It took a stroke of luck in the form of unexpected financing from a British supermarket giant, but author Judy Blume and her film director son, Larry Blume, have finally made a big-screen movie together.
This weekend, Tiger Eyes, based on her 1981 book of the same name, opened for a limited national engagement in theaters including the artsy Tropic Cinema in Key West, where she lives part time.
“I am excited — beyond words,” Blume said from New York, where she also lives.
For decades, mother and son had talked about adapting one of her bestselling books into a feature film, but there was no big push to make it happen. Then, a few years ago, she told him bluntly: “I am not getting any younger. … I do not want to die and have someone else make movies of my books and ruin them. I’d like to make one myself.”
Judy Blume, 75, and a cancer survivor, has written 28 books, beginning with The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo in 1969. Her young-adult novels have guided generations of readers through adolescence, stirring controversy with their frank treatment of teen sexuality and other touchy topics and selling more than 82 million copies in 41 countries.
Her books did make it to the small screen. There was a 1978 CBS movie based on Forever; a 1991 ABC weekend special, made by mother and son, based on Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great and a series inspired by her Fudge books ran for two seasons in the mid ’90s.
But Blume books are not the ready-made film franchises with fanciful settings and bigger-than-life story lines that light up dollar signs in the eyes of Hollywood producers. There are no wizards or vampires. Her books are filled with real people with real problems.
“Over the years, I’ve been wistful and wishful. ‘Why not mine?’ ” she said. “I love movies. Love movies.”
Both Blumes thought her best movie material was either Summer Sisters, an adult novel with lesbian themes, or Tiger Eyes, about a teenage girl dealing with a tragic loss in a desolate place where she feels she doesn’t belong.
When financing became available in 2009, the decision was easy. Tiger Eyes could be made with the super-low budget of just over $2 million, and Summer Sisters could not. Besides, Larry had just spent time scouting locations in New Mexico for a film that fell through.
“I went back to New York with my tail between my legs,” said Blume, 49. “That’s when I was introduced to producers from London who asked if I was interested in doing a book-to-film adaptation.”
British supermarket giant Tesco had decided to dabble in moviemaking business. (“Like Wal-Mart, they are a large seller of DVDs,” he said.) But by the time the Blumes had written the script — Judy in Key West, Larry in New York — Tesco had begun a hasty retreat.
The good news: they had total creative control.
“I never talked to a Tesco executive once,” Larry said. “To me, they were like the Wizard of Oz — the guys behind the curtains who just wrote the checks. Good luck. Godspeed. See you in a year.”
The bad news, which they didn’t learn until the film was finished: They would get no support promoting and distributing it.
Tiger Eyes is personal to both mother and son. In 1977, a year after divorcing her first husband, Judy moved from her home state of New Jersey to New Mexico to make a life with her new husband, a physicist, and her two children. Larry was just turning 14. It was a terrible time for her, and in two years, the marriage was over.
She wrote Tiger Eyes while still living in New Mexico. It’s the story of a 17-year-old girl named Davey who is uprooted following the horrifying death of her father in a robbery. She is taken to Los Alamos with its vast open spaces to live with her aunt and uncle, and has a tough time coping until she meets a Native American teenager named Wolf.
Judy Blume said she didn’t realize it at the time she wrote the book, but Davey’s feelings about her father’s sudden death were based on her own. Weeks away from getting married at age 21, she was with her beloved father when he died of a heart attack.
Larry read Tiger Eyes for the first time as a college freshman, and identified with Davey. “It just struck me immediately and emotionally because Judy had written about a teenager torn away from her father, her friends and everything she knew. That’s what happened to me, although I was a little younger than Davey and we moved because of my parent’s divorce.”
Casting the lead
Casting Davey, who is in nearly every scene, was one of their most important decisions. They chose Willa Holland, a model who had supporting roles on the TV series The O.C. and Gossip Girls.
“There was something in her face; you could see her pain,” Larry said. “She had a very complex set of emotions in such a young person, which were right on the surface to see. She was perfect.”
American Indian activist Russell Means played Wolf’s father, with his real-life son, Tatanka, as Wolf. (It was the elder Means’ last film before his 2012 death.)
Tiger Eyes was shot in 23 days, with the majestic canyons and caves of the Southwest as the backdrop. Both Blumes were on set every day, although Judy said she knew who was in charge.
“I didn’t say anything, unless Larry asked me — or I noticed something, like in the scene when they were playing Monopoly.” (She pointed out that one actor was about to buy a hotel without owning both Boardwalk and Park Place.)
Blume’s third husband, George Cooper, is an executive producer of Tiger Eyes. The two met while she was writing the novel.
“He saved the movie,” she said. “I was out on the set every day while he was in the office where things were crashing and people were screaming.”
In one scene, Larry wanted snow to add to the magic of a blossoming Christmas romance between Davey and Wolf.
“Little did we know we would have a gorgeous 45-minute blizzard thanks to Mother Nature,” Judy said. “But we couldn’t rush Davey out because she was in the shower doing a different scene. People were freaked out. But George came in and quietly, in his wonderful way, solved the problem. He had snow machines lined up.”
Once the movie was finished in the summer of 2011, the Blumes were left to figure out how to connect it with an audience. They had no film studio behind them and no big stars.
But they did have Judy Blume’s iconic name, which has garnered coverage in major publications around the world and gotten them into film festivals. Now, the movie is being shown in about 40 theaters, and will be available on iTunes and On Demand video.
Larry said he tried to keep the movie true to his mom’s book.
“I was terrified,” he said. “The last thing I wanted is for her fans not to appreciate it or think it was not a good adaptation.”