Although perhaps best known for his long-running, darkly comedic newspaper strip Pearls Before Swine, Stephen Pastis has enjoyed a successful side hustle as the bestselling author of the wildly popular Timmy Failure series of children’s chapter books – prose tales with plenty of illustrations – centered on a young would-be detective who sets out to solve crimes in his neighborhood with his presumably imaginary partner, a polar bear named Total.
And like many an auteur from outside the film medium, he never expected that optioning the franchise to a Hollywood powerhouse like Disney, could also launch an equally fulfilling and lucrative third career as a screenwriter, co-penning the script for the Disney+ film with director Tom McCarthy.
Like many a book author, comic book creators and comic strip creators have had a long and often fruitful flirtation with Hollywood, all the way back to movie serials starring the likes of Tarzan, Superman, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy. But aside from the likes of powerhouses like Charles Schulz, the creators would very rarely have any direct input into how their popular characters were interpreted on-screen – only recently have comic creators like Frank Miller and Mark Millar had any significant role their creations’ film and TV fates. But suddenly, doors are opening.
“If you're the writer of the book, you're almost never involved in the movie, especially if you haven't written a movie before,” Pastis told ComicBook.com at the premiere of the film at Disney’s El Capitan theater. “The reason they don't want the writer in the room when you adapt, is because the writer can be too precious about their work, and you're just going to get in the way.”
“I told Tom on day one, ‘I'm not going to be that way,’” recalled Pastis. “’If you want to change something, and I think it's funny or good, I'll do it. The only thing I'm going to do is I'm going to make sure Timmy retains his voice, because that voice is in my head.’ And he was great with that.”
“It was the generosity of Tom saying, ‘Yes, you can write with me,’ trusting me with a scene at first,” said Pastis. “Then that progressed, and two years later, every one of those scenes is both of us. So without his trust, that doesn't happen. I needed that first and foremost.”
The resulting film, Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made, available now on Disney+, wasn’t overly slavish to his first book but captured his unique humor and spirit. “This is not 100% the first book – it's about 60% the first book, but that was key. That made the partnership work,” Pastis said. “Otherwise, it would have been dead in the water.”
“It made me genuinely laugh out loud, and whenever words on a page can make you do that [you say yes],” said actress Ophelia Lovibond, who plays Timmy’s mother Patti in the film.
Pastis said he was especially pleased to see the film showcased on the new Disney+, where it could live and breathe on its own terms, rather than conform to specific formulas expected from Disney’s traditional theatrical output. “Maybe this wouldn't have been the same in theaters – we really had leeway,” he explained. “I mean, this is Disney and everyone's like, ‘Can you do this? Can you do that?’ We did all those things. Ophelia, as you'll see, she has tattoos. She has purple hair. She's not your traditional mom. To some extent, creatively, I think they let us do what we wanted. So I see it as an advantage, and they were great. We really got to do a lot of cool stuff.”
And Timmy Failure still fits into the studio’s penchant for franchise-building. “There's a volume two through seven, and I just wrote a prequel that Disney is going to publish through Hyperion in April,” he said. “I did that post movies: Timmy is conscious of the fact that he was in a movie, and he's writing with that knowledge, so it was fun to do. But yeah, I have more. I like writing that character. I miss him when I don't write him.”0comments
Meanwhile, in the thick of launching his latest venture, Pastis was still able to maintain uncompromised creative control over his first baby, Pearls Before Swine, creating fresh strips during the making of the film. “I did it throughout production,” he said. “I went to Tom's trailer, because he never used it, and I drew when they went into coverage – coverage is just a bunch of shooting the same shot from different angles, and at that point I'm not needed. The dialogue is set. So I just went to the trailer and I drew.”
Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made is now streaming on Disney+.