Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
If looking for a trilogy from director J.A. Bayona’s three feature films, one could see his The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the new film A Monster Calls as three examinations of how children process their thoughts and emotions when faced with tragedy. Based on the best-selling young adult fantasy, A Monster Calls tells the story of Conor (Lewis MacDougall), a little boy his mother (Felicity Jones) is suffering from cancer and forced to move in with his strict and serious grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), he’s visited by a tree-monster who promises to tell him three stories which would provide tough life-lessons. A weighty subject matter for a Hollywood film aimed at children, Bayona has embraced the story’s surprisingly serious tone in all aspects of his cinematic storytelling. The film is beautiful despite its dreary color palette; immensely entertaining despite its promise to devastate the audience, Bayona has created a memorable and heartbreaking family film for all ages. Director Bayona, a protege of Guillermo Del Toro and soon to take the reign of Jurassic Park franchise, spoke about bringing this labor of love to life on screen.
I read that King Kong was a big influence, and I was so excited to see the references to King Kong in this film early on and then the visual references throughout. The way Conor interacts with him feels very similar to how Fay Wray interacted with Kong. Was that a film that had a big impact on you as a child?
It had a similar effect on me as a child. I remember watching the film when I was a small kid and feeling more empathy for King Kong than for any of the humans. For a kid, King Kong is the good guy, the one you like. And seeing them hurting him is a contradiction. And that’s the thing Conor’s facing, the contradiction between what he thinks should happen and what will happen.
Using the combination of CGI, animatronics, and puppets seem like a daunting task. Were there times when you had to step back from the technical side of filmmaking and looking at the human story as a whole, and think about how all those things would enhance or detract from that larger story?
Yes, especially because it was drama, so if the visual effects had been too much, it would have been a distraction from the story. That’s the primary reason the monster had to be kept very simple and grounded. We really were inspired by what they’d done in King Kong, using a life-sized replica of the head, both arms and one of the big feet. Anything Conor had to physically interact with, we made a replica so he could really touch it. We used a lot of stop motion and then used CGI sparingly. Where we really used CGI was to capture Liam’s performance, and that’s a major advantage to us. Liam was in the suit for 10 days, playing the character and bringing him to life. The thing I love about King Kong is when you can tell the difference for a second, oh, that’s a puppet, that’s an actor in a suit, that’s a model, it doesn’t take you out of the movie. Somehow, that mistake subconsciously makes it feel more real. And when you see a film which only uses CGI, you don’t feel the reality of it. The problem is, audiences have become so used to CGI characters, completely CGI characters, when they spot animatronics or models, they think they’re seeing a mistake. It’s the issue of audiences being less naive than they were in the 80s about visual effects.
I think it really works in this film because it adds weight to the monster. You believe he could pick up Conor or cause destruction.
Exactly. The scene of Conor laying down on the monster’s hand, Lewis is actually laying on a real hand that can support him. He’s really touching the physical surface he’s on. I think we’ve found a way to make two CGI characters interact in a realistic way, but it’s much harder for a human actor and CGI character to really look like they’re touching each other. And you need to have that weight and physical reality to give the character his soul.
I love the casting of Liam Neeson because he has such a great voice and in person, he has a physical stature that really fits the character. What led to that casting?
When we knew we could motion capture, I knew we needed to find an actor that could bring a lot of himself to that character. When you think of him, you think of his weight and height, the gravitas, the soulful wisdom, and he’s the appropriate age. Also, he’s a very proud Irishman and the monster is based on The Green Man, which is one of the most important characters from Celtic traditions. And with motion capture, the actor is allowed to bring so much to the character, especially the face. In the last scene as the monster, he did so little but it ultimately was so relevant and meaningful. Only an actor could bring that to a character, and I don’t think animating the face would have conveyed those emotions. So I think it’s one of the great things about casting an actor to perform in motion capture, you really are capturing their performance.
When it came to the three visual stories, how did you select the visual styles to tell them? Were they based on or inspired by anything the way the monster was based on The Green Man?
I really wanted to work with the artists who did the animations, because I’d been familiar with their work before. As an illustrated book, A Monster Calls is difficult to separate from the pictures, especially the tales. So we wanted each of the tales to have a very distinct visual style of their very own. It’s computer animated but uses traditional elements of hand drawn animation. the first segment, the 2D one, uses the tradition of watercolors. But as A Monster Calls progresses, the fictional story and real life are harder for Conor to separate. So the second story feels more like stop-motion, so it has a 3D element. And then the third story happens within his physical reality.
To me, the film feels like it being set in Britain is very intentional, because there is there’s a tradition of people being more buttoned up emotionally. Conor is initially repressed and has to be told it’s okay to have his overwhelming emotions and given permission let them out. Did it feel that way to you, that it had to be set in the UK, as opposed to somewhere else?
Especially for the grandmother character, I do think that mattered. Being from Spain, my upbringing was very different from the traditional Anglo-Saxon culture. And I found it very difficult to understand the grandmother, and why she was very cold towards him. So, I think you do need to have an idea that she comes from a specific cultural tradition, even though that restrained coldness is very strange to a Spanish person like myself. People do expect that more from British society. That was something I talked about a lot with Patrick (Ness, the screenwriter) and Sigourney Weaver. But the thing to remember is, the message of the film is universal. It tells the kids, you don’t have to feel bad about the way you’re feeling. It’s only a feeling. And kids tend to internalize all their feelings because they don’t have a history yet. They are as they feel, so it’s important to tell kids, sometimes you will feel something, but that doesn’t mean that’s the way you are. The moment with the monster says, it doesn’t matter what you think, it’s just a thought. It’s a momentary thought. And that’s universal for kids from anywhere.
Was that the initial draw, to make a family film that really provided a lesson we don’t talk about or see on screen very often?
Yes, because kids spend all day watching and reading things, and too few have any real depth or complexity. It’s rare to see movies for and about childhood, where the story is complex and the characters of the children are complex. Of course, kids are complex, and I think that’s why kids have liked this film. Because we really are using fantasy in an accessible way, not to talk down to kids but to relate to them.
And that’s a big reason why kids need art and stories. Making this film, have you thought about the purpose and importance of storytelling?
It’s a vital part of their learning. Fairy tales are our first exposure to complex emotions and teach them to assess their emotions. The step-mother in fairy-tales introduces the idea of hate or fear of a parental figure. Sometimes a kid hates his mother, even though he loves his mother. And that’s a very complex idea to process, but they need to in order to get past it. Fantasy and fiction is a very important way to process reality and understand the complexities and contradictions of our emotions. Patrick really focused in the book on the difference between reality and the truth. The reality is all about information, but truth comes from personal knowledge and life experience.
I thought Felicity Jones and Toby Kebbell were really wonderful as Conor’s parents. What role did you feel they’re influence plays on how Conor interprets what’s happening to him?
The movie is so much about how children take in information and how adults communicate with them. Some parents are so overprotective, they won’t allow their kids to see this film. And they are far more like the mother in the film. She loves her son, but she’s keeping so much information from him, it’s provoking an even greater pain than telling him the truth would cause. That is a very realistic contradiction parents go through every day. We understand that she’s doing this to try to protect him, but she’s causing him more pain. The father is probably the one that does the most unlikable thing, leaving his son behind, so I needed an actor that was very likable. And when Toby arrives you love him and see how much Conor loves him, and then he still leaves. I like the idea that the father is a grown-up Conor that never met the monster. He doesn’t understand fantasy at all, and the mother completely embraces fantasy and magic.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website)