Are you there Hollywood? It's me, Judy Blume
On the island of Key West, Fla., the tourists—in every shade of sunburn—line up to visit the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum. But just a few blocks away from the shrine to Papa is the home of a writer who, for a large portion of the population, anyway, is the literary equivalent of a fairy godmother. Judy Blume, at 75, has guided countless kids through the terrors of adolescence with her books—including 1970’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret; 1972’s Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing; 1973’s Deenie; and 1975’s Forever—which have sold more than 82 million copies worldwide.
And now Judy Blume is here at the Key West airport in a turquoise Mini convertible. She’s petite and bird-boned, clad in melon-colored capri pants and a gray V-neck T-shirt, moving with the nimbleness of a woman half her age. Her eyes are brown and bright, her face is framed by springy curls, and her smile is dazzling. (“At my age, my smile is all I got,” she jokes.) She has warmly welcomed a total stranger—a journalist, no less—to stay overnight in the home she shares with her husband of 26 years, George Cooper, a former Columbia University law professor. On the drive through Key West, Blume checks in constantly: Do you have on sunblock? Do you need to borrow a hat? Is your seat belt on and secure? At her airy, modern home, Blume worries aloud about the number of towels and quality of the soap in the guest bathroom.
It is exactly the kind of maternal fussery you might expect from the woman who’s shaped the worldview of generations of readers. Blume’s fans range from preteens to stars like Zooey Deschanel and Mindy Kaling. She’s been name-checked on SNL, 30 Rock, and Lost. She has more than 88,000 followers on Twitter, where she exchanges quips with Kaling, Patton Oswalt, and Judd Apatow, who asked her in 2011, “What age is ok for Forever? @maudeapatow bought it. I am scared.”
Somehow, though, it’s taken until now for one of Blume’s books to be adapted for the big screen. On June 7, Tiger Eyes, based on the 1981 best-seller about a young woman mourning her father’s death, will be released on demand and iTunes, and in select -theaters. Blume co-wrote the screenplay with her son, Lawrence Blume, who directed the film, but getting it to the screen wasn’t easy—surprising, given Hollywood’s current obsession with all things YA. “It’s a Judy Blume movie. That should be enough, you would think,” says Lawrence, 49. “What shocked me was that a big -segment of the business knew who Judy Blume was but they didn’t understand who she was. Part of it is that the film business is run mostly by old white men—and some young ones, too—who didn’t grow up with her books.”
Blume writes in a sunny study in the back of a guest cottage that sits across a shady courtyard from the main house. On her desk there’s a giant blue binder marked “First Draft”—the novel she’s currently at work on—along with her copy of the Tiger Eyes script. The shelves are lined with books; Blume keeps up with new releases and is pleased by the success of young authors—especially those she’s supported along the way, like John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), Carolyn Mackler (Guyaholic), and Daria Snadowsky (Anatomy of a Boyfriend). Also on the shelves are framed photographs, many of her and Cooper and their children: There’s Lawrence and his older sister, Randy (both from Blume’s first marriage), and Cooper’s daughter, Amanda, from his previous marriage. There’s a picture of Blume with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, and another of her flanked by Theodor Seuss Geisel and Maurice -Sendak. “I wanted to do what they did—write rhyming picture books,” explains Blume. Her early attempts, never -published, are in a box in her New York City apartment, with a note to her -children: If you publish these after my death, I will come back and haunt you.
Born Judith Sussman in Elizabeth, N.J., she married John Blume after she finished her junior year at NYU, where she was studying elementary education. By the time she was 25, she had two young children. It was then that she started writing stories in earnest—her first book, The One in the Middle Is the Green Kangaroo, was published in 1969. But the turning point in her career came the following year, when Bradbury Press cofounder Richard -Jackson pulled her manuscript of Iggie’s House—about a girl who befriends an African-American family who’s moved into her white neighborhood—out of the slush pile. She received $800 as an advance. For her next book, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, she received $1,000.
