Conn and Hal Iggulden’s bestselling guide to boyhood seems like an odd candidate for a television adaptation. It is, after all, a non-fiction how-to with no narrative to speak of. And yet, for Bryan Cranston and his Moon Shot Entertainment production company, the philosophy at the heart of the book—that kids should look up from the cell phones and experience the world first-hand—was undeniable. The touching family comedy from Amazon Studios follows Wyatt (Gabriel Bateman) and his brothers as they attempt to process the loss of their father.
Where did your interest in The Dangerous Book for Boys begin?
I think there’s enough cynicism in this world, and I wanted to create a show that—without sounding syrupy—[would] be wholesome. I wanted to bring some hope to the world. Where you see a family struggling, and, yet, their nucleus is strong, and they try to work out their problems. And every show has a dose of uplifting revelations to it, and whimsy, and fantasy. It’s really lovely, and I hope we get a chance to continue, because there are so many stories that we would like to tell.
How did you get from the original non-fiction book to this concept? It seems so detached.
It is detached. It has tentacles of inspiration from the book, but it’s not based on the book. I have a television production deal with Sony, and they said, “We own the rights to this title. Do you want to create a story?” I was wracking my brain. How can I create a story where there are no characters, and there’s no plot, it’s all just a how-to book about embracing boyhood? So I thought about it, and thought about it, and just came up blank. Just couldn’t do it.
I was in Boston at the time, in the run of All the Way before it came to Broadway. Like so many things, if you’re staying hyper-focused on something, there is also a level of resistance that’s present. When you’re trying so hard to get something, and the exuberance and the extra effort, it’s keeping you at bay from getting there, especially in something that’s creative. So, instead, I let it go. I told Sony, “Give it back. We can’t do it. We don’t know.”
And by letting it go, that clenched fist trying to figure something out released. I was running on the Charles River in Boston, not even thinking about it, and all of a sudden, like a lighting strike, it hit me. I literally stopped in my tracks, and I start putting the structure together in my head. I ran home, put it down on paper, then pitched my producing partner. He got it. We pitched Sony. They got it. We called the Iggulden brothers. They got it. We had a show.
What was the pitch?
The Iggulden brothers wrote this because they were lamenting the fact that their boys were so lost in their devices that they were missing life. You cannot experience life with your head down. You have to have your chin up to experience life, and that’s what they wanted, and that’s what The Dangerous Book for Boys is. If our noses are down, there are people we’re missing. There’s all kinds of relativity to it.
So I took a leap, and I said, “First of all, it shouldn’t be in the drama department. Move it over to comedy.” This isn’t really a classic comedy; it’s a family adventure. Sometimes you’ll laugh, sometimes you’ll cry, but you’ll feel. That’s the goal, is to make people feel.
Whether you’re a child, a parent, or a grandparent, I think you’re going to invest in these people, root for them, and feel for them. That’s what’s brought me so much joy in making it. We first took it out to broadcast, and we got into a bidding war when we pitched it, and I pitched it personally. I brought in Greg Mottola, pitched him the idea, and together, he and I shaped the rest of it. We pitched it, and we had them crying and laughing in the room.
You originally sold it to NBC. What happened?
We did finally sell it to NBC and they got to a point where they still enjoyed it, but there was a problem. They were worried that it would be rejected if the father was dead. So we got asked the question, “Does the father have to be dead?”
As soon as they asked the question, I knew that we were not going to be on the air on a broadcast network. I think that was four years ago, three years ago, something like that. I said, “We’re trying to be honest. There’s millions of families that don’t have a father and mother figure in their home, for one reason or other, either through loss or divorce, or whatever. Or you’re raised by your grandparents, or an aunt or an uncle, or something. This is normal; people will relate to this. If it’s not you, it’s someone you know, and this family is not stuck in a maudlin kind of sensibility. They’re just trying to figure it out, as any family would.”
Was this before your relationship with Amazon with Sneaky Pete?
Yes. This was the first show that Moonshot sold. We had a good relationship with them, and then that one part about the father was worrisome for them. Even though we tried to convince them otherwise, it was a hurdle that they just didn’t feel, at the time, they could leap.
I think now would be different. I really do. But we all grow, we all learn. The show is where it’s supposed to be, and we’re excited about Amazon. They’re very happy with it, and we’re doing our best to try and get families to pay attention to it.
How did you handle the father character with Amazon in the end?
