Francesca Lia Block says Weetzie Bat is not a manic pixie dream girl: "I don’t love what I’ve seen of that"

Salon sits down with the author to discuss her iconic alter-ego’s long-awaited movie, which is now moving forward

Published April 3, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Francesca Lia Block   (HarperCollins/Maria Andreotti)
Francesca Lia Block (HarperCollins/Maria Andreotti)

When I was 14, I encountered a fictional character that changed my life. She was a magical 16-year-old who named her clothes, worshiped rock music, and loved the world so openly that when the darkness came, it consumed her. Her name was Weetzie Bat and I became obsessed with her. “Weetzie Bat,” originally published in 1989 by seminal young-adult author Francesca Lia Block, is the first book of what later became the widely beloved “Dangerous Angels” series.

The story of Weetzie Bat is nothing short of a punk rock fairy tale. The “Dangerous Angels” series chronicles the adventures of a charmingly naive teenage girl in 1980s Los Angeles vividly re-imagined by Block. Over the years, members of Block’s passionate and multi-generational fanbase have come to idolize the author and essentially recast her as the fairy godmother to contemporary YA. Block is also particularly adored by readers because of her dedication to mentoring other writers, many of whom originally came to her as fans. The busy mother of two and author of 37 novels holds regular writing workshops in her Culver City home.

The “Weetzie Bat” books have been translated into seven languages and anthologized in numerous collections. Rumors of a “Weetzie Bat” film adaptation have been teasing heart-strings for years, and finally Francesca Lia Block confirms that the movie is indeed happening, with director Elgin James at the helm. While there is no official word yet on when shooting will begin or which actress is set to play Weetzie herself, Salon sat down with Block to discuss the process of developing the movie and what is has been like to watch the “Weetzie Bat” legacy continue to flourish.

Hi, Francesca. Here we are, 25 years after “Weetzie Bat” first came out, which is interestingly about how old you were when the book was first published. You were studying English literature at Berkeley as a college student at the time. How does it feel now to look back on the lasting impact of “Weetzie Bat” so many years later?

It blows my mind because that was a book that I wrote very much for myself and my friends. Even though I intended to eventually be a published author, I never really thought that was the way it would happen. I had other projects that I was thinking might lead in that direction, but this book, not so much. This is the book that has continued to gain an audience and continued to be optioned for films and translated into different languages. There are articles about her style. It’s so cool! But it really is surprising to me because it was such an intimate little project. I think what that teaches me and what I tell my students is the thing that you are obsessed with, the thing that you love and don’t think other people will care about -- the more you immerse yourself in it and indulge in it in a true and organic way with integrity -- it’s probably the thing that will take you the farthest.

Do you feel that your own life parallels with Weetzie’s? I’m thinking specifically about the 2006 sequel to "Weetzie Bat," “Necklace of Kisses,” where we see her turning 40. To what degree are you this character?

She is definitely my alter-ego and I sort of created her with that in mind. When I revisited her in her 40s, I was in my 40s at the time, and I wanted to look at how it feels to find magic again when you’re older, because it seemed easier when I was young. I lost a bit of it, but then I found it again. That ran parallel to my life. Now it’s interesting because being in my 50s, it’s different. I often think, “How would this be for Weetzie?” It’s different with each decade. The books are not necessarily autobiographical, but  it’s definitely an alternative universe or alter-ego.

I figured that must be the case. You seem to use the Weetzie character as a way to explore different eras. We see Weetzie as preteen in the 1970s in last year’s prequel, “Pink Smog,” and then of course as a teenager in the '80s in the original book. When she turns 40, it’s the early 2000s circa 9/11. I’m wondering how you’re able to put her through these vastly different environments and have her transform so much yet always feel so consistently grounded in that original image of her at 16 in the taffeta prom dress and steel-toed boots.

That’s such a great question. If I were to think of one era that’s the most Weetzie, it’s the '80s. Weetzie in her late teens and early 20s is in the '80s and that’s what defines her the most and when she first came to me. Then when I wrote “Necklace of Kisses,” which came next, obviously I had to write about her in the correct time frame, which would have been the 2000s. She put on the guise of the time period and became interested in the fashion and this and that, but in the end she’s sort of stripped of all that and she’s sort of back to her '80s, punk, D.I.Y. self. I think that is her true self but expressed through the eras that she’s living in. Obviously, in the '70s, I had to go back to that time to write about her at 13. I thought of my existence at that time, but even then Weetzie still hadn’t come into her own. I feel that even now for me -- and this is where the alter-ego parallel-universe thing comes in -- if I were to create an image of myself that encapsulated my own life, probably the '80s L.A. punk scene would express it more than the early 2000s or the '70s.

