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Interview with 'Nightbooks' Screenwriters Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis

Script Magazine contributor Nanea Taylor Taylor interviews Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis, the screenwriters behind the Netflix film 'Nightbooks,' which is streaming now—produced by Sam Raimi and Mason Novick.

A young boy named Alex becomes the prisoner of a witch to avoid certain death; he convinces her to let him tell her a scary story every night. Upon meeting the witch's servant, Yazmin, the two must use their wits to escape her apartment, a magical labyrinth filled with various dangers, before the witch kills them both.

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis are adapting Mikki Daughtry’s bestselling novel All This Time for Lionsgate Entertainment and producers Jonathan Levine and Gillian Bohrer. The duo is also writing The Carter Brothers, which has iconic musician Slash attached to produce, along with Adam Kolbrenner of Lit Entertainment.

Previously, the team wrote Five Feet Apart, an original screenplay, for CBS Films, which Cathy Schulman produced, Justin Baldoni produced and directed, and starred Haley Lu Richardson, Cole Sprouse, and Moises Arias. The screenplay for the film was adapted into a #1 NYT bestselling novel. Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis additionally wrote a spinoff of The Conjuring universe, The Curse of La Llorona, for New Line Cinemas and Warner Bros.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Nanea Taylor: You two have co-written on a couple of scripts together, like the movie Five Feet Apart, the spinoff of The Conjuring universe, The Curse of La Llorona. How did that partnership start?

Mikki Daughtry: We met in a writing group several years ago, and just kind of clicked. I don't know that either of us was looking for a writing partner, but we just had the same sentiments about things, and our strengths were like puzzle pieces. We realized that two plus two was five if we wrote together. He fills in my weaknesses, and I fill in his, so it was just a pretty good match, and we get along, so that doesn't suck.

Tobias Iaconis: It happened very organically; as Mikki said, we met in a writing group. And initially, we were just sort of giving each other constructive criticism on each other's work, and then we started trading scenes, like, ‘oh I can help you with this if you can help me with that.’ We did that for a while, and then finally we made it official, and that's when things really changed for us.

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis

Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis

Mikki Daughtry: It really did. It happened once we decided to officially partner up. It was like the sky opened up. You know, like fate had been waiting for that moment to say, “OK, now.” Just as a practice, I wrote some little character piece just to see if I could write, and it was good. That was my practice just to see if I have a voice. And then I brought in this story, a horror, like a most dangerous game, meets a female army vet in the woods. And Tobias is like, “Oh! Hi!” It happened like that! And he’s like, “She's really great at creating great characters,” and I’ve written this little character piece just for practice. Then I'm like, OK, well, let me do something fun, something I like, and that's what I brought in [to the writer's group], and he came up and said, “Hi. I’m Tobias Iaconis. Let's talk.”

Nanea Taylor: I love it. What is the best part of collaborating, and what is the most painful thing about collaborating?

Mikki Daughtry: I would say the best part is I have a permanent crutch named Tobias Iaconis. It's always someone to fall back on. You have your most trusted critique partner, and you have someone who only ever has your best interests at heart. You know, I'm not going to like dog my industry because I love it here, but you’ve got to find the people you can rely on fully and can fully trust, without a doubt. A person who truly wants the best for you, and we feel that way about each other. I think, for me, that's the best part, besides the fact that he's incredibly talented and together we do decent work. And then, the worst part. I don't have anything bad to say about it. I don't have anything. There's no worst part for me.

Tobias Iaconis: I would say that as well; there's no downside to it. I think, as Mikki said, there's a credible sense of safety and having a safety net with Mikki on my team. I no longer feel this huge responsibility to have all the answers. Mikki, I think, is more of a complete package in terms of a writer than I am. I think I definitely have some very clear blind spots that I have sort of wrestled with and bumped my head against for so many years before I met Mikki. And now, writing for me is much more of a joy because I can lean into what I'm good at and what my strengths are. And the stuff that has always been difficult for me, I can take a stab at it, but I know Mikki's going to go in there and do something brilliant with it. It makes the whole process, for me personally, just more joyful now.

[Horror Screenwriters on the Verge Spotlights Screenwriter Sam Watson]

Mikki Daughtry: He’s selling himself short. He's being very sweet.

Nanea Taylor: You both have talents that mesh well when you're working together, so you probably just make each other shine.

Tobias Iaconis: Yeah, I think so.

Nanea Taylor: When was it that you said to yourself, I want to get into this crazy, wacky career of screenwriting?

Tobias Iaconis: I wanted to get into film, because of my love for film that goes back to my very early childhood, I didn't really know of a way in or a pathway to that until I probably got into college and realized that I had some facility with words with writing.

Mikki Daughtry: There he goes selling himself short again.

