'Bartholomew Biddle': A Writer's 15-Year Adventure

Dec 2, 2012
Originally published on December 2, 2012 5:06 pm

Gary Ross has penned and directed some big Hollywood hits like Big, Pleasantville and The Hunger Games. But for the past 15 years, his obsession has been something much more personal: a Dr. Seuss-ian children's book called Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind.

It started when Ross got a call in 1996 from fellow screenwriter David Koepp. Koepp was up against a tight budget and approaching deadline with his debut directorial effort, The Trigger Effect. Its heroine had to read an as-yet-unwritten bedtime story to her child.

Koepp wanted Ross to write that story. "The only thing is, I don't have any money," he told Ross. "So it has to be for free, and I've got to shoot the day after tomorrow."

"It was just such a fabulous offer," Ross tells NPR's Guy Raz.

Yet the first few lines of that bedtime story consumed Ross. Over the course of the next 15 years, he added to it and refined it. Now illustrated, it's become the epic tale of a 10-year-old boy with a taste for adventure.

In the book, Bartholomew Biddle opens his bedroom window one day. He spreads out his bedsheet, catches a mighty wind and takes to the air. "Bart basically invents the hang glider on his own," Ross says. "He sails to three different adventures. It's a little Gulliver-ish in that way."

In the process, Biddle discovers a lot about himself and takes the first few tentative steps toward adulthood. It's a theme Ross touches on in his many of his films.

"It isn't just growing up," Ross says, "but breaking free enough to be who you are and to sort of find and celebrate the essence of yourself."

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Gary Ross has led a life in Hollywood that many people would dream about. He wrote huge films like "Big" and "Dave." He directed "Seabiscuit" and "The Hunger Games." But Gary Ross' dream has been to finish writing a children's book that he started in 1996. And back then, he didn't even realize he had started to write it. Now, to explain the story, I'm going to bring in Gary Ross. He's in our studios in Southern California. Welcome.

GARY ROSS: Thank you. It's great to be here.

RAZ: The book is called "Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind." I have it in front of me. It's beautifully illustrated. How did this book come about?

ROSS: Well, it's kind of funny. A good friend of mine David Koepp, who's a very well-known screenwriter and director, was directing his first film and called me and said: I'm in a little bit of a pickle. I have to shoot Elisabeth Shue reading a bedtime story to her kid. And...

RAZ: This is a - this the "The Trigger Effect," the movie that's - yeah.

ROSS: "The Trigger Effect," right. And, you know, like a lot of first movies, he didn't have a tremendous amount of money. And apparently, he was out of time. And he said: Well, the only thing is I don't have any money, so it has to be for free. And I've got to shoot the day after tomorrow, so I have to have it by tomorrow. And I thought, well...

RAZ: By tomorrow.

ROSS: Yeah. And it was just such a fabulous offer.


ROSS: But he is a very good friend of mine, and I said: Sure. I'd be happy to. And I said: Do you mind if it rhymes, because I had always liked to rhyme ever since I've been little. And David said: Sure, that's fine. And I wrote, I don't know, like four or five couplets for him. I mean, very little, like a page.

RAZ: And he gave you the title, right? He said it should be about a boy named...

ROSS: Yeah. It was David - yeah, yeah, yeah. He said" I don't know what it is. I'm thinking "Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind" and maybe the kid, like, flies on the wind somehow. Yeah, the title is David's and, in some ways, the premise is his as well. So I wrote the beginning for him, and he put it in the movie.

RAZ: And here is how it came out in the movie with Elisabeth Shue reading this to her son in the film "The Trigger Effect."


RAZ: Those first few lines are now a - I'm looking at it - a 80-some page book that you have just published. How did those 15 or so lines become this amazing children's book that I am now holding?

ROSS: Yeah. Well, I wrote the thing, and then the movie came out. And then in the ensuing years, people would write in and say how can I get this, or they would post on the Internet saying: Can we buy "Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind"? I can't find it anywhere. Who published it? And, of course, it didn't exist, so it was hard to do.

And then I thought: Well, maybe I ought to tinker with this a little bit. And there's this great J.D. Salinger line where he says, you know, writing is easy. You just take the book you want to read more than anything in the world and you write it for yourself, you know? So I sort of just wanted to see this story.

And just in my spare time, you know, when we'd be on vacation or I'd have a few days off, I'd write a little bit more and a little bit more on airplane rides and things like that. And I probably wrote about a quarter of the book that way.

RAZ: So for 15 years, you took this character, this main character, Bartholomew. He's a 10-year-old with a taste for adventure, really.

