Culture

To Bummer and Back Again: An Exclusive Interview with Sarah Siegel-Magness, 'Judy Moody' Producer

Judy Moody owes Precious a thank you note. On the surface, it's hard to imagine how to connect the dots between such disparate literary heroines as the cruelly abused obese African-American teenager at the heart of the celebrated 2009 adaptation of the novel, Push, by Sapphire and the Judy Moody series' eponymous plucky tween with a nose for adventure and mind for quick-witted comebacks.

Sarah Siegel-Magness has managed to create a bridge between the bleakness of "Precious" and the wholesomeness of "Judy Moody" as the relentlessly determined producer, without whom neither book might have made it to the big screen. "From the deepest, darkest depths of making 'Precious,' I could not stop thinking about Judy Moody," says Siegel-Magness, who was in the early stages of the long and arduous process that would eventually lead to "Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer," the first big screen adaptation of Megan McDonald's popular young adult series, which opens nationwide on June 10. "I'm not saying that doing a bleak movie like that is not something you want to do. But it’s once in a lifetime. It’s that heavy. It also really pointed me in a direction I knew I needed to go: light and airy and playful and happy. And that’s where Judy Moody took me. My husband and I started working on Judy Moody the day after the Oscars." ["Precious" was nominated for six Academy Awards and won for Best Adapted Screenplay (Geoffrey Fletcher) and Best Actress (Mo'Nique)].

Siegel-Magness discovered her passion for Judy Moody courtesy of her daughter, Camryn, who is now a rising young star in her own right, currently opening for teen pop stars, Cody Simpson and Greyson Chance. "It was required reading in third grade," recalls the Colorado-based producer who launched Smokewood Entertainment with her husband, Gary Magness, a rancher-turned-cable-TV magnate. "It was the first children's book where I found myself giggling the entire time as we were reading. I thought, ‘Wow, this writer has an uncanny ability to entertain a parent and a child at the same time.'"

In other words, Judy Moody was a box office bonanza waiting to happen. But only if done with great care to satisfy both the books' legions of diehard fans while appealing to the uninitiated -- a tough needle to thread for even the most experienced Hollywood vet, and a near impossible task for a relative newbie like Siegel-Magness, with barely one movie under her belt. "I got involved before 'Precious' went to Sundance and the publisher's reps were like, 'Who is this new producer who knows nothing and she’s got this crazy film about an African American girl who’s been molested?'" recalls Siegel-Magness, who ultimately won them over with her passion for the material and her firsthand knowledge of its appeal to teens and their moms. "It was not an easy sell because we were unproven as producers. So when I met Megan McDonald, I poured my  heart out to her. I said, 'I am a mother and we have a kid exactly the age of Judy Moody. I am the perfect person to produce this film. Please let me do this.' It wasn’t about the money or my experience. It was about who I am as a person."

It also didn't hurt that she enthusiastically supported the idea of having McDonald adapt her own book for the big screen. "Megan McDonald has such a unique voice and the thought of having a hired gun translate that didn’t resonate with me," says Siegel-Magness, who even ok'd McDonald's suggestion that she co-author the script with her college roommate, Kathy Waugh, an Emmy-winning writer for hit children's TV shows like "Arthur." "It would be sort of irresponsible of me to expect someone who had written children’s books to immediately know how to write a screenplay."

Though the writers claim to have drawn inspiration from such classic kids-on-the-loose family flicks like "The Goonies" and "Home Alone," this particular writing team ensured that source material remained the film's dominant influence. "There are details that are truly obsessively true to the series," says Siegel-Magness. "We have a gum wall in her closet you might pan on for a second. But it’s like straight out of the book series. This movie is Judy Moody-approved all the way."

Even so, the film's eventual box office success is far from guaranteed. The looming x-factor: Can Judy's appeal transcend her core fan base? Even after racking up an Oscar nom for her first movie, Siegel-Magness will be on tenterhooks until she finds out the answer to that question on the weekend of June 11. "I'm completely nervous because as a filmmaker, you’re as good as the movie you’re doing at the time," says the producer, who already has her next project teed up -- an out-0f-print book whose title she's not yet ready to reveal. True to form, it's an adaptation as different from Judy Moody in tone and subject matter as this film was from her last. "You can't peg me," she laughs. "You'll never know where I'm going until I get there."