The Tiger Rising Director on Adapting Kate DiCamillo's Book to Screen

When director and writer Ray Giarratana was initially given a copy of Kate DiCamillo's The Tiger Rising, a children's book, he was initially skeptical about taking on a genre he wasn't familiar with, preferring more comedic works. After a change of heart, he's glad he reconsidered bringing her story to life on the big screen, bringing his invaluable experience from the special effects world and anchored by young stars Christian Convery and Madalen Mills. Both playing Rob Horton Jr and Sistine Bailey, respectively that follows a tale of a young boy who discovers a caged tiger in the woods near his home. I spoke to Giarratana about his initial thoughts, DiCamillo's thoughts on his script, and casting.

The Tiger Rises Director on Adapting Kate DiCamillo's Book to Screen
Madalen Mills and Queen Latifah in The Tiger Rising (2022). Image courtesy of The Avenue

I remember when I read it, it just really connected with me. It just resonated right away. Kate's wonderful language, the way she wrote about this small event in this small little town with this, these two 10 year old kids. I don't know. It just really resonated. I remember by the time I put the book down, I was like, 'OK, I can see this is a film.' I think one of the main reasons is because even though at first, it's on the surface. It's a kid's story. I thought, 'No, it's not really a kid's story. It's really a universal story because we all go through moments of grief, loss, and hurt.' We all struggle with how to deal with those moments. Especially, a 10 year old boy who's lost his mom or a 10 year old girl whose parents are going through divorce. That also applies to Robert Sr. He's lost his wife. You can see in Willie May. She has gone through a lot in her life and I thought what was great is that Kate told this universal story, but through the eyes of this imaginative child. So to me, it just kind of opens it up and it made it something that could be bigger than a 'kid's film,' because I certainly didn't want to make a kid's film. I told everybody that's we're not making a kids' film, we're making something bigger than that.

The Tiger Rises Director on Adapting Kate DiCamillo's Book to Screen
Christian Convery and Madalen Mills in The Tiger Rising (2022). Image courtesy of The Avenue

Giarratana recalled when he gave DiCamillo a draft of his script, "I remember I did one more pass where I added a couple of little moments of lighter fare, little few comedic moments here and there, just to kind of give the viewer a little bit of an emotional break in between some of the heavier scenes. That passes when we sent it to Kate to look at. She immediately said back, 'Wow! Ray captured my voice. It's his option.' I was immediately flattered." During casting, the director said there were around 400 young actors who auditioned to play the leads.

The Tiger Rises Director on Adapting Kate DiCamillo's Book to Screen
Dennis Quaid, Christian Convery, and Madalen Mills in The Tiger Rising (2022). Image courtesy of The Avenue.

I did a Skype with each one of them separately. My goodness! They were both so mature. I gave them a scene. I gave them some direction and it was like talking to adult actors and they were 10 years old for Pete's sake. They found the nuance already in the characters and immediately responded to any little bit of direction I gave them and God, they were just so spectacular to work with. I cannot rave any more about how wonderful the two of them were because I mean, think about it, an entire feature film is resting on the shoulders of two 10 year old kids. Christian's in every scene in the movie and Madalen is in almost every scene and that's a massive risk when you're casting and they just knocked it out of the park every single take.

The Tiger Rises Director on Adapting Kate DiCamillo's Book to Screen
The Avenue

For the primary adult cast, Giarratana leaned on Queen Latifa (Willie May), Dennis Quaid (Beauchamp), Sam Trammel (Rob Horton Sr), and Katherine McPhee (Caroline Horton). "When I wrote the script like ten years ago, Queen was absolutely my first choice, and I just always imagined her in this role," he explained. "When we got the script to her, she came back and said that she connected with Rob (Convery), and she really wanted to do it. She remembers when she was a little girl. She was a bit of an artist as a kid and had some rough times that she was dealing with, so she connected immediately to Rob, and if you see the scenes in the larger room, you can see she's just so there. I was so flattered when she was accepted. It was the same with Dennis. When we got the script to him, he came back all excited to do it. I remember because of the heartfelt kinds of things that he's done in the past for some Disney things and whatever, he's usually this wonderful, really good guy and whatever. Here I'm asking him to play kind of the bad guy in this family film. So that was fun for him. I remember he would walk behind me between scenes, smack me in the arm, and go, 'Oh man, I love this character, man, you know?' So to be able to work with two incredibly talented pros like Queen and Dennis was incredible. Also, I got a rave about Sam and Katharine because they came in and were just all about the material and were just so wonderful to work with. They brought so much to their roles as well." The Avenue's The Tiger Rising comes to theaters on January 21and on-demand and digital on February 8.

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About Tom Chang

I'm a follower of pop culture from gaming, comics, sci-fi, fantasy, film, and TV for over 30 years. I grew up reading magazines like Starlog, Mad, and Fangoria. As a writer for over 10 years, Star Wars was the first sci-fi franchise I fell in love with. I'm a nerd-of-all-trades.
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