Rachel Talalay and Joe Ballarini talk bringing A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting to the small screen

A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting: (L-R) Oona Laurence as Liz Lerue, Tamara Smart as Kelly Ferguson. Cr. Justina Mintz/NETFLIX © 2020
A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting: (L-R) Oona Laurence as Liz Lerue, Tamara Smart as Kelly Ferguson. Cr. Justina Mintz/NETFLIX © 2020 /

Director Rachel Talalay and author Joe Ballarini discuss what it was like bringing A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting to the small screen.

‘Tis the season for monsters and mayhem, and Netflix’s A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting delivers on both fronts. Based on Joe Ballarini’s middle grade novel of the same name, this film makes for the perfect Halloween movie night — particularly if you’re looking for a good mix of spooky and fun.

We spoke with director Rachel Talalay and Joe Ballarini, who wrote the original story and the screenplay for the film, about what it was like bringing this zany world of babysitters and monsters to life. Ballarini, of course, is responsible for the creation of the monster-filled world — and his idea for it stemmed from the babysitter trope often found in classic horror movies.

“I just liked subverting the trope that the babysitter is always kind of the one who is being chased through the hallways,” Ballarini said. “Obviously Halloween is a favorite film of mine, but I love that idea that the babysitter would just one day stop and open up her backpack and inside would be a crazy amount of gear that she could just kick ass with … And then once you sort of get that idea, that kernel, it was, ‘All right, now what kind of monsters or bad guys would she be fighting? And it just sort of really expanded from there.”

When it came to taking Ballarini’s story and turning it into something that could work on the small screen, Talalay called the task “challenging.”

“I mean, the book is so good — the books are so good — and then, we did have to make changes to make it visual and to make it work for what we were doing, including budget,” Talalay explained.

Since the film couldn’t tackle everything the book could, Talalay and Ballarini decided to shift their primary focus to the central component of both stories: the relationship between the main characters, Liz and Kelly. Although the girls begin the book and film in very different places, they come to learn from one another — giving fans a satisfying female friendship in the process.

“The heart of it is that relationship between Liz and Kelly, and that great ability to meet somebody who is so much… you know, when she starts off, [Liz] is so much stronger and a little bit bolder and Kelly needs some of that, but also, Liz needs some of Kelly as well because Kelly is such a smart brain and has such great sort of detective skills,” Ballarini explained. “And Rachel did such a great job of really visualizing Kelly’s intelligence and making sense of her equations. Rachel’s very mathematical and has a great mind like that, so that was super helpful.”

Ballarini also touched on the idea that Liz and Kelly’s friendship helps Kelly overcome her past trauma, since she too was visited by the Boogeyman as a child.

“And there’s a really strong through line too with Kelly [who] was traumatized as a little kid by the Boogeyman, and she’s always maybe been gaslit by other people who are like, ‘Ah, that didn’t happen to you. That’s just a monster attack,'” he explained. “And when she meets Liz, it really validates something that has been denied her her whole life, so it allows her that ability to overcome that trauma.”

The friendship between Liz and Kelly is refreshing given how long competitive, unsupportive relationships between girls were commonplace in movies and television shows. And the fact that Liz’s character is able to be tough and straightforward is also a win in Talalay’s book.

“One of the things I really loved about the script was the fact that Liz was not this… every character wasn’t ‘Whoa, we’re all Disney characters,'” Talalay said. “Liz had problems and was tough and difficult, and I really related to that — the toughness, but also the ‘I’m not going let anybody in,’ and Kelly had to win her over, and then we get to learn why Liz is vulnerable. But there’s a tendency of executives to start out by going, ‘Oh, she’s too mean. We can’t have a character like this.'”

Thankfully, that Liz’s tough demeanor wasn’t an issue for the Netflix movie. And what’s more, the actresses chosen to bring Liz (Oona Laurence) and Kelly (Tamara Smart) to life portrayed them expertly.

The Talent

The talent involved in A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting deserves credit for bringing these characters and their stories to life, and the dynamic between Kelly and Liz works so well because Oona Laurence and Tamara Smart have such great chemistry onscreen. That’s something Talalay highlighted when discussing why she believed they were the right choices for their roles.

