Nightbooks, premiering on Netflix on September 15, puts a spin on the classic One Thousand and One Nights tale for more modern and youthful audiences. Based on J.A. White’s acclaimed book of the same name, Nightbooks follows young aspiring writer Alex (Winslow Fegley, Come Play) who swears off stories after being branded weird because of them. To his shock, a mysterious witch (Krysten Ritter, Jessica Jones) traps him in an apartment with fellow kid Yasmin (Lidya Jewett, Good Girls). The rules of her game? Keep telling stories to stay alive.
The film was adapted by screenwriting partners Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, who have already made a name for themselves in Hollywood with The Curse of La Llorona and Five Feet Apart under their belts. Though they have clearly tackled horror and young adult fiction before, this was their first time working with horror specifically aimed at a younger set.
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The talented duo spoke with Screen Rant about the adaptation process and their own loyalty to authorial intent, as well the Nightbooks stories closest to their hearts.
Screen Rant: What inspired you to tackle a kid-friendly horror style instead of the usual horror genre?
Mikki Daughtry: We adapted this movie from a fantastic book. The Curse of La Llorona was our first movie, and we’ve always been horror junkies with a side of romance. We went straight to Five Feet Apart, which was Young Adult romance, and we came back to horror.
But we love kid-friendly stuff, so when we were invited to pitch on this book, we jumped out. We had not written a kid’s movie before, but I think we’re both youthful enough to have a sensibility about it. And Tobias will tell you about Gabriel, his son.
Tobias Iaconis: I think he was 11 at the time, and he loved it. He’s always been an avid reader. Mikki and I read it, and we all loved the book so much. It was fun to do a movie that my own family could appreciate.
At the same time, like Mikki said, we grew up on Evil Dead and Friday The 13th and on Nightmare on Elm Street. The opportunity to get back into horror and the opportunity to actually work with Sam Raimi on this amazing story felt like all the stars aligned to us.
Mikki Daughtry: We approached it as a kids’ movie, but also not as a kids’ movie because we weren’t professional children’s writers. As writers, we just looked at it from the point of view of these characters. So much of it was laid out there for us in the book, so we had to then put our own POV on it. What would the kids be feeling in the situation? What would be most scary for them in that situation?
We didn’t look at it as a movie as much as a movie starring kids. It’s a whole different thing. We didn’t go and say, “We’re writing a kids’ movie.” Our main characters are 11, so we’re asking, “What do they feel? What do they say? How do they move and react to this world around them?” So, I guess it came from there.
How involved were you in the casting process, if at all? Did you have actors in mind when writing parts, like Krysten Ritter, for example?
Mikki Daughtry: Everyone would want Krysten Ritter in their movie. But we were not, because we weren’t producers on it. We were kept in the loop, though, and it was a very collaborative team.
It was so much fun when they would be like, “We’re looking at these three kids,” and they would send them over to us. We would get to say, “Oh my God! We love them.” We love everybody. We’re like, “They’re perfect! We don’t even want to talk about anybody else.”
As for Krysten, they did a big push to get her, and we’re over the moon that she agreed. It was a super great team, and we had the best time.
Tobias Iaconis: Lidya [Jewett] and Winslow [Fegley] were true finds as well. They’re such gems. It’s so hard to cast children, and it’s so hard to get a sense of them just from a single audition. But both of them were great.
Mikki Daughtry: David Yarovesky, our director, chose wisely. He’s our captain, and when he was casting, he chose very wisely for these kids. They would come back to us and go, “This is who we’re looking at it,” and we would just be like, “Two thumbs up!”
You both seem to have this really strong partnership. What helps you click so well as writers? What is your process?
Mikki Daughtry: I get to boss him around! That’s the bottom line.
Tobias Iaconis: Bossiness and chaos.
Mikki Daughtry: Whenever people meet us in person, it’s such a weird but fun [dynamic]. I think people like to have us together in the room. I am a complete disaster; I’m a mess that’s spinning like a tornado all the time. And I say Tobias is my weatherman. He throws a net over all of it, taps it down, and pulls it in; he makes order out of the chaos.
That’s just kind of how we work. And I always tease him – please, no one think I’m serious – that he’s like a German automaton. “These are the rules. This is what we need to do,” and I’m like, “There are no rules!” We meet in the middle, and it works for us.
I always love stories about stories, and writers writing about writers. How do you approach the character of Alex, and balancing his ability to tell the stories that would engage both him and the audience at the same time?
Mikki Daughtry: J.A. White did all that work for us. That was his character, his book, and his fantastic story. It was a beautifully magical world that he created, and we just followed his lead on that.
From the book pages, Alex was there. We just had to translate him into a film version of Alex, so some things fall away. We needed to distill the things that make it cinematic, and that will fit into an hour and 40-minute framework instead of a five-hour framework.