Tobias Iaconis: And what's a little bit bizarre about my journey is that even though I was a huge fan of film. Film was sort of my favorite artistic and entertainment medium. I really didn't know anything about how films were made or how films were constructed. It was only in college when I realized there is a place for a writer in filmmaking. I started reading screenwriting books; this was still when I was an undergrad in Philadelphia. And soon after graduating, I made the move out to Los Angeles and took some screenwriting courses at UCLA, and chased after it for years. I just wrote script after script after script and read scripts. I had a friend who was a reader at ICM, one of the big agencies in town, and he was one of the few in-house readers. He would feed me scripts that were making a splash in Hollywood. I was reading very current material that people were responding to, which was a huge educational tool for me. So, that's how I got into it.

Mikki Daughtry: Mine is I was a born daydreamer… see this is going to show precisely why we're partners and how different we are, but how we match, the way we fit. His beginnings were very traditional, where I was born a daydreamer, I've not been able to stop making up and telling stories since I was born. I got my degree in theater arts, but I wasn't taking any writing courses, but I read a lot. I was always living in this world that was is in my head, that no one else really could get to. I spend pretty much 80% of my time there, with fictional people who are real to me. I'm always trying to find a way to sort them, to put them on paper; this comes in handy when we're hired to write stories because they're all in there just waiting. So, mine was a less deliberate route, but I knew that I should be telling stories. I got my theater degree and moved to Atlanta, and directed a couple of plays. I did some directing and wasn't writing. I mean, every writer has a drawer full of stuff like poems you wrote when you were nine, but you never reread them because if you did, you'd just quit. I have a very full binder of agonizing teenage angst; you know, it's all in there.

But then I just was drawn to LA, I came here, and I had all these ideas for stories, and my best friend Ariel, who moved out with me, we did theater together, told me about this writing group and said, “You should come with me to meet these people because I want you to tell the stories you keep telling all the time.” We’d be at a dinner, and I would tell her about my stories, and she would say, “Oh my god! Write it down.” And I was like, “Nah.” That's it. I went to the writing group and that's where I met Tobias. And he has such a background already in the industry, and I had a maelstrom of ideas and characters, and I was popping ideas off just like solar flares left and right, and he's like, let's calm this down and let's focus it.

Tobias Iaconis: But she is so naturally gifted. Yes, she's been writing and telling stories all her life, but in terms of actually putting a story into sort of a formal screenplay format, she started ten years after I did. The first script that she brought into the writing group was as good as anything I was doing. I was kind of jealous. I was like, “Ugh! Where does she come from?”

Mikki Daughtry: The Georgia swamp! The oral tradition of telling stories. It’s just the way that it is.

Nanea Taylor: Stories passed from generation to generation.

Mikki Daughtry: That’s right, they’re all storytellers.

Nanea Taylor: What attracted you two to adapting the Nightbooks novel into a screenplay? I hadn't read the book, but I loved this film. Watching it made me think of being a writer. The kid protagonist had to pitch a story to the witch every night, basically, and it was either a pass or a hit. He had writer's block, but he also had to meet a deadline. And I just, I loved it. So, how did you two get involved in adapting it?

Nightbooks, Netflix.

Nightbooks, Netflix.

Mikki Daughtry: Let’s back up to say everything you loved about the movie; it was such a collaborative effort. The director knew exactly what he wanted when he came in, its look and the fun. A lot of it came from him, and a lot of it was in the book by the author J.A. White. So we can't take credit for everything you love about it, but we are so blessed and happy to be a part of it. We're very proud of our work on that. But we had a friend of a friendly business friend who is a producer at Sam Raimi and Robert Tapert’s Ghost House Picture productions, and he got the rights to the book. They had pitched to Netflix already before we even came on board. They already had the studio and the producer in place, and they were just looking for writers because that was the next step. They asked if we would be interested in pitching on it, and we were like, “Yes, absolutely.” But it was a competitive situation, so we had come from The Curse of La Llorona, we did the script for Five Feet Apart, where we did the young adult romance. Listen, to us just, it all has some kind of love story; it's just what you put them through. Are you putting them through a disease? Are you putting them through family trauma? But it's all at the same base for who are the characters? What are they going through? So, we went to Five Feet Apart, and then we were offered the opportunity to pitch on it [Nightbooks], and we jumped on it because we hadn't done a children's movie yet. We really want to continue to spread our wings. We've been fortunate to be able to drama, and we want to keep doing that. When we read the book, we freaked out. We were like, “We have to have this job. I don't care what has to happen, we have to get this job.”

We were dark horses; I say this because it was a competitive pitch against people who have written children's movies. We weren’t told who we were up against because we don't like to know. We want to keep it pure and focus on our best work and what we can bring to it. And we'd love the book so much that we just pitched our hearts out for it. We came up with our take of what the book would look like in a movie form, and we went into Netflix, and we got it. We fell out in the parking lot the day when they called us and said we got the job. It was just so exciting. But that's how it happened. It happened through a competitive situation, and we knew one of the producers who thought it would be fun for us to work on together.

