From visionary director Ava DuVernay and based on Madeleine L’Engle’s timeless classic, A Wrinkle in Time follows Meg Murry (Storm Reid), as she sets out on a transformative journey to discover that strength comes from embracing one’s flaws and that the light inside us can overcome the darkness around us. Meg is a typical teenager struggling with issues of self-worth, along with the mysterious disappearance of her father, four years ago. Upon learning that her father might still be alive but trapped on another planet, somewhere in the cosmos, Meg sets out on an adventure with her younger brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), and fellow classmate, Calvin (Levi Miller), to find out if she has the courage it will take to get him back.
At the film’s Los Angeles press junket, Collider got the opportunity to sit down with screenwriter Jennifer Lee to chat 1-on-1 about how she got the job on A Wrinkle in Time, what she was most excited about, in seeing the script brought to life, going from animation (with Frozen) to live-action, the overlap she had while working on Frozen 2, focusing on the characters and not letting the success of the first film get in the way of telling the story they want to tell now, collaborating with Ava DuVernay, what she was most bummed they had to cut from the finished film, and why she hasn’t yet experienced the Frozen ride at Walt Disney World. Be aware that there are some spoilers discussed.
Collider: How did you come to write A Wrinkle in Time?
JENNIFER LEE: I went after it. I heard they needed a writer. I had just finished Frozen and I got permission from animation. I said, “I need to write all the time.” I was helping on other projects, but I didn’t know what I was doing next, and they completely supported me. I found out about A Wrinkle in Time, and I was there, the next day, pitching what I wanted to do to Jim Whitaker, first, and Catherine Hand. They embraced it and gave me a chance. I was so grateful.
Was there a moment or a character you were most excited about seeing brought to life?
LEE: Obviously, the Mrs. were a dream that you couldn’t even dare to dream, so that was huge. That helped me to see what was really possible. And then, there was Storm [Reid]. They sent me a reel of stuff that she had done, and I was in tears. I felt like that is a girl who could represent all of us, and everything about her, in her heart and soul, blew me away. Deric [McCabe] was hilarious. The warmth that Levi [Miller] brought to Calvin changed Calvin completely. He was a much cooler jock, at a distance, and he became such a warm character. Chris Pine through himself into the physics aspect. We went out to dinner with Dr. Alexander and we were talking about quantum physics, and I was like, “How am I getting to have this conversation?!” And then, Zach [Galifianakis] brought one of the most emotional moments in the film for me and really embraced the idea of fatherly love coming through. I could go on with all of them. It’s insane! It was like rediscovering the story, every day, as they were shooting.
What was it like to go from writing an animated feature, with Frozen, to writing a live-action epic adventure, with A Wrinkle in Time?
LEE: It was wonderful, I have to say. I love animation, for the complete decadent control you have over every word and you can splice two things together. But there’s nothing like having real people take it over and become the parts, and then they re-inspire you. I was lucky to be on the journey the whole time, so as I watched dailies, it would bring out something new. How much they all embraced these characters and threw themselves into it, it was a feedback loop of creativity that is not the same. In animation, when you’re in the recording room, there’s a lot of that and it’s really fun, but when it comes to how it gets to realize that, the distancing is very much there. That’s not the case in live-action. I loved it!
Did you have any overlap between A Wrinkle in Time and Frozen 2?
LEE: I have scenes due tomorrow! Very much so! And we were working on Zootopia, too, at the time. I started this in 2014. I’m one of those people who gets up early and writes. I write from 6 to 12, so I had it worked out that I would write in my mornings, and then I would go into the studio. I wasn’t writing for the studio, so I’d go in and give notes on things and support other projects, and then we would daydream about Frozen 2. I could do that in the afternoon. It was a good balance. They were so great about how I work. I’m very productive, writing wise, in the morning, and then not at all, but then I’m great with just chatting. So, it was built in a way to allow me to do it when it was so early with Frozen 2. When I started this, we hadn’t decided to do Frozen 2 yet.
