Most probably know Bryan Cranston as one of the great TV & film actors – Walter White, Hal Wilkerson, Dalton Trumbo… Yet Cranston has also begun to build up his resume as a producer, forming the production company Moon Shot Entertainment. These past two years the company has released an eclectic slate of TV shows – the comic-noir Sneaky Pete, the Phillip K. Dick dystopian anthology Electric Sheep, and now the family dramedy The Dangerous Book for Boys. For Cranston: this is exactly the point – to avoid any easy labeling or pigeonholing, much as he has as an actor.
The Dangerous Book for Boys spins the award winning non-fiction book into a narrative series focusing on the misadventures of prepubescent Wyatt McKenna (Gabriel Bateman) in the aftermath of his father’s passing. The show mixes reality –the economic and emotional strain of loosing a father– with the whimsical interludes of Wyatt’s own imagination, where his father (Chris Diamantopoulos) still lives and doles out sage advice. It makes for an intriguing combo of melancholy & comedy, the rare ‘children’s show’ to explicitly deal with real-world issues.
In the following interview with co-creator Bryan Cranston, he discusses developing The Dangerous Book For Boys, balancing the various tones, and how the series changed when NBC dropped out & Amazon picked it up. For the full interview, read on below.
Collider: I don’t think you could have three more different shows than The Dangerous Book for Boys, Electric Dreams and Sneaky Pete…
Bryan Cranston: That’s how you do it. It’s just different parts of my personality. I don’t always want to be on the vanguard of crafting new dystopian worlds, but I do like that so it’s there. Then there’s also the part of me that goes, ‘No – I like simplicity and sweetness.’ That’s where The Dangerous Book for Boys lives. Everything I do I want people to go, ‘How can we peg Moon Shot Entertainment?’ And you go, ‘You can’t.’
When did you first become familiar with The Dangerous Book for Boys?
Cranston: Anna Gunn gave me the book.
Why did she give you that book?
Cranston: She said, “The book reminds me of you.” So I read it all the way through and just thought it was amazing. But there’s no story there so you can’t make a show out of it. Then when Sony said they have the rights to that book, I went, ‘I know that book.’ They said, ‘Yeah, Our drama department has the rights to it. Can you come up with a story idea?’ I thought about a bunch of different scenarios but nothing was really working. So after three or four weeks of trying to think of different ways to get it, I said – ‘I don’t think so. It’s not for us. Maybe someone else can think of a way to crack that story.’
So I completely forgot about it. Just dropped it out of my consciousness, but it was still in my subconscious. I went running along the Charles River in Boston one day and then a lightning bolt, BOOM, I literally stopped and figured [the show] out. I realized it’s not a drama, it’s a family adventure. It’s fun. It’s heartfelt. It’s emotional. It’s honest. It’s the life of this family. You’re going to have to invest in these characters and root for them. Then we thought of a hook that every episode has a familiar family problem and all the fantasies offer a possible solution.
How did you settle on that hook?
Cranston: Once I cracked the general setup, I started talking with my partner James Degus about it. We started adding more and more to it. I knew we needed someone else to come in and be a partner, so I contacted Greg Mottola – a dad himself – and pitched him the idea. He gravitated towards it and then the three of us started drawing it out, creating the structure and the hook. Then we got Michael Glouberman, who I knew from Malcolm in the Middle as a strong comedy writer, and got him on board. So the four of us started working, and pitching and debating…
What is the balance between comedy and drama on the show? Is it comedy first, drama second or vice versa?
Cranston: All we need to focus on is telling the story as honestly as possible – so some episodes might be more comedy than drama and then the next episode might be a little bit more drama than comedy. Amazon has given us permission to let it be whatever it’s supposed to be.
When you’re breaking each episode, are you starting with a particular lesson or set piece you want tie in?
Sometimes we have an image of a great fantasy sequence. Then we think how could we reverse engineer it to find a legitimate story to get to that. Or sometimes a writer will come in and say this happened and we’ll go, ‘Let’s use that experience.’ So then it becomes what fantasy can support that and have a connectivity to an every day problem?