Darren Aronofsky is best known as a director who tackles big ideas, challenging material and complex characters in typically adult-skewing dramas. He’s got a new one coming down the pike with the Brendan Fraser-starrer The Whale but before that hits theaters in December, he’s making a splash in an unexpected place with a new children’s book.
The auteur teamed with writing partner Ari Handel on the personal Monster Club, out now from HarperCollins. Described as the first installment in a new adventure series, Monster Club is inspired by Aronofsky’s childhood in Brooklyn where he now raises his own son.
Like almost everything in 11-year-old Eric “Doodles” King’s life, King’s Wonderland — the amusement park his great-great grandfather founded — was damaged when a hurricane hit his beloved Coney Island neighborhood. With hungry property developers circling the wreckage, Eric’s family is falling apart from the threat of losing it all. If it weren’t for Monster Club, a roleplaying game his friends created, Eric’s life would be pretty terrible. So when his friends start to think of Monster Club as a kid’s game and get more interested in other things, Eric can’t deal. But then he happens across a long-lost vial of magic ink that brings their monster drawings to life, and suddenly, Monster Club isn’t just for fun anymore.
The fact that it arrives so close to The Whale is just coincidental as Aronofsky tells The Hollywood Reporter that it wasn’t planned that way, “it’s just serendipity.” It’s also a testament to not giving up on a good idea as the pair first tried to get the project made as a feature film several years back. But at the suggestion of a writer pal, Aronofsky and Handel shifted gears and adapted their script into a children’s novel. In a conversation with THR, Aronofsky explains the biggest challenge in fleshing out the story, the “magical” nature of growing up in Brooklyn and Coney Island and snagging blurbs from stars Sadie Sink and Logan Lerman.
When did you first start kicking around the idea to do a children’s book series?
As a father, I’ve thought about it for a long time. After I finished working on Noah, I came up with an idea for a film — one that had been floating around in my head for many years — that would be a magical story based on my childhood growing up in South Brooklyn, on the outskirts of Coney Island. I ended up writing a screenplay with my writing partner Ari Handel. We worked on it for a couple of years, and, at one point, we had ILM involved and did some tests for it. For some reason, it never became a film.
A writer friend of mine, a sci-fi writer named Hugh Howey, said, “Oh, I’d love to read one of your scripts.” I suggested he read this one and he was the one who suggested that I turn it into a young adult novel — that was his world. I thought it was a really interesting idea, so Ari and I rolled up our sleeves, jumped in and decided to get it out into the world. I don’t want stories to go to waste and I want to get them out somehow. It was the same with this. It’s a story that I loved and was passionate about and I just wanted to share it with people.
The plot is personal, inspired by your childhood. What parts specifically mirror your life?
When I was in elementary school, I had a monster club with a couple of friends. We used to draw our monsters and battle them in our imagination. I ended up going to the middle school that is featured in the book, Mark Twain Middle School in Coney Island. A lot of my experience was there, in Coney Island, an incredible, magical place to have in your backyard. it has so much history and magic; [Harry] Houdini performed there. There’s an endless, endless deep history there. That’s always been an inspiration for me. It showed up in my movie Pi and showed up in Requiem for a Dream. It’s a place that I get a lot of root energy from and I’ve always wanted to share that with the world.
I know Brooklyn is in your blood. Does it show up like a character?
Yes, deeply, deeply. Coney Island is a very special part of Brooklyn. I grew up on the beaches there and it’s funny, whenever people would come and visit me who had never been to Brooklyn, they’d say, “Wait, hold on. There’s beaches in Brooklyn?” I’d say, “Yeah, it’s a big part of our culture.” It’s just not always what people think about when they think of Brooklyn. Again, it’s this very magical place. When most people think of immigrants coming to the United States, they think the first lights they saw were the Statue of Liberty but it was actually the 10,000 light bulbs of Luna Park in Dreamland, which were the names of the parks in Coney Island.
You can imagine the turn of the century immigrants coming over the horizon and seeing this glow when most hadn’t probably ever seen electricity. It was probably such a fantastical sight, and it was the first amusement park in the new world. There are endless, endless stories of people who got their start there and went on to take over the world. For me, it was an amazing place to grow up. And there was always this constant force of decay on it because it had been forgotten over the years. I just always found such a beautiful aesthetic there and had always wanted to be a part of all the different weirdos and original personalities that that live and end up populating beach communities.
I’ve read about your writing strategies over the years and I’m curious how the collaboration with Ari went for this? What were the biggest challenges in translating a script to a children’s novel?
The most interesting thing is in film, you have to show, not tell. If you want to get inside a big character’s head, you have to somehow do that with external forces happening in an external story. We’d be working on a scene and ask ourselves, how are we going to do this? How are we going to show it? But then we’d realize, oh, there’s the inner monologue. You would think of these complicated ideas and it’s done. It’s that simple. That was really hard, finding that inner voice of the character and it took me awhile to remember that it was a possible tool for these characters. I’ve never really used voiceover in film so there was no real way to get inside of the character in that sense. It set me free in a lot of ways.
Now I have to ask the obvious: Because you adapted your screenplay into a book, would you ever consider adapting this book series back to film?
There’s such irony there that, you know, you write the screenplay to write the book to write the screenplay to make the movie, right? It’s been fun. The nice thing is now turning this into a whole world. The HarperCollins deal is for two books and we’ve just outlined the second book which has been so much fun. Who knows? Maybe it will be my first franchise.
That would be amazing. Two books to start and do you have a map in mind of how deep it could possibly go?
There is a cliffhanger at the end of the second book. But we first have to write the second book and see how these characters evolve in the later years of middle school. But, you know, high school’s looming.
I loved seeing a nice blurb you got from Sadie Sink who, obviously, is in your movie The Whale. Did you sneak her a copy on set or how did that come about?
Yeah, I sent Sadie an early copy of the galley, they call it. I’m a beginner here. We sent her a galley and I sent one to Logan Lerman who gave me a beautiful quote as well as Oliver Jeffers, a children’s author and friend of mine. So, I’ve been trying to rope in a few of my friends that I think kids who are 9 to 12 might respond to.
Interview edited for length and clarity.