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Random House will publish Nightmares!, the first book in a planned trilogy aimed at middle-grade readers, in fall 2014.
For the project, which is based on the first screenplay Segel ever sold, the actor is teaming with best-selling YA author Kristen Miller (The Eternal Ones).
Coming off the Muppets, Segel, who can still project a winning childlike enthusiasm and wonder, seems like a natural fit to pen a kid’s book.
Nightmares! is an adventure story about a group of friends who band together to save their town from fear itself, which is manifesting itself in the form of creatures from nightmares that have slipped into the real world.
Segel talked with The Hollywood Reporter about the book, his own love of kid’s literature, his inspirations from The Goonies to Edward Gorey and Roald Dahl, being “a weird kid” and how his older self evaluates his first screenwriting effort now.
The Hollywood Reporter: Can you add a bit more about the book?
Jason Segel: Yeah, it features these witches who steal the protagonist’s younger brother and take him to the nightmare world. The brother, along with a group of friends using a magical book, must mount a rescue journey. Along the way each member of the group has to face and overcome their biggest fear on the journey to rescue the younger brother.
THR: And there’s a companion book in the works as well?
Segel: I always loved bonus materials. They always made a fictional world seem real to me. The stepmom in the book is actually a children’s book author herself. The kids use one of her books, which turns out to have magical properties, to enter the nightmare world. So we’re going to do that as a standalone book. Her readership is younger than my book’s, so this will be aimed at a slightly younger audience as an introduction to the main book.
THR: What was the inspiration for the book?
Segel: Growing up I was a huge fan of Tim Burton and Jim Henson‘s Labyrinth. Things that are a little bit scary make kids think they are getting away with something. Those types of stories always appealed to me.
THR: Same with Goonies.
Segel: Yeah. Somehow you feel like you’re getting away with something yourself when you’re watching these kids on an adventure.
THR: I love the friendship element in Goonies.
Segel: The thing about Goonies is that it shows kids that they’re stronger together than apart. Like Goonies, Nightmares! is about a group of misfits who find a home together.
THR: What books did you like as a kid?
Segel: Edward Gorey-style stories. Roald Dahl. I liked stories where had a feeling that magic is out there, but you may have to traverse some dark territory to get there. And once you solve the mystery there’s positivity in it at the end. That’s the thing I loved about the Dahl books. They are so dark in the beginning. Talk about underdogs! They’re orphans a lot of the time, they have to get through this dark labyrinth to get to their reward. You’re really rooting for them to overcome the hand they’ve been dealt.
I loved those choose-your-adventure books. It all goes back to the idea of making up your own stories. I loved the idea that you could read the books again and see what different outcome your choices yielded. I would read each book with every possible variation on the story to see how they turned out.
THR: I read that you turned to [Freaks and Geeks creator] Judd Apatow for advice on screenwriting.
Segel: Yes, but I didn’t talk to Judd about this one. I was in a very awkward phase when I wrote it. I’ve been like 6’4″ since I was a kid. I was at a point where I was too tall to play a kid, but I was too young to play a lawyer. Nobody was knocking down my door. Judd said, “You’re such a weird dude that the only way you’re going to make it is if you write your own material like Albert Brooks.”
THR: And the idea for this particular story?
Segel: It comes from my love of writing kids, of writing the underdog. As I said I was 6’4″, half Jewish, half not and raised by neither. I went to an Episcopalian school by day, Hebrew school by night and told I didn’t belong in either. I’d always identified with outsiders who feel like underdogs and have an opportunity to prove themselves.
THR: Did you have an active imagination as a kid?
Segel: Well, I was a weird kid. I wore a Superman cape until I was ten or eleven — just in case. Here’s a story: I went to Disneyland as much as my parents would let me. I never went on the rides — with the exception of the Haunted Mansion. I would go to the saloon at Frontierland. I’d wear this cowboy outfit and would order sarsaparilla — it wasn’t even real sarsaparilla but root beer — and sit there like a weird cowboy just imagining.
THR: This was your first screenplay?
Segel: Yes, the first I ever sold — to Columbia Pictures. I was like, “This is going to make me the biggest star in the world!’ [Laughs] And then it sat there in turnaround for eight years.
At a certain point, I thought, ‘I hope this doesn’t get made because I’m going to buy it back and do everything I thought I was going to do previously.’ I was happy when I got it back. It’s one of my favorite things I’ve ever written. I realized, as I did more writing and producing, that this wasn’t something I wanted to give away.
THR: What is it about this story that stayed with you?
Segel: The story is personal. I had a disorder called night terrors — I had horrible dreams about witches eating my tongue. I had to get medical treatment because I was this young kid unable to wake up from these terrible nightmares.
THR: Why rework it as a book?
Segel: I think a kid’s imagination is more powerful than anything in framing this particular world. I wanted to let every kid form this world for themselves, for it to be whatever it could be for any particular kid. Ultimately if it’s something people like I’d like to turn it back into a movie series.
I was so inspired by Goonies and Labyrinth. The movies you see in your formative years make you feel like you can accomplish anything.
One other thing that’s really important that I think Random House really understood: In this digital world there’s something special about a book as a physical object. I remember as a kid carrying them. To me they were special found objects with their own magic around them.
THR: You could have done this solo. What does having a co-writer bring to the process?
Segel: It’s the best thing I’ve ever done — truly a 50-50 partnership. In a lot of ways she’s the director of this project. I’ve provided the template in the script and she’s provided a description of the world with the prose the way a director would do visually. Its been an amazing collaboration.
There was the option of having a quote “ghostwriter” but that felt like a big lie. I take great pride in the collaboration here.
THR: One big difference between book writing and screenwriting is the amount of teamwork in screenwriting. Book writing is always seen as a solo endeavor.
Segel: I’ve really learned the value of collaboration in my movie career. People always ask, “when are you going to direct?” My honest answer is there are people who can direct my work better than I can. I have no pride in doing something for the sake of saying I did something.
THR: What have you learned about book writing?
Segel: I think it goes back to the comparison to the director. In a script you can write “goofy house” and let the set designer and director envision what that is. Kristen’s writing is so illustrative. Its actually made me think about directing more and more. There is a real clarity of vision in her writing that has been inspiring to me. Give these kids enough and then let their imagination take over. But you have to give them a starting point.
THR: You wrote the story ten years ago. What did older Jason think of younger Jason’s debut effort when you reread the script?
Segel: The story is still a sweet, goofy and scary story. But it’s clearly written by a twenty-one-year old who doesn’t understand mechanics of movie writing. One thing I found adorable about it is that it’s perfectly structured down to having the end of the act on a certain page. It’s a textbook script, and I don’t mean that in a good way. I followed this script-writing book to the letter. But that actually works well in helping translate it to a book series.
THR: How far along are you? It’s one-a-year for the trilogy, right?
Segel: Yeah, the target is one a year. It’s just a matter of translating it to the page, but we’ve been coming up with new things and adding to it. I’m really enjoying the story myself.
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