by Keith Loria — Novelist Katherine Paterson is well beloved for her children’s and young adult fiction, winning two Newbery Medals and two National Book Awards, as well as being named a Hans Christian Andersen award winner (aka the Nobel Prize for children) for her lifetime of work.
In 2007, Paterson’s classic, Bridge to Terabithia, was adapted into a Disney film and it did very well at the box office. It convinced the author that some of her other books could be successful on screen.
Her son John Paterson of New Canaan said that not everyone shared her optimism.
“The problem was, the only other film Disney wanted to make was Bridge to Terabithia 2, and considering that in the first one, the 12-year-old girl dies at the end, not only did it not make cinematic sense, but the story was also very personal to my mother because it was based on the life of my brother’s best friend,” he said. “She chose not to sell out. She has written more than 30 books, so we decided that another could be done without them.”
Katherine’s other son David is a playwright, and the family put their heads together and decided to turn The Great Gilly Hopkins into a movie, with David writing it and John producing it.
“This is probably her second book in popularity, more comedic and more of an ensemble, which made it seem like a good choice,” John Paterson said. “We set off to make the movie in 2008 but it seemed like studios didn’t want to hear anything but pitches about dragons, wizards and minions.”
Time and time again, the Paterson family was told by studios that they were looking for “tent-pole franchises” and things they could put on a “happy meal.”
“We were just too small a movie, so we decided to go the independent route,” John Paterson said. “People don’t normally think of family films as independent films, so it was very hard to find financing. We ended up shooting it in 32 days on a budget of less than $5 million.”
Considering the cast they assembled — Academy Award winners Glenn Close and Kathy Bates, as well as Julia Stiles, Octavia Spencer and young Sophie Nélisse fresh off her critically acclaimed role in The Book Thief — that was quite an achievement. Even so, finding a distributor wasn’t easy.
“Here we have a finished film with Oscar-winning cast members from the author who made almost $200 million with Bridge to Terabithia, and we still couldn’t get anyone to pick it up,” John Paterson said. “It seemed crazy that there would be that much of a roadblock to get a decent family film to market.”
Luckily, a division of Lionsgate came in with a new way of releasing films called “day and date,” which is a streamlined distribution methodology that saves studios money in promotion and risk.
“The way it works is that they put a movie out in select markets for a short amount of time, and the idea is that you will garner national awareness and publicity,” John Paterson said. “We’re starting off small, but we hope that the film will have some legs.”
The story follows a feisty foster kid named Gilly Hopkins and her outrageous scheme to be reunited with her birth mother and the unintended consequences that come about.
“It’s a story of redemption. I think all of my mother’s books are about troublesome kids and she’s not a happy endings type of author, but there is resolution and redemption and hope in the story,” John Paterson said. “Just like Bridge to Terabithia is the saddest movie you’ll ever see but strangely enough you walk away feeling hopeful, with Gilly, she spends a great part of the movie alienating everyone who tries to help her and torpedoing all her own hopes and chances at better things, but the power of love and family bring about redemption and new beginnings.”
Local actress Clare Foley (who lives in Fairfield County) plays Agnes, the best friend of the title character, and by the time the film was over, she and Nelisse also were best friends.
“Agnes is very spunky, chatty, and energetic. She never stops talking and asking questions, which is one of the best parts about her,” the 15-year-old Foley said. “I just loved how fun and bubbly Agnes was. She was a different character than I usually play.”
You might recognize Foley from playing Poison Ivy on the hit show, Gotham, or from playing the young Piper on Orange is the New Black.
“I love acting because it’s so cool to walk into a whole other world and be a whole new person, even if it’s only for a short amount of time,” she said. “It’s also so amazing to work with many different people on different sets.”
For this film, she was very excited about working with acting luminaries such as Bates and Close.
“It was great to work with Glenn. She was so nice and an awesome person to work with,” Foley said. “One day she even invited us to lunch at her house and she had one of the coolest tree swings I’ve ever seen.”
Both John and Katherine Paterson were on set a great deal, and both were there to answer any questions the actors might have had about the story and just provide a welcoming presence overall.
The Great Gilly Hopkins will open on Oct. 7 and there will be a special benefit screening at Bow Tie Cinema in New Canaan on Oct. 19 in support of the New Canaan Library’s children’s reading room. Katherine Paterson, David Paterson and Foley are all scheduled to attend.
“The Library would love everyone to read the book before they come, and Elm Street Books will offer a 10 percent discount to anyone who mentions they are coming to the event,” said Ellen Crovatto, director of development and marketing for New Canaan Library.
The Great Gilly Hopkins will be screened 6 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 19, at Bow Tie Cinema, 89 Elm Street, New Canaan. Tickets are $30 or $100 for a family of four. For reservations, visit newcanaanlibrary.org.