In this episode, I talk to Aaron Blabey, the #1 New York Times Bestselling Australian author with around 30 million books in print.
Aaron Blabey is also the co-executive producer of The Bad Guys movie by DreamWorks Animation (in theaters April 22) and that’s what we’re here to talk about—the adaptation of the illustrated children’s graphic novel series. The book series and the movie center around a gang of anthropomorphic animals known as the Bad Guys who attempt to perform good deeds to change society’s perception of them as criminals, despite their efforts usually going wrong.
Listen to the Interview
- About The Bad Guys movie and books.
- From the idea to the rise of The Bad Guys series.
- Adapting The Bad Guys books into a movie.
- Converting reluctant readers.
- The Bad Guys characters.
- Aaron Blabey’s hopes for The Bad Guys movie and books.
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Hello, Aaron Blabey. First of all, I want to thank you for making me a cool mom today just simply because I am talking to you. My kids are huge fans of so many of your books. We’ve got Pig the Pug, Thelma the Unicorn, and of course your best-selling graphic novel series for junior readers The Bad Guys. So just first of all, thanks for taking the time to make me a cool mom.
Aaron Blabey: My very great pleasure. I am glad that I have been able to have that effect.
Bianca Schulze: So today we are talking about The Bad Guys because the series has been adapted into the animated movie by DreamWorks Animation and I have seen it and it is spectacularly funny so will you give us a quick spiel on the premise of the movie?
Aaron Blabey: Of course. So, the movie is—again it is loosely based on the first four books of the series, it is about a gang of shady animals Mr. Wolf, Mr. Snake, Mr. Shark, Mr. Piranha, and Mr. Tarantula. They have terrible reputations; they have always been shunned by society so they embrace that and have become career criminals, but they end up making a decision to avoid a prison sentence. They make a decision to go good.
And the gag is of course that they are very bad at trying to be good and it is a story of redemption and also a story of not judging a book by its cover. And in terms of the tone of the movie it is very, very faithful to my book series.
Bianca Schulze: All right. So where did the original idea for a gang of scary-looking animals trying to change their bad reputations even come from?
Aaron Blabey: It came from a couple of things. Predominately I have got two sons and they are 14 and 16 now but when they were young, when they were six and eight my six-year-old had a series of unforgivably boring books sent home with him from school those sort of readers, the early readers they send kids home with and some of them were just so boring that they would make him cry and I thought you know what I just I could see every night I could see his will to read draining from him. So, I thought I’m going to write him something cooler than this.
So at the time, he was into scary animals and cool cars and I had been thinking about doing something about prejudice and about characters being judged because of the way they looked, and those two things kind of clicked together in my head but then I started to sort of I was thinking about what did I love when I was his age and then I thought you know what, what do I love now and I started to think about things that aren’t for kids like Tarantino movies and heist movies.
And I thought I wonder if there’s a way to take the iconography, the look and feel of that but make it—hotwire it in effect for kids and that is—so it was—and all of that thought process happened in like a 24-hour period and then by the end of it The Bad Guys existed. And this is true, it doesn’t sound true but it is, when I went for a walk and I wrote down the first time I wrote the 25-word description of this story and I texted it to a friend and said what do you think of this? And she texted back that sounds like a DreamWorks movie and that is true; it is absolutely true. It happened about nine years ago now.
Bianca Schulze: That is incredible.
Aaron Blabey: Isn’t it amazing?
Bianca Schulze: So it kind of leads me to the next question I wanted to ask you because I have a seven-year-old, I have three kids but my youngest is seven and before we knew that The Bad Guys were going to be in a movie we had started reading the books together and he absolutely loves them and part of when we are reading it, it almost felt like a script and when you are reading it you could I mean it really lends itself to making great voices for the characters so it’s great for me to read aloud to him you know. So, I was wondering did you always hope that it would be adapted for the screen as you were writing it?
Aaron Blabey: With the first book, it was created purely from a deep and unadulterated love of movies that has been central to my existence really since I was a child, I am a movie obsessive but however to that point I had had zero commercial success with my books and that was when Pig the Pug came out also so they both took off but before that nothing.
