EXCLUSIVE: In what becomes one of the hot packages of the American Film Market, Kristen Bell and Jonathan Groff will star in Molly and the Moon, an original musical that How I Met Your Mother creators Carter Bays and Craig Thomas scripted, and they will direct. Harvey Mason Jr (Sing and the Pitch Perfect films) will be the executive music producer, Stephanie Diaz-Matos (The Get Down) will be the music supervisor and Nathan Larson the composer.
CAA Media Finance and UTA Independent Film Group will introduce the package to buyers today and FilmNation is handling international sales.
The script for Molly and the Moon might be a welcome diversion for buyers who like everyone else are feeling that post-election high anxiety today. Like their sitcom, Bays and Thomas’ film creation has comedic elements, but there are real stakes; it is grounded in a personal crisis experienced by Thomas shortly after How I Met Your Mother established itself as a Monday night anchor sitcom for CBS.
“Carter and I were running the show and between Season 2 and Season 3, my wife and I were having our first kid, a boy, Elliot,” Thomas told Deadline. “I was heading into parenthood and I figured everything was going according to the life script I imagined for myself. I’m going to have this healthy, perfect kid and come back and keep running that show. Instead, life served up an enormous curveball to us.
“We discovered after he was born that Elliot had Jacobsen Syndrome, a rare genetic deletion where a piece of one of the 11th chromosomes has broken off, resulting in the loss of certain genes that go into making a healthy, typical baby.
“And what it meant for Elliot is that he had several heart defects and needed open-heart surgery at only two weeks old, and we did not see any of this coming,” Thomas said. “This was after almost a week in the neonatal intensive care unit in Children’s Hospital Los Angeles. And all of a sudden, we are living this completely different story line than we had imagined for ourselves, our son going through open heart surgery at 2 weeks old. He weighed only about three and a half pounds, which also was unforeseen. So what ended up happening was, we were in the hospital for six weeks going through two different journeys. One was hoping that our son survived this heart surgery, which had a significant chance of mortality, and also trying to accept that if he lived through this heart surgery, we were going to have a kid who was different, who might have lifelong health and developmental issues. Those two journeys are so intense for anyone to go through. Meanwhile, there’s this other journey that was going on, and Carter, as my best friend, had front-row seats. What Carter heard me saying a lot was, ‘My god, he’s such a brave little boy.’ Because Elliot, this little tiny baby, was going through this epic life or death battle, lying in this plastic box, this small incubator.”
Bays and Thomas would realize is there was a story they could tell, infused with that experience and their love of music, about a baby struggling to survive to go home with its parents and start life.
“He was having a more mythic, epic journey that I had in my three decades of life, all in his first couple of weeks of life,” Thomas said. “Carter found himself wondering too, what is that little life going through in this plastic box? What is Elliot thinking and feeling as he’s lying there? You hear phrases like, ‘Oh the surgery went well but he’s not out of the woods yet,’ and we would wonder, what are the woods like, and how would you show them? Later, that would inspire elements of Molly and the Moon.”
Said Bays: “There was the moment where we realized that for everything Craig and Rebecca were going through and for everything that everyone who loved them was going through, Elliot was the protagonist of that moment. It was his journey, and it was a case where we had to just give ourselves up to grace and just be at ringside as this person fights for his life. It was inspiring, seeing the power of the will to live. Elliot wanted to be at the party.”
Thomas and his wife were unable to touch the baby for a long time. The trauma was too fresh for them to include in their sitcom, but they knew the ordeal had a universal quality for any parent and there might be a story to tell at the end of the road.
“It was way too real at the time, but we always had this knowledge, that when the dust settled, Craig would need to tell this story,” Bays said. “As a writer, you look for the happy endings in life. There was no happier ending that I can recall from anyone’s life or anyone I know than the day Elliot, Craig, and Rebecca came home from the hospital, and an incredible journey culminated in just putting your baby down in the crib. It was…monumental.”
All the singing – Wesleyan classmates Thomas and Bays have always been musically minded, starting a band in college called The Solids, which wrote and performed many of the songs featured in the sitcom – rubbed off on Elliot, who is now 13. While the teen has some health challenges, he is heavily into music, playing drums and piano.
“I’m flashing back again to when he’s only a few weeks old, and we couldn’t hold our first-born child because he’s hooked up to so many wires and tubes,” Thomas said. “What do you do when you can’t hold your baby? You sing to your baby. Singing was our way of speaking to Elliot. It started with a lullaby and just the sweet songs you sing to babies, but we soon ran out of those, and we just started singing everything from The Beatles to Aimee Mann, us standing next to the incubator as weeks went by. That is the reason we made Molly and the Moon a musical, and to this day, music is such a part of what defines Elliot. It got him to stand up, and he walked and talked because of music.”
How does all that translate into Molly and the Moon, the movie musical?
“My wife made up a little simple lullaby about his name that she would sing to him that just sort of came to her there in the NICU, and that actual melody and lullaby is what we use in the movie,” Thomas said. “The meter of Molly Moon is sort of the same as Elliot. Musicals are always about the first moments that prove why they are musicals. Kate, our lead character, the mother, is singing a lullaby to her pregnant belly and the camera pushes in on her pregnant belly and that is our entrance into a whole other world where we see a mysterious little girl in a rowboat in the middle of the ocean, looking up at the moon and hearing that song, hearing that lullaby come through the moon. It’s the moment you realize there’s this little soul, this life that wants to exist and be in the world and wants to reach the sound of that voice. She doesn’t know what it means or who it is. It just sounds like love, and she wants to reach it, and that’s sort of the moment that we connect the two worlds of our movie, the world of Molly and the real world that her parents are living in.”
Bell plays Kate and Groff plays Brian, Molly’s dad. They are superb singers who worked together in the blockbuster Frozen films, and her recent work includes the series The Good Place, Veronica Mars and many others. Groff’s musical work includes Hamilton, and he starred in the Netflix series Mindhunter and is just wrapping The Matrix 4. The songs they sing together become the North Star for Molly to find her way through a mythical world, toward the moon she instinctively feels is calling her.
Said Bays: “It’s all live action; we really wanted to make it feel like the classic live-action fantasy movies of our childhood, things like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. As we were building off of this metaphor, it became, how do we show this journey? How do we visualize a soul trying to make it into the world? For us, it felt like the journey of climbing a mountain. Molly is this little girl and the moon in the movie represents being alive and participating in the world. It’s her journey, trying to get to the moon. Around that we built this magical fantasy world that we cut back and forth from, that interacts with the real world in surprising ways. We see the fantasy journey and the friends she makes along the way. There’s a knight in shining armor. There’s a talking bunny that she meets in the forest. There’s a monster that she has to face. It’s a real hero’s journey for her.”
Thomas said other inspirations are Where the Wild Things Are and Alice in Wonderland. But the emotion reflects life experience.
“I had to tell this story, to honor my son and because there are just tens of millions of people in this country, and more around the world, whose lives have been touched by something like this,” Thomas said. “So many parents have kids who have to find their way through some sort of difficulty. My favorite quote about parenthood is, to have a child is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body. That is really how it feels.”
They will produce with Jared Ian Goldman and Renee Witt and Jamal Daniel via the Levantine Films banner. Tory Metzger is exec producer.