Wildwood + Laika
A trip to the other magic kingdom
The story goes like this: about twelve years ago, I was maybe three quarters finished with Wildwood, my first novel and the first book in what would become a trilogy. The book was the culmination of years and years of plan-hatching and head-scratching between Carson and I — the foundations of the project, in some ways, pre-dates the existence of The Decemberists. I was immersed in the project, collecting ideas and inspiration from our regular walks in the woods. The book felt very personal to both Carson and myself; not only had it been stewing for such a long time, but we felt protective of the world we were recreating: a world that reimagined these beloved places that we knew, the St. John’s neighborhood in North Portland and the 5,000 acre city park across the river from it, Forest Park. So when movie studios began expressing interest, we were very reluctant to take their calls. We wanted it to exist as a book, first and foremost. We wanted it to live in the hands of its readers, not splashed across a million screens as some CGI fantasy behemoth, made by people far away from Portland’s spires of Doug firs and blankets of salal and sword fern. Our line to our agent was this: we’re not interested in making this a movie — unless (and this was big unless) they agree to make it either with same approach and technology as 1978’s Watership Down or as a stop-motion animation film. It was a silly demand, and kind of sentimental. Our agent’s line was: guess we can forget about film optioning then.
I may be mis-remembering, but I recall the very next day receiving a phone call from the very same chagrined agent, saying that Laika, the Portland born-and-bred stop motion animation studio had expressed an interest in the project and would we be amenable to chatting with them about film rights? True to our word, we agreed. Stop motion it would be.
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Back then, it made sense. This was the studio that made Coraline, a beloved film that seemed to have upended the idea of what a modern kids’ animated movie could be, and they were just over the hill from us, in Hillsboro, not far from Forest Park themselves. Travis Knight, the studio’s then-head animator, was enamored of the draft of Wildwood. It spoke to his love of the Park, of Portland, of Oregon as a whole. It sounds cliché, but he got it. The whole studio got it. The book wasn’t even out yet, but they believed in it. One of our concerns, however, was that the film would come out before the sequels would be out, that the book wouldn’t be allowed to exist as a book before the movie inevitably overshadowed it.
“Oh, don’t worry,” they said. “There’s no risk of that happening.”
Here we are, twelve years later. The first book came out. In time, it became a paperback. The second and third followed the same course. They were translated into multiple languages. A fancy boxed set was assembled of the three books. Stage versions appeared, some sanctioned, some not. We traveled around the country to bookstores, libraries, and schools, talking about the Wildwood Chronicles. Then we moved on to different projects. We’d get occasional updates on progress or ideas from Laika — some character design ideas here, a screenplay draft there — but the movie remained in limbo.
But I’m here to report, dear reader, that this period of limbo has come to an end. We’ve known for a few months now that work has commenced on the movie; we’ve known for about a year that Wildwood will, in fact, be Laika’s next film. And only yesterday we paid a visit to the studio and spent about four hours, wandering the cordoned and draped hallways of that magic place.
Unfortunately, I can’t really share much about the work that’s being done there. Everything is pretty locked down — they’re very careful about how and when they share their work with the world. I get it; this movie will take years to make. The work moves at a truly glacial pace. What I can report is this: I’m over a decade removed from this book. I was a different person when I wrote it; the world was a different place. I have a very different relationship with it than I did then. It feels like ages ago that I was walking the trails of Forest Park with Carson, building the the story of Prue and Curtis and baby Mac. But one thing remains the same: Laika is the right home for this story.
We saw character designs, we saw massive sets of forests and buildings, all made by hand; we saw the maquettes of these characters, characters I’d dreamed up so many years ago, rendered in plastic and resin and built on a skeletons of articulating steel. We saw their costumes, delicately sewn and embroidered by hand. We saw footage; we heard the voices of the cast.
One thing is clear: this movie is being made with the same love and attention we were promised at the outset. It is a love letter to Portland; it’s a love letter to Forest Park. Portland looks a lot different than it did in 2010 — peoples’ attitudes to the city have changed in the last few years alone. But this movie is going to be lovely, and it is being made with love. I can’t wait to share more of it with you.