So I had had eight books out but they hadn’t sold at all so there was no way it was humanly possible for me to have the audacity to think that this would ever be turned into a movie but because I had such low expectations about it even being published I just thought well you know what I’m going to do exactly the kind of book that I would have loved when I was a kid and I just sort of threw caution to the wind and I wrote it. As you can tell it was my version of making a movie, but I knew I just did it in a book.
So, the books, The Bad Guys books almost read like storyboards from a movie but that was more for my own personal satisfaction at the time than thinking it would ever actually happen. But then pretty quickly the first book it went really well in Australia but then it hit the book fairs in U.S. schools and was an instant hit in the space of a couple of weeks the first one sold like half a million copies, and which dwarfed anything I had ever written for; I’d only ever sold like 5000 copies of a book before.
So, it was instantaneous in and of course as soon as that happened all of the studios were interested. They had heard whisperings of this thing that was blowing up in the school system in the States. So yes, once it took off it took off sort of spectacularly. In fact, I heard the other night at the premiere someone from Scholastic told me that we adjust passed 20 million Bad Guys books and we were at 16 as far as I knew so it’s like the number has jumped up 4 million in a very, very short space of time, a few months.
Bianca Schulze: That is incredible. So while I was watching the movie I laughed out so many times and I am not sure if it is the Australian in me but the fart and the underpants jokes got me every single time so I am curious since you were one of the screenwriters helping adapt this from your books to the movie how do you feel about this final cut and the version making this jump from the books to the screen?
Aaron Blabey: Look, I adore it. So just to clarify I wasn’t a screenwriter, I was an executive producer on the film, but our screenwriter is a brilliant man called Etan Cohen who has written, I—he was at the top of my list as screenwriters because I had admired a number of things he had written very much in the past. I just thought he was a genuinely funny writer and that was the thing with turning it into a movie I was very protective of The Bad Guys and a large number of studios wanted it and were sort of pursuing it and I was really protective because I knew it was kind of a once in a lifetime idea. And I had been looking for The Bad Guys my whole life.
It was something that I had been searching for and then when I found it, I didn’t want to hand it off to anybody who I didn’t trust, and DreamWorks were genuinely the only studio that I felt comfortable with this material and very quickly we put together a list—they did and I did—of screenwriters and Etan was at the top of both of our list. But I have been watching as producer across every draft and every cut of the movie and my notes and what have you but I must say I was going back and forth from LA to Australia all of the time and then obviously with the pandemic that stopped for two years I was just watching the movie, each cut of it on my laptop and then delivering notes and then we would have zoom calls about it and things.
And the first time I saw it finished was with an audience in Melbourne and then Sydney just before I came over here, I’m in LA at the moment and it was—I burst into tears when I saw the finished thing on the big screen. It is so beautiful. The animation is just so delicious and my job as producer as far as I was concerned was just to be the guardian of the tone of the books really and the relationships between the characters.
I didn’t really mind where they took the story as such. I knew it would be a cool heist story, there’s a whole story team that worked with Etan on the mechanics of that, but my job was to make sure that the interrelationships between the gang and the comedic tone were maintained. But what was wonderful is Etan, his kids were big fans of the books, and he didn’t want to be the guy who messed up The Bad Guys so that was really wonderful, and he told me that a number of times during the process. He was very, very conscious of staying true to it.
So, yeah, look, I’ve been very lucky because bad adaptations happen every week and authors, you know, there are so many authors who have had their hearts broken by horrible movie versions of their books, so I’ve been just tremendously lucky.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. You know it’s funny because there are a lot of people who are avid readers and mostly adults, not the kids, who just don’t like to see books made into movies, but I have to admit that I’m a big fan of kids’ books being turned into movies. I love film and TV in general, but I personally enjoy seeing how favorite book characters translate off the page and the fun conversations.
Aaron Blabey: When it’s good like you are talking to one very happy author at the moment because I mean when it is a success and it’s a successful adaptation and look who knows the movie is just about to be released in the States and of course we all have our fingers crossed that it does well but as far as I am concerned the fact that especially someone who loves movies as much as I do, the fact that I believe a genuinely cool movie has been made from my books is reward enough as far as I am concerned.
