HEAT VISION

'The House With a Clock in Its Walls' Writer Eric Kripke on Adapting His Favorite Childhood Novel

The 'Supernatural' creator also explains why heretofore gore-maestro Eli Roth was perfect to direct this warm-hearted family movie, and whether there are plans for a John Bellairs Cinematic Universe.
'The House With a Clock in Its Walls' (Inset: Eric Kripke)   |   Storyteller Distribution; Leon Bennett/Getty
The 'Supernatural' creator also explains why heretofore gore-maestro Eli Roth was perfect to direct this warm-hearted family movie, and whether there are plans for a John Bellairs Cinematic Universe.

Eric Kripke credits The House With a Clock in Its Walls, a 1973 young-adult Gothic novel written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey, as the reason he became a genre writer. The creator of CW series Supernatural and NBC's Timeless even keeps a letter from Bellairs — who wrote 15 books for young readers, all illustrated by Gorey — in his desk, a response to a piece of fan mail Kripke sent the author as a child.

Kripke says that he'd always considered the prospect of turning the novel into a film, and beginning in the early 2000s he would periodically check to see whether the rights were available. But they never were.

Then, in 2011, only a week after a meeting with producer Brad Fischer and writer-producers James Vanderbilt and Laeta Kalogridis where Kripke named Clock in answer to the question, "If you could make any movie, what would you make?" the rights to Bellairs' books featuring the character Lewis Barnavelt — of which Clock is the first — hit the market. The four of them snapped up the options, and Fischer, Vanderbilt and Kalogridis announced the formation of a new production shingle, Mythology Pictures, soon afterward, along with the news that Kripke would be adapting the novel for the big screen. Seven years later, the project Kripke has dreamed of making since childhood is poised to lead the box office this weekend.

Set in 1955 in the fictional Michigan town of New Zebedee, Clock stars Owen Vaccaro as Lewis Barnavelt, an awkward boy sent to live with his oddball Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black, channeling his best Jack Black) after the death of his parents. As it turns out, Jonathan — as well as his neighbor and best friend, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) — are both wizards, and agree to take Lewis under their wing. Jonathan's mansion is full of magical curiosities, including animated stained-glass windows, an anthropomorphic chair, a griffin topiary that farts dead leaves, and the titular clock — hidden away by the home's previous owner, Isaac Izard (yet another wizard; also: evil; also, Kyle McLaughlan) — whose purpose and exact location are still TBD. When young Lewis, in an attempt to impress the popular kid at school with his burgeoning magic skills, winds up maybe raising Izard from the dead, he and Jonathan have to figure out how to find the clock before Isaac can use it to complete the eschatological plan set in motion the night he died.

Ahead of the film's premiere on Sept. 14, Kripke spoke to THR about his love of Bellairs' books, the process of adapting the novel, and the day he found out Blanchett was interested in starring as Mrs. Zimmerman.

So this project was first announced in 2011, when Brad Fischer and James Vanderbilt formed Mythology Entertainment and revealed that they'd acquired rights to the Lewis Barnavelt series and hired you to adapt House for the screen. Can you start there? How did you come to be involved?

This was my favorite book when I was 10. I wrote a letter to John Bellairs — the only fan letter I ever wrote. He wrote me back, which I still keep in my desk to this day. So I had sat down with the [Mythology] guys cause I knew them from way back. And they said, "If you could make any movie, what would you make?" And I said the same answer I'd been giving for 10 years [at that point], which is, "Well, I would make The House With a Clock in Its Walls, but the rights are always taken"! And then they called me the following week and said, "The rights just became available a couple days ago. Do you want to partner with us and buy the books?" And I said "Absolutely! Let's do it!" So we optioned the Lewis Barnavelt series, and I started by just writing it on spec. Then I got busy on my TV show Revolution and that slowed me down for about a year. Then 2013, 2014 I wrote the first draft. It was a really important book to me, and the reason I made Supernatural, the reason I because a genre writer period was because I found that book, so it was important to me to honor it and do my best to maintain the integrity of it. But once I really sat down, especially coming at it as someone who loved it as much as me, I found it was an unexpectedly difficult book to adapt. There's a lot of the plot that isn't very cinematic, and like for instance Isaac is clearly the antagonist of the piece but he doesn't show up until a half-glimmer on the very last sequence of the book. And there's nothing to really hang your hat on in terms of a villain. So there's a lot in the book that needed to be put into screenplay structure. But what I really remember most about the book was the tone, kind of the Edward Gorey tone of it, and the fact that it was legitimately scary. There were real stakes and real darkness and real people got hurt. [Also,] how well he balanced the fantastic and the supernatural with just the day-to-day problems of being a nerd! And I really connected with that, to the humanity of these characters and that ultimately Lewis' big problem is he's just trying too hard to fit in. And I know what that's like, and I've been there!

