Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters Director Thor Freudenthal Balances Humor and Darkness

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Thor Freudenthal on set with Logan Lerman. Photo: 20th Century Fox

I recently had the opportunity to join a discussion with some of my fellow bloggers and Thor Freudenthal, director of Percy Jackson: Sea of MonstersDuring the Q & A about the movie, Freudenthal revealed some of the thinking that went into his direction of the movie, such as taking it in a darker direction than the first. (If you’re not familiar with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, the latest installment in the Percy Jackson franchise, check out my movie review.)

Thor Freudenthal: If you have an ensemble piece like this one, with Tyson’s journey of accepting who he is and coming to terms with it, Percy regaining his confidence as a hero, Annabeth overcoming her prejudice, Clarisse and Percy sort of making up at the end…there are a lot of threads to keep track of. Central to it all, to me, was the story about kids who have all been dealt kind of a rough hand because their parents are gods, and they’re absent gods. It’s up to them to sort of find their own place in the world.

Now as far as the darkness is concerned, I tried to lean a little bit more on the pacing and the sense of humor in the books. There is kind of a light tone from the chapter heading in the books to Percy’s own voice really narrating everything in the kind of funny, sardonic, irreverent way that we wanted to translate here. The challenge is that you’re also dealing with the death of characters, the sort of looming darkness of the villain, and so forth. It’s a tough thing to kind of all bring under one hat, but that was the attempt.

I felt—at least from what I’ve heard in terms of responses—that people felt the humorous tone was more present in this movie than it was in the first one.

Chris Columbus is the director who brought the first Percy Jackson movie to the screen. Seeing Thor Freudenthal’s take on Percy Jackson is reminiscent of when Alfonso Cuarón took over for Chris Columbus in the Harry Potter movies. Good on Chris Columbus for being the first to bring these huge properties to the screen, but it’s nice when a new director can come in and add more depth. Freudenthal talked about the challenges of making the second movie in the franchise, taking into account feedback from the first movie.

TF: [Viewers] were presented with a series of decisions that were already made, from casting to how the story was sort of left at the end of the first movie, so it’s challenging to pick up the pieces and try to do the book justice. But it’s also very liberating because the setup has already been done, meaning Percy has learned who he is. We’re already in that world. It’s established, so now you can sort of dig a little deeper into it, as far as how you create the different aspects of Camp Half-Blood. I wanted to create more of a life in the camp; I wanted to show different sides of it. And I wanted to sort of widen the scope of it.

On set with Alexandra Daddario and Brandon T. Jackson. Photo: 20th Century Fox

Thor Freudenthal is no stranger to bringing book properties to the screen. He was the director of the first Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movie. (I love that movie.) Freudenthal spoke of his different experiences on the two films.

TF: It’s always tough to translate a book to a screen simply because they’re such different formats. A movie is not a book. In the case of Diary of a Wimpy Kid, starting the franchise, we were very, very concerned with casting it correctly. That was the one thing that at some point seemed to be a sheer insurmountable task: Finding a kid that in everyone’s mind matches the stick figure drawing character from the books that sort of embodies the attitude of the character as well as a certain look that you think matches, even though all you have to go by is a circle and two dots.

What maybe both book adaptations have in common is that in a book—and this is specifically in the Wimpy Kid book—you can open the book at any page and read a fun episode or story or a tangent, something awesome or something funny, whereas the movie generally has to be on one particular track. It’s a very singular track. It’s one straight line that moves forward without much deviation. That means you have to find the sort of simple story arc, as we call it, or the goal that the character has or faces, and then group everything else sort of underneath it. Everything that the movie does has to be in service of that story.

In the case of Wimpy Kid, we decided that it should be a friendship story between the wimpy kid, Greg Heffley, and his best friend, Rowley, which is sort of present in the book but really more in the background. In the movie, I wanted to make it sort of the general through-line of the story.

Percy Jackson was even more challenging because the book is a sprawling, multi-hundred page epic. And in a two-hour movie, you can’t really do that. We had to sort of make really tough choices to keep the pace up and create a three act structure. And the result–since the story is about Camp Half-Blood becoming vulnerable and the barrier of Camp Half-Blood being destroyed–that’s where we had to start our movie, rather than start it in school where the second book started and spend a whole lot of time there, which really wouldn’t have amounted to much in the movie. So, it’s fine in the book, but it doesn’t really help the general plotting of the story, which means we have to introduce characters differently and bring them to the table differently.

Speaking of differences between the book and the movie, Freudenthal spoke about the tough choices where the movie is different from the book. [Warning: Spoilers ahead.]

TF: It was partially me reading the books and discovering that there is a sort of bigger mythology under the story, mostly having to do with Thalia’s tree and the back story of Thalia. Thalia sort of becomes the beacon of courage to everyone at camp: What the tree means as a symbol, the barrier, the prophesy—which wasn’t introduced in the first movie— we had to somehow segue it into this movie. That in itself was interesting. [It was] essential to have Percy be confronted with his supposed future and make it sort of add in okay. Of course the character’s journey results in [Percy deciding] himself what his destiny is. So, that was a neat thing thematically and something that was not in the first book that I felt should be included.

Now here’s another interesting thing about making a movie like this. Kronos is such a lingering threat throughout that we talk about him in the prophesy. Luke, the villain, talks about him. When you talk about a thing so much through your first and second act, you have to show it. If you talk forever about Kronos, and there’s no Kronos, it doesn’t really work as a one, two, three act. In a book, it’s fine because you’re closing a book and you’re looking forward to book three, and ultimately Kronos will appear. I think if the movie series continues, the movies can adhere very much to the outcome of the prophesy as it relates to Kronos, Luke, and Percy, and so forth. But for this movie, I felt that it needed a finale that delivered on the promise.

And finally, I loved hearing about the inspired casting of Nathan Fillion as Hermes.

TF: Well, I have to tell you, I will gladly take full credit for this because I was prepping the movie, working with the writer, and I was hanging out with my little brother. We’re both Nathan Fillion fans. I mean, I loved Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. I love Firefly. I was always a huge fan of comedy. And his pacing, his timing, he seems like a great guy. So, we’re watching Firefly, I forget which episode. I was thinking about Hermes, and Hermes is a guy who’s very much a showman, very much sort of in love with himself, but holds that sort of deep regret with how he dealt with his son and what that might mean for the future. So, he’s a regretful dad. And I was, like, “Oh, my God.”  Suddenly it just came to me. What an inspiring kind of lucky thought. What if he’s Hermes?

So, I called up 20th Century Fox. I met him over coffee. He was the nicest guy. When I described it to him he instantly said that he wanted to do it, which was lucky. And so, there he was. And my little brother, being such a fan, he’s, like, “Hey.  I’m coming to visit you in Vancouver when you shoot that scene.” My little brother is actually in the scene with him.  He’s an extra.

Check out Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters now open in theaters, and you can explain to your book-loving tween about how sometimes directors have to make tough choices.

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