Greg Taylor, the screenwriter of such great movies as Jumanji, Prancer, and Harriet the Spy, also writes awesome novels. The first novel in his Killer Pizza series, about three teens who work at a pizza restaurant which doubles as a front for a monster hunting organization, Killer Pizza, is currently being made into a movie directed by Adam Green and produced by Chris Columbus (who produced the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and Home Alone).
The sequel to Killer Pizza, Killer Pizza: The Slice, is now available. It’s an action-packed, very cool book combining two things teenagers (and most people in general) can’t resist–delicious hot cheesy pizza and monsters! If you like the kind of novels R.L. Stine writes, you will be sure to love the Killer Pizza series! Greg agreed to do an interview with me, and I hardly had to twist his arm at all. Let’s get on with the burning questions–hopefully, they won’t leave blisters on the roofs of your mouths, like hot pizza often does!
Douglas R. Cobb: Greg, thanks for doing this interview with me! I’m anxious to ask you questions about your latest book in the Killer Pizza series, Killer Pizza: The Slice, but before I do, I have a few other questions to ask you. First, how long did it take you to write the screenplay for Jumanji, and did you get the chance to meet Robin Williams? If so, what was he like? Is he as funny in person as he is on television and in the movies?
Greg Taylor: First off, a return thanks to you, Douglas, for inviting me to do this interview. I promise to answer your questions as truthfully as possible. Hopefully that won’t get me into any trouble.
OK, let’s see, Jumanji. The various drafts of that script, which I wrote with Jim Strain, a friend of mine, took about six months, all told. Five years and many screenwriters later, the movie was in the theaters.
Because Jim and I were long gone from the project before the movie was made, we never met Robin Williams. But we saw him at the premiere, where I, for one, felt like a starstruck geek!
Prancer is a movie that’s fast becoming a holiday classic, one that families look forward to watching around Christmas time every year. Rebecca Harrell plays Jessica Riggs, a nine-year-old girl whose mother has died, and she finds a wounded Prancer in the woods and helps nurse him back to health. How does it feel to know that you were the screenwriter for a movie that is becoming a holiday classic? Also, did you get to have any say in the casting, and did you get to meet any of the stars of the flick?
I had no say in the casting for Prancer, but you know what? They did a perfectly good job without me. I was on location for the first month of filming, however, so I did get to meet all of the cast and watch them work. Sam Elliot was cool, as you might expect. Cloris Leachman was incredible. The amount of thought and energy she put into her relatively short role was impressive and inspiring.
As for the film becoming a holiday classic, it’s so nice to hear you say that. This is a movie that is very near and dear to my heart. I named the lead character after my daughter, Jessica, who was eight years old when I was writing the script. Of all the films I’ve worked on, Prancer is my favorite.
Harriet the Spy is based upon the children’s book by the same name. I read and enjoyed it as a child, because even though it was probably originally written mainly for an audience of girls, it’s a very engrossing novel that guys can also get into thanks to the spy angle. The movie won a BAM award. Were you there to accept it, or did someone else? You co-wrote the screenplay, right? How was it like to write a screenplay with other people, compared with writing one on your own? Did you feel a lot of pressure in adapting a much-beloved novel into a movie, to try to get all of the details just right?
I never heard of a BAM award until you just mentioned it, Douglas. But you better believe if I’d known Harriet the Spy had won a BAM award, I would have crashed that party!
[Googling it, I saw that] Michelle Trachtenberg won the BAM award, so I would imagine she’s the one who accepted it. I didn’t attend the ceremony.
I actually didn’t co-write the script for Harriet the Spy, but I did share screenplay credit with three other writers. The drafts I worked on I wrote solo. This is how the process works when more than one writer works on a film (bear with me here, maybe some people will find this interesting). After a film has been shot, the producers submit their suggested credits. If any of the writers who worked on the film disagree with those credits, they can file for an arbitration with the Writers Guild. The Guild then recruits three writers who – independent of one another – read all of the drafts that were written for the film and decide what they believe the credits should be. The Writers Guild decision is final.
In the case of Harriet the Spy, I was not on the producers suggested credits (more than a dozen writers worked on Harriet over the years) so I was the one who filed for arbitration. I’m glad I did, because the Writers Guild decided I deserved a credit, along with three other writers. It’s an often weird and convoluted process, this screenwriting business. Writing books is much simpler.
Let’s see, you had a final question here…did I feel a lot of pressure adapting a beloved book like Harriet into a script? No, I didn’t. It was a total pleasure working on Harriet. Louise Fitzhugh’s writing and characters are so terrific that all I had to do was refer back to the Harriet “bible” if I had any questions or concerns as I worked on my various drafts.