Aside from getting sidetracked on Revolution were there any other major delays?

It was just the usual dance of a bunch of different financiers and certain people seemed interested and then they backed out. Now, Cate was always in from the beginning. I give her an incredible amount of credit.

Is Cate a Bellairs fan?

She read it when she was in school and really always loved it. As so I think she just responded to the Mrs. Zimmerman character. But the day that I got the call from Brad, you know, it's kinda like … that's an actor that's beyond your wildest dreams. (Laughs.) So when Brad calls me and says, "Are you sitting down? Because Cate Blanchett wants to do your movie," that's a wild day, man. You never feel like a better writer in your life than when Cate Blanchett is reading your lines. (Laughs.)

So lots of the commentary on this film has been around director Eli Roth, and the career shift he's making. Like I was joking with my editor that this is his Spy Kids.

I know that it seems from the outside that he's making this huge unexpected leap and all of the reviews are talking about like, "How is the guy who made Hostel and The Green Inferno making this kids' movie," right? I was within 20 minutes of my first meeting with Eli and thought to myself, "This is totally the guy." He's been a horror guy because everyone gets into the business somehow, and he got in with horror. But the truth of who the guy is is he's an Amblin geek like the rest of us. The reference he uses are not an endless series of dark horror references. They are the same Raiders of the Lost Ark, Gremlins, E.T., Back to the Future references that we all make. So he was every bit as interested in the heart and the tone. And I think he did such a wonderful job bringing all that to the movie and really caring about giving it humanity and making it a throwback and an homage to the movies we all loved growing up. But then on top of that, you know, the guy knows how to make a scare. And my biggest concern heading into the director search was, "I need someone who's going to approach this material and know that they're making a scary movie first and a kids' movie second, not the other way around." And when Eli got hired I said, "Oh great! That's one less thing to worry about!"

So you mentioned earlier that there are lots of things in the book that don't necessarily lend themselves to a screen adaptation. The first half of the book, there's not much action and so much of Lewis' development is internal. So you added and changed a lot. And while the pressure level isn't like, Chris Columbus making Harry Potter, maybe you've been surprised at the number of Bellairs fanboys like me coming out of the woodwork like, "There's no topiary griffin in the book, you butcher!"

From my perspective, I would be hard-pressed to find any working screenwriter who is a bigger fan of that book than me and is more interested in doing it justice. So even when I had to kind of go off-map and say like, "OK, the movie needs a little more visuals and magic, and I need to find ways to make this house a wonderful place to balance all the horror" — so perfect example: I was like, "Well, I need something outside [in the yard]." And so I did what I always did when I was fishing for ideas: I started paging through books of Edward Gorey artwork. And I found an image of a topiary griffin! And I said, "OK! That makes sense! That's Gorey-inspired, and it's in the world, and I'm gonna put a topiary griffin in the backyard!" The whole Captain Midnight thing was just a way to try to dramatize Lewis' innate bravery that in the book is very internal. I'm forgetting which, but in one of the other Bellairs books, the main character religiously listens to Captain Midnight [a fictional radio program that plays a role in the plot of the film]. So everything was very thoughtfully placed, and when I couldn't use the actual book I tried to curate details from other Bellairs canon. It was really important to me that it all fell like his.

So obviously with Bellairs, he wrote four Barnavelt books, and there's franchise potential with him or his other protagonists, Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon, for, you know, a "Bellairs Cinematic Universe"! So you have the option for all of the Barnavelt books …

We do. And I think that's really up to the audience. We would be excited to make more if the audience wants us to make more. But by the same respect, every so often someone would pitch some idea of, "Let's set up a new mystery for the next movie!" and Eli and I were really resistant to that. We said, "What makes great Amblin movies Amblin movies is they're not trying to do that," and the audience sort of sniffs when you're trying too hard to set up some kind of universe. We just wanted to be on the side of, we're going to tell a story that has a lot of heart and means something to us, and if people want to see more, there's certainly more adventures these characters can have.

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