With the release of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, writer Craig Titley has completed the adaptation trifecta. He’s adapted a cartoon into a film with Scooby Doo, he’s written a remake of a classic film with Cheaper by the Dozen, and he’s adapted a popular book. And while he prepares to take on an even more popular book with the upcoming 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (for producer Sam Raimi), he took a moment to talk to us about his background in mythology, his love for Christopher Columbus’ Amblin Entertainment days, and how Percy Jackson calls back to that very era.
Film School Rejects: Anyway, thanks for taking a little time to talk to me today. Hopefully I am not interrupting anything to terribly important.
Craig Titley: Uh, no.
Cool. Well, let’s talk about mythology, I guess, because I hear you are relatively well-schooled in mythology. Is that correct?
Yeah, I guess so. I guess so.
Your background is in mythology, right?
Yeah. Yeah, I am getting my PhD in mythological studies. I’ve done all the classroom and just have to finish the dissertation. Then it will be Dr. Titley, which sounds like a plastic surgeon.
Sounds like a very successful plastic surgeon, actually.
So is that, your interest in mythology, what drew you to Percy Jackson?
Yeah, very much so. In fact, I had just finished all my classroom work, literally, within weeks when Chris Columbus sent me the book to see if I would be interesting in adapting. It could not have been more perfect, because you always look around for that great assignment that will inspire you. And I have always loved mythology, and the Gods, and those old gray, hairy [xx] Greek gods like Jason and the Argonauts. So when I saw this and this fun twist of sort bringing these Gods and monsters we all know into the modern world, I was completely stoked and excited to do it, and here we are.
Is there anything that you maybe added? Based on your knowledge of mythology, are there any little details that maybe weren’t originally in the book that are in the movie?
Um, yeah, probably. And actually, there are a couple of details I wanted to add that got left out. On occasion, I think I was Mr. Smarty Pants a little too much, but it didn’t look mythically correct! For example, one of my favorite…one of the things that got left out that I really liked was something people may or may not know. The goddess of Athena is one of the three virgin goddesses, yet Annabeth, in the movie, is her daughter. I’m like, “This can’t be! This can’t be!” They were like, “Nobody is going to care.”
So in one draft, there is actually a line in the script where I think Percy is like, “Wait a second, how could you be Athena’s daughter? She is a virgin goddess. What happened?” And Annabeth says, “The ‘60s.” So there were things like that that I tried to do that completely weren’t necessary. I had to realize that nobody except my 20 classmates is going to care.
Fair enough. Although, all 20 of those classmates will probably be in the movie theater angry at the things that are missing.
Yes, I’ve already explained to them. And let’s face it-myths, even in the day of Homer, myths were changing and altering. So who’s to say that in the past 2000 plus years that Athena didn’t have like a crazy night, you know?
Yeah. Well, you know, there was the ‘60s.
Yes, exactly. I mean, come on! You know, making it through high school is hard enough! 10,000 years? Please!
Now, you have adapted a lot of different things. You know, Scooby Doo was adapting a cartoon. Cheaper by the Dozen was a remake, correct? It was based on an older movie. And then you worked on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, which is based on something a few people have heard about.
And 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I just did for Sam Raimi.
Yeah. What is different about adapting a popular kids or young teen book?
Well, this one, because they were so popular, it is sort of walking that fine line of…you know, you get two hours to make a movie, and if you put everything that is in the book into the movie, you would have a 4 ½ hour movie. So it’s the age old problem that goes all the way back to, you know, the Wizard of Oz up through Lord of the Rings. It’s: What do you keep? What do you take out? How do you make it feel like the book even though it is its own thing and you are going to have to… you know, when you start pulling things out because of the constraints of a two hour movie, there are sort of holes that have to be filled with original material. And it is sort of like half a creative challenge and half a logistical challenge of trying to keep sort of the spirit and the characters true to the source material as much as possible so that it still feels like the source material. You don’t want to, like reinvent the wheel and invent new characters at the sake of other changes and personalities or anything like that.
So it is quite challenging. And it is more challenging with a book like this that has such a huge fan page. You can start imagining all the hate mail that is going to come, like, “Why did you take out this scene?” But there is no way around it. Somebody’s favorite scene is probably not going to be in the movie.
Now, are there certain things that you look …certain types of story elements maybe that you look to take out first? Or do you go to that like most insignificant character and instantly pull them out or something?
I think you sort of design the narrative through line and then once you have a solid handle on that, what is going to drive the story, it becomes quite clear what scenes you can take out and which ones have to come out.
You know, there are scenes in the book that I really, really liked, but they didn’t sort of serve the narrative of the two hour movie, so there was really no reason to keep them in. You know, you don’t want to, like, force it in unnaturally so the movie comes to a grinding halt.