We got to play a little with the characters, but we were intent on being as true as we could be to another writer’s work. As writers ourselves, I think we took that very seriously. It was our first book adaptation. La Llorona was an original, and Five Feet Apart was an original that was then turned into a book, but this was our first adaptation of someone else’s work, and we know how it feels to create something and birth it and share it. So, we never wanted to stray very far from what J.A. had wanted and written into his book.
It was a little sacred to us. Because that’s how I would want someone to adapt my book. I’m adapting my own book, but if someone else were hired to do it, I would be like, “Please don’t step all over this.” We know how it feels to have work out there and wonder if it’s going to be changed or uprooted when it’s something we really, really love.
We get it, and we’re fine with it because it’s a collaborative business. All creative arts, I think, are very collaborative these days. But we were trying so hard to stay faithful because J.A. White is responsible for those brilliant characters.
Tobias, what would you say was either the most challenging or rewarding part for you of the adaptation?
Tobias Iaconis: Mikki used the right word: distillation. That’s the most challenging part. Because J.A. White has this wonderfully full, fleshed out, fantastical, wonderful, scary story laid out in a novel – but we can’t do it all in a movie. We had to decide what gems to mine.
There’s a lot of stories within stories in the novel, and not all of those stories can make it into the movie. For the stories that did make it into the movie, we had to find a way to fit them into our budget and make the action scenes filmable and the special effects doable with what we had. I think that was really the most challenging thing.
Honestly, that is an easier task than if you have a novel or a short story where you have to go the opposite route. The short story, Mikki describes it as a sponge that you have to fill with water to swirl it up into a larger story. That, I think, is the greater challenge. But for us, we had too much. We had to pare it back; we had to cut it. It was the hardest thing to do, because so much of it was wonderful, and we just couldn’t fit it in. We had to decide what to leave behind.
Speaking of the stories, is there one that resonates most with each of you? Or one that was nearest and dearest to your heart?
Mikki Daughtry: It got cut, but I really liked “The Shape in The Mirror.” It’s about a girl turning into a vampire, and it was really fantastic. It’s such a great little story, but because of time restraints and the length of the movie, it needed to be cut. That was my favorite story – we adapted it, and it was so good.
But from the stories that we got to keep, “The Playground” was my favorite story. I’m not kidding; it was my second favorite overall. I’m really glad we got to keep it because it’s about friendship and about the heart. If you know me at all, you know that death is not the end to me; I think we’re connected forever if you love someone, so that story really resonated with me on that level. It doesn’t matter where you’re at, whether you’re here or there – if the love is there, you’re still together.
I’m going to take it back and say that’s my favorite story now that I’m talking about it. “The Shape in The Mirror” was scarier, though. It was the creepiest one.
Tobias Iaconis: I agree with “The Playground,” because it sort of mirrors the emotional journey – or one of the emotional journeys – that Alex and Yasmin are on. It’s about friendship, and the story between the boy and the girl mirrored what was happening in that apartment between Alex and Yasmin. It was representative of the emotional core of what we were trying to do with those characters – what J.A. White was trying to do.
I know that you are adapting Mikki’s own novel together. How different is that process, and what are you most looking forward to there?
Mikki Daughtry: To being done with it. [laughs]
It’s my book, so I would say I’m taking the lead on it. I’m doing the heavy lifting – and we’ll do that a lot of times. One of us will take the lead on a project that we’re more suited for. We’re really good partners, in the sense that we complete each other’s strengths. And this is my absolute strength, what we’re doing now.
Tobias Iaconis: Yup, 100%.
Mikki Daughtry: But we do everything together, so there’s nothing too different. It’s easy. When people ask what it’s like, the answer is: it’s the same every day, but we love it.
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Nightbooks is currently streaming on Netflix.
Nightbooks (2021)Release date: Sep 15, 2021
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About The Author
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Tatiana Hullender is a writer at Screen Rant, focusing on film and television, as well as a co-host of several podcasts. In the interviews she conducts for Screen Rant, she seeks to learn what drives each creative mind and how different experiences influence the same narrative. As a graduate of Columbia University in New York City, Tatiana studied theater and comparative literature. She has been passionate about all manner of storytelling since being exposed to Jane Austen and BBC adaptations of her work all at once. But Regency satire of manners isn’t the only genre she loves, as a love of comic books naturally developed into a love of cinematic universes and their superheroes. So long as a story has heart and humor, there’s a chance of finding something to enjoy in the telling of it.
Visit @myrcellasear on Twitter to follow Tatiana’s articles, interviews and podcasts including: The Flash Podcast, Pop A La Carte and Ladies With Gumption. Subscribe to them on the Podcast app, or contact her directly at painted(dot)out(at)gmail.com.
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