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Milan Trenc, a filmmaker and illustrator in Zagreb, Croatia,
wrote and illustrated The Night at the Museum in 1993.
Little did he imagine it would be made into a feature-length
Hollywood film in 2006, starring Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Dick
Van Dyke and Mickey Rooney. Was it a dream come true? While in the
midst of working on a children's novel called Psychic Kid
Detectives, and finishing two animated shorts, Elephant
Goes to Kindergarten and Loneliness, Trenc paused
long enough to discuss how a few of his pictures ended up on the
Heller: Your book The Night at the Museum
(published in 1993) is the basis for the movie Night at the
Museum starring Ben Stiller, which has done very nicely at the
box office. How did your illustrated tale come about in the first
Trenc: I was visiting the museum one afternoon,
and when I came home, ideas just started coming. I thought, the
exhibits look alive, so who says they are not? I have this
“parallel worlds” thing that appears in all of my work. Usually it
is about reality being an illusion; here, it is about the illusion
being a reality. I started sketching and then just added a bit of a
The museum guards are a fascination to me, uniformed and all,
and yet still so harmless and a bit goofy. And there is this
concept of night guards doing nothing. I thought it would be fun to
toy with the idea of a guard working his ass off and nobody
appreciating it. And there is the titillation: what's going on
behind the closed doors of the museum, all those skeletons and
beasts inside? You must think there is a secret behind
Heller: How did producer Chris Columbus find this book,
and what was the process of making your story into a
Trenc: At the time, I organized readings and
window displays in Barnes & Noble bookstores in New York. One
of them was on Broadway on the Upper West Side, and if I'm not
mistaken, that's where Chris Columbus was living. He bought the
book and read it to his children, and thought, “Hey, this could
make a good movie!”
Heller: Your book is wonderful for children. As you were
drawing the pictures, did you ever think that it might also work in
a live-action format?
Trenc: I was educated as a film director and
made comics, movies and illustrations. I did comic strips for
Heavy Metal; the next year an animated film, The Big
Time, shown at the London Film Festival; then illustrations
for the New York Times Book Review, covers for
Time, Business Week and The Nation. I
directed a feature film, Zen Stories. I tried all media.
The Night at the Museum was the first children's book I
ever wrote or illustrated.
That said, it still never occurred to me that it could be a
film! When I heard 20th Century Fox was interested in the rights, I
was at a loss. How in the world do they think they can make a
feature movie out of this? And I was skeptical all the way to the
end. It was a very difficult task, and I am very pleased with what
an excellent, entertaining movie it turned out to be. It was a
magic moment that all these talented people came together: the
screenwriters, Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon; Shawn Levy, the
director; the great production designer Claude Paré; and Ben
Stiller, who gave a great performance and life to the main
People often ask me, “So, what are you, really?” I think of
myself as a story maker. Whatever I do has scenes, characters. I
think that's why this book was suitable.
Heller: The American Museum of Natural History is a
wondrous place. I remember those dioramas so well from my
childhood. As a native of Yugoslavia, did you have anything like it
back when you were a child?
Trenc: We do have a museum of natural history
in Zagreb, and I did go there when I was a kid. But it's an
old-fashioned, European-style museum and not even remotely as huge
as the one in New York. It has lots of bones and some dusty,
stuffed animals. As a kid I was most fascinated with the whale that
used to be there. It was 20 feet long, at most.
Heller: How faithful is the movie to your original
Trenc: They turned a few pages of text into a
full screenplay but still managed to remain faithful to the spirit
of the book. Maybe it's just my fancy, but I feel that the things
that were so basic in my book were enhanced but still remained
true: the goofiness and good-natured eagerness of Larry (the night
guard, played by Ben Stiller), his working without being
appreciated, other guards ganging up on him and the whole concept
of this enclosed world. I also like that the movie has good cheer
and that it is very non-aggressive, very benevolent. There is no
real evil or violence. It's a cushy (if unreal) world, like
classics of the '50s and '60s. It is heartwarming that such a movie
can be successful with such a big audience. Without sex and
violence, just on imagination and laughs? That's the movie I would
have tried to make—and probably wouldn't be as successful.
Heller: Did you feel that the style or look of your work
was compromised in any way?
