When it comes to family films, Temple Mathews is one of Hollywood’s best. Gifted in a variety of genres, Temple is well known for his work on Disney’s “Return to Neverland,” “The Little Mermaid 2,” “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas,” and more. Temple Mathews has also proven his talents as a novelist, having written three books in his new supernatural young adult literature series “The New Kid,” which is in the spirit of “Hunger Games” and “Twilight.”
With the recent re-release of “Peter Pan,” and the upcoming re-release of “The Little Mermaid,” Reel Mama spoke to Temple Mathews about his creative process, upcoming projects, and how to never be boring when it comes to writing.
NOTE: Interview questions are in bold.
I’ve really enjoyed seeing “Return to Neverland,” especially after recently revisiting “Peter Pan.” It’s especially interesting to see how you updated the classic for a new generation.
You don’t see a lot of that type of animation. I think “Return to Neverland” looked really pretty. We worked very hard on the story, and all in all, it’s a lot of fun. I had a wonderful experience. About a year ago, a man wrote me, and he said that his daughter, who was somewhat seriously ill, and he would sit down and watch that movie. They watched it several times, and it gave her a lot of hope. He said to me, “Hat’s off to you.” He was very sweet about it. That’s really fulfilling.
That’s probably what really brings you joy with the creative process: connecting with that audience.
It’s fun. Originally [Disney] did not have very high hopes [for “Return to Neverland.”] They were going to make a four part direct to video movie or TV show based on the sequel. Then as we got into it, and I wrote the script, it went to Joe Roth, who was the head of Disney at that time. He read it, and he said, “Let’s make a real movie out of this. Let’s go for it!” So that was really exciting. He decided to commit to it long term and with a much, much bigger budget.
Why do you think that initially they didn’t have high hopes for it?
It’s not that they didn’t expect it to do well; it’s just that we had a different format in mind. So I didn’t really sign on thinking, “Oh this is going to be a feature film that’s going to be released in the theaters.” I signed on just because it was a job, and I loved the project. I liked the people, they really loved a script I had written, and we went from there. It was a long, hard road but ultimately a very special experience.
Were there any challenges in updating the story for a new generation?
I think that the challenge is always to find heart in your story. Primarily that’s why people are watching. They want to experience the journey that the character’s going on, and so they can connect with that character. If they don’t connect with the character and that character’s journey, then they’re not entertained, and they’re going to stop watching, and you [as a screenwriter] haven’t done your job.
The challenge is always to find a way into the character’s “pre-enlightened” state. Every character that’s worth any salt in any movie enters the story in a “pre-enlightened” state, and during the process of the story becomes enlightened. Jane, the young character in “Return to Neverland,” is very much a product of the war, and by nature is not terribly optimistic about things. What a lovely character to take to Neverland, a place where anything is possible and all your dreams come true if you just believe. We had a lot of fun working to try to bring her around that way.
I want to talk to you about the importance of imagination in children and how your movies tap into that. I’m excited because my daughter is starting to use her imagination. Right now her favorite characters are Daisy and Minnie, and every day is Minnie’s birthday party. It’s really fun!
Encourage that! I’m happy for you. It’s a treasured time so enjoy it!
I definitely want to foster that in her, and it’s an ongoing topic of conversation among parents. There’s an aspect of helicopter parenting that if taken too far can stifle childhood creativity. That has been a big concern to me, encouraging parents to foster imagination and creativity in their children.
Children are natural storytellers. They haven’t had their imaginations tamped down. I was very fortunate because my daughter Manon Mathews was always interested in going out and playing, doing things and making little movies.
Now she’s got her own website, and she’s doing standup comedy now. She just started doing that, and she’s very funny and very animated. She’s got a childlike innocence that we all strive to hold onto while we’re creating these things.
It’s so neat that your daughter is a comic. I love it when a child ends up going into the family business and doing something creative.
Well, they’re on their own! Manon just did a show with Eddie Murphy’s son, and she said he was very, very funny, but she also thought, “What shoes to try to fill!” Better his name be George Swenson, or something. If you go on as Eddie Murphy’s son, people are already thinking, “Is he as funny as Eddie Murphy?” The good news is, he is very funny.
I am really interested in the fact that you’ve done sequels for “Peter Pan” and “The Little Mermaid.” Why do you think they’re such enduring stories for kids? Is it the ongoing fascination with those particular stories, or just fairy tales in general?
“The Little Mermaid 2” was a daunting challenge, I’ll tell you. “The Little Mermaid” was such a magnificent movie and everyone involved did such an amazing job. The story has a happy ending that you don’t think is going to happen. I think any time you put a young person in peril like that — it’s a leaving-the-nest type of story — and that is always bittersweet and is going to get you in the heart.
It’s a time in your life when you love your parents and yet you need to strike out on your own. I’m certain that’s part of the reason why “The Little Mermaid” resonates so well, because she wants to strike out on her own. It’s difficult when Mommy and Daddy want to keep you in the nest. I think both of “The Little Mermaid” movies tap into that.
It really is an ongoing theme with some of the best Disney movies, like “Beauty and the Beast” and “Tangled.” Do you think that Peter Pan resonates because he represents the magic of childhood?
In “Return to Neverland” you’re immediately rooting for Jane [the main character] to reconnect with her childhood. You can feel it coming, and you’re yearning for it, and waiting for how this is going to happen. When it does happen it’s a lot of fun and a very joyful thing. It’s a reverse story of childhood: it’s usually a coming-of-age story. [Our heroine] needs to reconnect with her childhood, and I think that worked fairly well. People appreciate that when they watch the movie.
