Calgary television writer Heather Conkie bought the popular children's book Harriet the Spy when her daughter Alexandra was in grade school and read it to her faithfully every night for weeks.
The story about the precocious Harriet - an 11-year-old who diligently records everything in her journal - convinced her daughter, now a 27-year-old Queen's University's film and media studies grad, that she was one day going to write for a living.
Recently, all that came to fruition after Disney hired not only Conkie but her daughter (Alexandra Clarke) to team up for a script of Louise Fitzhugh's book for a live-action TV movie, Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars, which will air this Friday.
"I think every little girl reads the book and thinks the same thing - I'm going to be a writer," says Clarke, who also has a degree from New York's Parsons school of design, and splits her time between Toronto and Manhattan.
"I started writing down all my own observations on my family and friends. Harriet is unique and intelligent. She is also sarcastic and cynical. She had her own voice and was not afraid to use it. Like she says to her nanny, Ole Golly, in the book: 'I'm an original in an age of followers.' Mom and I both always loved that about her."
The mother-daughter duo whipped the screenplay together over a few months, through e-mails and phone calls between Toronto, New York and Calgary (where Conkie is in her third season as executive producer and showrunner for CBC's drama Heartland).
On three separate weekends, they met at Manhattan's Carlton Hotel, at the corner of Madison and 29th, to drink copious pots of coffee and to collaborate - first, on finessing the outline, next, to nail the dialogue and finally to co-author the lyrics for three songs in the TV movie.
"Each time we went, the hotel upgraded us to the same suite on the 10th floor," adds Conkie. "We wanted to write some of it in New York because that's where the book was based [Harriet lived on the Upper East Side at 80th and 1st Avenue] You feel a palpable energy being in that city - something we wanted to translate to the page."
"The great thing about working with mom is we really do know each other's strengths well - my mom is amazing at structure and I excel in dialogue," explains Clarke.
Adds Conkie: "I've had other writing partners from time to time, but it's really fun to find you have a good writing partner in your own kids."
Shot in Hamilton and produced by 9 Story Entertainment, Harriet the Spy: Blog Wars is an unusual global movie alliance for Disney Channel, which typically prefers to work independently. Toronto-based 9 Story Entertainment's Vince Commisso explains they originally pitched the story to various broadcasters as an ongoing series, before switching gears last year and settling on a movie version of a contemporary retelling of Harriet the Spy. (Nickelodeon did a feature-film version in 1996, but stuck to the 1960s setting; it starred Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Michelle Trachtenberg and was partially shot in Toronto.)
In this new version, Harriet is 13, not 11. Instead of working for the school paper, she writes a blog. And while her father is still a filmmaker, Harriet now decides to blog about one of her dad's stars, a teen heartthrob (à la High School Musical's Zac Efron) who is in a teen musical, Spy High.
"I was at Banff [Television Festival]last spring, and they [Disney]were making overt noises about partnerships in Canada with people they could do TV movies with," says Commisso. "We interviewed 10 writers, and loved Heather and Alex's pitch. And Disney loved the modern theme of the classic Harriet story [which has sold four-million copies since publication]"
Disney's remake, which is directed by Ron Oliver ( A Dennis the Menace Christmas), stars Wizards of Waverly Place cast member Jennifer Stone as Harriet, The Latest Buzz's Vanessa Morgan, and Melinda Shankar and Aislinn Paul (both from Degrassi: The Next Generation).
When she was first asked to submit a script, Conkie admits she was worried "about the nepotism part of it. But I said would you mind if I do it with a writing partner and submitted some samples with Alex, whose last name is obviously different than mine.
"They loved the samples and loved that it was a mother-daughter team. After all, this is a family movie and what better way to have a family movie presented to them than to have one that is actually written by a family?"
When the 93-minute feature airs this weekend, the pair plans to see it from the familiar 10th-floor suite at the Carlton in New York. "We're going to invite all our friends and put them up for the night," adds Clarke.
Harriet the Spy airs Friday on the Disney Channel, The Movie Network and Movie Central. It will be broadcast later on CBC-TV and YTV.