“Ramona and Beezus,” based on Beverly Cleary’s beloved book, is likely to be the family film success of the summer season. The film is all about sisterhood and the love that develops between and binds siblings.
Cleary’s novel is a kids’ classic, so well-known and beloved, adapting it for the big screen could be problematic. Director Elizabeth Allen says she was actually quite concerned about doing it the right way — especially because she feels so personally connected to the book.
ELIZABETH ALLEN: Actually, I was very concerned about doing it the right way. The book has been a pivotal part of my life, ever since I was introduced to “Ramona and Beezus” when I was five and had the chicken pox. I Have a younger sister, too, so there’s really a lot that I relate to. In fact, I’m so familiar with the book that I’d have to say I suspect I often blur my own memories with those of Ramona. So, I considered it a big responsibility and I took a big pause before deciding to take the job because I wanted to figure out if I could work out the differences for film. I really didn‘t want to screw it up and wind up producing just another episode of “Dennis The Menace,” or something that feels like that. I wanted to deliver a movie that delivers on what it says it is. I think we succeeded and made it work. And I must give credit to Beverly Cleary, who’s now in her 90s. She was generous and extraordinarily helpful, and gave us guidance and a strong sense of what would work for her vision, which we all respected. I do think we made it work.
(PHOTO: Beverly Cleary and Elizabeth Allen. Courtesy Elizabeth Allen)
JENNIFER MERIN: The casting couldn’t have been better. There’s a real sense of family ties among the actors, all of whom seem to connect so genuinely and joyfully with the material and each other. It’s not easy to achieve that when you’re working with kids and a cat. So, how’d you do it?
ALLEN: I agree that the cast is exceptional, and they‘re all actors who respond so strongly to this kind of high caliber material. They were also all familiar with the book and have a relationship with it, so that gave each of them an instant back story — they had years of history with the story, and that‘s such a luxury for an actor, and for a director.
MERIN: Did you find the kids and cat difficult to work with?
ALLEN: Kids and cats are always challenging. Everyone needs to have infinite patience, and it really helps is everyone is there for the right reasons — that they love the project. Working with Joey King (playing Ramona) and Selena Gomez (playing Beezus) is about as good as it get when you’re working with young actors. They both have amazing maturity and share a great sense of responsibility and work ethic. The infants — we had twins playing the baby — were somewhat more challenging. But it was the cat who was just so bad. We all know that cats are just not cooperative, and this cat was no exception. But even so, we got lucky, especially in the scene where they’re making the world’s longest picture — the cat wouldn’t stay put where he was supposed to be, but wound up wandering along the length of the picture with his tail up, and it was perfect.
MERIN: That scene was wonderful. Was it difficult to shoot? And what’s become of the world’s longest picture? Will it go on display?
ALLEN: You know, we actually couldn’t find the world’s longest picture, so they’re making a replica of it. Also, I do have a digital copy that can be printed out. But I don‘t know what we‘ll do with it eventually.
That scene seems to be everyone‘s favorite, as we’ve seen at our test screenings. It seems to resonate with everyone. I think of it as the film’s centerpiece because it brings together Ramona and Beezus’ conversation about coloring outside the lines, and it also shows the father’s — Bob Quimby’s — reconnecting with his youthful dream and regenerating his passion for art.
MERIN: Speaking of art, the cinematography is wonderful in the way in which it captures the charm and quirkiness of the characters and reveals relationships….
ALLEN: That’s John Bailey. He’s a living legend, and it was wonderful to have the opportunity to work with him. You learn from him all the time. The detail and his focus are fabulous. The way he used lighting to create a sparkle in the eyes of characters when they look at each other is amazing — you hardly notice it, but it really lights up the screen.
MERIN: There are some differences, some additions to the story. Did you feel you had to update it?
ALLEN: Actually the changes we chose to make in adapting the story turned out to be quite relevant. We came up with the plot contrivance of Bob Quimby (John Corbett) being downsized and the possibility of the family losing their house, and then the whole mortgage crisis occurred and the situation became real for so many families. At the screenings we’ve had so far, people have thanked me, saying that we’ve shown a positive way that a family can and does deal with the crisis.
But we were very deliberate, too, in the decision to keep Beverly Cleary’s time stamp on all the elements of the film, and Beverly was influential in this approach. We don’t have any trendy clothes or hair styles. We don’t have any cell phones and the girls don’t do any texting. We don’t even have any flat screens. We just felt it was important to stay in the touch with the original time frame of the book.
MERIN: I’m glad you did. This is a great family film, and I’m glad you did decide to take the project. Do you have a particular interest in this genre?
ALLEN: Actually, it’s new territory for me. I began my career by making a short film — a calling card, if you will — which was about a bunch of boys beating the crap out of each other, and intentionally reflected a masculine sensibility. It was shocking and athletic and — perhaps because I’m a woman — got a lot of attention for me because it was unique and unexpected. It gave me a leg up, in a way, over some very talented male directors I went to school with.
MERIN: Do you think that women directors will have more opportunity in Hollywood now that Kathryn Bigelow has won an Oscar? Will they have more chances to direct the big budget action films and thrillers?
ALLEN: I hope so. I’m thankful to Elizabeth Gabler, the President of Fox 2000, who gave me my first break with “Aquamarine,“ and even though that didn’t do very well, took a chance on me with “Ramona and Beezus” — which, by the way, had many action movie elements — stunt doubles, action sequences, animals and infants, but no visual effects and green screens. But family movies are ten times harder to direct than people think they are. So, having finished “Ramona and Beezus,“ I feel quite prepared to direct a big budget action movie.
MERIN: Is that what you have planned next?
ALLEN: No. Actually, I’m directing a romantic comedy, which is a genre that I really do love. It’s called “Is He The One?,” and it’s a chance to delve into the psychology of romance. It’s also for Elizabeth Gabler and Fox 2000. We’re just getting started on it, and I’m really looking forward to the project.