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Calling All Wimpy Kids

Diary of the Wimpy KidMeet the kid who made “wimpy” cool, in a family comedy motion picture based on the best-selling illustrated novel Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney, the first in a series that has thus far sold 28 million books. DIARY OF A WIMPY KID chronicles the adventures of wisecracking pre-teen Greg Heffley, who must somehow survive the scariest time of anyone’s life….middle school.

To Greg Heffley, middle school is the dumbest idea ever invented. It’s a place rigged with hundreds of social landmines, not the least of which are morons, wedgies, swirlies, bullies, lunchtime banishment to the cafeteria floor – and a festering piece of cheese with nuclear cooties. To survive the never-ending ordeal and attain the recognition and status he feels he so richly deserves, Greg devises an endless series of can’t-miss schemes, all of which, of course, go awry. And he’s getting it all down on paper, via a diary – “it’s NOT a diary, it’s a journal!” Greg insists, preferring the less-sissyfied designation – filled with his opinions, thoughts, tales of family trials and tribulations, and (would-be) schoolyard triumphs. “One day when I’m famous,” writes Greg, “I’ll have better things to do than answer peoples’ stupid questions all day.” So was born the Wimpy Kid’s diary.

From its origins as a series of online cartoons, Diary of a Wimpy Kid exploded onto the pop culture scene when Jeff Kinney’s first “novel in cartoons” was published in 2007. Diary of a Wimpy Kid spent almost three years on The New York Times’ children’s best-seller list, and was translated into 33 languages. The book captured the imaginations of an army of formerly “reluctant readers,” and launched countless video reviews, social networking fan groups, and parties celebrating the release of each new Wimpy Kid book.

While Kinney had originally targeted adults through the book’s nostalgic look at middle school life as told through a narrator with Walter Mitty-esque fantasies of greatness, kids immediately connected to his blending of the subversive and edgy, with fun and wholesomeness. Most of all, they responded to the titular hero’s unique voice, summed up by his signature line, “I’m stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons,” accompanied by Kinney’s drawing of Greg sitting between two classmates.

Given such pronouncements, it’s no surprise that Greg Heffley is far from a traditional role model. He’s judgmental, selfish and lazy, but nevertheless always likable. “I wanted to create a character that was realistic,” Kinney explains. “Many times in children’s literature, the protagonist is really just a miniature adult. I wanted to come up with a kid who was relatable and far from perfect. I worked hard to avoid dumbing down the books, talking down to kids, and wanted to make sure the stories avoided lots of lessons learned.”

Kinney’s many representations of the absurdity of middle school life delighted readers. A particular favorite was the “cheese touch,” which has become the stuff of middle school legend, myth, horror, disgust and gossip. At Greg’s school, a moldy piece of cheese has mysteriously appeared on the blacktop, growing more foul and powerful by the day. If there’s a single thing these middle schoolers dread, it’s accidentally brushing against the decrepit slice and thus being branded with the cheese touch’s nuclear cooties. The only way to get rid of the cheese touch is by touching some other unfortunate classmate; it’s like a game of tag, only grosser.

“No one looks back at their middle school years wishing to relive them,” says Kinney, who is an executive producer on the film. “You see a lot of movies about elementary school kids, high school students and college students, but very few set in middle school because those years are universally kind of ugly.”

It’s a world where social stratification rules the day. “In middle school, everyone is getting divided – kids are becoming either athletes or preppies or cool kids or nerds” — says producer Brad Simpson. “It’s a kid’s first real taste of adulthood.” (The school’s hierarchal landmines are in full force in the cafeteria, a hotbed of cliques where the prize is, literally, a seat at the table…or any table.)

Adds producer Nina Jacobson, a former executive at The Walt Disney Motion Picture Group: “[In middle school], you are beyond the cuteness and carefree quality of childhood, but years away from being able to drive. You’re neither cute nor cool; you’re just stuck in the middle.”

