Glimpses are given throughout “A Monster Calls” of the recurring nightmare that has recently plagued Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who awakens to a reality even more torturous as his mother (Felicity Jones) slowly succumbs to cancer. Caught in a cemetery as the ground crumbles beneath him and the earth threatens to swallow him up whole, the young boy clings to the edge of a cliff, propped up by the resolve he’s had to build up in the face of impending tragedy. As difficult as it is for Conor to hang on, it was nearly as challenging for the film’s director J.A. Bayona to stage the setpiece, using four separate locations to perfectly capture the feeling and the look of the space just between the darkest parts of a boy’s imagination and the real world that he sees.
“We had a real cemetery in a village in Manchester and we had a different place for the hill, so we had two different locations for that and then we had a set for the cemetery that we built up in Spain for when the nightmare starts and we had also a scale model that we did for the cemetery and the church collapsing, so it was like four pieces we had to match in the post-production,” says Bayona, for whom this kind of stuff has become child’s play.
As it happens, the real beast in “A Monster Calls” is not the Monster of the title, a gentle giant (voiced and performed in motion capture by Liam Neeson) that Conor can turn to in his time of need, but rather the illustrated novel that serves as its source material, penned by Patrick Ness (who wrote the film’s screenplay) and drawn by Jim Kay. The book had been given to Bayona by his close friend and collaborator Sergio G. Sanchez, likely thinking that following their previous films “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible,” the director would be intrigued by another story of a child finding his inner strength, this time by corralling his fantasies through his artistic skills and using his drawings as a way of understanding the world around him.
Indeed, Bayona was interested, but to do justice to the story, the logistics were daunting – creating the live-action scenes around a central performance of the Monster that like Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” was created long before physical production with motion capture, animating the fairy tales that the Monster imparts to boost Conor’s confidence as a way of distinguishing them from reality, and perhaps most intimidating, putting the entire film on the pre-pubescent shoulders of MacDougall. However, the director, who has flashed the same kind of once-in-a-generation ability of such filmmakers as David Fincher, James Cameron and Robert Zemeckis, to fuse together the latest filmmaking tools with tenets of effective storytelling that predate the medium, never lets you see all the work that must’ve gone into “A Monster Calls,” instead only letting you feel the tremendous burden on Conor to grow up fast and the exhilaration in watching him rise to the occasion.
Shortly before the film hits theaters, Bayona spoke about how he was able to make the story of “A Monster Calls” his own, pulling together such a massive undertaking on modest means and finding closure on an unexpected trilogy.
It helped me a lot to understand how the stories work because ultimately the book is about storytelling. Somehow Conor needs to find the truth and express the truth the same way as I need to find it and express it as a filmmaker, so it helped me a lot in this deep understanding of what storytelling is. We live in a world where there’s a lot of information and more and more information and less knowledge, and somehow stories are about knowledge. They tell us about who we are and the world we live in. Stories reveal the truth — the truth in yourself and the truth all around you, so I thought that was very interesting in “A Monster Calls.”
What was it like doing your first adaptation?
The first time I read the book I thought it was a story that I understood and felt closer to the themes that I am attracted to, but at the same time, I tried to make it even more personal by putting in this idea that Conor is an artist because I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid exactly the same way as Conor. Cinema and drawing were an escape for me when I was a kid, so from the moment I had this idea, I thought I had the approach of how to tell the story on the screen.
The first time I read the book, it was the illustrated version, so from that moment on, it was very difficult to separate the story from the drawings. The most challenging thing in telling this story is telling the story because the story itself is so complicated. It deals with so many different layers of fantasy and reality and with stories inside a story, so finding the right architecture to put that on the screen was the main challenge. We had to make [each separate element] as simple as possible. The monster, for example, represents an idea of simplicity. We did a lot of designs for the monster and at the end, we came back to the original drawings of [illustrator] Jim Kay that were quite simple — this figure of a man, so it’s more like a tree that looks like a man than a man that looks like a tree. That’s also a consequence of trying to keep the whole thing grounded.
I [also] thought about how I’m going to put stories into the story we’re telling, which is always tricky. One thing I didn’t want to do is put [in a different cast of] actors [in the stories the Monster tells] because seeing other actors playing a story in another story with other actors is always very distracting to me. Then I had this idea about the animation, so by doing that, somehow I was referring not only to Patrick Ness’ story, but Jim Kay’s illustrations from the book, and then I had this idea of Conor doing the drawing himself, so everything started to get connected.
Everything was made more or less at the same time because we started the motion capture [with Liam Neeson playing the Monster] and [there], we already started to work on the visual effects. Then we had the main photography shooting and at the same time, we were doing the animation because I wanted elements in the animation to refer to the real world, so we had to know how the characters in the animation and the clothes [would] look in order to use that in the sets. If you look carefully at the film, you will see some of the pieces of clothes that match what the characters in the animation are wearing in the story, and in Conor’s bedroom, you will see see elements and ideas that you will see [carried over] in the animation, so we had to work at everything at the same time.
You’ve said a real bonding moment for yourself, Lewis and Felicity came at the amusement park that you see in the film, but in the film, you actually see Lewis there with Toby Kebbell, who plays his estranged father. It seems like that became an unexpectedly important location.
Yeah, we spent one day of shooting with Felicity and Lewis for a scene that didn’t make the cut in the end, but it was a good exercise before we started principal photography because it was a way of spending time together and that was important for creating the characters. We went to an amusement park, a swimming pool, to the cinema, to restaurants and we spent a lot of time together — one thing we did was record the rollercoaster scene [which is in a video from the past]. But then we went back to that same [place] to do that scene with Toby and I felt that was a way of explaining how the character doesn’t know how to have fun with the kid. [The amusement park is] a very obvious way of having fun. It’s like the first idea on your mind – I have a kid, let’s bring him to an amusement park. And he also brings him to a Chinese restaurant, so you can see [through] the options that he chooses for spending time with his son, he doesn’t really know how to relate to him.
It must be difficult showing a very subject form of neglect like that – the second time seeing the film I was struck by how both Conor’s father and his headmistress at school (Geraldine Chaplin) say nearly the exact same line in choosing against disciplining him after acting out, saying aloud, “What would be the point?” It’s as if in attempting to show kindness they’re actually being cruel.
What’s interesting to me is Conor is looking for the limits because no one is telling him where the limits are. No one is telling him how to behave in that situation and as a kid, he’s just trying to find out what he can do and what he can’t. He’s looking for the limits and no one really knows how to deal with that, so this is why they don’t punish him. And what he needs is someone telling him you cannot do that. What he needs is someone telling him the truth. The mother, for example, knows she needs to tell him the truth, but she doesn’t because she feels it’s going to be too painful for him. But by not telling him the truth, she’s provoking a bigger pain in him, so that contradiction and that idea of Conor looking for punishment is very related to this idea of the adults not putting in limits.
Because of the parental connections throughout your three films, I’ve heard you refer to this as a trilogy. Now that you’ve finished it, do you actually see this as a transitional moment for you?
Well, it’s like an accidental trilogy. When “A Monster Calls” showed up, it was a way of closing three films that were dealing with similar themes. It was never intentional, but it’s true that if you take a look at “The Orphanage,” it’s about a mother losing her kid and “The Impossible” is about a mother and son surviving and “A Monster Calls” is about a kid losing his mother, so you can see the same themes from very different perspectives. I see the three films as a big canvas of the relationship between mother and son and that bond that is so special.
“A Monster Calls” opens in limited release on December 23rd.