A funny story about reluctant heroes, who, due to some obnoxious magic performed on them, experience hair-raising adventures on a journey around the world.
The seed for Monster Family was planted when Producer and director Holger Tappe (Animals United) approached Emmy Award winning author David Safier, who had made his name writing the scripts for the TV series Berlin, Berlin (becoming a bestselling novelist was only the second stage in his career).
Safier gave Tappe an advance copy of his novel Happy Family to read, and they both quickly realized that the story was an ideal blueprint for an animated movie.
However, Safier writes for a more adult audience (70% are female readers, aged between 14 and 50 years) and they agreed that the story needed to be re imagined so as to be suitable for children.
The novel has erotic scenes, which would have been inappropriate in the film, so they had to take great care not to change the underlying story so much that it would become unrecognisable to fans of the novel.
“Primarily, the film is meant to be fun – if an adult viewer realizes that this is about a dysfunctional family, who need to work through their issues, before reuniting in harmony, then this message is clearly part of the script. But not in a didactic way – on the face of it, it is a funny story about reluctant heroes, who, due to some obnoxious magic performed on them, experience hair-raising adventures on a journey around the world,” says Tappe.
For author David Safier: “This Film Is Like Winning The Lottery”
In the film Monster Family the Wishbones are far from being a happy family. Mum, Emma, owns a book store that’s deeply debt-ridden, Dad, Frank, is seriously over-worked and suffering under his tyrannical boss, daughter, Fay is a self-conscious teenager infatuated with her first high school crush, and genius son Max is being bullied at school. And it doesn’t end there – at a costume party an evil witch Baba Yaga turns them all into monsters! Emma becomes a vampire, Frank turns into Frankenstein’s monster, Fay into a mummy and Max into a werewolf. Together this monster family must chase the witch halfway around the globe to reverse the curse. During this haphazard adventure, the Wishbones get into trouble with some real-life monsters, not least the irresistibly, charming Count Dracula himself, who professes his undying love for Emma.
Well, the road to family happiness is littered with pitfalls and sharp turns, or rather, sharp teeth…
Safier on the Area Of Tension Between Novel And Screenplay
“I always wanted to write novels,” says David Safier, who was born in 1966 and is one of the most successful German-language authors of recent years.
Following his education as a journalist, he gathered editorial experience in radio and television. From 1996 onwards he mainly wrote screenplays for German television. Among many other projects, “Berlin, Berlin”, a popular sitcom he created and for which he was the head author, won the “Grimme” Prize in 2003, followed by the international “Emmy” for Best Comedy in 2004.
His novels, for example Bad Karma, Apocalypse Next Tuesday or Happy Family sold in the millions in Germany, and have also become bestsellers abroad.
“When, aged 17, I came across the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy I knew, ten pages in, “That’s what I want to write one day”. I first became a journalist, later a screenwriter, and fortunately I had some success in these fields. After I won the “Emmy” with the TV series “Berlin, Berlin”, a publisher inquired whether I felt like writing a novel. My response: “Good of you to call – that’s what I’ve been wanting to do since I was 17.”
As a novelist – once my books were adapted for the screen – I returned to screenwriting. For example, following “Happy Family”, there will be a feature film version of “Berlin, Berlin”.
Safier on the requirements of a screenplay differ greatly from that of a novel.
- Firstly, in a novel I can take more liberties, because the page of a book always costs the same. It’s different with a screenplay – a lot depends on whether I describe a scene, where two characters have a cup of coffee, or if I add that just then the world ends and dinosaurs wander into frame. That might add increase the cost of the film just a little…
- Secondly, the freedom in writing novels also consists of the fact, that it’s not a collaborative effort – it’s just between the author and the reader. My imagination connects with that of the reader, and the finished product materializes in his or her head. A lot more people are involved in making a film – the actors, the director, and the financiers. The latter understandably have a say, when they invest millions in such a project. In the case of “Happy Family”, we had such wonderful teamwork, because we realized that we all shared the same vision. But such a way of working could in theory also be quite frustrating.
