Ray Giarratana on adapting ‘The Tiger Rising’

Provided by The Avenue
Provided by The Avenue

Ray Giarratana adapts the New York Times best-selling book, The Tiger Rising for the big screen. 

The Tiger Rising book was written by Kate DiCamillo and stars an ensemble cast of Christian Convery (“Sweet Tooth”), Madalen Mills (Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Story), Tony Award nominee Sam Trammell (“True Blood”), Katharine McPhee (“Smash”), Golden Globe nominee Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven) and Academy Award nominee Queen Latifah (Hairspray) who is an executive producer on the film. 

When 12-year-old Rob Horton (Christian Convery) discovers a caged tiger in the woods near his home, his imagination runs wild and life begins to change in the most unexpected ways. With the help of a wise and mysterious maid, Willie May (Queen Latifah) and the stubborn new girl in school (Madalen Mills), he navigates through childhood memories, heartache, and wondrous adventures in this heartwarming adaptation.

Check out my interview with Ray!

What attracted you to adapt The Tiger Rising into a movie?

Ray: I had written a few scripts that were more comedy based, and an agent that I knew thought there was something there. I’d just adapted something else and was looking for something else to adapt, and the agent, Jason Dravis said, ‘hey, do you know of Katie, DiCamillo?’I said, yeah, I know the name and I knew of some things she had written and he goes, ‘well here, take a look at this book. It’s called The Tiger Rising. It’s about a boy who’s lost his mom.’ And I was like, ‘what’s funny about this?’ and he said,’ literally, nothing.’So I said, ‘really, what on earth makes you think I can do this?’ He said, ‘I don’t know, I just got a feeling.’ So, I really didn’t think much of it at that moment in time. I put the book in my bag and like a week later, I was on a flight to New York and I picked up the book, and I couldn’t put it down. I went right through and I just immediately connected with everything on Kate’s wonderful pages. She just drew great characters, and, I don’t know, I just found myself empathizing with Rob and Rob senior and certainly Sistine. Somehow it spoke to me. There’s something there and it’s rich, even though it’s a seemingly simple story.

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It was so moving. I cried watching this movie.

Ray: I think one of the things that attracted me to it was that, even though it stars two 10 year old kids, the story is of what they’re going through. I mean, the whole thing is really universal, the idea that everybody goes through something difficult. We see Rob Sr., who’s certainly dealing with the loss of his wife, but he’s dealing with it in his own way and with Willie May, you can tell she’s really gone through a lot in her life. We just don’t know exactly what that is and she’s doing things in her own way. Even Beauchamp, who is a cool gentleman, and God knows what he’s been through in his life. So it’s a universal story, and that makes it not just a kid’s movie. We didn’t want to make a kid’s movie, we wanted to make something that was broader than that.

What was the process like for adapting this story for the screen? Did you get to work with Kate?

Ray: I kind of went for it right off the bat. My first instinct was to be as truthful and respectful of the original book as I could be, because I’m like a lot of other people that have read books and when you go see the movie and you go, ‘oh, wow, this is different, why did they change this?’ So, I wanted to be as true as possible. As possible is certainly the key phrase. I wrote the first pass, and I remember I showed it to my life partner and I showed it to Jason. They all said, ‘oh, yeah, this is working.’ But I think we all kind of came to a moment where it was that this was just the material. It just needs a few little moments to give the viewer an emotional break, or something a little bit lighter. So I went back in and added a few little comedic bits here and there, just reading in between the lines, trying to look for a ‘what if we expanded this moment, what else would have happened here?’ And we sent it to Kate, and she immediately responded and loved it. She said, ‘he captured my voice.’ I was beyond flattered.

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Oh, that is the best compliment ever.

Ray: Kate came out to the set and that night we went to dinner. We were talking about all sorts of things and she said something like, ‘hey, I love what you did with this particular scene, and for the life of me, I can’t remember which scene. I said, ‘well, you know, it’s your book, I just filmed it.’ And she says, ‘No, I don’t think that’s the book.’ And I said,’ yeah, I didn’t write that you wrote that.’ And we were laughing, none of us should actually remember who wrote it. And the funny part is, I said, ‘Kate, I wrote the script like, 8 or 9, 10 years ago.’ She goes, ‘I wrote the book 20 years ago.’ I felt really flattered by that.