It feels like Weetzie’s heart is very much in the late '80s and '90s, what with references to music like X and Iggy Pop — and then of course her eclectic sense of fashion seems to draw from both.

I think that music and fashion, especially punk, help define that for me.

“Weetzie Bat” seems to be back in the literary conversation these days. A few examples of this would be Tavi Gevinson and the staff at Rookie, an online magazine run by teenage girls, champion the books and even created a playlist of music called “Hanging Out with Weetzie Bat.” Just last month, Lena Dunham’s character on “Girls” mentioned “Weetzie Bat” in a scene at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. How does it feel to have Weetzie and the book in which you created her still, 26 years later, remain a point of reference when it comes to developing characters and establishing tone?

It’s an honor and I get that feeling of surprise that even still this little story has really touched people. It also makes me stop and go, “Okay. So why isn’t there a movie already?”

I wanted to mention the huge Tumblr culture surrounding Weetzie Bat and the way that this character has lived on in fan-art, especially on the Internet. I was wondering if seeing her and your story rendered in so much visual art has in turn inspired you to make Weetzie Bat into a film? I know you have a background in visual art.

Yes, and I love that! I love when people respond with images. I've wanted to do the film since 1986, before the book even came out. It took a few years for the book to actually be published, but during that time I was already working on it. I think it does lend itself to the visual. Visual art is a huge influence and I am continually inspired. I did set up a Pinterest board for Weetzie Bat where people could pin images and I then sent that to the director I’m working with, Elgin James, who used that as inspiration as he put together a look-book for the film. He is really open to fan interpretations of her and I certainly am to. What I find great is that it’s so consistent. That’s what’s so powerful about it as a brand, which I love. I can open it up to my audience and the images that they come up with are all really compatible and yet there’s a lot of new ideas coming in. It’s a really wonderful thing that’s happened. And of course, this is my core audience.

How cool that your fans can play a role in that!

When I open my home to writing students, I become friends with them and I love them. It’s very much of a community and an interactive sort of thing. I’m hoping to create this sort of collective around a certain set of beliefs and perhaps an aesthetic as well.

I think in a way you already have, and it will be so fascinating to see how it plays out in a film adaptation. What can you tell us about the film at this point? I know it’s been a long process, but I understand you’re very happy with the director you’re planning to work with.

I love this director! His name is Elgin James. The way I found him was I was trying to envision a version of the film that was very low-budget and very easy for me to perhaps make on my own and that would also stay true to the original book. Instead of a big overblown Hollywood movie, I wanted it to be a small, intimate, character-driven, punk rock fairy tale. So I was talking to a friend of mine about it and when we were researching directors, we both came across this film called “Little Birds” by Elgin James. We were like, “This feels like what we’re going for.” It’s darker for sure than "Weetzie Bat," but Weetzie is dark in its way. It’s edgier. When I looked up the director, I learned his fascinating story. He was a musician in the punk music scene and he and his wife were in a band together. She had an all-girl punk band in Boston in the '90s. But he actually got into some gang violence where his gang was beating up these Nazi skinheads. Then he realized what he was doing. He got married and his wife said no more, so he stopped that and went through a whole transformation. He moved to L.A. and got into Sundance with his movie, and then just as they were about to shoot the movie, he got arrested for some extortion he’d been involved with years before that had to do with the skinhead guy who said they would beat him up if he didn’t give money to an animal charity! So he went to jail for a year, got out of jail, and then started making his movie. I saw the movie and tweeted at him, “I love your movie.” He tweets back, “Your books are sitting here on my shelf. I love your books.” It was crazy! We meet for lunch and immediately I’m like, oh. He’s my brother from another mother. He’s this tattooed, intense, punk guy, but the sweetest, kindest and most compassionate and fascinating man. It felt like he and his wife just stepped out of the pages of my books. There’s a picture of them on my Instagram where they even look like Weetzie and My Secret Agent Lover Man.

I love that you are taking the film in this direction because it almost feels like it could be one of Secret Agent Lover Man’s super-8 films that he and Weetzie make together in the book.