Nanea Taylor: What was your favorite character in Nightbooks that you enjoyed writing for, and why?

Mikki Daughtry: That psychotic woman [witch, Natacha]. It's a movie, right? So it's distilled into this purity of character, and you don't have the time to get into every little inner thought she has, so we had to punch up her character hard, and, oh my God, she's so psychotic. It was so much fun to think of what she would say or do to turn her character on a dime. We wanted her to keep them [kids, Alex and Yasmin] on their toes. Leaving them wondering if she is going to kill them or give them a present. You never know what she was going to do. I really, really loved writing for all of them, but I truly loved writing for Natacha. Because I got to dig into the psycho brain of this woman, who is a complete narcissist and broken inside, and she's hiding all that. She’s using magic to cover up her hurt and pain. Now she dishes it back out. She is the perfect example of hurt people, hurt people. And that is who Natacha is; she was hurt, abused, tortured, and put through the wringer. But that's just how I look at it like; she's not a person who did any damage control on herself. She just leaned into the pain of it, right? The movie is a fun movie; it's funny, so putting a spin on it was a lot of fun, but underneath it, all was her pain.

Nanea Taylor: Especially when she was able to get free from the old witch, and she made it home, and her family was not there anymore, they had moved. She took that as though they had left her.

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Mikki Daughtry: They're probably still somewhere, and she took it in the worst way possible because the old witch had conditioned her to feel like she was not wanted. I loved writing for her; she's so layered. Listen, those lines mean nothing if they are not in Krysten Ritter’s. When they told us they wanted Krysten, I laughed in their face and like she would never do our movie. She was amazing! I mean, this is just my insecurity; I'm like, that’s Krysten Ritter, like, are you asking for a punch in the throat? She's not going to do this. And when she said yes, that was another fallout, because the lines are great and the pain is great, and all those layers are great but without her., I mean she, she made it! She brought it to life. They're just words until she says them. When they said she came on board, we went right back to the script to pick over Krysten’s lines and sharpened them a little bit. Because we knew the caliber she held as an actress, and we knew this was top level. I knew we could go further with the character because it was in her hands. And let me add, the kids were fantastic too.

[L-R] Lidya Jewett as Yasmin, Krysten Ritter as Natacha and Winslow Fegley as Alex in Nightbooks, Netflix.

[L-R] Lidya Jewett as Yasmin, Krysten Ritter as Natacha and Winslow Fegley as Alex in Nightbooks, Netflix.

Nanea Taylor: It was perfect casting on the kids. Perfect. Tobias, who was your favorite character?

Mikki Daughtry: Don’t say Lenore because she didn’t have any lines.

Tobias Iaconis: You know, it might be strange to say this about a character who has no lines, but it was Lenore. And the reason I loved Lenore is, all these characters are on a journey. All of them have something to learn. What I loved about Lenore, it’s a villain with a redemption arc. I'm always a huge sucker for them because she's an accomplice to the main villain at the beginning of our movie. She's a thorn in the side of our heroes. But then we learn over the course of the movie that a lot of her villainy is due to having suffered at the hands of Natacha and of course the prior witch for many years. There's a reason for her villainy. Which always makes for a great villain when there's a good reason why their heart is as dark as it is. But then to see she is changed by love. She's changed by the friendship that Alex and then Yasmin shows her. Of course, there's a key moment in the movie where she saves the day. They become sort of The Three Musketeers. J.A. White, in the book, had it that way, and we, of course, were pretty faithful adopting it.

Nanea Taylor: I have to get the book now.

Mikki Daughtry: Yeah. I'll tell you what you'll love about the book. You’ll get to see all of the stories Alex told Natacha that we didn't get to use. In the montage scene, he goes on for three or four nights, and she's interrupting him, telling him that he’s stupid or an idiot. All those little stories that he doesn’t get to finish telling in the film, they're real stories in the book. All the stories are complete in the book, so it's a lot of fun. It's just a deeper dive.

Nanea Taylor: This leads me to my next question, what part of the book were you not able to bring in that you wish you had time to add into the script?

Tobias Iaconis: As Mikki was saying, the stories. We had to condense and distill this book down into movie form. And one of the biggest ways of doing that is not only cutting the number of stories that we get to see on screen. I think there are six or seven stories in the book. We had to cut that number in half, but then not only that, but the stories themselves, we had to reduce their scope and complexity so they can be filmed in a timely way and on budget. And so that was probably the hardest thing for making this adaptation is to decide what to lose in this wonderful world that J.A. White has created and what can we keep. We had to further simplify and reduce, to make it work in a movie form. The hardest thing was deciding what to cut and how to convey the same meaning, but in a faster, cheaper way.