As young readers made the books a phenomenon, Hollywood came calling, eager to turn Greg Heffley’s world, friends and family into a major motion picture. Kinney’s work generated a true fervor and excitement among the team of filmmakers that came together to bring his vision to the screen. Says Nina Jacobson: “Jeff created something genuinely original that didn’t feel like anything I’d seen before and didn’t look or feel like any book I’d read before. It wasn’t the kind of book that my kids found hysterical, but I could barely tolerate. We all laughed.

“It’s written in a smart, sophisticated way that made me think of it as a kind of ‘Larry David in high school,” Jacobson continues, referring to the beleaguered anti-hero of the series “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” “Greg is blissfully unaware of what a jerk he can be, and kids find that refreshing and entertaining.”

“Reading the book was like looking at a scrapbook of your own adolescent bravado and stupidity,” adds co-screenwriter Jeff Judah whose writing partner Gabe Sachs echoes: “I think that writing for the screen version of Greg Heffley felt very natural because in middle school I would often do what I thought was cool, only to quickly discover that it was anything but cool.” And director Thor Freudenthal says, “There’s a blatant honesty and humor to the way Jeff Kinney describes how kids feel and act. Greg is a combination of every youngster’s worst instincts and decisions.”

While the word “wimpy” appears in the books’ and film’s titles, one could assert that “middle” is equally important to Greg Heffley. He’s stuck in every kid’s nightmare – middle school – and is the middle child caught between insolent older brother Rodrick and three-year- old, potty-training-challenged sibling Manny. But this first tale of Wimpy-ness is centered around Greg’s attempts to rise above the endless humiliations of grades 6-8: middle school.

In adapting Kinney’s book for the screen, the filmmakers were intent on being true to his characters and particularly to Greg’s flawed nature. Throughout the process, Kinney provided essential insights. “Jeff was an invaluable asset in the writing of this film,” says co-screenwriter Jeff Filgo. “He was always available for the inevitable question, like ‘Would Greg do this?’ ‘Would Rowley [Greg’s best friend] do that?’ But he also read every outline and draft, and gave priceless feedback.” Adds Jeff’s writing partner and wife, Jackie Filgo: “Greg is by turns insecure, aggressive, shy, funny, cruel, and kind; anyone who is around kids knows that they can be all of those things at different times, and every now and then all of them at once. It was our challenge to make sure Greg and his friends made the transition from book to screen with all their features and flaws intact.”

Kinney’s book provided all the essential ingredients for the film, but its episodic nature – it’s a diary (journal!), after all – necessitated that the filmmakers come up with a stronger narrative drive. So they focused on the friendship between Greg and Rowley Jefferson. Having known each other since elementary school (all those years ago!), Greg and Rowley are connected by their shared experiences. On the other hand, they’re polar opposites: Greg is battle-weary and hyper-ambitious. He has a harsh view of the world, yet is optimistic about his ability to work the system to his advantage. Rowley is the omega to Greg’s alpha – and happily so, at least to a point. He’s an innocent kid without an agenda, whereas Greg is all agenda.

The character of Rowley is one of the most popular among the book’s fans, including the filmmakers. “He’s certainly one of my favorites,” admits Jeff Kinney. “Rowley just wants to enjoy the world and his school experience.” Adds Nina Jacobson: “We all love Rowley’s humor and innocence and freshness. One of my favorite Greg-Rowley exchanges is when Rowley tells his friend that ‘My mom told me that people will like me if I am just myself.’ To which Greg responds, ‘Well, that would be good advice, if you were someone else.’ That pretty much sums up their dynamic. Greg feels that Rowley has to be molded, improved, shaped and finessed, but Rowley’s pretty comfortable in his own skin – and that ends up translating into something that looks a lot like confidence. And confidence is the key to surviving middle school.”

As work continued on the script, the filmmakers turned their attentions to the critical task of finding their Wimpy Kid. In Kinney’s books, Greg is a stick figure with a round head, three hairs, and big shoes on a skimpy, slumped frame. It’s a rendering beloved by Wimpy Kid readers but one that wouldn’t work in a live action film.

The filmmakers were looking for a young actor who could convey Greg’s charisma and many flaws, while always keeping him likable and fun. “Finding the right actor who could capture that certain ‘Greg Heffley’ quality while remaining sympathetic, was very difficult,” admits Nina Jacobson. “He had to be cute and endearing, but also have a lot of chutzpah.”

