you can tell it to yourself. I work at home, and it is helpful if it’s quiet.
Box Office Mojo: Working on anything right now?
Van Allsburg: It’s a book about hypnotism gone wrong. There’s some sibling rivalry. The challenge for me is trying to draw a face that appears to be in trance.
Box Office Mojo: One by one, let’s examine the themes of your many other books. The Sweetest Fig?
Van Allsburg: What goes around comes around. There’s something really satisfying about meting out justice to a bad character. It’s been optioned by Sony.
Box Office Mojo: Wretched Stone?
Van Allsburg: An allegory about how the power of the imagination can be blasted away by turning yourself into a passive recipient of entertainment.
Box Office Mojo: The Wreck of the Zephyr?
Van Allsburg: [Roman god] Icarus meets the Ancient Mariner—it’s about hubris. It’s not enough for him to be the best at something, he has to be seen by others as the best of something. Just knowing he’s the best does not gratify him. He has to have everyone know it.
Box Office Mojo: Just a Dream?
Van Allsburg: The idea that every single person can make a difference. It promotes environmentalism. I wrote that 15 years ago.
Box Office Mojo: Two Bad Ants?
Van Allsburg: The idea that people shouldn’t be tempted to leave the environment that they’re suited for because of momentary pleasure.
Box Office Mojo: Widow’s Broom?
Van Allsburg: I’ve finished a script on that book. One of the [witch’s] brooms misbehaves, and it hides in a tree [where it is discovered by a widow]. It’s about how the ignorant assume that the broom is evil rather than judge it on its actions—they end up burning it. The widow is able to triumph over her neighbors’ narrow-mindedness. Paramount had done location scouting and had a budget. Then [studio chief] Sherry Lansing left, and new people came in—that happens all the time—so it recently reverted to me.
Box Office Mojo: Do any of your stories have happiness as the aim or end?
Van Allsburg: Happiness is not an interesting subject.
Box Office Mojo: Have the movies boosted your books’ sales?
Van Allsburg: Yes.
Box Office Mojo: How does Hollywood regard the writer?
Van Allsburg: You don’t have much influence. Studios can’t option books and then be held to the whims of the writer. The only way for me to have some influence over the movie is to actually write the screenplay. The danger is that, you’ve got this book, and the film comes out, everyone hates it, and then people don’t like the book anymore. The decision to option a book is to play on that team. You write, you call, you send faxes. I’ve been pretty lucky. The three films that were made from my books were honest, sincere efforts.
Box Office Mojo: Tell us about Tom Hanks, who portrayed several characters in The Polar Express.
Van Allsburg: I met Tom. He doesn’t put on airs, and he’s easy to talk to. He has genuine interest in cinematic storytelling.
Box Office Mojo: Robert Zemeckis, the movie’s director?
Van Allsburg: He had very clear ideas about what he wanted to do. I was interested in the character of the conductor—and he said it would take away from the book, which focused on the boy.
Box Office Mojo: Robin Williams, who played in Jumanji?
Van Allsburg: I did meet Robin in New York City. He’s not manic all the time. He’s kind of shy.
Box Office Mojo: Do you consider your illustrations representational or Impressionistic?
Van Allsburg: I’m not an Impressionist. Representational art is making a comeback. Fine art was allowing different kinds of expressions—Dr. Seuss is pretty zany art—but in picture books, there weren’t many artists with a sense of seriousness. I was familiar with the work of Maurice Sendak [author of Where the Wild Things Are], and he was treating the picture book with seriousness—he took it seriously as an art form. I was sort of inspired by that.
Box Office Mojo: Is the perception of a third dimension, attempted with the technology used in The Polar Express, necessary in animated pictures?
Van Allsburg: The three best animated films I’ve seen are Spirited Away, The Triplets of Belleville and Pinocchio. They strike me as true art.
Box Office Mojo: You’ve said that a good story must have an emotional, psychological or moral premise. What premise is fundamental to your work?
Van Allsburg: All the books are journeys in a way. The character must undergo some experience that alters them—I’m expressing a conflict in reality. I think the way it works is to set out to tell an engaging story, and, if you’re really involved, it will come through.
Originally published by Box Office Mojo