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'Pearls Before Swine' cartoonist Stephan Pastis seeks new challenge with 'Timmy Failure' movie

Santa Rosa’s Stephan Pastis is a man who never stops trying to do something bigger and better.

In 2002, he syndicated his daily comic strip “Pearls Before Swine,” based on characters he first sketched in law school. Today the strip is running in almost 900 newspapers and has been collected in 37 books and 11 treasury editions.

In 2013, he introduced his children’s book series “Timmy Failure,” about a boy detective, and eventually produced seven volumes from Candlewick Press. Pastis also has written and illustrated a new prequel to the series, due to be published by Disney Hyperion in April.

And now, at 52, he has co-written a live-action film version of the first book in the series, “Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made,” which starts streaming Friday on Disney+.

In the film, a deadpan, quirky 11-year-old boy named Timmy Failure, played by Winslow Fegley, believes he’s the best detective in Portland, Oregon. He runs his Total Failure Inc. agency with his partner, an imaginary 1,500-pound polar bear, and his sidekick Rollo Tookus to solve low-key crimes while learning some life lessons along the way.

To Pastis, the project meant not just a co-screenwriting credit, but an education in filmmaking from an award-winning professional. The movie’s co-writer and director is Tom McCarthy, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay for the 2015 drama “Spotlight” and an Oscar nomination for directing the film. McCarthy also scored a previous Academy Award nomination for co-writing the 2009 Pixar animated hit “Up.”

“I put a bit of wrench in the process by saying I wanted to write with him,” Pastis said. “I had never written a movie before. He held an Oscar, and I held a book on how to write a screenplay, but Tom very kindly trusted me to try.”

The cartoonist’s role in creating the film turned out to be much more than a nominal consultant’s job.

“We spent two years writing together, sometimes on the phone and sometimes in person, writing and rewriting until he thought we had something we could show to Disney,” Pastis said.

“Tom had no obligation to include me, but he included me throughout the making of the movie, including the casting. Then he asked me if I’d be willing to join him for the filming.”

On the movie set

The cartoonist spent 70 days with McCarthy on the set during the shooting of the movie, filmed in the summer of 2018 in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Portland, Oregon.

“I had expected light work. I’d be working on the script,” Pastis said. “But I went from somebody who didn’t know how to write a screenplay to being taught the pre-production process to finding out what working on a movie set is like.”

And of course, he also worked on the script. “I rewrote scenes as he directed. The two of us worked on every scene together, to the point that I don’t know whose line is whose.”

Perhaps one reason the director gave Pastis such a rare opportunity was the cartoonist’s attitude.

“Early on, I decided not to be precious about what I wrote. I only insisted that Timmy sound like how I hear Timmy in my head,” Pastis said. “Tom McCarthy taught me a book is a book, and a movie is a movie. Sometimes what you write in a book is not big enough for the screen. If you’ve read the books, you’ll see changes.”

From law to cartooning

By now, Santa Rosa is used to claiming Pastis as its own - he has referenced local beer and the area’s wildfires in “Pearls Before Swine” comic strips. But Pastis grew up in the San Gabriel Valley near Los Angeles.

He earned his degree in political science at UC Berkeley, where he met Staci Daniels, a fourth-generation Santa Rosan, during his senior year. They married in 1993, when Pastis finished law school at UCLA, and he spent the next nine years working as a litigation attorney in San Francisco, next to the Transamerica Pyramid.

When Pastis shifted from law to cartooning, he and Staci settled in Santa Rosa. Even after the strip was syndicated, he felt he needed a transitional “day job,” and went to work three days a week at Creative Associates, the studio of his late hero, “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz, from 2002 until 2009. While there, Pastis reviewed some 4,500 licensing proposals per month for ?“Peanuts”-related products, from video games to underwear.

Until now, the closest Pastis came to writing for the screen was co-writing the 2011 Fox television special “Happiness Is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown,” with Schulz’s son, Craig.

Despite the heady success of seeing “Timmy Failure” brought to the screen by Disney, this is a bittersweet time for Pastis.

His father, Tom Pastis, died Jan. 18 at age 88 in Phoenix, Arizona, just a week before the movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. The elder Pastis owned and operated a bar in Phoenix, where he had lived for the past 35 years.

“The sad irony is the book and movie are about a boy without a father,” Pastis said, “and I’ve lost my own dad right before the movie comes out.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @danarts.

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