Exactly! The character of My Secret Agent Lover Man has always been kind of a shadow for me. Whenever I would draw him, he was like a silhouette. I’ve never met anyone who was him, whereas the other characters were based on people in my life or I met people later on who were like them. But I never found anyone like him until I met Elgin. It was almost eerie. And then you see his wife, who is this beautiful blonde pixie who played the bass! So I knew he was the one to do it.

That’s a good segue actually, because I’m sure you’re aware of this trope in film called the “manic pixie dream girl.” This was more or less defined by a film critic in the early 2000s as a bubbly and eccentric female who teaches a brooding male to appreciate the playful things in life. In my opinion, that is so “Weetzie Bat,” especially when the character of My Secret Agent Lover Man enters the picture. How do you feel about the reappropriation of this archetype? Where do you see Weetzie Bat fitting into this and how how will the film keep her feeling as original as she is without falling into this kind of trap of feeling like what’s become a stock character?

When I first heard the term “manic pixie dream girl,” I thought that, on the outside, it sounds just like Weetzie. But I don’t love what I’ve seen of that, because the manic pixie dream girl serves the hero. She’s not the heroine in her own right. I feel that the difference will be point of view. This will be from within the girl instead of objectifying her from the outside. I think in the film and maybe for the first time, I mean “Amelie” is a little like that, but I also feel like she’s a little on the surface of her feelings, and I like that movie. But Elgin is all about the deep, emotional content. He understands women. What I loved about his film is that there is no objectification of the female characters in any way. He has such an appreciation for powerful women. I think that is what’s going to be different. I think we’re going to see her charming My Secret Agent Lover Man and everyone around her, but we are also going to see why she feels a need to be this sparkling, magical creature. It’s a way for her to deal with the pain and the loss of her father and the alcoholism of her mother. The drug addiction of her father. The loneliness she’s feeling. The broken family and then the need to create a family. She sees the world in this beautiful way which is both her gift and, as I talk about in my writing classes, it is also the extreme negative of that. Her flaw. She sees the beauty but she doesn’t recognize the shadow. In the course of this movie, she’s going to recognize the shadow and embrace it. She will be a complete character in the end. I think sometimes with that stock character, you don’t see the girl change because she’s not the protagonist. You only see the hero change.

Perhaps your vision of Weetzie for the film will work to reclaim that trope. I’m interested in how you plan to treat time in the film? You’ve given your readers such a thorough insight into Weetzie’s life, what with the prequel and the sequel. There’s so much to her story. Which incarnation of Weetzie can we expect to see in the film?

It’s definitely just what’s in “Weetzie Bat.” It’s from the end of high school to her early twenties. Hopefully the entire first book, but nothing beyond that. I will say that I think because I’ve lived with her for so long and written about her often that there will be elements of character development embedded in that story. I played with time a little bit so we could condense more into the film. There will be a few flashbacks, but the focus is present day. Even knowing what’s going to happen to her in the future informs the way I look at the story now and hopefully the way the film will look.

Magical realism functions in so many ways in your work, either as overtly mythological characters in “Weetzie Bat,” and especially “Necklace of Kisses,” but specifically in the way that you create these surreal atmospheres that feel like characters. Los Angeles is very much a character in “Weetzie Bat.” How do you plan to bring this aspect out in the film? Should we expect a fairy tale veneer?

Based on how Elgin James works, I see this film as being very grounded in reality. But we talked about how we can express magic through the colors, the sounds, the light, the costumes — that was our original intention. As we started to talk more about it, we wanted to try to incorporate more and more magic that could be interpreted as reality, in that it’s through Weetzie’s view of the world. When she reaches her crisis at the end of the story, we see all the color drain away and the world as it really is. I think that it will be subtle but it will be perhaps more beautiful and magical because of that.

That feels so true to everything that “Weetzie Bat” is. The foundation of the story is heartbreakingly real. The magic is in the way that Weetzie sees it.

I can see a Disney version like Aladdin's lamp and that is not the soul of this. Part of what makes something magical is the dark and light together. I was having trouble when I was trying to find a reference. How do you find a film that shows both things? There are very few films where you see both the optimistic, happy parts of the world and the dark parts of the world with equal attention. My favorite movie, which I think does it so brilliantly and very few people have seen, is Fellini’s “Juliet of the Spirits,” which is exactly the way I envision “Weetzie Bat.” Elgin came back after watching it and said, “Exactly.”

By Bryn Lovitt

MORE FROM Bryn Lovitt

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Books Dangerous Angels Film Francesca Lia Block Manic Pixie Dream Girl Movies Weetzie Bat