Trenc: Just look at the movie poster. It is so
much more elaborate, so much more sophisticated than the cover of
my book. And still, the arch is in the same place, as is the
dinosaur's head, too. The lion is peeking out the same, and Stiller
is there in the middle with a flashlight. Even the curve of the
octopus' tentacle is there, only they replaced it with a skeletal
Heller: Well, it's yours then...
Trenc: I am flattered they used my composition
as I had spent many days rearranging the cover until it was just
right. It's easy to look at the book and say, “Ah, it's not
artistic, it's just a few doodles,” if you are not aware how much
work of compositing, lighting and stuff went into this “done in
five minutes” style. When the book came out, it was never reviewed.
I had never drawn anything else in this style. It was created for
this book; it was a concept. And it worked insofar as kids love the
book. But it doesn't have that highbrow beauty that is expected of
an artistic picture book. One doesn't expect there would be
something conceptual behind such a silly book. Something in its
simplicity insults people that write reviews, I guess. The only
review I ever got was something like: “This confused and contrived
story is accompanied with suitable illustrations.” It was on Amazon
for years. When did you ever hear that a picture book would get
such a vitriolic bad review?
Heller: How much direct involvement did you have with
the making of the film?
Trenc: I tried to write some kind of a
treatment for it at the very beginning, but the studio was
skeptical of my skills as a screenwriter. I guess being Croatian
(as in “not-a-native-English-speaker”)... and on top of it, they
don't like writers to get involved. I think they were afraid I'd be
too protective of the material. I'm sure I would have had a hard
time moving away from my material. And I don't think it would be
such a successful movie. Shawn Levy, the director, called me as a
courtesy during post-production. But it was very nice when many
people that worked on the movie, from the stars to the production
designer, mentioned that they had my book close by and found
inspiration in it. And it was very nice of Shawn to introduce me at
the screening. Things like that make your heart fly.
Heller: As the backseat driver, isn't it odd to see your
conception transformed in a way where you have no control over its
outcome? How did you feel about relinquishing your creative
Trenc: Being a film director I think I am
actually more benevolent than a pure writer would be. I know what a
hellish job it is to make a movie. I made a little story and a few
illustrations, and then a bunch of great people took it and turned
it into a $100 million movie. I think I like it that way. It's
awfully sweet of them, right? “Look what we did out of your book!”
And there was no movie in my book, just a few little inspirational
points. I think it's a great example of how the same thing can work
great in two mediums, and who would be silly to complain? Not me. I
wish I could be more critical but I really loved the movie, and I
don't like many movies. There were a few dramaturgically weak
points in the script, but that goes by fast.
Heller: Do you still feel that The Night at the
Museum is your baby?
Trenc: No. When I came to the Museum of Natural
History on the night of the premiere, and the facade was adorned
with 20-foot banners that read “Night at the Museum,” and when TV
crews were lining the red carpet, I felt out of it. But I also felt
poetic justice. When the book came out there was a meeting at the
museum, and the book was banned from the museum store. The reasons
were that it portrays animals as alive and shows the guards
sleeping. So, I must admit I had a bit of gleefulness looking at
the banners. But then again, it was not my book that won: it was
big Hollywood bucks.
Heller: That's fascinating. Your being banned is like a
kind of Eastern European censorship. On another note, would you
have cast Robin Williams and Ben Stiller? I'm sure that you, like
anyone who has ever created narrative art, have a star wish list of
who would play them, their family, their friends, etc. Who is on
your wish list?
Trenc: It's interesting, when Fox first started
the project there was talk of Robin Williams as the main guy. But I
am very glad he's still in the movie—he has a great presence, and
he's very popular. A great, great actor. I had no idea whom I'd
cast as principal, really. Now that I saw the film I'm grateful
it's Ben Stiller. He believed in his character. That gave
credibility to the film. As I mentioned to him, I guess the movie
was waiting 13 years for him to mature. And I was very pleased when
I found out that the legendary Mickey Rooney and, my favorite, Dick
Van Dyke is in, also Bill Cobbs. You see I am a great fan of
Disney's classic movies like Mary Poppins. I am happy
there is a link through Dick Van Dyke—and those old gentlemen know
how to act. It's great how much energy they still have!
Heller: Out of curiosity, and I'm not going to ask what
you earned on the film rights, but has the film impacted sales of
Trenc: Not really. It is selling the same as
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