Whatever happens next is just icing. I am so proud of the film they have made I just think it’s really, really special and it is, you are, right it is wonderful when you see a successful adaptation you know artistically successful adaptation of a book to a movie; it is the coolest thing ever.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, definitely and do you know I feel like what is exciting about your movie is that I feel like your books are great for reluctant readers too so avid readers as well as reluctant readers and I can just imagine that this movie will have the power to convert a reluctant reader into basically a kid who reads for pleasure so I can see that happening and I think the conversations that can come between watching the movie and reading the book is going to be so great.
Aaron Blabey: Look that is very exciting. The thing I guess I am probably the most grateful for and the most proud of is given the numbers of books in print now when I actually stop and think about that what—it hits me that is you are right the books are very popular amongst reluctant readers and what that means is there are literally millions of kids reading these books that may not have, you know, been reading at all in that is just wonderful. I find that hard to process actually that is such a beautiful thing that is happening around this area is that it makes me very proud of that.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, and like you mentioned before how you really wanted to make sure that the characters stayed true to how we know them from the books and I 100% think that was totally nailed.
So, I am a huge fan of Diane Foxington and the nod to kick butt girls that she brings in the books and the movie. And I have to say that Piranha made me laugh more than I expected while watching the movie.
So, I am wondering are you partial to one character in particular or love them all?
Aaron Blabey: They are all my children obviously. I love them so much but look if pressed if I had to choose, I would have to say Mr. Snake has always been—he’s my favorite to write because he’s the most complicated and he’s the most challenged by what they are trying to do. And it’s funny I have always in my head I have always thought of snake as being almost like a recovering alcoholic. He’s trying to stay on the path of being good, but he really struggles with it, and he keeps falling off and I think that it makes him so much fun to write.
And in the movie, I think they capture the dynamic of that relationship between wolf and snake so beautifully. And Mark Maron’s performance of Snake is the realization of all of my dreams of what Mr. Snake could have been on the screen. I just love what he has done. The combination of how they animate because if you actually think about animation history there aren’t many snakes that aren’t just an insidious creature in the dark like a villainous figure that sort of will creep out and be a threat.
This is one of the very first times where you actually have a snake as a sympathetic character in a movie and DreamWorks worked very hard on how he moved, his body language, and the fact that he kind of walks instead of slithers. All of that stuff in combination with Mark has created exactly the kind of character that I had always imagined. That particularly blows my mind. They are all beautiful but that one really takes my breath away.
Bianca Schulze: Actually, you touched on something, I was so curious as to how all of the characters were going to look. You know, were they going to look like a fish out of water basically and you’re right once the movie started I never even–it just everything works seamlessly. Everything looks like it was meant to look like, and I never once thought that anything about Snake, you know, having more of a walk look versus a slither so I’m glad you mentioned that.
Aaron Blabey: And also you probably noticed in the books piranha and shark don’t have legs but what that means for—it was a nightmarish thought for the animators to have those characters not be able to walk given what they had to do so they mentioned it to me originally that how would you feel if we gave them legs and it seemed odd to me until they just showed me they did a little mockup animation and as soon as I just immediately accepted it.
It was really strange, and I don’t think there’s going to be any kids or (inaudible) out there that will be bothered by that either. It’s just it’s done. You just commit to it instantly that that is what they are, that is how they move, that is how they behave, and also, they all live in a world with humans and you just accept it. You just accept it from the first scene and that is really cool.
Bianca Schulze: So, I don’t know if I was imagining it but I saw a couple of nods to some adult movies in there. One was it felt like Oceans 11. I felt like there was a Thelma and Louise scene and I also felt like there was a scene from Point Break. Was I imagining those or—?
Aaron Blabey: No, you weren’t imagining those. They were all absolutely conscious and obviously it begins with a nod to Pulp Fiction too so there’s—that is something that is peppered throughout the books. Again, the part of the joy of that book series for me is taking images and references to movies that aren’t kids’ movies so kids often will not get the references but parents will and that was like a red rag to a bull for the animators. They love that and so there were so many opportunities in this movie to sort of nod to classic movies and great directors and, yes, you spotted all of those references accurately.
Bianca Schulze: Great. All right. Well, before we go I am curious what impact do you hope The Bad Guys has on readers and moviegoers?
