Eloise at the Plaza: Q&A with Screenwriter Janet Brownell

Eloise at the Plaza: Q&A with Screenwriter Janet Brownell

Today is the 20th anniversary of The Wonderful World of Disney’s adaptation of Eloise at the Plaza! The original Eloise books were written by Kay Thompson and illustrated by Hilary Knight. There was one early live-action adaptation on CBS in 1956 for their Playhouse 90 series. The Los Angeles Times explained, “Though she even wrote the songs for the production, it was critically lambasted and Thompson vowed never to sell the film rights to her beloved heroine. But after Thompson died in 1998, her estate made the film rights available.” In 2003, ABC debuted both Eloise at the Plaza and Eloise at Christmastime. Sofia Vassilieva was the star, a little princess of the Plaza, and she was the perfect Eloise, in my opinion. I have such fond memories of watching these movies again and again with my sister, and I can’t believe it’s been 20 years!

I am joined by Janet Brownell, the screenwriter who brought Eloise to life for a new generation of mischievous kids. Janet discusses translating Eloise from book to movie, working with Julie Andrews, and being part of another beloved Disney film!

I read in the LA Times that you got to tour the Plaza with an ABC executive. What was that like, to take inspiration directly from this famous hotel?

The tour was great. It helped give me a sense of place. One scene that came directly from that tour was the one in which Eloise/Leon look out over Central Park from high atop the Plaza. I stood in a very similar place when exploring the hotel, and decided to put it in the script.

Did you have a chance to visit the set in Toronto (or perhaps go to the Plaza again when they filmed exterior scenes)?

I was in Toronto for the table read of the script and the first day of filming. But did not go to NYC for any of the exteriors. I was THRILLED when a little toss-away bit in the montage ended up in the film. I had written that [a] caricature artist does a drawing of Eloise. And parenthetically noted it would be great if it were Hilary Knight and the caricature was of Eloise from the book. Kevin Lima, director, got Mr. Knight to do it – AND the caricature was an original he drew for the production.

You mentioned that Kay Thompson’s book was more of a day in the life of Eloise. What was your process for gathering up the important pieces of Eloise’s everyday life and turning those vignettes into a feature-length story?

The book Eloise at the Plaza really has no plot. It has lovely little moments in Eloise’s day. My challenge was [to] come up with a story, while including as many of those iconic moments as possible. A few of Hilary Knight’s illustrations were seeds to creating arching plots: on page 41 of the book, there is mention of “debutantes.” That inspired the Molly debutante story.  From that, I wondered: Could I connect Molly with another character? Philip, Eloise’s tutor (pg. 54), seemed a likely possibility as he attended Andover and would be close to Molly’s age. I also realized Eloise needed a partner in crime (other than Nanny) – hence the creation of Leon (inspired by the “princely” looking guests on p. 45). So from the “moments” came [the] story.

I appreciate the Molly and Philip romantic storyline, along with the parenting pieces between Molly and her mother as well as “Leon” and his father. Was it always the plan to keep Eloise’s mom mysterious, as her face isn’t revealed in either film? Julie Andrews told The New York Times that she thought Nanny had been Eloise’s mother’s nanny, too. I thought that was a great bit of background info for her to think of!

“Parents and their children” was an undertone to the whole script: Molly’s relationship with her mother – Leon’s relationship with his father – all under the shadow of Eloise’s mother’s absence. And very clever of you to notice – it was absolutely a creative/conscious decision to keep Eloise’s mother a mystery.

Eloise wouldn’t be Eloise if she didn’t have some degree of independence, but illustrator Hilary Knight said he and Kay Thompson had thought of Nanny as “a stabilizing force.” What was your reading of Nanny, and how did you balance her role as an authority figure with Eloise’s necessary sense of freedom?

Absolutely Nanny is a stabilizing force in Eloise’s life. She also, however, has a little bit of a naughty streak in her as well.  (Smoking – which is not in the film, watching boxing, allowing Eloise to wreak a little havoc.) Which makes one wonder, is Nanny a stabilizing factor – or is she a bit of an influence on Eloise as well??

I realized that the song, “Oh what a lovely morning,” was musically notated in the book! Did you think early on that Nanny and Eloise should sing it in the film?

I think we were all a bit surprised. Julie Andrews had not sung for a VERY long time, due to throat issues. So what an absolute joy for her to bring it on [again].

#eloise at christmastime from all mirth and no matter

You were a co-producer for Eloise at Christmastime. Were you able to advise the creative team on the story for this film, or the transition from book to movie? I’m glad that many of the same characters were included.

I think my script was finished first – so Elizabeth Chandler (writer of Christmastime) was able to pick up some of the threads from there. She did an amazing job.

I was surprised to see that you scripted an uncredited rewrite on The Santa Clause. I wish you had gotten credit, and I’d love to hear about your work on this film (one of my favorites).

Short version: Steve Rudnick and Leo Benvenuti wrote The Santa Clause on spec and sold it to Disney. They worked on several versions – but it wasn’t going in the direction Disney had hoped. John Pasquin was brought on as director. Tim Allen was already attached. Pasquin read a script of mine and had Disney hire me to do a rewrite. At the time, I thought it would be a two-week job.  I told Steve and Leo I would not arbitrate for credit.

I was on that film for about a year.

When credits were being settled – my agent called and said, “Today is the last day you can file for arbitration. Steve and Leo are in their manager’s office wondering what you’ll do.” I told him that I had said I wouldn’t arbitrate, tell them I won’t. (Also – I thought, “Meh – Christmas movie + Tim Allen – who’s going to see it?”)

Big mistake. One I have never made again.

You worked on a Paris script [for Eloise], too? I was wondering why a third film was never made with this cast in the 2000s.

Insert sad face. Legal issues interfered. 

Twenty years later, do you have any favorite memories or special stories from your time working on Eloise?

At the table read – I was pleasantly STUNNED to learn Julie Andrews swears like a sailor.  It was funny, disarming and so on point for Nanny.

Also, I had a funny moment a few years ago. I was in NYC and was meeting someone at the Plaza for drinks, and learned there is a whole Eloise shop. I went to check it out – and there was a birthday party of little girls watching Eloise at the Plaza in the shop. It was all a little too meta for me.

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