What were some of your favorite books and authors growing up, and what advice would you give any young writers?
I loved the Hardy Boys. Also, Marvel comic books, especially Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. When I got older, I happily moved on to the James Bond series. I’ve always loved mystery, spy and adventure books, so it’s no surprise my first book would be something like Killer Pizza, which I’ve described as a Hardy Boys/Creature Feature mash-up.
My advice for young writers? Read, read, read, all kinds of stuff. Fiction books, nonfiction books, comic books, magazines, newspapers. Keep a journal/notebook for your ideas. And write the kinds of stories you love to read. Your enthusiasm for your subject will leap off the page, believe me.
Why did you decide to call the first book in your Killer Pizza series Killer Pizza instead of, say, Killer Hot Dogs or Killer Hamburgers? Could you please tell our readers how the three teens, Toby, Annabelle, and Strobe, find out the place they work doubles as a place that recruits teens to become monster hunters?
Hmmm, let me think… Killer Hot Dogs? Killer Hamburgers? Nope, they just don’t have the same ring as Killer Pizza. Besides, there’s more romance to a pizza shop than a hot dog or burger joint. The smell of the place, the atmosphere, the…well, the pizza. It’s the best food in the world.
When Toby, Annabel and Strobe get summer jobs at Killer Pizza, they think it’s just a pizza shop. Imagine their shock when they’re approached by Harvey – who they thought was a fellow employee, but is actually the head of Killer Pizza, Inc. – and are asked to try out for his secret monster hunting operation. Harvey thinks the three will make good team after observing them working in the kitchen together.
The moral to this story? No matter what kind of job you have, do your best, ’cause you never know what it might lead to!
Without giving away too much, hopefully, could you please tell us some of the training involved that the teens have to go through in order to become monster hunters? What monsters/missions do you write about in Killer Pizza?
Toby, Annabel and Strobe have weapons training, of course. And simulated fights with monsters, courtesy of a very advanced video game system. They’re also subjected to an intensive study program to learn about the monsters that inhabit our world, of which there are quite a few.
As for the monster missions in the first two Killer Pizza books, I’m staying mum on that. That’s what reading the books are all about. The fun of discovery.
Did you intend as you were writing Killer Pizza for it to become an entire series of books, or did it just evolve into that with the success of the book after it was published?
I always believed KP had the potential to be a series.
I have read that Killer Pizza is being made into a movie, directed by Adam Green and produced by Chris Columbus. You have mentioned to me previously that the movie should be out sometime in 2013. Congratulations! Do you know yet if anyone has been chosen to play the three teens or other actors in the movie? If so, could you please tell us who will be in it? Also, will you be the screenwriter, and/or technical adviser for the film?
The Killer Pizza movie is not at the stage where they are casting actors. They’re still working on the script, getting it just right. I’m not the screenwriter on this project, nor am I a technical advisor. The script is being written by Adam Green. I read his first draft, and he did a really great job. This is gonna be one fun, monster butt-kicking movie!
Okay, let’s move on to your latest novel, Killer Pizza: The Slice. Toby, Annabelle, and Strobe get to travel to New York City and help a friendly monster who looks like a lovely teen girl defect to their side, and become a member of the MPP, Monster Protection Program. Then, they later give her a crash course in learning the things every typical teen should know, to help her adjust to life as an exchange student in their school in Hidden Hills, Ohio. I really liked the details you included about New York City and Central Park. Have you ever lived there, or did you just do a lot of research for the book to try to make it as realistic as possible?
I’ve never lived in New York, but I love to visit the city as often as I can. My wife and I have gone there almost every summer for the past few years, and I was able to use the details of those trips – still fresh in my mind – while writing The Slice.
One interesting behind-the-scenes note: In this latest Killer Pizza book it’s revealed that KP’s New York headquarters is located in a famous New York landmark called the Flatiron Building. My choice for that location was not random. The Flatiron Building is where Feiwel and Friends, an imprint of Macmillan and my publisher, is located. So KP headquarters is a tip of the hat to the people who publish my books.
One of the villains the teens have to face in the novel is someone you refer to as the Tall Man, who is also a dekayi like Calanthe. He wants to stop Calanthe from revealing information about the dekayi community, but he also has another reason for wanting her back. Why does he want her back?