Aaron Blabey: Look, in terms of moviegoers I think after the last couple of years that we all just had I would just—nothing would make me happier than to hear that The Bad Guys movie came out and just made a lot of families really happy having a really fun time at the movies. That is my sort of biggest ambition for the film really and my approach with books and I feel the same with the movie is I’ve always tried to get my sort of mission as an author is to try to get kids to associate books with fun.
And given that there’s obviously deeper messaging in the books and the movies and the trick for me is always to try and wrap that up in something that is so entertaining that kids are almost absorbing that message subliminally. But I think if you can have positive messaging inside something that is a whole lot of fun to watch then that makes audiences happy and want to experience more of it then that is my biggest hope for this. I just hope people have a good time watching it.
Bianca Schulze: Yes. Isn’t it so great that we can finally get back into the cinemas and watch movies? It is so fabulous.
Aaron Blabey: It haunted me a lot in the last couple of years I have to say because we knew it would be a close call and, you know, it just takes another strain or some other thing to happen and it all goes south again so it has been really, really exciting to see that we have, you know, our release has landed in a little window where people are tentatively going back out into the world to watch because I mean I know I certainly missed going to the movies more than anything. So, it is so wonderful to be able to know that people can go and sit in a cinema and watch it on a big screen with great sound and popcorn and just have a good time.
Bianca Schulze: Thank you so much, Aaron. It’s been a pleasure talking with you. Big fan of all of your books, not just The Bad Guys but particularly The Bad Guys and I wish you the best of luck.
Aaron Blabey: Thank you so much.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, you are welcome.
Aaron Blabey: See you later.
About the Movie
Nobody has ever failed so hard at trying to be good as The Bad Guys.
In the new action-comedy from DreamWorks Animation, based on the New York Times best-selling book series, a crackerjack criminal crew of animal outlaws are about to attempt their most challenging con yet—becoming model citizens.
Never have there been five friends as infamous as The Bad Guys—dashing pickpocket Mr. Wolf (Academy Award® winner Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), seen-it-all safecracker Mr. Snake (Marc Maron, GLOW), chill master-of-disguise Mr. Shark (Craig Robinson, Hot Tub Time Machine franchise), short-fused “muscle” Mr. Piranha (Anthony Ramos, In the Heights) and sharp-tongued expert hacker Ms. Tarantula (Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians), aka “Webs.”
But when, after years of countless heists and being the world’s most-wanted villains, the gang is finally caught, Mr. Wolf brokers a deal (that he has no intention of keeping) to save them all from prison: The Bad Guys will go good.
Under the tutelage of their mentor Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade, Paddington 2), an arrogant (but adorable!) guinea pig, The Bad Guys set out to fool the world that they’ve been transformed. Along the way, though, Mr. Wolf begins to suspect that doing good for real may give him what he’s always secretly longed for: acceptance. So when a new villain threatens the city, can Mr. Wolf persuade the rest of the gang to become … The Good Guys?
The film co-stars Zazie Beetz (Joker), Lilly Singh (Bad Moms), and Emmy winner Alex Borstein (The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel).
Based on the blockbuster Scholastic book series by Aaron Blabey, The Bad Guys is directed by Pierre Perifel (animator, the Kung Fu Panda films), making his feature-directing debut. The film is produced by Damon Ross (development executive Trolls, The Boss Baby, co-producer Nacho Libre) and Rebecca Huntley (associate producer, The Boss Baby). The executive producers are Aaron Blabey, Etan Cohen, and Patrick Hughes.
Genre: Animated Action Comedy
Cast: Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Craig Robinson, Anthony Ramos, Awkwafina, Richard Ayoade, Zazie Beetz, Lilly Singh, and Alex Borstein
Based On: The Scholastic book series by Aaron Blabey
Director: Pierre Perifel
Producers: Damon Ross, Rebecca Huntley
Executive Producers: Aaron Blabey, Etan Cohen, Patrick Hughes
Watch The Bad Guys movie trailer.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Aaron Blabey Discusses The Bad Guys Movie and Books. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Aaron Blabey, Heist Books, Author Interview, Books and Movies, and Illustrated Chapter Books.
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