- Thirdly, the risk in screenwriting stems from the fact that many projects end up gathering dust in a drawer, because the finance cannot be raised. That’s why I prefer to write novels, because they do happen and they do reach their audience! Looking back, I’ve spent about three years of my life writing for projects that never materialized. That’s why I am very cautious about potential screenplays.
Safier on The Fantasical Elements Of Happy Family
I love fantastical stories, but my books always cover themes, that relate directly to my readers and viewers. Conceptually, I therefore usually start with the supernatural element, but then I work on the emotional truth.
With “Happy Family”, it was the other way round – I started off with the issues within the family. I myself am a father of two children – all the conflicts of stress in the family, puberty and so on, were familiar to me from personal experience. But of course I did not want to write a docudrama, so I was pondering what might happen to this family. Such ideas often gestate over months, and eventually I hit on the idea that the Wishbones might be transformed into something else. I had the inspiration that they might mutate into monsters. They are more suitable than super-heroes (which otherwise I really appreciate), because heroes usually succeed at once, but I first wanted to send the Wishbones off to an exciting adventure. Monsters make for a nice mixture – they, too, have super powers, but they are horror creatures, and naturally the Wishbones want to overcome this involuntary condition, and return to normality. But they can’t succeed without emotional advancement, which will stand them in good stead when dealing with their future lives.
As a child, I loved watching all the classic creature features — the “Frankenstein” movies, Bela Lugosi as “Dracula”, “The Mummy” with Boris Karloff. Later I encountered other permutations – I became very fond of Marvel Comic’s “Frankenstein” adaptation, or their “Tomb of Dracula” series, and that way I further internalized these mythical horrors. Only as an adult did I find out who had written the original novels – and they continue to excite me. This love of the original classics is a necessary condition for my novels – without them, I would turn into a cynic.
Safier on Working With The Monster Family Team
When I first met producer and director Holger Tappe, we discussed what the novel “Happy Family” is about — what strains are there on families? How does one manage to lead a happy family life? Holger totally “got” all this. He focused on the same things I did – big adventure, fun, but also the emotional truth … the decisive factors: heart, adventure, truth and humour.
We were in total agreement. But I did not want to write the screenplay on my own, because I did not feel I had the necessary distance. I’ve known the author Catharina Junk for more than 20 years – I asked her to handle the screen adaptation, because I thought it was important to look at the existing story from a different angle. Of course in the novel I focus on certain things which are important to me. But that does not necessarily mean that they really are important. Others might be able to judge that more objectively. As the second author, Catharina delivers a measure of control. I went through the various elements of her screenplay, and one joke in particular made me laugh out loud. I immediately called her and congratulated her on the idea. Her response: “Yup. And it was straight from your novel.” Which just goes to show that I did not fully recall my own book, and might have placed a different significance on these scenes.
Then there came the practical experience with Holger Tappe’s team, which I thought was amazing, and a great gift – the company produces animation of the highest quality. For me as a German author, it is a great honour to be allowed to participate in such a project. That’s because from this production company flows a steady stream of ideas full of unbridled imagination, which on my own I could never come up with: Character design, look, movement. Despite my participation in the script team, I could only marvel and rejoice at all the surprising ideas for the implementation of the story, which the designers and animators contributed. It was like having won the lottery! How much nicer it is, when a wonderful film emerges from all this work, which totally captures the essence of my novel. Another important aspect is the human angle — I am experiencing Holger Tappe as a pleasant and fair partner in this cooperation. One more reason why he is one of the top producers in the industry.