See, I think once you determine that, it becomes a little easier. And then also, on the other extreme, you look for the set pieces that are like really juice, like the Medusa sequence and things like that. And you know you don’t want to lose those because they are just like so incredible. You don’t want to lose like the key monsters that everybody knows in favor of sort of a lesser one.
Right. Cool. Now, and working with Chris Columbus, who…he’s had a little experience working on adaptions…
Yeah, just a little bit.
Was there clear vision up front? I know you mentioned that he was the one who kind of brought you onto the project. Did he have kind of a clear vision for what he wanted or did he say, “Go do your thing?”
Absolutely very, very clear vision. He made the whole process somewhat enjoyable. We, as writers, aren’t supposed to have fun writing. And this was, because one, he had a clear vision. Two, he’s got like this crazy Energizer Bunny energy. And three, just like this boundless imagination.
So unlike most projects, even if there is a director involved, when you get stuck and you are banging your head against the wall, it is kind of just you against the world, I would just simply send an email to Chris, who is a very accomplished writer, as we all know. Normally, you are thinking, “OK. I’m going to have to wait like four days for a response.” Like within two hours, “Hey, why don’t we try this?” And it is always like the perfect answer. I’m like, “Yeah, OK!” It made my job much easier, so it was great having somebody like him in charge.
Right. And thinking of kind of Harry Potter and all of these…I mean these teen fantasy novels are just exploding, and there is a ton of them out there. And they range from Harry Potter being kind of the most successful to stuff like Eragon, which was supposed to be like this three part series and only barely got through the first one. What do you think, in the end, now that the project is finished, separates a franchise like Percy Jackson and the first movie from some of these other teen novels?
Well, first and foremost, it is a self contained movie, unlike things like The Golden Compass where they set themselves up for failure by making it just part one. This is a self contained movie. Two, I think what sets it apart from the Potter movies…It obviously is a fantasy movie with three lead characters, so people are going to draw the conclusion. But once they see it, it is very unique. I mean this is a road movie, basically. It is a journey from heaven to hell, if you will, from the east coast to west coast. And the Potter movies were never that.
And also, I think it is the Greek gods making their, sort of, comeback for the first time since the original Clash of the Titans. I think every generation needs their gods. And kids and adults…we love ‘em. They are with us everywhere. I mean you go to a Mobil station, you see Pegasus. The gods are everywhere and it is just time to see them in the movie theaters again.
Our conversation with writer Craig Titley continues below…
Well, and it seems like they are getting kind of a big comeback this year with this and Clash of the Titans. I mean is that exciting to you and your 20 classmates?
Oh yeah, the academic world of mythology is all a buzz with this, you know? The gods are back. Polytheism is back and they’re in the consciousness again and you could never keep them down. And there are many academic essays being written right now probably about that sort of come back of the gods and what it means psychically and all that stuff.
But, yeah, I get all the academic journals and they’re quite well aware of this and it’s fascinating and all their little theories as to “Why now?”
Well, there are a few good stories in there somewhere, you know?
Now, is there one particular story in mythology that you’re kind of drawn to? Do you have a favorite somewhere, and is it in this movie?
Oh, my gosh. Well, ooh boy, there are tons. I don’t know if I could pick one. It’s like picking your favorite movie. But I do love Medusa. Ever since I saw this Hammer movie, the 70’s called The Gorgon when I was a little kid- which they didn’t reveal Medusa in all her snake-haired glory until the very end which freaked me out, so I’ve been, like, obsessed with Medusa ever since, so I was very excited about that. And Poseidon has become sort of one of my favorite Gods. He was very much… sort of the God, if you will, of the 20,000 Leagues script as well through lack of comparison between Nemo and Poseidon. So I’ve been in this Poseidon world for a while and I’ve learned to fall in love with him. He’s pretty much my favorite God. Poseidon and Hermes.
So it kind of worked out because both Poseidon and Medusa, from what I understand, are big parts in this movie.
Big parts- yeah.
Now this is a series of books. Do you think it’s something that pending the movie making millions and millions of dollars and the studio saying, “Let’s do another one,” is this something you want to stick with and keep going with?
You know, if the movie does well and they decide to make the other books I would be honored to be invited back. But I don’t think any decisions have been made. I think everybody’s sort of focused on this one right now; making sure it’s the best movie as possible and making sure people go see it instead of The Wolfman.
And I think it’s interesting that you mentioned it’s a self-contained movie, because it feels like the natural inhibition for all these franchises has been to lead into the second movie whether or not the money is there to make that second movie already.
Yeah. I think the lesson is: don’t get cocky. I think we learned that from The Golden Compass.
