'A Wrinkle in Time' Screenwriter Reveals Why a Beloved Character Was Cut From the Film (Exclusive)
By John Boone
Walt Disney Pictures
Jennifer Lee may be the screenwriter who finally cracked A Wrinkle in Time, but she's still not exactly sure why her, or why now. She was in good with the Mouse House, having joined the Disney family with Wreck-It Ralph before writing and directing Frozen, for which she won the Oscar. Following multiple failed attempts to bring Madeleine L'Engle's 1962 children's book to the big screen, Lee thought she might have a fresh approach. "I don't know if at this point they were like, 'Why not?'" Lee said with a laugh. "'Everyone's taken a stab. Why don't you?'"
Now, A Wrinkle in Time is opening in theaters at last, as directed by Ava DuVernay. The film tells the story of a middle schooler named Meg Murry (Storm Reid) who travels through space and time to find her long-lost father, guided by the celestial Mrs. Ws, played by Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon. "I saw the final cut, but not with all the music and effects, so I can't wait," Lee said ahead of the movie's blue carpet premiere. ET also spoke with the screenwriter about dream casting, what was left on the cutting room floor and the margaritas that Oprah had planned for the premiere's after-party. "It's a tough night, I know," she deadpanned. "But I'll do my best!"
ET: Going back to the beginning, what was your original pitch for adapting this?
Jennifer Lee: What was interesting is I didn't go in and pitch a story, like, "And then, and then..." I went in and just talked about why I understood it was such a difficult adaptation, because I know several people tried before; what I thought the key was, as in being bold enough to anchor the entire journey in a 14-year-old girl, which is not something that people would have done in the past, I think, so easily, where she really is the complete driving force, flaws and all -- in the best way. And then looking at how much that story had been ripped off and how much that it was becoming sort of cliché or dated, but how to reawaken the feelings it evoked in us. Then, finally, I have a real love of science and cosmology and quantum physics and how much we could layer that excitement in a modern way. We've learned a lot since the '60s, in terms of science. I think I had an approach in all different angles that stayed true to the book, but actually looked at what it would mean to create that book today, and they said, "Go for it!" [Laughs] I don't know if at this point they were like, "Why not? Everyone's taken a stab. Why don't you?" I don't know what it was, but they did let me go for it, so I'm very grateful.
Was there a line of dialogue or a scene from the book that you wanted to keep verbatim in your script?
I would say there were a lot of lines I loved and then, you joke, you kill your darlings. Some stayed in wholly, some stayed in in part, some the concept is there. But I tried to circle the things I loved and I kept rereading the book again and again, but I wouldn't, per se, be looking scene from the book to scene in the script. I would try to make it come out organically. There's a line for the mother, "A happy medium is something I'm not sure you'll ever find." [The exact line is, "A happy medium is something I wonder if you'll ever learn."] And I can tell you right now, I can't remember if it's in it or not! We kept trying to keep it in all the way to the end. There's a lot of those that mean a lot, but you also know that you're not trying to do the book. You're trying to be inspired by the book.
You were on the project before Ava signed on to direct. How did things change once she came onboard and you began working together?
It was great! I was on about a year and a half. I'd done a few drafts and they felt it was ready to seek a director. I was soooo excited when Ava agreed to do it, because I thought she had the perfect sensibility. Her cinematic storytelling is very emotional, and that was the key to this. The fantastical worlds are great, but this is an emotional journey. It's a family story -- a wounded family trying to heal -- and you needed someone with such strong, emotional directing. I have to say, I thought what would happen is I would be handing it over to her, because she's a writer in and of herself, and I thought she'd want to take over and make it her own. I was prepared to bittersweetly kiss it goodbye, and she didn't do that. [Laughs] I was! Because I respect her and I respect her as a director, and she had certainly the talent to do so, so if that's what she'd wanted, I would have respected that. But that's not what she wanted.
She wanted to keep me involved and work with me and we talked almost daily, at times. We had some of the most incredible conversations of my life. They were really deep, emotional conversations, to just keep going further and further. Ava is a very evocative filmmaker and she does that through creating lots of layers in each scene, where you can look at it from many different points of view. We worked these scenes to make sure each scene maximized what it was, what it could be -- emotionally, visually -- how much people could project themselves onto those journeys. It was a process where, all the way until we locked a couple months ago, she kept me involved. I was very grateful and got to learn a lot from her.
I know that casting Storm as Meg was very important to Ava. When you were writing the script, is that something you'd considered on the page? Or did you write the role colorblind?
I'd say a little bit of both. I certainly wrote it so that it wouldn't shut anyone out, because I didn't want to be the person who defined who that actor or actress should be. I made a couple choices, like making Zach Galifianakis' character, the Happy Medium, a man versus a woman for storytelling reasons, but I tried to not do that, actually, and just leave it very open. Because, in some ways, my fear was I would limit what could happen. So then, of course, Ava comes in and introduces us to Storm. I was blown away by her. I mean, her talent at her young age and how much Ava's approach with Meg is everyone -- Meg is all of us -- and how much Storm captured that. I mean, she couldn't have cast a more perfect person.
What do you think it means, in terms of representation, to not only have a young girl of color as the protagonist, but a black girl who is also really into STEM? What does that mean to you, personally?
As a woman, I relate to a lot of things where you're underrepresented and not always seeing real life, real culture, real America, real world on the screen, and Storm just blows past all that. She's all of us. I'm very proud to be part of that. I'm very proud to have gotten to work on this film and to be part of such a thoughtful approach to making a film that is about fighting for hope in the universe and light in the world, and it has a cast that represents the whole world.