The big question going into our six episodes with Amazon was, “How much do we deal with it?” I said, “The entire six episodes.” Otherwise, he didn’t mean that much to us, to have him leave. This has a ripple effect. Sometimes the thought of a lost loved one brings you pure joy. Sometimes it brings tears. Again, that’s honest. But we promise not to sit in any one emotion. We’re not going to wallow in that, we’re going to move it through. Just like normal life, you want to move through an emotion.
What was the thought process in developing Wyatt’s character?
He’s a special young boy, very sensitive and astute, bright, clever, but he’s still a boy, and we don’t want to drag the boy out of him and only use his smart, adult-like sensibilities for this; we want him to be innocent. So you’ll see in some of the episodes that, as bright and as sensitive as he is, he gets things wrong sometimes, as a boy does, and he has things to learn.
We structured it to where, in every episode, there’s a common family problem. And in every episode, there’s a series of fantasies where the solution, or at least the possible solution to that problem could be found. But Wyatt is not always capable of applying what he’s learned to life because he’s young. He doesn’t have life experience. He will, but maybe not right now. They’re still struggling to figure out how to deal with it.
In this marketplace, what do you think makes a show stand out?
I read somewhere that in 2017 there were 480 scripted television series. I mean, that’s insane.So how do we, as producers, break through the noise and get families to know about The Dangerous Book for Boys? It’s hard. Very hard. It just feels so overwhelming sometimes. I suppose, ultimately, you have to come off on the side of gratefulness. You have to hope that the best stuff is going to rise. It’s no different than any other free-market society. Competition is good, in this case. So the abundance of scripted shows is unprecedented.
Will there be some shows that are really good that didn’t make it? Yes. My daughter was in one—Sweet/Vicious—a really good show that just couldn’t break through the noise and find enough of an audience. So, yeah, there will be unfortunate situations like that. But because the demand for that competition is so keen, sophistication of storytelling has risen commensurate with the expectation of the audience. The audience now is far more sophisticated than they were in the past.
When I was raised, we had three networks. They fed you whatever the hell they wanted to feed you, and you’d watch it because there was nothing else. But now, there’s everything else. There’s gaming. There’s the internet. There’s YouTube. There’s so much that it has to be good. It has to be special. The storytelling has to be at that level, or you won’t make it.
There’s an opportunity to hear untold stories, and give different voices a chance now.
Our society, and not just the American society, but internationally, is going through a revolution of sorts. The #MeToo movement has certainly drawn us into this, and I’m overjoyed at what’s happened with that. Every time an aggressive, oppressive person falls, it makes me smile because the weight of these pillars, the weight of misogyny is going to fall. And we have an opportunity then to recreate, from a new foundation, a way to treat everybody with mutual respect. Whether it’s a difference in ethnicities, or sexual orientation, or gender, or transitioning, it doesn’t matter. Stories can come from anywhere, and you still need to have talent to be able to tell a good story. But to bust it open, and take in stories from across the human spectrum is exciting.
And of course, technology means television now has a much wider reach.
There are a lot of stories to be told. To me, it doesn’t matter where, what medium. A lot of people, especially kids, are going to be watching Dangerous Book for Boys on their iPhone, or their iPad. It’s just phenomenal. So we have a lot of opportunities to tell different stories.
The reaction in London to your play Network was phenomenal. Will you bring it to the States?
I want to bring it to Broadway. As you know, there are a lot of details to make sure that happens. I’m encouraged that it’s a very possible endeavor to take place—putting the pieces together, and contractual agreements, and things like that. But I think it’s very possible. I hope so. I really want to do it. I think it is a very prescient play, although he [Paddy Chayefsky] wrote it over 40 years ago. Our playwright, Lee Hall, showed tremendous restraint in not trying to rewrite Paddy Chayefsky, but simply putting it up, then extracting certain things—and there’s always room for improvement, I feel. So we’re having a huge post-mortem meeting on it in London in a couple weeks, and we’ll pull it apart, and put it back together, and see if we are able to continue on in Broadway or the West End. Then we’re certainly going to expand upon that. But just like a plant, it’s a living thing, and we always have room to do better. I really believe that.
People asked me, when I did All The Way on Broadway, and then also as a movie on HBO, they said, “What did you think was more effective, the movie or the stage play?” I go, “I don’t know. I never saw the play.” And that’s the one thing that I can say about doing a play; there’s a little sliver of resentment that, “Oh God, even though I experienced it, I haven’t seen it. So I don’t know.” To me, I think Network—this is a pretty bold statement, but my wife said it to me, and I’ve been thinking about it—it might be more effective as a stage play than as a movie.