Nanea Taylor: A question I always ask the folks who are in the industry already. What nugget of wisdom would you tell up-and-coming screenwriters?

Mikki Daughtry: Make friends and do your work. As you said, we’re already in the industry, so that's where I'll answer from. If you're not in the industry, obviously, take your classes, do your work, learn your craft, learn your skill, and get good at what you do. So that it's second nature and you don't have to think about the work anymore. You're thinking about the job, and there's a difference between the work and the job. If your work is there and you are talented, and you've got your talent honed, got your skills, you’ve got your technique down; then you take it in. That’s behind the scenes working for you because you've done all that work already. When you get in, I would say, be nice. Be fun to work with; I think that's the biggest thing that the most vital advice I could give a writer who is in or who is just getting in. Be fun in the room. Be someone they know is not always going to be combative; you're not going to be hard to work with. Be collaborative.

For us, we're naturally collaborative because we collaborate all the time. And then we don't believe in a bad note. Like some notes seem bad, but there's always a reason for it. If you take a note, where you say to yourself, this note is stupid or dumb. Reconsider the note. Maybe there is something in the work where it is hitting that person in the wrong way, and if you go back to the script, you will find it. We're here as the writers, but we still need to invite everyone else to be a part of the more collaborative process. We have found that the more collaborative we are, the better reception we get to our stuff. It makes the job fun, and you don't want always to be battling and fighting and complaining and, as we would say in the swamp, bitching and moaning. Yeah, but that would be my advice is just to be collaborative, be open, and be nice.

Tobias Iaconis: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I really would just be repeating what Mikki is saying about collaboration. We saw it again on my Nightbooks. There were a lot of cooks in the kitchen, but it wasn't a negative thing; it was like a five-star restaurant that has more than a dozen people in the kitchen, you know, preparing that great meal by putting their own ingredients in it. We really experienced collaboration on this movie and on our prior movies. Everyone brought something to the table. We all sort of work well together, and that's really what makes the magic happen.

When you have people with different expertise and points of view working together towards a common goal, and as writers, just as Mikki said, as writers to be open to that, to be willing to give as well as get, I think is key and fortunately just like Mikki said fortunately for us. Starting in a writing group, which is designed sort of as a collaborative entity, helped prepare us a lot, I think. We would read each other's work, give each other constructive criticism, and brainstorm together. So, as a young man, I sort of grew up in a collaborative environment, and then, of course, as Mikki said, our partnership is innately collaborative. And so, it's something that comes naturally to us. It's not always easy. It's hard work to be collaborative.

Mikki Daughtry: A lot of times, when you love something, you got to step off your idea, and I promise if you will step off your idea and take a step back and just listen. Some nugget of beauty will come out of it. Beautiful things happen when you just let go a little bit of ego out of it. Don't get me wrong; there are times when you’re like, “Whoa! Hold on!” There have been moments when I said I didn't like a note, but it really helped the script a lot. So, I will tell the note giver, because I think that's important as well, that their note worked. It's important to tell somebody that, look, I had a bad reaction to that note you gave, but you were right about it. It was really good. Look at what we did with it. I think that's very important and going a long way to making everyone feel valued. Even the top people in the business still like to feel like they're valued. They are there for a reason. Your producers are your producers because they're good at what they do. Your executives are your executive because they're good at what they do. You're the writer because you're good at what you do. It's easy, I think to come into a room with a bunch of egos, and if we leave them at the door, the best work comes out of it.

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Nanea Taylor: Great tips! One last question. What’s up next for you both?

Mikki Daughtry: I'm working on a novel. We are now in the middle of adapting one of my young adult novels called All This Time, which came out last year.

Tobias Iaconis: It spent three months on the New York Times Best Sellers list. I can say this because my name is not on the novel, so I can trumpet Mikki’s success.

Mikki Daughtry: Yep, he’s quick to trumpet. But yes, we’re adapting that novel into a screenplay, right now, for Lionsgate. We're just working through that. I will say this. I am so proud of our work with Lionsgate executives and with the producers Jonathan Levine and Gillian Bohrer. Speaking on notes, it's funny. I wish I could rewrite the novel now because it's like, yeah, these are great notes for the adaption. But that’s what happens when you get great people editing the book, and then it just goes in a different direction for a movie. Especially when you start breaking things down, and you see things from another direction from a filmic point of view, besides the inner life point of view, like you're doing a novel. It's what do we see because that's the story we get. And that's what we're working on right now, and it's been really fun and enlightening to go back to my old story and get to play with it, with new people, and open it up to them—getting a chance to tell them to tell me what they do not like about it. Like, lay it on me. You know, and they're all good; they're all amazing notes. I love my job.

Tobias Iaconis: Amen to that.

Nightbooks is currently streaming on Netflix.

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