The actor playing Greg would have the formidable task of being likable amidst the character’s non-stop shenanigans, schemes and attitude. “One of the ways we had to make Greg likable was finding the right kid to play him,” says Brad Simpson. “If you don’t have the right actor – if you don’t find the real ‘Wimpy Kid’, who combines charisma with a bottom-rung quality – then it’s not going to work.”

The filmmakers undertook a nine-month, nationwide search for their Wimpy Kid, during which over a thousand youngsters were auditioned. Prospective ‘Wimps’ could also register for casting calls at a special website. The filmmakers’ herculean efforts finally paid off when they found Zachary Gordon, a Southern California resident who had done lots of voiceover work and a few film and television appearances. Says director Thor Freudenthal: “Zach really conveyed that, with every ‘Aren’t I the greatest’ line of dialogue or feeling, there’s an ‘I hope you like me’ quality.’” Adds Jacobson: “Underneath Zach’s likability is a certain audacity and courage of his convictions feeling – a certainty about who he is and what he wants, that connects Zach to the character of Greg.” And Brad Simpson notes that “to say Zach has a bundle of energy is an understatement. He also has a little bit of Greg’s huckster qualities. He’s also a really good kid, and that shines through.”

For Zachary, playing Greg was both exciting and the most natural thing in the world for him to be doing. For one thing, he was already a huge fan of the books. In addition, Zachary embodies Greg physically and, more importantly, he captures – even channels – the inner-Wimp. “Well, I’m small and thin like Greg, and that helps me play him,” says Zachary. “But I can also think like him. If you say something about Greg, I can sort of picture it in my mind, and imagine myself doing those things or having them happen to me. And that just puts me into the character.”

Robert Capron, as Greg’s best pal Rowley, was cast before Zachary Gordon. “There weren’t many (would-be) Rowleys,” says Nina Jacobson. “Robert was Rowley. In his first audition, he was Rowley.” But Capron, too, had an unusual journey to Wimpy-dom. Once attached to the project, he participated in three different screen tests with six different “Gregs.”

But if anyone connected with the production was actually pre-destined to be a part of a DIARY OF A WIMPY KID movie, it was director Thor Freudenthal. A dynamic visual stylist, Freudenthal was coming off the hit comedy “Hotel for Dogs,” when he was approached to take the reins of DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. Having just helmed a film that featured 50 dogs and ten kids, Freudenthal was reluctant to segue to another kid-centric tale. But he was drawn to the WIMPY KID’s Mitty-esque theme, and perhaps most pertinent to this assignment was that as a youngster Freudenthal had created his own illustrated diaries/journals that chronicled his life at school. “[Thor’s diary] was incredibly similar to the Wimpy Kid journal,” says Simpson.

Kinney’s mix of cartoons and prose, told in a diary format through Greg’s signature voice, made the books stand out, and Freudenthal, Jacobson and Simpson wanted to capture the author’s unique approach in the movie. To that end, Freudenthal incorporates Kinney’s iconic drawings to create a visual style that opens up the movie. “It was very important to show the characters as animated, to capture the essence of who they are in Greg’s mind, which, of course, is how Jeff Kinney does it in his books,” says Freudenthal

“Thor’s unique vision – he comes from the animation world – was critical,” says Simpson, who also notes the importance of other techniques not usually employed in kids’ films, like having Greg Heffley directly address the camera (and us, the audience), the use of flashbacks, and the film’s vivid colors. DIARY OF A WIMPY KID brings together some of the industry’s most talented artists and designers, including Academy Award® nominated director of photography Jack Green, ASC (“Unforgiven”) and Oscar®-nominated costume designer Monique Prudhomme (“The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus”).

Like Kinney’s books, the film has a contemporary yet timeless quality. You won’t see smart phones, portable media players or t-shirts emblazoned with of-the-moment iconography. Kinney wanted his stories to be relatable to kids and their parents – to have both generations relive their school experiences minus the distractions of specific cultural references. To that end, the filmmakers also use a mix of different of songs from different periods, from the seventies through today’s hits.

