How He Made 'Fried Worms'

The dirt on director Bob Dolman

How He Made 'Fried Worms'
Photo By Roxanne Jo Mitchell

When production on his sweetly icky and gently comic adaptation of Thomas Rockwell's 1973 kid-lit classic How to Eat Fried Worms brought SCTV scribe and Banger Sisters helmer Bob Dolman to Austin last year, a sort of fever struck the elementary school crowd and their parents. With Worms wriggling into theatres tomorrow, Dolman returned to address a special screening benefit hosted by the Austin Film Society at the Arbor.

But first Dolman paused to discuss the film – whose expanded ensemble features local kid actors, along with grizzled pros like James Rebhorn, Clint Howard, and Hallie Kate Eisenberg – including why Austin is the best place on Earth to shoot a movie and how we never really stop eating worms.

Austin Chronicle: Why do you think kids – and their parents – still love this story after so many years?

Bob Dolman: I think the main reason for its popularity is that it's slightly rebellious and audacious, but in truth it's very innocent, and it follows a kind of innocence in American tradition that seems all but lost. The world that is in the book – and, by extension, the world that we created in the movie – is one that is not dangerous. It is not threatening. The kinds of threats and dangers that are in existence today in our world that kids have to concern themselves with, like going to school where someone might have a weapon, or dealing with drugs or sexuality too early and all those things, and war and terrorism and everything else that just overwhelms even us adults, it's too much for kids. And the book presents a world in which the biggest problem is to win a bet by eating 15 worms. So in the movie we really made that our mission: Let's create a world where kids' problems are appropriate to childhood. So in the movie the main concerns for [the protagonist, Billy] are fitting in, going to a new place, trying to adapt, trying to stand up to unfairness and bullying, having to fulfill a promise or a bet, to follow through on his commitment, and maybe get into mild trouble at school. Those are all the problems that are presented. There shouldn't be bigger problems than that for a child who is 10 years old.

At the same time, those are not small problems if you are 10. It's horrible going to a new school where you don't know anybody, and it's terrifying to be picked on and you don't understand why or even if you do understand why. And it's a big challenge for Billy to not just eat the worms, which is kind of a gimmick for the whole story, but actually to do something that kids might make fun of or might be humiliating or might make him look stupid. All those things are very real. I think the book captures that, and I hope the movie does.

AC: I read that Thomas Rockwell wrote the book after a meeting with an editor that hadn't gone well, and he felt like he was eating worms. I get the impression that that sensation is something we never really lose.

BD: That's true, and it's become an expression in my world, especially working in L.A. If I go to a business meeting or a story meeting, or something, if I feel like I've sold myself out or said something that didn't really reflect who I was or what my intention was, I say, "Man, I ate a huge worm today." That's become our slogan for committing to something you didn't mean to commit to. Doing something you don't want to do really, but you said you would.

AC: And that's something that Billy's father says explicitly, as well, about his new job.

BD: Yes, he does. He's speaking metaphorically at that point in the story, and he doesn't realize that Billy's eaten the worms, but it's the same idea, yeah.

Smirk, meet worm: Luke Benward as Billy
Smirk, meet worm: Luke Benward as Billy

AC: Let's go back to the 15 worms in 15 days and some of the other changes in your adaptation. You have 10 worms in one day.

BD: I'd say that the book on its own wasn't material enough to sustain a movie. It had a great idea in it, but it didn't have a plot with enough twists and turns to keep you watching for an hour and a half. It also limited itself to a small amount of characters, and they're basically all in the same predicament. And there weren't any girls in the story except a mom, and we wanted at least a girl who was on the same age level as the others, so I added the character of Erika [Eisenberg]. And then I gave Billy a younger brother to fill out his family more. The 10 worms in one day was a way of increasing the tension, of compressing the plot. The bet is in the book, but the payoff for the boys [changed] just to give the movie more dimension, I think.

AC: To the casual observer the book appears to have been left alone since the animated version aired on CBS in 1985, yet I've heard stories of development hell.

BD: The script version that we have began about 10 years ago, when I wrote a draft. But I wouldn't call it hell, because the steps that led us to the movie we have right now were necessary. For instance, if we'd done the movie 10 years ago when I wrote the script, these children would have still been in diapers. Since we now have the perfect cast, I have to thank the development hell, as you call it, to get us here.

But it did go through many twists and turns. I hadn't directed anything [in the beginning], and I was writing it for other directors being considered – it was at Paramount then – and then Paramount put it into turnaround. They didn't want to do it. There was some talk over there that nobody would want to see a movie about boys eating worms, so it got shelved. I went on to work on other projects and directed for the first time – The Banger Sisters – and the producer on that was Mark Johnson, and Mark and I enjoyed working together, and afterward he said, "What do you want to do next?" and I said, "This movie, Fried Worms, is just sitting on a shelf. It's a shame." I think it still took us about three years before we got it greenlit.

AC: Lots of readers feel really protective of the book. How's the reaction been to the film?

BD: Here's the good news about it. Thomas Rockwell saw the movie in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., last week with an audience of 80 kids. They loved it, and he loved it. He read and approved of the script. I feel like if I've got his approval, I don't really have to worry about anybody else's.

AC: Why Austin?

BD: I'd never been to Austin before, so it wasn't my idea. It was mainly because our producer, Mark Johnson, had done five or six movies here before and had worked with so many people [and] knew he could pull together a good crew. I also felt when I got here that the locations were going to be perfect for the movie. There'd been talk of shooting it in California or shooting it in Saskatchewan and all of these places where it didn't look to me like you'd see an earthworm. And this was humid and it was lush and it just felt like a good location. I mean, Austin's just got great film crews. Now I know that. I didn't know that before. Now I really know. We pulled together some of the best people I can imagine. So we were very lucky.

And they're sane! At the end of the day they stop working, and they go out to dinner with their families, or they go for a margarita on a Friday and they socialize, and work isn't such an all-consuming, insane endeavor. Also, everyone was so loving that it really helped the kids. At the end of it, they were all friends, and now that they're reuniting for these previews, it feels like a camp reunion. But I have to thank the crew for creating that environment.

AC: Any chance you'll be back?

BD: If I could work here again, I'd be back in a second. I hope something brings me here. end story

How to Eat Fried Worms opens in Austin on Friday, Aug. 25. For a review and showtimes, see Film Listings.

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How to Eat Fried Worms, Bob Dolman

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