“With Oona and Tamara, it was the auditions,” Talalay said. “I mean, they both just nailed their auditions. And then we put them in the room for the chemistry read, and they just were able… you could feel the chemistry, I mean, to be cliché. And they were able to ad lib as I said, which most of the young actors have difficulty doing.”

She also discussed working with Tom Felton, who plays the Boogeyman himself, as well as Indya Moore. Their roles seem to have been conceptualized with them in mind, and Talalay emphasized how important it was to build on their strengths while having them portray their characters.

“And then, with Tom Felton, I have a long history with Tom, having worked with him on The Borrowers when he was eight or nine years old — his first film — and then again on The Flash,” she explained. “We have a real bond from our history together. And just knowing that Tom, feeling like… I think if you play the same role, like Malfoy, for so long, you don’t always get as many opportunities to do a variety of things. Which is the same thing Indya Moore said. They said, ‘Nobody asks me to play the cat lady. They ask me to play the trans person. And I’m so excited to play a character [who’s] not the token trans character.’ And that’s what it was with Indya: You’re a great actor, let’s create a role. Tom, you’re a wonderful actor and you’re highly musical and you love music, so what can we do with that? How do we make that part of all of this?”

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know Felton has multiple musical parts in the midst of his misdeeds, and it’s interesting to hear that those bits of the film were written specifically for him. Moore is also a perfect match for their brief appearance as the Cat Lady, even if the scene quickly shifts its focus to all of the CGI cats running after our babysitters.

Making It And Making It Middle Grade

Apart from the budgetary challenges that came with adapting A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, there was also a delicate balance to strike when it came to making the movie fit into the middle grade category. Although Talalay and Ballarini didn’t want to terrify kids with the film, they also didn’t want it to come off as too silly. Since Talalay has previously worked on R-rated horror movies, as well as a few mysterious series like Riverdale and The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, we asked what that transition was like.

“Well, my real beginning is Nightmare on Elm Street, so I really know how to do R-rated horror,” Talalay explained. “So the challenge… I mean, clearly, the challenge was finding this balance of being a little bit scary, scary enough to challenge the tweens to not turn off [the TV], not to say this is all silly — so, to make sure that you’re scared, but not so scared that you won’t sleep. And there’s no magic bullet there. I invoked Doctor Who a lot because Doctor Who is a Sunday-evening family show in the U.K., and everybody I know is traumatized by one Doctor Who monster or another, so you want that. And then you turn it on its head with all the humor.”

While Talalay had to strike that balance of making it “just scary enough” for kids, Ballarini had to take his own book and rewrite it as a screenplay. He started out as a screenwriter, but there’s a big difference between writing a story as a book and writing it as a screenplay.

“It is tricky because I love so much in the book, but you really do have to separate and say, okay, the book exists,” Ballarini said. “The movie is such a collaborative effort, and it’s such a team effort. And Rachel has such great ideas and such great vision for it. And we’ve got so many awesome people working on it that… kind of trust the process that, okay, the movie is going to be the movie. And it is paring down a lot because if we actually made the book, it would have been a $300 million movie.”

That would have been something to see! But there are more than enough fun visual elements to enjoy in the film regardless, and perhaps we’ll get more if the sequel ever gets adapted…

Could We See a Sequel?

If you’re familiar with Ballarini’s books, you’ll know that there are sequels to A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting, and the Netflix film certainly leaves things open enough that it could see a follow-up. There’s still Liz’s missing brother to contend with, and it doesn’t seem like Kelly’s babysitting days are over, meaning both girls have the potential for continued stories.

Netflix doesn’t have any official plans to pick up a sequel just yet, but Ballarini and Talalay seem game if the streaming platform does decide to expand on this world.

“If you want a sequel, you could read it right now OR tell everyone to watch the movie a thousand times,” Ballarini joked.

“The book is there, the source material is there, Joe is there,” Talalay added.

In the meantime, at least we have one monster movie to watch — and a few books to read for those viewers dying to know more.

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A Babysitter’s Guide to Monster Hunting is currently streaming on Netflix.