I think I mentioned before how much I enjoyed the character of Jane and how well you developed her. I was definitely rooting for her to believe again. It’s a charming story.
Tell us about some of your other projects.
I wrote an episode of “Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas.” There are three stories in there, and I wrote one of those. I had a really good time doing that because I happened to be in Missouri at the time. I loved Mickey Mouse as a kid, and while I was there writing it I learned that Mickey was born in Missouri. Walt lived in Missouri at the time that he created Mickey Mouse, but Walt wanted to call him Mortimer Mouse. His wife said, “I don’t like that name. How about Mickey?” Walt said, “Oh okay, Mickey!” Walt’s wife came up with Mickey. Mortimer became a character, a bit of a philandering playboy mouse character, sort of a rival for Minnie Mouse. If you have ever seen Mortimer Mouse, he’s quite the dandy, but I had a good time writing that scene [with Mortimer] in the movie.
I do a lot of [family friendly films]. I did “Picture This!” which was an ABC Family movie, and at the time that it aired, I think it was in 2008, it was the second highest rated film on TV. It starred Ashly Tisdale, who was in the very successful series that preceded “Glee.” It’s a really good father-daughter story that came about organically between myself and my daughter, who was begging me to get a new cell phone so that she could send pictures back and forth to her friends.
I remember distinctly when I got the idea for the movie riding along in a convertible. She was in the back seat with a friend giggling, and complaining about her phone. I said, “Okay, picture this, you’re out with your friend. [I call you and ask,] ‘Where are you?’ And you say, ‘I’m at the library studying.’ And I say, ‘Okay, send me a picture.’”
The look of horror on her face! I realized I was tapping into something, and that’s what the movie’s all about: it’s about a girl who is basically grounded. She says she’s going over to her friend’s house to study, and her father plays “George Orwell” on her by saying, “All right, you’re going to have to text me.” But she tricks him throughout the night in order to find love. It’s a fun movie.
I also have my young adult book series that’s out called “The New Kid.” It’s about young Will Hunter, and he is a demon hunter. It’s a lot of fun too. I get letters from kids who are twelve or thirteen years old who are quite taken by the books.
Tell us about your background and how you got involved in writing screenplays for family entertainment as well as young adult books.
It’s been an evolution. I graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in filmmaking and went to work as a camera man in TV. I did that for a while and then decided I really wanted to make movies. I moved down to Los Angeles, where I went to the American Film Institute and produced and wrote some things.
Then I said, “Directing seems like the most fun,” so I thought the quickest path into it would be to write screenplays. Once I began to write screenplays, I realized that was the biggest challenge. The story was the most important thing, and if you didn’t have a good story, your movie would never see the light of day. Something like “Death of a Salesman” is director proof, in a way.
So that led to a lot of hard, lean years of writing screenplays. I got very lucky: the first script I ever wrote was optioned, not for a lot of money, but it was optioned, and then eventually I did some series. I wrote a script that was optioned by Ron Howard’s company. Disney read that, and they talked to me about various projects. It took a little while, but once that got going I wrote the initial draft of “Return to Neverland” for them. They decided to sign me for a multi-year contract, so I worked for them for several years, on “101 Dalmatians 2,” and other things.
It was a really fun experience, and you go where the opportunities arise. I’ve sold thrillers before, I’ve optioned romantic comedies and thrillers. When it came to the young adult novel it was during the [Writers Guild of America] strike, and my manager said, “Do you have any ideas for a young adult novel?” And I said no, but of course as soon as I said that I went into the shower and I came up with the idea for “The New Kid,” and wrote the very first treatment. It turned out well enough to do two more, so now I have this trilogy.
How was the process of doing the novel different for you than screenwriting?
I was just watching an interview with a well know writer and she was being asked, “How do you come up with these things?” And she said, “Oh, it comes very easily. You just sit and stare at a computer screen until little beads of blood form on your forehead, and then you start writing.”
The novel was a lot of fun to write because when I started I didn’t know [how it would end]. That’s the most fun you can have when you’re writing. It seems a little bit odd to some people, because they tell you to outline everything to death. I find if you do that, if you use up all your muses in the outline, then it’s just a matter of paint by number, and it doesn’t have as many surprises.
I didn’t feel much pressure because when you’re writing a screenplay, doing a rewrite of a screenplay that has been optioned, you know that if for some reason you make choices that the studio or the investors don’t like, they are going to have to pull the plug because movies are incredibly expensive. Not that books are cheap, but the point is that I think writers really function best when they’re not trying to second guess or please someone else. You just have your story coming out, and you can be a vehicle for your muse, or whatever you want to call it. I think the result is better. Writing a novel is more fun because writing a script is very tight. You have to be very concise and much more formulaic. There’s a lot more pressure. When I write a book, I feel much freer, and it’s more fun word smithing, just letting the story go. It’s a lot more words, let’s put it that way!
That’s what I enjoy about blogging: that the structure of each piece that I create is up to me. It’s not fiction, but I still feel that I can “exercise” that creative muscle. What are you working on right now?
I’m doing a screenplay called “Tall” that’s going out into the marketplace fairly soon, and I’m working on another one called “Holiday Breakup.” It’s about a young couple that kind of get on each other’s nerves. They decide they’re going to break up, but they don’t want to spend the holidays being these poor victims. They have all these parties to go to, and their families, and who wants to be alone on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve? So they decide they’re going to put on this brave front of pretending like they’re still together, when actually they’ve broken up. I wrote it as a short piece for my daughter, but I got so many positive responses on it that I’m expanding it, and it’s going to be a feature film. I’m having a great time with it.