THANKS TO HOLLYWOOD, appreciation of Jeff Kinney’s talent has grown well beyond the grade-school set.
It was in 2007 that Kinney — a former cartoonist for the University of Maryland’s Diamondback newspaper — had a breakout year, as his ideas for “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books were finally discovered at New York Comic-Con, soon becoming among the most popular series on the playground. And that same year, Poptropica.com — a virtual world for childrenthat Kinney helped develop — rocketed in popularity, and now reportedly has more than 130-million fans.
Then, three years later, Kinney got to show off his considerable gifts at writing for bigger screens, too. The modestly budgeted “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” debuted at No.-2 at the box office, and went on to gross more than $75-million worldwide. And the next year’s follow-up, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” opened at No.-1 and achieved nearly equal success ($72.4-million).
With most of the same cast back, Kinney (who also serves as executive producer) has reason to be optimistic as his third film in the warm-hearted franchise, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days,” opens Friday.
Kinney — who says he writes/draws about 12 hours a day to keep up with his creative schedule — took time out to answer Comic Riffs’ questions about the new film, which still centers on 14-year-old Greg Heffley and the challenges of hurtling toward adolescence.
MICHAEL CAVNA: So from your perch, Jeff, does each successive film in this franchise get easier or harder to make?
JEFF KINNEY: I don’t think things got easier. In fact, it was a little harder because the schedule was accelerated. But it feels very gratifying to have completed three films.
MC: Because you have such a strong core of young actors (alongside the dependable “parents,” Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris), their performances seem to grow deeper with each film. Can you speak to your sense of this progression?
JK: What’s nice about these films is that after the first one, we didn’t have to do a lot of work to introduce the characters to the audience. And because we used the same core actors for all three films, the actors knew their characters very well and slipped into their roles. Some characters changed a little over time ... most notably Rodrick, who went from a bullying older brother to a much more comedic role.
MC: Related to that, Zachary Gordon [in the title role] is noticeably maturing in the new film. Is that something you have to “write around” — and do you plan to soon shoot a fourth film with him?
JK: It’s something we’re aware of, but we don’t really write around. The ‘Wimpy Kid’ movies are very innocent in a way, and I think audiences will suspend their disbelief as the actors age. At present, we don’t have a fourth film in development, but you never know!
MC: Three films in, what’s most enjoyable and most challenging about making them now?
JK: I think the most challenging aspect is the time it takes to work on the films. I have a lot going on, but when the films are shooting, it can be all-consuming. I don’t have to be on set, but I like to be. It feels strange to have a movie filming that’s based on your books when you’re not there!
MC: How goes the book writing? What can you share about what’s currently on your desktop, literarily speaking?
JK: It’s tough! Right now I have to draw for 12 hours a day just to keep up. I’m working on the second draft of the seventh book at the moment.
MC: Do you have plans or hopes to make any non-”Wimpy Kid” films?
JK: I’d love to continue making films and television shows. I’m hoping we can develop Poptropica.com as a television show one day.
[JEFF KINNEY: Author ‘more relaxed’ about new ‘Wimpy Kid’ sequel]