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Lev Grossman on how his Lost-esque TV pitch became time-loop movie 'The Map of Tiny Perfect Things'
Seven years ago, while author Lev Grossman (The Magicians) watched the Tom Cruise movie Edge of Tomorrow, he fell in love with one scene. Cruise and Emily Blunt arrive at a farmhouse where they find a helicopter in the backyard. Cruise’s character knows that the two of them are going to die there, and he pretends that he doesn’t know — until he can’t. He has to tell Blunt's character that he knows, even though telling her will change nothing. Grossman found the “farmhouse of death” scene very moving — beautiful and tragic at the same time, even as it encapsulated some of the typical logic problems of time-loop movies. (Why keep going back when you know you’ll die?)
Right then, Grossman tells SYFY WIRE, “I realized that it would be possible to do different things in that genre. I thought, ‘There’s so much more to be done.’” The time-loop isn’t just a premise, he realized — it’s a genre of infinite possibilities. “It’s amazing what happens to stories when you push them into a time-loop — you can reinvent any genre.”
Which is what Grossman hoped to do with his script for the new Amazon Studios movie, The Map of Tiny Perfect Things, starring Kathryn Newton (Freaky) and Kyle Allen (American Horror Story). In the Q&A below, the scribe chats with SYFY WIRE about how he pushed the idea through various forms — a TV pitch, a short story, and finally a movie — and how the tale changed on each rinse-and-repeat.
Before The Map of Tiny Perfect Things was a movie, before it was a short story, it was a concept for a TV show. How did you pitch it? If you had the benefit of a time loop, how would you pitch it differently now?
[Laughs.] Gosh, you’re asking me to think back on a traumatic experience! It’s really embarrassing to try to pitch a TV show, especially when you don’t know how to pitch a TV show. The Magicians was on the air, which meant for the first time in my life, I could get meetings with networks and producers and blab to them about my ideas, even though I had no idea what I was doing.
I had a meeting with HBO where I pitched them some ideas, and one of my ideas was the idea of a time-loop: “It’s like Lost, except instead of being trapped on an island, they’re trapped in a day.” There was going to be a sprawling cast of characters, figuring out how to get out of this time loop that they were in. And there was a whole bunch of other people who were conspiring to keep them in it. So it was kind of a thriller, and it ended up being a whole battle between the two sides. There would be a detective solving every single unsolved case in the department, which is great, but there would be some pathos to it, because every time, they’d just commit the same crime all over again.
Itâs like Lost, except instead of being trapped on an island, theyâre trapped in a day.”
I also thought it would be inexpensive because you could have some of the same things happen every episode. It would be like one of those really dense puzzles, where you would notice things in the background that you had never noticed before: “Oh! This actually means something really important.” Like, “That was the villain from Season 6, and he just walked on by in the pilot!” And so then you’d rewatch it, and it would all become so much richer. That was the general idea. I just couldn’t let go of it.
You shouldn’t. This could still happen.
I’m going to go back to HBO, and I’ll pitch it again, word for word the same! And this time-loop, it’ll be different! [Laughs] I also couldn’t explain it in a way that made anybody else think it was any good. So I ended up writing it as a short story. At the time, I was super obsessed with John Green, I’m actually still obsessed with him, so I thought, “I’m going to do this for teenagers.” I didn’t think I could fit the vast conspiracy story in, but we could have a little love story. We’ll just have two people in the time-loop, which seemed more original at that time than it does now.
One of your drafts of the script included an idea that Mark would escape the loop, and then realize he needed to get back into it. So if you’re ever in that situation, what do you do? How do you get back into a time-loop?
I was very fond of that version of the script where Mark gets into the next day but then realizes that Margaret isn’t, and he has to go back. I felt like I had never seen that in a time-loop movie, and it was cool. It kind of broke the basic rule of time-loop movies, which is that it ends when you get out of the time-loop. And I don’t remember how he gets back in, but there was a clever way, and then they actually came out of it together. I think I had trouble with the logic of it.
It’s easy to imagine these sorts of things, less so to make them happen on screen. Like you can write, “Sean Bean drives by and waves,” as you do in the story, but actually casting Sean Bean or another celebrity cameo is a lot harder. How close did you get?
Writing it in the script doesn’t actually cause it to happen, as it turns out. It didn’t compel Sean Bean to do a drive-by on set! I’m still not clear on exactly why that didn’t work, but it just didn’t. It would have been cool. The whole thing was to do a big Time Bandits homage, a nod to the randomness of Sean Connery being in Time Bandits. Sean Connery would have been the ultimate, but he passed away. I feel like you’d want somebody with a certain gravitas. Anthony Hopkins. Something with that kind of grizzled, leading man feeling. Daniel Craig. I was so desperate to get that scene back in, I remember Googling celebrities who live in Alabama. Surely somebody must live in Alabama! But I forget who they are, and whoever they are, we didn’t get them.
Well, there is one celebrity cameo that made it in. Yours!
That wasn’t even my idea, having a bird poop and almost poop on someone, but it was fun even though, as it turns out, it was incredibly hard to get me to do the bit correctly. I had to walk across the street at exactly the right pace to meet them at a certain spot where the cameras were, and I had a lot of trouble with that. Maybe this has never happened to you, but when you’re extremely self-conscious because the cameras are rolling, you just kind of lose all feeling in your legs. I just became totally incapable of even walking.
There was meant to be another bit, by the way, in which the bird did poop on me. It was one of the things that we lost due to the pandemic shortening our shooting schedule. It was just an issue of timing. And it’s not necessarily how I want to be remembered — the guy who got pooped on in that movie. [Laughs.]
The Map of Tiny Perfect Things is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.