Screenwriter Jennifer Lee is just getting started. Sure, she's already written the highest-grossing animated film of all time (Frozen, anyone?). But immediately after finishing the press tour for Frozen, she was ready to keep writing. And that's when Lee found out Disney was looking for a writer for A Wrinkle in Time, a book she loved as a kid.
"I found out they were looking for a writer for A Wrinkle in Time, and I was there the next day. It was the next day, and I wanted to do this for a million reasons."
It seems like Lee isn't one to slow down, jumping from one challenge immediately into the next. Perhaps that's why it wasn't surprising that when I asked her which of A Wrinkle in Time's three "Mrs." she would be, she chose Mrs. Whatsit (played by Reese Witherspoon in the film) — the one who is just getting started in her journey.
"[Mrs. Whatsit] has so far to go... I want to take that journey and I haven't yet... I want to go all over the universe and learn how much I still have to learn."
Ahead of the film, SYFY Fangrrls sat down with Lee to discuss her process adapting the beloved book and collaborating with director Ava DuVernay. Plus, how did she come up with all of those amazing quotes used by Mrs. Who?
Why did you want to work on A Wrinkle in Time?
I loved Meg's journey. I love the girl who never had to prove she was perfect or become perfect but, flaws and all, could accomplish something so great. And I love science fiction. I love science. I love physics and cosmology. I have a slight obsession with cosmology and the universe and the idea of getting to go into that world and bring all the things that I'd been dabbling in and thinking about into combining it with the Tesser and the science of the '60s. I was so stoked to do that. So I kind of went in and pitched them, not like scene by scene, but sort of my approach and what I was excited about, and then they very nicely said give it a whirl.
What was your approach when it came to adapting this story?
I spent a lot of time with the book writing thoughts: what inspired, what I was feeling, questions I had. Then I would start outlining it in such a way where I was doing it from, "Where's Meg now? What is she thinking?" The book had a lot of people teaching Meg lessons along the way and guiding her, but for the film I truly believed she had to drive it all. It had to be her mistakes at times, but her triumphs, her discoveries, and every time she got guidance, it should always come with a hard truth — something that actually made it harder for her and that she just had to face — and so I did it from that way out.
I knew the father had to be a bigger character than he is in the book, because I want to have stakes in where she's going. I want to know why she cares. I want to know what she's missing, and I want to know what this meant, why this man left, why he chose the universe over his children, and I want to know those answers. So then that came. So every layer was sort of built on the emotional journey versus the fantastical stuff like, "What does creature Whatsit look like?" Because I knew there would be plenty of more talented people who had come along and have that be a part of that conversation.
It was a wonderful mix. She was very collaborative. I knew I loved Uriel, and the part of Uriel that resonated with me was when they smelled the flowers. I kept saying, but that's just one detail. So then the idea [came] to make the whole world where plant life is the life of the planet in terms of the sentient life — the flowers that fly. Ava brought in the flying part. I had them running on their roots across the ground. And she had them take flight. I thought that was so beautiful and created a different feeling. So there was a lot of that.
I expected when she came in that everything would be changed. Because that's what happens, and it's director's prerogative, and if I inspired her, then great. But she was much more collaborative than that, and she knew that I had a deep connection to the science fiction side of this and creating these worlds. And she had a much greater connection to the emotional adventure, so when we worked together she was very collaborative and she always fed me the visual development artwork to see. She would feed me all of that, and it would inspire me to write. I was very honored that she kept me on, because she can write as well. I think in many ways our sensibilities overlapped in the right places, so I'm grateful for that.
As you mentioned, you've worked on huge animated films. Is there a difference in the writing process for you, animation versus live action?
Not in the writing proce,ss for sure. I will say sort of "a story is story is story," and you still do all the deep character work. In animation, you draw it several times, and get to watch it several times. You can storyboard a bit, but you don't get to do that in live action. So for me every time they shot a new scene, I would look at the dailies and it would change the movie for me, because these are real live actors taking it and making it their own. And it would inspire what I still hadn't rewritten yet. It would affect it. So there was a different kind of going back and forth.
This is a children's movie, but there are some pretty intense and scary parts. There are also hopeful parts. How did you balance those aspects of the story?
Well, in so many ways, if you go back to everything, it's its own kind of fairy tale, in a way. Every fairy tale has the darkness, and those were the origins to introduce kids to the darkness in the world, but through story, so they didn't have to feel it. I think that's in every story in writing. I didn't think too much about "Oh, we should change something for kids" or not because I think that kids sort of reach up to things. I just try to stay true to the character, and we've done some pretty heavy stuff in the film. So I feel like in many ways this has more elements of triumph, and I'm really proud of those.
Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) speaks only in quotes for the first chunk of the film. So, a very important question. How did you come up with the quotes you wanted Mrs. Who to say?
That was all of us. It was so fun. I mean, there were times where you were exhausted. I used to say it was like every Sunday was "Mrs. Who Day," because anytime you did a rewrite, the line had to fit what she needed to say to the character but had to be said in a way using other words. And you wanted to branch out to all parts of history, but including modern history and everyone. Then had to get it approved legally to make sure that person did say that, it was okay to say it, and so it was a process.
But Ava joined in. Ava's sister was looking for quotes for us. My assistant was looking for quotes. Everyone was always pulling. And we were filling each other with Mrs. Who quotes even if we didn't have any rewrites scheduled, because they would just [say] "Ooh, that inspired me. Is there a place for that?" And then there was some beautiful lines and some hilarious lines that just kind of... you never thought they would find their way in and they did. I still have the Mrs. Who quote book. This book is like 25 pages of single-spaced quotes.
A story about a child gaining confidence and speaking up for what she believes in is super timely, as we've been seeing in the news. How do you feel like this particular story fits in with where we're at right now?
Well, what I'm so excited about is Meg is all of us. She is not perfect. She's flawed and yet she's exactly as she should be, and the concept that each one of us are who we are, and that's exactly who we should be. We have a role to play as well. Get all the insecurities out of the way. Get all the things you fear and don't trust about yourself out of the way. Accept that you are here for a reason. What is that? Contribute and go for it. And you can make such a huge difference. All Meg wanted to do was find her dad and look what she did, right?
A Wrinkle in Time hits theaters March 9.