Despite the small fee, Margaret launched Blume into superstar territory, and over the next decade she produced some of her most best-known works—including Blubber, Freckle Juice, and Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great, as well as her first adult novel, the best-selling Wifey. Naturally, Hollywood came calling in what the author describes as a series of “Judy, sweetheart” lunches. (As in “Judy, sweetheart, let’s make a deal…”) “Oh yes, there were a lot of lunches with producer types,” she says. “I don’t think anyone was thinking movies in those olden days. They were thinking about TV.” But those producer types never came to the table with any real ideas; they just wanted to adapt whatever book Blume would sell. “That was the thing I hated,” recalls the author. “I wanted somebody who really was passionate about [the material].”
A few TV projects did come to fruition: a 1978 telepic based on Blume’s tribute to teen sexuality, Forever—which, for many, has ruined the name Ralph—starring Stephanie Zimbalist. She and Lawrence had their first outing as a writer-director team in 1991 for an ABC adaptation of Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great. But Blume had a less happy experience on the Steven Spielberg/Amblin Television–produced series Fudge, based on her books Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Superfudge, which aired from 1995 to 1997. She had moved from the East Coast to Santa Monica to work on the show, under the impression that she’d have -creative control over the writing. That didn’t -happen. “The writing [on the pilot] was awful, and I spent so much time -trying to redo it.” After a careful moment, she adds, “Still…it’s nobody’s fault.”
Feature films remained elusive. There were a few false starts—idle thoughts about who could play the title role in a movie version of Are You There God? (“There was a time when I so loved that little girl from Little Miss Sunshine and thought, ‘If she’ll do Margaret, I’ll do it’ ”); initial development on a Deenie movie with Buena Vista—but nothing ever came to pass, in part because Blume was being advised by a man in her agency who pooh-poohed the idea of his client working with Hollywood. “ ‘You don’t really want to do this, do you? Why get into all that?’ ” Blume recalls him saying. “We definitely put the brakes on things.”
Today, the author isn’t dwelling on what might have been. “Deenie wasn’t right,” she says. “Maybe if they had started developing Tiger Eyes…but you know what? I never would have sold Tiger Eyes away from Larry. He always knew he wanted to make it.”
NEXT: Tiger Eyes’ journey on the big screen
Tiger Eyes is the story of a teenager named Davey whose family is uprooted from Atlantic City to New Mexico after the sudden death of her father. -Lawrence—who has been referring to his mother as Judy since he was a -teenager—was a freshman in college the first time he read it. “It affected me deeply,” he says. He could also relate. After his parents divorced in 1975, Judy married a physicist the following year, and the family relocated to New Mexico. It was not an easy time. “[Larry] was 13, and it was tough for him,” says the author. “The divorce was hard, and what brought us to New Mexico was a guy. I don’t want to get into all that—but there was the good and the bad and the evil and the ugly.” That unhappy marriage dissolved after three years, right around the time Judy started writing Tiger Eyes.
Lawrence—who began his career in filmmaking after college and directed his first feature, Martin & Orloff, in 2002—took a meeting in late 2009 with Amber Entertainment, which wanted to get into the Judy Blume business. He told them the only book of his mom’s he could imagine directing was Tiger Eyes (his other favorite, 1998’s Summer Sisters, spans 20 years and is too large in scale for a small budget). Two weeks later, they had a deal. Both Blumes started working on the script in early 2010, and by that August cameras were rolling in New Mexico. Along the way, Judy weighed in on many of the major decisions, including casting Willa Holland (Arrow) in the emotionally demanding role of Davey. Having his mom next to him during the filmmaking process “was enormously comforting,” says Lawrence, though he does admit there was one “bad afternoon” during Tiger Eyes’ 23-day shoot. (See the photo above of Blume on set.) “It was a writer-director conflict, where normally the director would tell the writer to ‘F off,’ ” he says with a laugh. “But it was Mom! And it’s her material, so I couldn’t say, ‘Screw you, we’re doing it this way.’ ” Says Judy, “Larry was wonderful. I know who’s the king on the set, and it’s not the writer—it’s the director.” As Judy proudly points out, Lawrence brought the film in on time and under budget. “So,” he says, “I guess you want to know what happened during the next 18 months.”
