Riggs is a huge fan of Burton’s work and couldn’t have been happier to know that his favourite filmmaker was making a movie of his book. Riggs himself is a filmmaker – having attended film school at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles – and once Burton was on board, he knew that his book was in very safe hands.
“As a filmmaker, I understand that when you adapt a book for the screen you need to internalise that story and make it your own,” he says. “To make a great film which stands on its own as a piece of art and not just an uninspired copy, it’s necessary that the filmmaker find and express their own personal vision of the story. And that’s what Tim has done so brilliantly.
“That said, if it had been anyone other than Tim directing and Jane Goldman writing the script, I would have been pretty nervous,” he adds. “But I so trusted Tim’s sensibility that I was able to say, ‘okay, take the keys and bring the car back in one piece when you’re done…’ And that’s more or less what happened.”
Riggs’s compelling story of a group of outcast children with strange abilities was inspired in part by his collection of haunting old photographs, many of which illustrate his Peculiar Children novels. It was those images that immediately caught Burton’s attention when he read the book.
“I grew up loving books like The Chronicles of Narnia – stories about discovering hidden worlds within our own, about discovering that we are more than we realise,” explains Riggs. “I started writing when I was young, and mostly I wrote stories that were trying and failing to be Narnia. I also grew up loving film and photography. About eight years ago I began collecting old snapshots at flea markets and secondhand stores. I was drawn to strange images, just as I’m drawn to strange stories – and, having just graduated from film school, I was looking for ways to combine stories and images. When I hit upon the idea of using these unusual photographs to illustrate a book, I knew immediately what kind of story I wanted to write: a story about a hidden world. And of course the strange-looking kids in the photographs had to live there.”
Riggs is, understandably, impressed with the stellar cast that Burton has assembled for the film, including Eva Green as Miss Peregrine, Asa Butterfield as Jake, Dame Judi Dench as Miss Avocet, and Samuel L. Jackson as the sinister Mr. Barron.
“It was very strange,” he laughs. “I’ve had the experience, on a small scale, of casting actors to play characters I’ve written, but this was such a different calibre. It was, ‘here comes Sam Jackson and Judi Dench and Asa Butterfield…’ these people I knew.
“Eva Green is a great choice as Miss Peregrine,” he notes. “She seems to be channelling Katharine Hepburn at times – if you crossed Katharine Hepburn with a bird! She has an incredible gravitas you wouldn’t necessarily expect from someone as young as she is. It’s perfect for the character.
“I think a lot of people read the book and thought Miss Peregrine was older than she really is. But she’s not. There are photos of her in the book – she’s not old, but she has the authority and maturity of an older person, which is appropriate since she is hundreds of years old.”
Riggs also visited the set to see Burton and his cast at work.
“It was mind blowing to meet him and watch him work, and to watch the amazing people he collaborates with work,” he recalls. “They’re masters of their craft, and many have been working with him for decades. As a film nerd, of course I knew about Colleen Atwood, the Oscar-winning costume designer, and Bruno Delbonnel, the cinematographer, who has shot some of the most beautiful looking movies of the last two decades, and on and on. To watch these people giving their all to bring my little book to life was indescribable. What an honour. And watching them on set that first time, that’s what made it start to seem real.”
Riggs’s visit to the modest set in Florida brought back memories of his own time at film school. “You would shoot in a friend’s parent’s house, and do your best to cram cameras and lights and crew and actors into a little bedroom – except there was this massive team of legendary craftsmen and Hollywood actors and Tim Burton running around with wild hair and dark glasses, Tim Burton-ing,” he laughs. “It was insane.”