ROSS: Yes. Yeah.

RAZ: He basically - he takes a bed sheet, puts it in - out of his window. It catches the wind, and then he sails to all sorts of places.

ROSS: Yes. Bart basically invents the hang glider on his own. I mean, he takes this bed sheet and he catches the wind and he sails to three different adventures. It's a little Gulliver-ish in that way, you know?

RAZ: And being a 10-year-old boy, of course, he ends up encountering pirates, as 10-year-olds do.

ROSS: Yeah. Well, I think there's nothing one would rather - they're very nice pirates, but I think there's nothing one would rather encounter than pirates when you're 10.


ROSS: So it was fun. You know, I got to live completely in the head of a 10-year-old and, you know, carry him where I wanted to. So, yeah, he finds an island of pirates that are - they're very nice, but they have so much fun that sort of the fun has gone out of the fun, in a way. Bart comes to kind of realize that, you know, if your world is just limitless joy that you have nothing to compare it to, it might not be so fun after all.

RAZ: And, by the way, when he leaves the pirates, let's just say, they throw him a huge party. You write - this is from the book: They threw him a banquet to say their good-byes with passion fruit cupcakes and fresh mango pies. They gorged on bananas with sugary frosting. They spared no expense, no matter the costing. Sounds like a great group of pirates.

ROSS: Yeah. They're a lot of fun. Yeah.


ROSS: I did make up the word costing, but, you know, it's very hard to rhyme with frosting. So I took a little liberty with the English language there.

RAZ: In this whole adventure of writing a children's book, I mean, you basically have written these very well-known films like "Big" and "Dave," and then you just directed "The Hunger Games," one of the biggest movies of the year. Is this something that you kind of think of as a break from all of that, or is it also kind of part of what - how you see what you do?

ROSS: Yeah. I think it's a little bit of both. I mean, the wonderful thing about writing a book is that you're getting a finished product at the end of the day. You're communicating directly with the reader. There's something so wonderful about writing in rhyme where it isn't just the meaning of the words, it's the music to the words and the shape and the sound.

And you know, when you make a movie, there's so many little pieces that end up contributing to the ultimate whole. And when you write something like this, you know, if you write a great stanza, it just stands alone. There's nothing I'd rather do than sort of, you know, sit at my computer and rhyme. So it was great that I got a chance to do it.

RAZ: How did you figure out some of these rhymes?

ROSS: Well, you know, it's very funny. I mean, in the beginning, I had this very purest ethic about it. I thought, you know, I will never use a rhyming dictionary. Absolutely not. If the word doesn't occur to me organically, then it's just cheating, and I refuse to do that. And, you know, by the end, I mean, the rhyming dictionary is on my bookmarks bar.


ROSS: Yeah. Especially if, you know, it's kind of heading into the homestretch trying to finish the narrative.

RAZ: You have said that you were kind of drawn to this idea of growing up. And actually, a lot of your work deals with that. I mean, "Big," "Pleasantville," "The Hunger Games." And that - it seems like you're sort of drawn to that.

ROSS: Hmm. I think so. I mean, I think that it isn't just growing up but breaking free and being free enough to be who you are and to sort of find and celebrate the essence of yourself and what that means in terms of growth and maturity. Yeah, I think so. I mean, you know, yeah, I suppose.

I mean, in "Big" and "Pleasantville," it's a journey that the characters go on where I think they come to kind of meet themselves at the end and who they actually are and give full voice to who they actually are. And that, you know, obviously fascinates me for some reason. Maybe I didn't adequately grow up. I don't know.

RAZ: It's hard not to read this book, "Bartholomew Biddle," Gary, also knowing that you wrote it and not think about it cinematically.


RAZ: I mean, I'm sure people have come to you and said: Hey, what do think? Let's think about turning this into a movie.

ROSS: Yeah. They have. I mean, I've been approached. You know, it's - was such a sort of written experience for me, you know, there was a kind of purity in doing something like this where I was talking directly to the reader. And to me, it was wonderful to just do a whole book. And it's hard for me to think about an adaptation at this point, which is something, you know, that I kind of do in my day job. I haven't really let myself think about it. I mean, it did take 10 years. I think I just sort of want to experience the finish line for a moment, you know?

RAZ: That's Gary Ross. He's a screenwriter and director of films such as "The Hunger Games" and "Pleasantville." His latest project is a children's book. It's called "Bartholomew Biddle and the Very Big Wind." Gary Ross, thanks.

ROSS: Oh, it was a pleasure. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.