This story has really strong emotions, what was it like working with Christian and Madalen through all of this?

Ray: These two, remarkable young actors, I can’t say enough about them. I mean, when Christian showed up to set, he was nine, he turned ten like 2 days later, and I think Madeline might have already been ten, but it was literally like working with adults. While we were talking about the craft, talking about the scene, I could say anything to them as if I was talking to Queen or Dennis or Sam. They just connected and they just got it right off the bat and they brought so much truth and honesty to their performance that I’m still stunned to this day when I look at their performance and realize these are 10-year-olds. I mean, we looked at like 400 different kids, and yeah, each one of them, when I saw their auditions, they jumped off my screen. I just couldn’t believe the maturity of their acting chops. I mean, I was just blown away. 

And just watching them bounce off of Dennis and Queen, it was amazing. 

Ray: There was this moment, near the end of the film, when you see Christian finally let loose his emotions and he launches into his father and all these feelings come flying out of him. If you remember, just before that Dennis and Sam had just gotten into a big fight and Dennis was lying on the ground at the end of that fight. We’re shooting that scene and I realize that ‘oh, we’re going to be shooting coverage for this all day and oh my god, Dennis, the big movie star, is going to be lying on the ground all day long.’ And after we did a couple of takes, Dennis kind of eyeballed me to come over and I walked over and he had a real serious look on his face and I thought, god he’s gonna tell me, ‘Get me out of here. I’m just on the ground. You don’t need me for this.’ Instead, with this very serious look on his face, he gets right up in my ear and goes, ‘Damn this kid is good.’ Queen was similar with one of the first scenes that we did in the laundry room. She just looked over at me like, ‘Oh, my goodness!’

To me, the heart and soul of the movie is in that laundry room. Those moments between Willie May and Rob are the ones that we had to capture, that had to just grab you. And I remember when I first read the script, I immediately thought of Queen Latifah. She was always my first choice in that role. And many years later, when we finally got it to her and she wanted to do it, I was just so flattered that she wanted to be a part of it. And she told us something that was a little surprising, she related to Rob when she was a little girl. She was an artsy little kid and you know, she had some rough times and she connected with Rob there. 

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Did you use a real tiger for any part of this?

Ray: Yes, actually, quite a bit. There’s just a couple of moments that are CG. It was just really kind of based on tiger safety and crew safety. That’s Shika, she’s an amazing Tiger. She was one of the Tigers in the hangover and quite a few other films. She’s quite the actress.

What’s it like working with a live animal? 

Ray: The real tiger was never in any scene with any actor. That was filmed completely separately. We certainly strived to try to make sure that you can’t see that. Basically the reality, when it comes to work in an animal, like a tiger, is that you start off with a trainer and you listen to him, period. And Eric, the trainer, we talked about the script way back when and we talked about what can a tiger do, what’s realistic, what’s not, and we went through every scene. That’s one of the best ways to do it because I certainly have worked with animals before. You have to start with the trainer. And so we planned everything around what was realistic and what was possible for the tiger and for us to film and then working with our visual effects supervisor, Fred, we just came up with like, ‘Okay, what’s the plan to get all of this and make it work and make it look like everything is there?’ And then our amazing editor, Chris Gay, we just went through all this footage and we made sure that we found the right moments to connect up with the kids. Yeah, it was an amazing amount of planning to get all that right, because we didn’t want it to take anybody out of the moment. It had to look honest. 

Because there are a lot of conversations and a lot of really high emotions throughout this film, what do you hope people take away after watching it?

Ray: Because this is really a universal theme about the way people deal with hurt and hopefully about the way they move through it, moving past it, I hope people can look at this and start giving each other a little bit more empathy and more grace and understanding. We don’t know what anybody’s going through. I mean, if you look at Rob, the hurt that he’s dealing with, he’s just closing down and shutting off the world and retreating his imagination. Sistine, on the other hand, she’s going the other way. She’s dealing with divorce and she doesn’t know how to deal with it. She’s just lashing out. And you can see that it’s not that she’s a bad kid, she’s just going through something that she doesn’t know how to deal with. And I think the same thing goes for the adults. Again, I think if we give each other just a little bit more grace because yeah, we just don’t know what anybody’s going through and I think it comes back to us in the same way.

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The Tiger Rising is now in theaters and will be on demand and digital February 8, 2022.