After Tiger Eyes wrapped, the deal with Amber Entertainment eventually fell apart. “We fought for a year to get control of the film,” sighs Lawrence. “Once we did, we thought, ‘Surely someone will want this.’ ” But it wasn’t that simple. While Hollywood was deep in the throes of its love affair with YA—thanks to Harry Potter and Twilight—Tiger Eyes didn’t fit its template. It was a movie about real teenagers dealing with real problems: no magic, no thrilling danger, no fangs. It didn’t have a big producer backing it, nor was there an A-list star attached. Sure, there was a name on board—Judy Blume—but that wasn’t enough on its own. So Lawrence commissioned a three-minute sizzle reel showing the scope of his -mother’s influence on pop culture to bring with him to pitch meetings.
This January, the Blumes found a distributor, Freestyle—an independent studio whose past films include The Illusionist and Wristcutters: A Love Story-—to release Tiger Eyes on demand and in at least 20 theaters. “The fact that we had total artistic control is rare,” says Lawrence. “For better or worse, it’s our movie.” Judy agrees: “We were able to do this with really nobody watching. And it looks beautiful.”
Over the course of the daylong interview, Blume’s enthusiasm and warmth never flag; she’s as comfortable talking about her favorite TV shows (Homeland, Girls, Mad Men) as she is offering -relationship advice to her visitor. When the conversation turns back to Tiger Eyes, the author says making the movie with her son was “the highlight of my life.” And yet she can’t help but worry. The budget for Tiger Eyes was less than $3 million, and only a sliver of that has been devoted to marketing. She’s committed to doing as much promotion for the film as possible, and recently teamed with Hellogiggles.com (cofounded by Zooey Deschanel) to help spread the word.
Blume has other things to distract her in the weeks leading up to Tiger Eyes’ release. She and Cooper remain active on various boards, including the Studios of Key West and the Key West Literary Seminars. And a decade ago the couple helped found the nonprofit art-house movie -theater Tropic Cinema. While offering a tour of the beautiful, well-cared-for venue, Blume and Cooper stopped to chat with every employee. (The author has volunteered behind the ticket -counter but says she was terrible at making change.) Even Blume’s breast -cancer—diagnosed in August of last year—didn’t slow her down. (She is now cancer-free.) Perhaps it’s a testament to the power of marital harmony. Blume and Cooper have been inseparable since they met 33 years ago; he moved in after their second date and never left. “He’s my reward,” Blume says, beaming.
And of course, she is still writing. There’s the novel she’s been writing off and on since 2009—set in the 1950s in her own childhood town of Elizabeth, and centered on a real-life event. She’s not sure how it will be classified, considering it has many teenage characters. “I’m so excited about it.” But she won’t discuss it further. “No one has read it—not even George!” There’s also the 32-page supplement she’s putting together for the new edition of Tiger Eyes that will be released in -conjunction with the movie, with -personal stories and behind-the-scenes pictures. Before you get your hopes up, fans, know this: Blume has “zero -interest” in penning more YA—a genre that didn’t exist when she was writing it. “I don’t consider myself a young-adult writer,” she says firmly. She’s seen one Twilight movie and enjoyed books like The Hunger Games (“Whatever gets kids reading, I’m fine with!”), but even a reminder that YA is now the most -lucrative place to be in publishing doesn’t sway her. “I know, I know,” she says. “I’m very happy for my friends.”
Here’s what else will make Judy Blume happy: if fans new and old see Tiger Eyes, and if one day her son gets to direct a big-screen version of Summer Sisters. But she won’t be writing it. “I’m 75, and when you get to be 75, although it doesn’t feel any different and doesn’t even look that bad, you think, ‘Oh my God—I’m here,’ ” she says with a laugh, pointing to a spot toward the top of her finger. “What do I really want to do? I really want to finish this book. I’m not thinking beyond that.”
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