The Mysterious Benedict Society is nothing like what Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi are known for. That’s what makes it so exciting. The duo joined Nerdophiles to discuss working on their Disney Plus series based on the Trenton Lee Stewart book series, and how much it’s challenged and inspired them creatively.
Plus, we shine a light on what it actually means to adapt books into TV shows (one of the most popular trends in television), and discuss what parts of the first season stand out to this crafty duo. Get to know more about them and the show in this interview before streaming The Mysterious Benedict Society now.
Nerdophiles: The Mysterious Benedict Society contrasts a lot of your previous work, including films like Destroyer and the two Ride Along movies, so why were you drawn to the series?
Phil Hay: Over the years, we’ve been really lucky in that our interests have taken us kind of naturally where we want to go at the moment. The last couple of movies we’ve done, The Invitation and Destroyer, have been really very specific and intense films. When the book came around, it just felt like exactly what we were wanting to do at the time. We immediately gravitated toward it. The sense of humor in the book, the wit and the sophistication are something we just really appreciated and enjoyed.
Whenever we’re sent something to think about adapting, it’s really not about genre or have we done it before. Sometimes having done something like it before means we don’t want to do it, we don’t see our way in because we’ve already done it. In this case, it sort of hearkened back to some of the scripts that we’d written long ago and it just felt like a really good connection. We immediately were inspired by the world that Trenton had created, and that’s kind of our bottom line whenever we look at something to adapt, is does it inspire us to really want to create with and alongside that original text. And that’s definitely how we felt.
Matt Manfredi: Phil and I are both parents and having kids, some of the themes of the book really spoke to me. Themes like anxiety, the importance of truth, the idea of valuing different perspectives. Along with, as Phil said, just the beauty and hilarity of the book.
NP: There’s a certain tonal expectation in young adult projects, moreso when the Disney name is attached. How do you write for that family or younger audience, without writing down to them or not doing some of those serious themes justice?
MM: What’s interesting is that, when the show was bought, we were at Hulu. When they moved us to Disney Plus, there was no mandate in terms of changing anything to make it more “Disney.” They really saw what we were doing and were really supportive, creatively, throughout. It became a fantastic home for us.
What the books do so well, what we try to do, is never speak down to the kids. All of the kids’ characters are listened to by the adults, and their perspectives are important and their concerns are important.The kids are going through some incredibly weighty stuff and it’s never dismissed or belittled. It’s always taken very seriously. At the same time, the tone of the book is very light on its feet and funny.
So we try to acknowledge what the kids are going through in small moments and never the way that I think sometimes kids [shows] do. Rather than spell everything out for you it’s little hints here and there, it’s clues, it’s little looks, it’s little things they say in between the lines.
PH: None of us ever approached it as a “kid show” from the beginning, and that includes everybody at the network and the studio, too. We always approached it as a show for families and a show for anybody. We both have kids and knowing those kids, they want to watch things that acknowledge their emotional intelligence—which they’re extremely emotionally intelligent, and extremely clear about what’s going on in the world and about their anxieties. And they want to see those things addressed directly.
With our show, [stars] Tony [Hale] and Kristen [Schaal] are a good example of, their sense of humor really matches up perfectly with ours. Hopefully that humor carries through [to] a lot of the adult viewers as well. So it’s really hoping to be for everybody.
NP: With any adaptation people always talk about how true it is to the books. With Mysterious Benedict Society, where’s the balance for you between honoring Trenton’s source material and also bringing your own ideas and voice to the TV version?
PH: The way we approach it is just identify everything that we absolutely love about it—the core scenes, characters, relationships, exchanges that are the heart of the matter and kind of arrange things around that, because that is the soul of whatever it is.
We knew right away that there was going to have to be some divergence from the book. We wanted to have a parallel journey with the adult characters, because in the book it really does flip to the POV of pretty much just the kids once they get to the Institute. We really felt for the show, we needed and wanted to explore the adult characters and what they were doing at the same time, and kind of tie them all together. That was a more wholesale invention portion, but always within the characters as we perceived them from the book.
You kind of look at it like when you’re a kid and you’ve got your Star Wars toys; you’re trying to make up adventures that fit into the Star Wars you know and love. When you’re adapting a book like this, it’s us making up kind of parallel adventures for these characters, but also there are some things we use really, really directly out of the book. Sometimes just because of the way the story has to develop in this new format, there’s things that have to change. That may be a detail about a character, that may be something very basic and visual.