The Process From Page To Screen
German satirist Oliver Kalkofe (and in the German version, the voice of Butler Renfield) states: “What’s so interesting about Monster Family is that on the one hand, the story is easy to identify with. Anyone who grew up in a family, or knows a family, or has one of his or her own, will readily understand what is going on here. A family, which should be happy, creates its own obstacles, and then also has to deal with some external calamities. It is therefore, at least temporarily, not so happy. It then needs to figure out what’s really important, and why, come to think of it, there really never was a reason to be unhappy. Then there is a second layer here, of playing with monsters, which we all recognise from hundreds of films, and which, even though they retain a spooky touch, we can laugh about – children do not need to be afraid of them. I certainly think it’s great, how I can make gentle fun of these creatures, which made me hide behind the sofa when I was a kid, and who at times also show their nice side in this.”
“So we intend to reach children as a target group with this film,” adds Tappe, “but we are also guided by American animation, which traditionally offers great entertainment not just for kids, but also for their parents, who will, for example, recognize, and have fun with visual puns on 100 years of horror film history. It was the same with my previous film, “Animals United”, where we introduced concepts of ecology and environmentalism, without ever distracting from the entertainment value. So, entertainment is paramount for us, but that doesn’t mean that the story of “Happy Family” cannot make you think. We live in a demanding world, in which one’s career, and looking out for oneself, dominates; and when we cannot realize our dreams, we project them onto our children. And if they don’t toe the line in this regard, once puberty happens, entirely foreseeable conflicts ensue, which necessarily leads to explosive fights, because they do not fit in with our expectations of an ideal world.”
About the novel, Tappe says: “David Safier’s book also concentrates on the humorous aspects of the story, and that’s why the film is particularly suitable for family entertainment. No doubt we will not change the world with our film. But if some members of the audience end up leaving the cinema thinking simply that next week-end might be a good time for doing something together, as a family, then that’s already quite something.”
About the evolution of the project, the director has this to say: “David Safier suggested a collaboration with the writer Catharina Junk. Because he saw himself as too close to the story, this teamwork proved to be the ideal approach. Catharina delivered two drafts, which David also contributed to; he also participated in our script meetings and was at all times open to our input of ideas. David invested much more effort and time, than one could normally expect from an author, to decisively drive the project forwards.”
Regarding the characters and plot, Tappe says: “All characters in the film already exist in the novel – except for Dracula’s funny bat companions, the Batties, which we invented for the film. As in the novel, we focus on the lead characters Emma and Dracula, but we left out certain aspects of Emma’s inner turmoil, to allow the other family members room to develop and “breathe”.
While the obvious chemistry between Dracula and Emma remains intact, the only remnant in the film of the erotic subplot is a fiery tango sequence. In any case, there comes a moment while conceptualizing the material, when we filmmakers have to stop relying on dialogue alone, and where instead we delve into action and slapstick inspired by the plot, when we give our animators, and their fertile imaginations, free rein. What they came up with was constantly discussed with David Safier at the project meetings – he remained an integral part of the film team up to the test screenings.
This collaboration worked so well, that Safier is already developing new ideas, and intends to continue working with Holger Tappe and his crew. The first result of these joint efforts can already be viewed at the “Europa Park”, an extremely popular theme park in Rust, in Southern Germany. Since 2016, one can experience a “4D” Short Film there, for which David Safier developed something like a prequel to “Happy Family”.
Because animated movies tend to be more costly than life-action ones, the team planned from the outset to create an English-language version of the film for international distribution. Accordingly it was decided early on to move the Berlin home (per the book) of the Wishbones to New York. Says Holger Tappe: ” It’s funny… we Germans might struggle to identify with a French or a British family, and vice versa. But nobody seems to mind identifying with an American one. So the European trip of the novel became the trans-Atlantic journey of a family of New Yorkers.”
After a test phase in German, the animation was completely switched over to English dialogue, for which renowned British actors like Emily Watson, Jason Isaacs and Nick Frost were hired, who were encouraged to interpret their roles freely in the sound booth – the animation was then fitted to their voices. That means that English became the original language of the film.