Normally I wouldn’t reveal a detail like this, but it’s right there on the jacketflap of the book, so I don’t feel like I’m giving away an important secret. Calanthe has been chosen to be the sacrificial offering at a very important dekayi celebration/festival called the Day of Days. It’s actually considered a great honor to be chosen for this event! Calanthe begs to differ, so that’s why she runs away from her very weird and scary village, which is located out in the middle of nowhere in the Canadian wilderness.
I love eating pizza. The one Toby invents, the Dragon Breath, with lots of hot peppers sounded pretty yummy to me, as I also love hot peppers and grow them. It’s also a fantastic idea he has to have a horror movie night at the Killer Pizza (KP) place they work. What is your favorite type of pizza, and do you like to watch classic horror movies, yourself?
My favorite pizza is Hawaiian, which is called a Fangtastic Hawaiian at Killer Pizza. (I really do wish there was a Killer Pizza in my neighborhood. I’d eat there all the time.) And yes, I love to watch classic horror movies, as well as so-bad-they’re-good horror movies. Just a few weeks ago I saw Them! for the first time. Giant ants. Dead bodies. Intrepid heroes. Great fun!
I liked it that Annabelle’s role seems to be getting bigger in Killer Pizza: The Slice. Why doesn’t Annabelle Oshiro’s dad especially like her working at KP with Toby and Strobe? Where does Annabelle tell her parents that Calanthe’s from?
Annabel’s wealthy father feels that working at Killer Pizza with a couple of other-side-of-the-burbs teens is beneath her. He’s not the nicest guy in the world, that’s for sure. Annabel tells her parents that Calanthe is a foreign exchange student from Egypt. Mr. and Mrs. Oshiro buy that story, for a while, anyway. Then they start to get suspicious about who this “Egyptian” girl really is.
I compared your writing style in your Killer Pizza series to R.L. Stine’s in my review of Killer Pizza: The Slice. Would you say that’s a fair comparison?
To be honest, I’ve only read one of Mr. Stine’s books, so I’m not very familiar with his style of writing. In the sense that he and I both write horror books, there’s that connection, of course. Comparing books sold, if you could arrange for me to have just a fraction of Mr. Stine’s Guiness Book of World Records sales, I’d be a happy man.
Also, I mentioned that the Tall Man reminded me of the really tall guy in the movie, Phantasm. Did you have that man in mind when you were writing Killer Pizza: The Slice? And, the Tall Man uses another beast, a rukh, to track Calanthe down. The ruhk can make itself invisible, which reminded me of the horror writer H.P. Lovecraft’s story, The Dunwich Horror, where a monster by that same name is also invisible. Was Lovecraft one of your influences when you thought up the ruhk in the novel?
No, I’ve never read any of Lovecraft’s books or stories. And I’ve never seen Phantasm, although I hear it’s a really good horror film.
No, the Tall Man was pretty much from my imagination. The rukh, as well, although I didn’t invent that name. I got it from The Book of Imaginary Beings by Jorge Luis Borges. According to Mr. Borges, the rukh (or Roc) owes its Western fame to a Sinbad tale in The Arabian Nights. Who knows, perhaps Mr. Lovecraft got the name from the Arabian Nights, as well. As for both our monsters being invisible, that’s a coincidence. One thing’s for sure, though. I’m going to read The Dunwich Horror, asap.
Calanthe is such an interesting character; do you think you might include her in some future novel in your Killer Pizza series?
I’d love to include Calanthe in a future Killer Pizza story.
I know that Killer Pizza: The Slice just hit the bookstores not long ago, on June 21st, but are you currently writing a sequel to it? If so, what’s the working title? Do you have plans to write any more screenplays in the future?
I recently finished a script called “The Girl Who Became the Beatles,” which is based on a book of mine for young readers that was published this past February. I’m sure I’ll continue to write screenplays in the future. I’ve been doing it so long, it’s a hard habit to break. Besides, I love movies, so it’s fun to have one running in my head as I write a new screenplay.
Regarding future Killer Pizza books, I’m waiting to hear from my publisher whether or not there’s going to be a third book. I just started writing one a couple of weeks ago anyway, because I love these characters and wanted to spend more time with them. The working title is “Killer Pizza: Vampire Stakes”. Care to guess what kind of creature Toby, Annabel and Strobe are going to tackle on their next impossible monster mission?
Those were some very awesome answers, Greg! Thanks so much for agreeing to doing this interview with me! I look forward to reading and reviewing more novels of yours in the coming years, and I’m crossing my fingers that more of them will be made into movies.
If you haven’t yet checked out Greg’s Killer Pizza series yet, I highly recommend that you read Killer Pizza and Killer Pizza: The Slice asap, if not sooner!