With the Mrs. Ws, you have dream casting in Mindy and Oprah and Reese. How did you react when you found out each of those women had been cast?
It all comes down to Ava! She's so inspiring and people want to work with her, and I was like, Of course! If anyone could bring in such amazing talent, it's her. For me, I just wanted to do the writing justice for them. I wanted the roles to be what they wanted to sink their teeth into, wanted to be a part of, wanted to make their own. And they were incredibly wonderful, because they really came to the material. They believed in A Wrinkle in Time. They loved the characters from the book -- they read both the book and the script -- and really came to it, as opposed to asking for it to be adapted for them. And yet, obviously, you get so inspired
I mean, Reese is hilarious, so there were things I could do [with her character]. There's like a naïve quality with genius behind it that she plays better than anyone. That's the perfect thing for Mrs. Whatsit. So, I was able to lean into that. There was a warmth that Mindy brought in a new way to this role that really inspired me, and I started moving her character towards leaning her to be the nurturer. And then Mrs. Which, anything in the world you want to say, if Oprah says it, it has a transcendent quality to it. So, there were lots of things where I could feel when you hear certain things from Oprah, it has a huge affect on us. Mrs. Which does some of my most favorite lines, the most, like, charging and active lines. It was a playground to work with them.
And having a two-story-tall Oprah, we're finally seeing her how she was meant to be seen.
Yes! [Laughs] I loved that and what I loved is the concept of she's so evolved and she's trying so hard to communicate, to come down to a human level. And she doesn't get the size right. She's just this wonderfully, like, literally larger-than-life [woman] and then getting to physically make her two-stories, then five-stories tall and then come down to our level, it was just so much fun.
There is a moment when Mrs. Which is listing off warriors of light -- like Albert Einstein and Nelson Mandela -- and if Oprah weren't in the movie, I would have expected to hear her name.
I know! It's so funny you say that, because I'm trying to remember. I'm like, Did we? Because in the book, Madeleine L'Engle does that, but of course, that was the '60s, so there are so many new warriors out there, so we wanted to speak to those warriors as well. And I'm laughing going, You just made me want to go and look at early drafts and see if she was there. Because we had this wonderful list of people who are so inspiring to us. Oh, I love that! I'm going to go look back.
What do you think is the biggest change you made from Madeleine's book in your adaptation?
My changes were very much about the craft of sreenwriting and the difference [between] a book and your relationship with a book versus your relationship with a film. I know in the film, I really wanted Meg driving all the action, driving all the choices as our main character. Because in the book, she's guided a lot and she's being prepared and we already know where we're going. It's a much more psychological journey. In that huge shift to make Meg have to fight against the darkness herself and fight to find her father every step of the way, all while feeling completely insecure and frightened, by doing that, it made certain things either have to fall away or change. So, they're familiar. Even Uriel -- we know Uriel, but the drive and the charge on Uriel are different. It's only different because it's through Meg's eyes, but navigating that was huge.
And then the other thing was really raising the father's story, because in the book, the father's much more like a McGuffin. You know, he's like the box you gotta find and then you get there and the box isn't the thing you gotta find. We wanted to understand that relationship and what she lost. We want to know the goodness of that relationship, but also her fears of abandonment and are they valid at all? Did this man choose the universe over his family? And does he have a hubris that he must face? To me, those are real family issues and they ground this and so that's not in the book, but it's evoked. You can feel it there, under the surface.
And I don't think anyone is complaining about getting more Chris Pine.
[Laughs] I know! I loved the dailies with his scenes. He's such a great improver, too, so there were moments where he's got all the lines, but he goes with the moment and you're like, "Oh, yeah. There it is. Right there."
Is there a scene that was cut, for whatever reason, that you really wish could have made the final film?
Oh, definitely! For all of us, including Ava, one of the hardest things was cutting Aunt Beast. She's one of all of our favorite characters in the book and they go to the planet, Ixchel, and Aunt Beast heals Meg. We have that scene. It's a beautiful scene, but the challenge was with the new version where Meg is driving this, you really want your character to face the ultimate darkness when she is at her weakest and to really look at what it takes to really pull yourself out of that and to find strength within yourself without help. Because that's life, often. And Aunt Beast in the book, by healing Meg, it's such a beautiful sequence, but again, Meg's not driving that story as much. So, we had to cut it, because she's suddenly wasn't driving it anymore and Aunt Beast was making us feel like there was no real threat after that. It's one of those things where our love of that, because of our love of the book and all Aunt Beast represents, we held onto it for so long and finally had to spend that week of grieving about it and then realizing it felt right to cut it.
Was that a fully CGI creation or was there someone cast as Aunt Beast?
It was a combination of things. It wasn't a person cast, it was more analog puppetry effects. It wasn't, like, a big CG character. I think there was some CG involved with it, but I never actually saw the final special effects, with the CG added, because we cut it right before that. There's a hint of them in one of the trailers! You can see the beasts in the trailer, and so you get a sense of what they would have looked like. [Go to the 1:00 minute mark here.] And who knows? Maybe it will make it into the DVD. Who knows!
And, obviously, I can't let you go without asking for any little tease you can give me about Frozen 2.
What can I say? [Laughs] I can't say much! Except, we're having a blast. We're really building it from the characters up and we're really excited about the story. We've got our cast coming back in the next two weeks to do some recording, and we head into production in the summer.
Can you at least tell me, will the snowgies be back?
Oh no, wait! Let me put that on the list! [Laughs] I don't know!