David Leslie Johnson digs into a fairy tale’s dark, ancient past to script the new Gothic fantasy thriller Red Riding Hood.
Written by Denis Faye
When faced with the task of adapting a fairy tale for the screen, many scribes take the fanciful route; Mr. Bluebird sits on their shoulder as they whistle while they write, crafting yet another “happily ever after” to warm audience hearts.
Conversely, while writing Red Riding Hood, writer David Leslie Johnson opted for cannibalism.
When Johnson, who was a longtime assistant to Frank Darabont before scripting the creepy 2009 thriller Orphan, took on the project, he decided to dig up the dirt on Miss Hood. “Prior to the Brothers Grimm, there’s a version of Red Riding Hood where she shows up and the Wolf hasn’t eaten Grandmother – he’s made soup out of her,” explains the writer, pausing for extremely successful dramatic effect. “He gives the bowl of soup to Red Riding Hood and says, ‘You must be tired from your trip. Have some soup.’ And she eats the soup.”
He didn’t exactly expect the scene to make it into the final film. “My whole approach is to try to take it as far as I can take it and someone will always tell me if it’s too much,” says Johnson. But surprising, it’s still in there, albeit it’s slightly nuanced. “There still is a shot of a bubbling cauldron of horrible looking soup, but the decision was, ‘Let’s just not hang our lantern on that. Let’s leave that to the audience’s imagination to wonder if that was her or not.’”
Now that you, the loyal readers of the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, are amongst the privileged few to know the real ingredients in that soup, read on to learn why popular culture continues to treat Red Riding Hood like a tramp and how, if your boss is one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters and he tells you your script is good, you’ve probably arrived.
How did you work backwards, or forward, from the original fairy tale?
The whole reason for telling a Red Riding Hood story is that there’s a familiarity there, a story that you want to keep as intact as possible. There’s not enough there for a feature film, but when I was looking at the story, everyone knows the story, but if you really look at it, there’s a lot you don’t know in this world. I don’t know Red Riding Hood’s name, for instance. She’s not given a name. She’s on her way to Grandmother’s house, but where’s she coming from? There are aspects to the story that, if you think about as a real thing that really happened to real characters, there’s a world to explore. So the idea was to use the fairy tale as an anchor and open up that world a little bit.
Photo: © 2011 Warner Bros. Pictures
Amanda Seyfried in Red Riding Hood.
The idea was to put the fairy tale at the end and have the movie be the events that came before it.
Were there aspects of the fairy tale that you felt especially compelled to keep?
I wanted to keep as much as possible. That’s why there’s a dream sequence toward the end that incorporates one of the most memorable scenes from the fairy tale that didn’t have a real world place – the wolf dressed up as grandmother – there’s just no way an audience is going to accept that, but you have to have that moment. It was really trying to find places where, if I couldn’t put the exact thing in, I’d either put in a reference to it or something like that. The audience should see these things and know where they came from.
This fairy tale in particular has inspired at least two rather dark movies (Red Riding Hood and Freeway [Written by Matthew Bright]) and at least one rather dark, weird ‘50s pop song. Why do you suppose Little Red Riding Hood went this direction and not the Disney route?
It’s interesting. There’s a really good reason why Disney never got around to this one. It’s attributed to a lot of sexual imagery. It’s a coming-of-age type thing and the wolf is always associated with some aspect of sex. The other thing I think is really interesting that I never thought of until I was doing research for this movie is that, of all the fairy tale heroines, she’s the only one who doesn’t have a Prince Charming. She’s the only single one. She’s the single girl in a group of people who get paired up and live happily ever after. You know, she’s available. That might be one of the reasons that character is latched onto in terms of taking it to a darker place, or a sexual place.
Do you prefer writing in worlds you create, or is it more fun to play in worlds like this and the upcoming Clash of the Titans sequel you’re working on?
This is so fun for me. I like creating worlds and I like worlds, like Clash and this, that are preexisting so we have so many things to explore. Either way, I love writing in a sandbox where you have any sort of freedom.
How was working for Frank Darabont all those years?
It was a great second film school. My job was to see how a real writer lives. It was a great benefit. And then he sort of guaranteed me my first job where I pitched him an idea a friend and I had come up with. He went to Castle Rock and said, “I think you should do this and if he screws it up, I’ll fix it.” He really helped me get my leg up.
Do you think that if you had landed a writing gig right out of college, you’d be the same writer you are today?
I don’t think that writer would have gotten started right out of college. I have no idea how these things happen, but I don’t think that writer was that good. My time with Frank was my crucible. I had to up my game because I could show it to him. Every script I wrote, I was trying to impress him. Having him there helped me tremendously.
Was he hard on you?
He was very hard on me. He was very supportive of everything I did, but there was one time when I gave him a script and he said, “This is good.” I said, “Okay, everything we did before that, we’re throwing out and I’m figuring out what I did right here. That’s what we’re going to do from now on.”