Beyond Fest extended one extra day with the addition of a screening of A Monster Calls, which does not open until Christmastime. Director J.A. Bayona attended the screening for a Q&A after the film, moderated by Variety’s Janelle Riley.
Lewis Macdougal stars as Conor, a boy who’s single mother (Felicity Jones) is sick with cancer, and when her treatments fail he faces having to move in with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). A monster (Liam Neeson) tells Conor three stories and asks Conor to tell the fourth, which prove a way of dealing with his real life tragedy. A Monster Calls opens December 23 in limited release and wide January 6.
How did Patrick Ness’s novel find its way to you, and what made you think it could be a movie?
There were lots of friends around me telling me about the book. The first time I heard about it, it was Sergio Sanchez, the writer for The Impossible and The Orphanage. He was obsessed with the book. I was a that time shooting Penny Dreadful and I couldn’t take a look at it until I finished that. By coincidence, the agent sent me the script and I wanted to research the book. The book is such an emotional experience. At the same time, it’s a fantasy so I thought that it’s so rare to find material that you connect to in such an emotional way and at the same deals with fantasy. The story’s a love letter to fantasy and how you can use fantasy to understand and process reality. This is what we do as filmmakers. We try to understand reality using a fantasy movie. Movies are fantasy. All of that was so interesting that I really wanted to work on this film.
Was the book instantly filmic to you? Did you know there’d be animation and CGI? Had Patrick ever spoken to anyone about adapting the book?
Well, it’s an illustrated book. I remember reading an interview with Tim Burton who was saying that he saw the Ray Harryhausen movies in an art deco theater. So when you see his films, you can see how art deco mixes with Ray Harryhausen. I felt the same way. When I read the book, it’s impossible for me to separate the story from the drawings. So the first time I start to think about the stories, I thought that I didn’t want to see actors, because I think when you see stories as stories, when you see other actors it’s kind of distracting to me. So I thought that animation would be a nice way to get into Jim Kay’s world. Jim Kay is the illustrator for the book. Then I had this idea that Connor was an artist. Then everything started to get very personal to me because I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid. So when you do a film, you start to have a lot of ideas. Some of these ideas you start to connect. This is when you create an emotional map and all these ideas like horror, being an artist and illustrations and the amazingness of the story, suddenly it starts to make a lot of sense to me.
How do you keep the visual effects from overshadowing the human story?
Well, in terms of the fantasy, we always try to keep it as grounded as possible. The design of the monster, for example, we did lots of designs. We realized that the more sophisticated it was, the less interesting. It was like a way of spoiling the chance for the audience to have their own interpretation of the monster. So we decided that we wanted a monster that was more like a tree that looked like a man, not a man that looks like a tree. We decided to make it very simple. It’s inspired of course by the drawings of Jim Kay, beautiful drawings for the book. There was a beautiful drawing where we could see the monster sitting on a rooftop and he’s sitting like The Thinker. That was so powerful that we wanted to go more that way. There was also a painting that I love from Goya called The Colossus. This was more the reference.
How long did it take you to make A Monster Calls?
The film took two and a half years probably. I like to have a long process of shooting and a long process of post production. It’s not that easy but it’s an independent film. It’s independent financing so we manage and we control the schedule. We were always able to have a long shoot and a long post-production. Long post production is always good because it gives you distance enough to see the material and the things that are not working.
What was the hardest part of making A Monster Calls?
Editing. Editing for sure. This film was editing. It was such a difficult story to tell, to put on the screen. I think reading a book is such a different experience from seeing a film. So it was quite complicated to find the tone because there are so many tones in the film. And finding focus because there are so many themes and some of the themes are quite delicate. You talk about cancer, you talk about bullying. It’s not a film about cancer or bullying but it’s also about that, so you need to find the space, the balance and then create the architecture. Finding the right architecture for the film.
How long did the editing process take?
We started editing while we were shooting and then we spent like a year. It was quite an experience, a learning experience. The book starts with the monster and we started the film like that. But from the moment you start the film with the monster, it’s a film about a monster. So it’s impossible to move from there. Then we started to play around with the pieces. Finally, I think we found what we like but it was quite challenging.
What is more difficult in A Monster Calls, the visual effects or the performance?
Visual effects is not complicated. Visual effects is fun. It’s a lot of fun. It’s like playing with toys. I love it. I was great and I love to work with visual effects. I really like to participate in the design of the visual effects in order to keep it grounded. We had to be very careful that this is a drama. So when you have a monster and you have the characters, it’s always about the characters in the story. So we have to be very careful but I love to make the visual effects. It’s more difficult with the performance but I really love to work with actors. I like everything.
Are you an expert now that you’re doing Jurassic World?
Well, we haven’t started yet.
What was your biggest fear before you started A Monster Calls?
I think my biggest fear was finding the tone, the right tone and being well articulated and being careful with the themes. I think when you do a film about cancer, you need to be careful. It’s a delicate theme and the same with bullying.
Was there any levity on set?
Yes, sure. Lewis had a great time. It was his second film and there was a moment during shooting that he came to me and said, “I just realized I want to do this for a living. I really love it.” It’s great, because when you work with a kid and it’s his first film, you try to make him understand what he’s doing, what is the process of making a film, what does it mean? You really need to somehow show some guidance, make them aware that it’s a unique experience, that the most important thing is school and their friends. This is unique so you will go back home and you will have your normal life again. You will get it back. Sometimes, like with Tom Holland, you realize that you’re working with someone who’s going to do this all his life.
What was your favorite monster growing up?
King Kong. He’s not a monster but it’s what the scene is about. I remember at school, every year when we finished school they projected King Kong in 16mm. You see the film when you’re a kid and of course you’re with King Kong. For you, King Kong is the good guy and the “good guys” are killing King Kong. I thought that was so convenient for the film we were talking about. I think this kid that doesn’t deal with contradiction, things being black and white at the same time. I thought that was the perfect example of what we were trying to talk about.
A Monster’s Call is modern day but it is timeless, right?
Well, I think that you need to create your own world when you do a film. This film, we had to create a real world and then a fantasy world. It’s a bad thing somehow in the way you cannot separate one from the other. In the book, there was not a strong sense of reality for the characters. They didn’t have a name. They didn’t have a job. One of the main thoughts I had was this is a movie that’s also about how we need fantasy to process reality. So we needed to find what was the reality of the film. So we gave a name to the characters, a job, a past and that was one of the ideas. The mother was going to be a young mom. So you’re talking about the past without seeing it in the film. We didn’t have time in the film or we didn’t have the moment to talk about what happened in the past. From the moment you see Felicity being the mother of Lewis, you know something happened in there.
What emotional preparation did the actors have before the most emotional takes?
I think the most important thing is always to create the space. What kind of space do the actors share? This is why for me rehearsals were so important and spending as much time as possible with Felicity and Lewis before we started shooting. Then one of the things I said when I talked to Lewis, I shoot with a lot of music all the time. Music is a great help, not just for the actors but for the whole crew because somehow it establishes the tone, establishes the mood and makes everyone ready for what’s happening in front of the camera. The last scene, Lewis didn’t know what was said in that scene until the moment we shot that scene. That scene where he gets into his room at the end, I went off the page of his script and he didn’t know what was going to happen. I remember passing in front of that set and telling Lewis all the time, “This is a door we have. Behind the door, we’re shooting the last scene.” So you start to create a sense of curiosity with what’s going on in there. Then we shot that scene the last day so we were all prepared with our cameras and when he opens the door, it’s a real reaction to the story.