In addition to bringing to life lead characters Greg and Rowley, the filmmakers wanted to highlight the supporting figures in Greg’s journeys at school and at home, in a way not possible in the books. “It’s really fun to see the side characters, which have only a few lines of dialogue in the books, become fully formed in the film,” says Kinney. “The characters had to have more depth than doodles on a page.”

While much of the action is set in Greg’s middle school, the film presents hilarious snippets of his home life with big brother Rodrick, younger sibling Manny, and parents Frank and Susan. Greg’s family experiences, like middle school life, are not ideal. His parents are well-meaning but have no idea about Greg’s day-to-day-struggles at school. Frank, played by Steve Zahn (“Sunshine Cleaning,” “Rescue Dawn”), looks at his three kids and wonders, who are these people? Between Greg’s video games and Rodrick’s rock band “Löded Diper,” they’re completely alien to him. “Each of his three boys distresses him in a different way,” says Simpson. Greg’s mom Susan, played by “The Hangover’s” Rachael Harris, is the only woman in a household of men and is a constant source of embarrassment for Greg. “Susan’s heart is in the right place,” says Harris, “but she’s not cool enough to sneak her good intentions in under the radar.

Big bro’ Rodrick, played by Devon Bostick, makes a sport of picking on Greg. He’s constantly dreaming up practical jokes and other ways to antagonize his kid brother. But, says Freudenthal, Rodrick is not your typical bully. “There’s an amused danger about him and an inventiveness that makes him likable,” the director points out. Another thorn in Greg’s side is three-year-old brother Manny. While not yet possessing a teen’s conniving ways, the youngster’s obsessive potty-training is a constant annoyance to the Wimpy Kid.

As challenging as family life can be, it’s Greg’s school “daze” and classmates that are the focus of his journal. The filmmakers populated the school with kids who looked like real middle school students to whom audiences would respond and relate. In addition to Rowley, Greg’s inner circle includes Fregley (Grayson Russell), a thin, hyper, weird kid and the proud owner of a secret freckle. Fregley’s secret weapon, with which he terrorizes Greg, is a deadly “booger finger.” “Everyone knows a Fregley, and if you don’t then you might be one!” says Jeff Kinney. “He’s the weird kind of kid who stays in his front yard and attacks kites with sticks, and things like that.”

Then there’s Chirag Gupta (Karan Brar), a diminutive Indian youngster whom Greg tolerates because Chirag is the only classmate smaller than Greg. Greg’s arch-nemesis is Patty Farrell (Laine MacNeil); the two have a history together – Greg dissed her in kindergarten, and Patty’s out for payback! When Greg tries to achieve middle school wrestling stardom, Patty’s there to stop him. A less threatening female classmate is Angie Steadman, (Chloë Grace Moretz, soon to be seen as a young superhero in “Kick-Ass”), whose sophisticated and mature perspective on middle school provides a sharp contrast to Greg’s wheelings and dealings. She calls middle school an “intellectual wasteland” and a “glorified holding pen.”

Being caught between these “morons” makes Greg even more resolute in his efforts to heighten his status at school. Unfortunately, his ingenious schemes always backfire. Join the wrestling team to attain jock status? Nope – Patty and even Fregley pound Greg on the mat, which, says Zachary, “ruins his whole popularity scheme.” How about joining the safety patrol, thus becoming the new Mr. Tough Guy? That, too, somehow, goes very, very wrong. And let’s not even get into the school play and Greg’s efforts at sartorial splendor….

DIARY OF A WIMPY KID was filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, which doubled for the books’ unspecified town (perhaps, some postulate, it’s in New England). Production designer Brent Thomas, director of photography Jack Green, ASC, and their teams transformed three Vancouver-area schools into Greg’s middle school. They and all the filmmakers were determined, says Nina Jacobson, to do right by Jeff Kinney’s book and to its many readers. “We wanted to aim high and satisfy all of the books’ fans, but also speak to and create new ones,” she says.

And what advice does Kinney have for current and future Wimpy Kid fans – and middle schoolers? “I would tell them that this [middle school] will all be over quickly, and you’ll be done and through it.”

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