What would a Quentin Tarantino movie for kids look like? Probably something close to The Bad Guys, a DreamWorks adaptation of a book series about a gang of criminal animals who, after a lifetime of thefts, are tasked with doing good for the world to avoid prison.
It has a star-studded cast: Sam Rockwell, Marc Maron, Craig Robinson, Awkwafina, Richard Ayoade and Zazie Beetz, among others. But the man behind the series is Australian author Aaron Blabey, who has sold around 30 million books: a dizzying, feeble-minded figure. When he talks to Blabey ahead of The Bad Guys movie release, even he still seems in shock at his own success.
The 48-year-old father of two, born in Bendigo and now living in the Blue Mountains, started as an actor. “I did a large number of acting jobs that all felt like ill-fitting suits,” he says. “I was a substandard actor and I never fit in. I worked on commercials, I taught design. When I was around 32, I wrote my first picture book, which was well received, but I could not live off it.”
Everything turned around when he turned 40: “I moved up to [Blue] mountains and I thought I had one last chance to make it as a writer. In a single day, I got the idea for The Bad Guys and [another of his series] The unicorn Thelma. “
That day became the rest of his life. The Bad Guys were a hit in Australia, then the United States, and “when it first hit the school system, it just exploded.” That series alone has now sold more than 10 million copies worldwide.
“Before I was 40, there was not a whisper or rumor of commercial success,” Blabey says. “My wife and I have had a bendyb feeling of throwing our dreams in the air and watching them fall to the ground.”
Not anymore. As Blabey refuses to take his current success for granted, he is a workaholic and writes two Bad Guys books a year to keep up with the demand from his young readers. Hooked on the cliffhangers of the books, like their parents overlooking a Netflix series, the kids are hungry to find out what happens next: “It’s gigantic work to publish two books a year, but I’m motivated to know, “Children are waiting globally. With that age group, cliffhangers are a bit of a risk. We threw the dice, but it worked.”
The original inspiration for the series came from Blabey’s then six-year-old son, who brought “these unforgivably boring readers home. I wanted to do something he would love. I was just starting to think about the things I loved as a child.” He wondered if he could “hot wire” books that incorporated “iconography, like Tarantino’s films that are not suitable for children but do not castrate it, do so in such a way that you omit the pieces that are for scary or too drunk. ” He has a formula he follows for each book: “On my wall I have written ‘smart / stupid’ and ‘scary / funny’. The space in the middle is where the right balance is. ”
Blabey has never met Tarantino, whose influence casts a noirish shadow (broken through a gentle lens) over the film and the books, but Tarantino is “one of the five people in the world. If I met him, I think I would have a heart attack, “he says. He sounds really amazed when he remembers seeing Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs for the first time in a Melbourne cinema when he was 18.
With his success, Blabey finally gets LA’s red carpet treatment as a writer he could only dream of getting as an actor. “All the studios could just smell the potential – in a single week in 2016, I met with the leaders of all the major studios, and three or four pursued it aggressively,” he says.
For a children’s film, The Bad Guys is pretty sexy and noirish, set in an imaginary LA that evokes LA Confidential, Ocean’s Eleven, and Pulp Fiction; Blabey describes it as “supersaturated sunlight seen from a window in a dining room.” The script was written by Etan Cohen, by Idiocracy and Tropic Thunder fame; “Every time I opened every draft, I thought, ‘he gets this,'” says Blabey, who acted as executive producer on the film, “to keep the spirit of the books safe.”
The spirit of the books – anarchic but warm-hearted – is something that children all over the world associate with, especially those who are not natural readers.
“Voluntary readers are just digging them, and they’ve stuck to it,” Blabey says. “If kids are struggling to read instead of carrying around a picture book, they think it’s cooler to have a copy of The Bad Guys.”
Although he plans to take a break from his hectic schedule in a few years, Blabey is happy where he is now. “I’m in a place of play,” he says. “Thirteen-year-old me would be so happy with what I do!”