Fans care about everything, and so you hope to get it as right in feeling as you can. That’s always our watch word—get it right in the feeling. Trenton is wonderfully supportive of the show. He read scripts and he saw cuts and he has always been nothing but very additive and very encouraging about the directions we’re taking. I think he sees it as a really worthwhile adaptation, which is exactly what we’re hoping for.
MM: We’re coming at the books from a place of love. We wouldn’t have taken on the project just for the concept of it; that’s just not how we tend to work. We love the books, and a lot of our conversations are about what is this about, who is this person at heart, so when we have to diverge for whatever reason, we’ll always keep that in mind. If we’re inventing a puzzle or we’re inventing some kind of twist and turn, it’s always through the lens of the themes and spirit of the book.
NP: Did you have particular highlights from The Mysterious Benedict Society? What really popped for you as you were filming or watching?
PH: There’s so many of them. One that pops to mind is the relationship between Number Two and Rhonda, and their friendship as it develops. MaameYaa Boafo and Kristen Schaal, who play them respectively, just have such a very fun and funny and genuine kind of rapport that it makes their scenes so much fun to write and so much fun to watch as well.
We knew we were going to love writing the scenes with the kids and with Mr. Benedict. Tony’s performance is just so fantastic. And I just love watching Tony play that character of Mr. Curtain and the nuance and comedy and relish with which he plays it. I always really gravitate to those scenes as well.
MM: I found a lot of joy in seeing what difficult situations we could put Milligan into—usually the smaller spaces, the more confined spaces, the better. He kind of gets put through the mill in the show, and his reactions are so funny.
PH: Ryan Hurst is really great.
MM: And in general, what I really loved as a writer was just any time we can find a little small moment to understand any character, large or small, a little better. The posters that are in Martina’s room, which is a huge spoiler, but what would her room be like? Those little details are what this show affords and is about in some ways. The little quirks that make people special. That some people might be dismissive of, but it’s actually what makes you powerful.
NP: For people who are loving The Mysterious Benedict Society, what’s the next Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay project they should watch?
PH: If they can find it—it is findable on DVD—a movie that we made called Bug, that Matt wrote and we directed together. An independent movie from 20 years ago has some of hopefully a similar joie de vivre as The Mysterious Benedict Society. If you can track Bug down, and not the one directed by William Friedkin, the one directed by us, that would be the one I would recommend.
NP: What has it been like for you two to see your careers take this amazing trajectory? To go from films that are super-serious or scary to now doing something as fun and light-hearted as this?
PH: It’s really interesting personally. You’re just doing what you’re doing and we’ve been doing it now for a long time. To go from being the new guys to sort of the veterans, it just sort of happens and you’re like wow, I’m proud to be in that category and have been able to make a lot of different things and to keep inventing. Sometimes it’s not the easiest road, but it’s been a very fulfilling road to just try to do something different every time and try to explore different things at different times of life.
For example, making The Invitation and Destroyer with Karyn Kusama, who directed them and who is my wife, the three of us now have a company and we’ve found this collective together to make things. It’s been extremely fulfilling. Karyn did one of our episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society and we’ve found this groove together that’s been really wonderful.
And just the chance to collaborate with so many wonderful people on this show, and to be able to tell something in a longer form is, it’s been a new revitalizing thing to be able to have that process. To be able to work with [executive producers] Darren [Swimmer] and Todd [Slavkin], our partners, and working with the amazing crew and the cast…Each thing is new and this felt very new and felt very invigorating.
BF: Is there anything that you want viewers to know about your work, or about the show, that they don’t yet?
PH: Our goal always is to make something that would reward as much attention as you’re willing to put into it as a viewer. That if you really care and you really love it, and I’m thinking of The Invitation and Destroyer and Mysterious Benedict Society as well, we will have gone through the trouble to think as hard as we can about every detail and offer every bit of subtext and context and interesting illumination of the world and trying to give you small characters in the story who have a whole life behind them. That’s our goal.
Not everyone’s going to watch a show or a movie that way, and they don’t have to, but it’s so gratifying when someone comes up to us about one of the things we’ve done and they’ve gone down a little rabbit hole about a certain character or about a certain story element and have felt like the further they go, it still makes sense and it still has been rigorously thought through. That’s kind of our fondest dream, is to create things like that.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is now streaming on Disney Plus.