A timeline of the Artemis Fowl movie's 20-year journey to the screen
Artemis Fowl (2019 film)
It's taken 20 years, but an Artemis Fowl movie is finally seeing the light of day.
The adaptation of Eoin Colfer's hit YA novel — which launched an eight-book series — follows the titular 12-year-old criminal-mastermind-in-the-making (Ferdia Shaw) as a he goes to war with the hitherto hidden fairy world to find his missing father (Colin Farrell). But Artemis' life was exciting even before this adventure, as he faced a harrowing journey in making the jump from page to screen. Below, Colfer and Artemis Fowl director Kenneth Branagh take EW through the film's long and winding voyage.
Miramax Films nabbed the rights to Colfer's novel in 2000, before it was even published. Colfer was working as a teacher at the time, and he recalls his agent phoning to inform him of the bidding war around his book while he was on recess duty.
"It just seemed surreal to me," Colfer says. "Basically that changed the course of my life, because the option was enough for me to decide that I would become a full-time writer. Even if the movie had never been made, it still was very important, and it meant that three months later I was able to walk out of that school and start my life as a professional writer, which is fantastic."
But the road to the big screen got bumpy, with several directors becoming attached to the project only to drop out and the script going through many different incarnations. "At one point there was a script where it would be like a Scary Movie thing, where it was really just a pastiche of other books," Colfer recalls. "I think at some point some of the characters from Lord of the Rings came in. So it really wasn't an Artemis Fowl movie at all. It was just using the name. That was truly horrifying." He adds: "With each new director, my heart sank a little bit more."
Welcome to development hell. In 2006, Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) and Colfer teamed up to adapt the book on spec; things stalled once Sheridan pitched it. "Then I think a few years later, Harvey Weinstein called him and said, 'Jim, would you write and direct this?'" says Colfer. Sheridan spent two years working on a script with his daughter Naomi Sheridan and Colfer, but got no response after submitting it. "I was very much on the outside of the whole thing," says Colfer, who doesn't know why the project faltered. "Even when I was writing the screenplay, I would just work with Jim or I would work with Naomi. I never was really interested in doing the studio thing, so they would go and do that."
By this point, Colfer had given up on pursuing the movie any further. "As time went by, I realized it's probably not ever going to get made," he says. "You hear so many stories about books that don't get made. Douglas Adams died before his movie was made." But in July 2013, Disney and the Weinstein Company announced plans to make a movie covering the first two books in the series. Robert De Niro and Jane Rosenthal also signed on as executive producers. (Disney terminated its partnership with TWC in 2017.)
Branagh read the first Artemis Fowl book in April 2014 while on vacation with his family because his two nephews recommended it. "I'd read it with no idea of making a film, and I read it in the full glow of the enthusiasm of two boys who were the target audience of Eoin Colfer's imagination," Branagh says. "So I felt like it was a really fresh way to be exposed to the story." Serendipitously, Disney called a week later to gauge his interest in the franchise.
Before signing on to direct, Branagh reviewed the previous scripts and found them "trying to make the thing something it wasn't," he says, explaining that he went on to develop a plan to make the movie happen. First, he wanted to "return to the source [material] — that's Eoin Colfer." Second, he brought playwright Connor McPherson on board to write the screenplay because he wanted to "keep it Irish." Third, he decided they needed to simplify the story by narrowing the focus to just the first book, which gives the audience a lot to digest all on its own — from establishing Artemis and his eccentric family history to introducing the underground fairy world and all its fantastical elements, like LEPRecon, the fairy police force.
"I wanted to serve all of those things, but my instinct — I said it from the very first meeting with all my Disney family — is that this movie should go like the wind," Branagh says. "It should be short. This is a 90-minute movie, as far as I'm concerned. What I read when I first joined were two-and-a-half-hour movies that I thought, 'Wow, this is so much to throw at an audience first time out.' One of the things about the Artemis books is that they grow on you. They get under your skin. You want to leave some room for the audience to bring their own reaction to it — not throw the whole kitchen sink at every kind of big blockbuster franchise effect and technique."
In December 2017, Disney unveiled the movie's principal cast: Shaw, Judi Dench (Commander Root), Lara McDonnell (Captain Holly Short), Josh Gad (Mulch Diggums), and Nonso Anozie (Butler). Despite Colfer's reservations, his enthusiasm about the project started returning.
"I live in a lovely suburb of Dublin that's almost rural and rustic, and so to get these emails saying, 'Well, we've cast Judi Dench. We've cast Colin Ferrell. We've cast Josh Gad,' it's very surreal and it's very exciting, and you do find yourself getting a little bit worked up," he says. "Then my little voice would say, 'Calm down now. Something is going to happen, it's going to fall apart.' I think maybe it's an Irish thing to always be a bit pessimistic."
A spring 2018 set visit changed everything for the author. "The day we went to the set had the most impact on me because you come around a corner on a little bus and there in front of you on top of a hill is Fowl Manor, just a massive construction," Colfer says. "You just say, 'Wow, that's a pretty amazing.' It was quite emotional, actually. That was the moment my pessimist switch was probably turned off, because even that was fantastic."
Artemis Fowl was slated to open last summer, then delayed to May 29 because of the Disney-Fox merger. "It's one of those movies [that has] taken the time it's taken," Branagh says. "Somehow the spirit of Artemis — a bit twinkly, a bit naughty, funny, and Irish — has always pervaded the atmosphere around this movie. It's always felt quite nimble and light on its feet." Branagh was also grateful that the postponement gave them more time to work on special effects. "It was a function of that takeover," he says, "but it turned out to be perfectly fine for us."
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, prompting the film to migrate to Disney+ for a June 12 release. But Branagh is content: "It's landed in a place where it should feel very at home."
Artemis Fowl (2019 film)