Out of the Past, Into the Future: Soman Chainani
Out of the Past, Into the Future is a bi-weekly series that aims to chronicle a limitless scope of work by Columbia filmmakers representative of the past, present, and future. This series investigates how Columbia film projects, and the bespoke stories therein, are enmeshed with tales of history and experience, and harbingers of what’s to come.
This week we sat down with alumnus Soman Chainani ’08 to discuss the upcoming Netflix adaptation of his series, The School for Good and Evil.
Author and Film program alumnus Soman Chainani is charmed with the inscrutability of his dreams, and the abnormal, metaphysical possibilities of writing folklore and fantasy. In his book, The School for Good and Evil, first published in 2013, few of Chainani’s idiosyncratic and mischievous characters, including a chorus of nymphs and giants, are capable of mollifying the nefarious side of magic with “nemesis dreams,” an uncanny mental incantation ultimately invoking a unity of good over evil, by enervating the villian who has the dream.
Netflix is now developing a major motion picture adaptation of The School for Good and Evil, and Chainani has been closely involved. He said that Netflix is determined to make the film into a franchise, following the adaptation of the first book. His sixth and final book of the series was published in June of last year, a denouement to the series which has sold over 2.5 million copies, and has been translated into 30 languages.
Chainani is well-versed in the literary history of traditional lore. He studied the legends of Camelot, The Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Anderson as an English major at Harvard, before entering the Film Program at Columbia. The School for Good and Evil follows two archetypal heroines: the amicable Sophie, who dreams of becoming a princess, and her friend Agatha, an unattractive and unpopular contrarian, suffering from unrequited love.
The story begins when a giant bird whisks the pair away from their home and carries them off to the School for Good and Evil, an academy training children to become either fairytale heroes or villains. Sophie is mistakenly admitted to the Evil branch to learn “uglification,” death curses, and other dark arts, while Agatha finds herself at the magnanimous School for Good, amid dashing princes and fair maidens. Consequently, the line between good and evil vanishes, the meaning of beauty is unhinged, and the girls must confront their true natures.
One of the motivating factors for writing this series was to create fantasy that presented the unity of opposites in a thematically different way than other popular narratives at the time. “What bothered me about the Harry Potter series was that the Slytherin kids were always demonized. It was always Gryffindor kids beating up on Slytherin kids. And so part of the reason I wanted to write The School for Good and Evil was to even that playing field.”
Chainani grew up in Key Biscayne, Florida, where he was one of few of Indian descent. He found solace in watching movies, specifically about myths, legends, and fairytales. “Without kind of the obvious interest that a lot of other people had I just felt like fantasy movies, like Disney, were where I went to find myself, and if you look back at my yearbooks from that time, everybody would always be like, ‘I can't wait to see your first movie."
Nevertheless, it would take some time for him to find his forte. After his undergraduate years, the idea of becoming a film director didn't seem pragmatic, or even possible, and he worked in pharmaceutical consulting instead. “I was there for a few months, but I was in the corner secretly working on screenplays. I thought I was going to follow a conventional path and become a banker who had an artist's soul.” Eventually, he went on to pursue screenwriting in the Columbia Film Program.
On making the transition from filmmaker to novelist, Chainani said, “I was always a writer in some capacity. I understood structure and beats and all that kind of stuff in novels, so it wasn't so difficult. I think writing got a little trickier as I got into the later books. You have to sort of figure out how to find your flow as a novelist, and suddenly it wasn't like writing a screenplay anymore. It had a different feel to it.”
Chainani has certainly not abandoned filmmaking altogether. He has been closely involved in the film adaptation development process, as a writer and executive producer, for over seven years since the book was first optioned by Universal Studios in 2013. Chainani was hired to write the first two drafts of the screenplay then. In 2017, the rights were purchased by Netflix, and a new team kept Chainani involved with development alongside screenwriters David Magee (Life of Pi, Mary Poppins Returns, Finding Neverland) and Laura Solon (Office Christmas Party, Let It Snow).
In early 2020, Paul Feig was brought on to direct. Feig has directed some of the most successful comedy hits of the past two decades. He created Freaks and Geeks, helmed some of the best episodes of Arrested Development and The Office, directed the groundbreaking comedy Bridesmaids, and followed that with The Heat, Spy, Ghostbusters, A Simple Favor, and Last Christmas. Feig has said, “I’m truly excited to bring this amazing, touching, funny and empowering world that Soman created in his wonderful books to life. I feel like a frog that just turned into a prince.”
Chainani has proposed changes to the plot, which include omitting some characters and plot threads. “Often authors come into Hollywood with this mindset of needing to protect the material they’ve written. Nothing makes Hollywood Executives and studios more irritated and less likely to work with an author who solely wants to protect their material, and that's not why I was there. I was there to make the best possible film. I think that's what ultimately has made it such a smooth experience. The screenplay is great—like absolutely the best it could be. I think it's a fantastic script.”
Chainani has also been closely involved in the casting process. “I know who they're going out to all of the time. I'm giving my ideas and things like that but they've been really spot-on with the casting.” Netflix announced that the two girls playing the leads are Sophia Ann Caruso, who starred in Beetlejuice on Broadway, and Sophia Wiley, an actress who has frequently appeared on Disney+. It was announced on Friday that Charlize Theron will join the cast as Lady Lesso, the Dean of the School for Evil, and Kerry Washington as Professor Dovey, the Dean of the School for Good.
The School for Good and Evil begins shooting in Belfast in April, where similar fantasy epics, such as Game of Thrones, were filmed.
Despite all of his collaboration during the filming of The School for Good and Evil, Chainani will not cease to write. “As a novelist, you don't have to take studio notes. You have an editor and it's a much more deep kind of connected relationship. So I enjoy it. I think I'll always be writing books first and jumping here and there into movies. The books are kind of where I belong.”
To aspiring students, Chainani says, “You have to know what you're good at, and for me it was the books. I thought I would be a really good director and I think that's something I still want to do at some point in my life.”
Listen to the full interview below.