Fair enough. Now in all the press that you’ve done, is there anything that you haven’t had a chance to say about Percy Jackson that maybe you haven’t been asked yet?
Is there anything you want people to know about it, maybe?
Yeah, I think I would want people to know, personally, just having…being a fan boy, you know, I grew up in the hay day of Amblin and I remember that day watching Young Sherlock Holmes realizing the same guy’s name was on my three favorite films. That was Chris Columbus as writer of Gremlins, Goonies, and Young Sherlock Holmes, which I call the holy triumverant of the Amblin films.
And then he sort of went off and started directing comedies, like Mrs. Doubtfire, Home Alone, things like that, up to the Potter movies. And for me this is kind of Chris, in a way, returning to his roots and making one of those big, sort of, fun action-adventure movies with great characters and a sense of humor about it, much like those three films.
And, you know, I don’t think that’s a coincidence either because the DP he chose for this film was the DP of Young Sherlock Holmes. And the movie looks gorgeous. It feels kind of Amblin-esque. And I don’t know if it was conscious on Chris’s part, but it feels to me, as a fan boy, I think the movie that it’s kind of his return to his roots in a way. And I don’t think anybody has noticed that or talked about that. I don’t even know if he’s talked about it or is aware of it. But just me as a fan boy, it’s very exciting to see Chris doing that.
That actually makes me even more excited to see the movie.
Yeah, yeah. It’s… I guess I’m allowed to say I saw it, but it moves, man. It was just like the fastest 2 hours I ever spent in a theater. Usually they seem to go slower when you’re involved in them. But not in this case.
Very cool. Now I wanted to ask you about 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea just briefly because there seems to be a lot going on with the two 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea movies and we just saw what happened a couple weeks ago with Disney pretty much dumping the project for the time being. You know, where does the other one- the one you had set up at New Line- where does that one stand, at least from where you’re sitting?
Well I think right now it stands back at a good position because there had always been sort of a pull position between the two projects, even though theirs was technically a prequel of Verne’s novel and ours was an adaptation of the novel. So they could’ve both existed, but studios aren’t going to, you know, see it that way.
So it was always like we would take the lead because our script was done first, you know, and then New Line sort of got downsize where our project was and then during all of that craziness of working out with the script, you know. Then Disney jumped ahead…they had McG attached to them and then ours was dead. So now that there’s has, you know, died, I assume, we’re very much back alive. And, like you said, this all happened recently so I’m assuming we’re going to be out for directors real quick- trying to take advantage of this while we’re in the lead again.
And yours is a more direct adaptation of Jules Verne’s book, right?
Yeah. It’s an adaptation, but we had to invent the whole story because there’s not a real narrative thrust in the book- It’s very episodic, kind of like a travel log. So it’s an adaptation, but also, we had to invent a lot of the story. But, totally, it’s a lot like Pirates of the Caribbean. It’s just like a lot of fun action, adventure, humor. The best script I’ve ever written.
I sometimes read it and like, “You did that? Wow! Not bad, bud.”
Now, my last question’s kind of a vague question, but it’s always interesting to me. If you were given kind of free reign over what you did next- something that you haven’t already written- is there like an outline somewhere in your office or an idea floating around in your head? Like, what would you do next if given complete freedom?
Well, there are a couple of pet projects that I’m doing on speck. They’re very much unlike me. One is a very small movie- small like Dazed and Confused, American Graffiti –– that I want to direct. It’s [a] period [piece]. And that’s one. I won’t say too much about it. And the other one is actually a historical Victorian era biopic. Believe it or not… about a pretty insecure character. In my spare time I’m sort of specking these both out.
And looking to eventually take the director’s chair…
On this little, small one I’m going to direct it. I want to start so small that if I suck it won’t matter. Because I don’t know A, if I like directing, two, if I’ll be good at it, you know? If I like it, I’m good at it, I’ll keep doing it. If it’s one or the other, I’ll decide. But if I hate it and I suck I’ll just stop.
Do you feel like you’ve learned a lot? I mean, you’ve worked on several different projects with different directors and do you feel like you’ve learned a lot of things that you could take to directing a smaller movie, or any kind of movie?
Yeah, absolutely. I’m a lot more confident having been around all sorts of sets. I’ve started my career as Joe Dante’s assistant… one of his assistants. So I’ve been on sets around really good directors quite a bit. So, yeah, I picked up some things there. My only downfall is I’m a wee bit of a perfectionist, which you have to, like, kick that thing out, so. I could spend a hour writing on an adjective, you know? I think I’d go on the set like, “Eh, let’s try the lights here. Eh, let’s try it here.” So that’s the only thing I got to… the demon I have to overcome.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief is currently in theaters.