I think everybody else had already decided that you were doing Frozen 2.
LEE: We were like, “Uh-uh.” And then, we had a conversation and went, “Oh, there’s that. We want to tell that!” So, we were hooked. [And the book for Frozen on Broadway] was happening, at the same time. It’s been a busy few years. I can’t complain. I love that each project has some things connected, but they’re also completely different. It’s been good.
Disney has huge success with their animated features, but obviously, you never could have expected the level of success that Frozen had. How daunting does that make it, when you sit at the blank page, trying to figure out where to go next?
LEE: I have the blank page! My favorite thing is when I’m rewriting. We all signed on again, immediately. Once Chris [Buck] and I had a take on it, everyone was like, “We like this and support you.” We all decided that we had to build it the same way we built the first one. The first one had the opposite expectations. Everyone was like, “You’re doing a musical with two female leads? Good luck!” The world was looking at us without any expectations, almost against us. Now, we have expectations, but we had to shut that out and do it again. We just had to go back to our characters, where they are now, and what they’re going through. That’s what we do, every day. I’m really excited about what we’re doing, but there’s no shortcut. It’s just as challenging as the first one.
You and Ava DuVernay seemed to have a much closer collaboration than the director and writer often have. How did you find that collaborative experience?
LEE: That’s kudos to her. I joked, “I’ll be done with Wrinkle soon ‘cause they’ve got a director now who’s also a fantastic writer.” I had this emotional moment when I met her and we had this great conversation. I felt like I was giving it over to good hands. I had complete faith in her, but I thought that would be it. I really thought she would just want to take it, but she didn’t. She said, “I want to work with you.” There were things I brought to it that were in my comfort zone, but weren’t in hers, particularly in the science of it and my relationship to the book. She sat down with me and went through all the things she loved and the things she was interested in doing with it, and I could see it. There was a lot of back and forth, and tons of conversations. What I loved is that she challenged me and said, “Can you write a scene that disproves Einstein’s Theory of Relativity?,” and I was like, “Sure!” Fundamentally, I knew what she was asking. And then, we got together with a physicist, and Chris Pine joined us, and we talked through the real physics inside tessering and the tesseract. I felt like she made me a better writer, and I felt completely comfortable handing everything other to her and seeing what she could bring to it. It always made it so much stronger. It was one of the best collaborations for me.
(SPOILERS) Was there anything that didn’t make it into the movie that you’re bummed about?
LEE: Aunt Beast. She was there until the very end. Maybe she’ll show up in the DVD. It was the right thing for the film version. Meg needed to walk into the It’s lair without support. Aunt Beast was a part of the book that provided support, but she also provided the answer. This was a journey we reworked, where no one is gonna give Meg the answer. She has to find it herself. That’s the difference between what the film is versus the book, and the choices we made that evoke the film, but also look at what the film needed to be. That was the only one, just ‘cause she was one of my favorite characters. But in the end, when I saw it after the cut – and we had it with and without – I got why.
When it came to the way that Mrs. Who communicates, how did you decide which quotes to use and from who? Did that change a lot?
LEE: Yeah, it did. It was exhausting, actually. In the book, she doesn’t just speak in quotes. We were looking at all the things that make them unique, and I loved the idea of the stages of evolution they were in and that she had evolved beyond language. Mrs. Which was the wisest and had been around the longest, Mrs. Who was the middle, and Mrs. Whatsit was the youngest. The idea that she could only speak in quotes was so fun, and yet every time the scene changed, I had to find the right quote for her, and then I had to get it legally approved. It was one of those things where I’d have to research it. Ava joined in, Ava’s sister joined in, and everyone joined in, in researching aspirational quotes. We wanted them to be from all around the world and all time periods, and they all had to not be on the nose, but speak to where you could interpret it because you knew what she was trying to say. I’d have a Mrs. Who day, every seven or eight days, to spend the day trying to get the right thing for Mrs. Who.