- Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016
All three of director J.A. Bayona’s creatively ambitious features share the bond of what he describes as “characters finding themselves in a very intense situation, with death on the horizon.”
It started with The Orphanage, a poignant horror movie from screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez which made its initial mark at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. The Orphanage became at that time the highest grossing Spanish-language film in Spain’s history and one of the most successful Spanish-language films abroad. The Orphanage won seven Goya Awards, Spain’s equivalent of the Oscars, including Best New Director distinction. Next up was The Impossible, Bayona’s film based on the true story (another Sanchez screenplay) of a family that survived, was separated and then somehow miraculously reunited after a tsunami ravaged the western coast of Thailand on the day after Xmas in 2004. Naomi Watts, Ewan McGregor and Tom Holland starred in the film which garnered more than $180 million at the worldwide box office and earned Watts Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nominations in 2013. The Impossible won five Goya Awards, including for Best Director.
Now Bayona’s third feature, A Monster Calls (Focus Features)--from the novel and screenplay by Patrick Ness--is slated for release in select theaters on Dec. 23. The film centers on 12-year-old Conor (played by Lewis MacDougall) dealing not only with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) debilitating and life-threatening illness, but also a seemingly less than sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) and bullying classmates. Conor finds an ally when a Monster appears at his bedroom window, a huge tree-like human character who guides the lad on a journey of courage, faith, discovery and truth. Liam Neeson stars in performance capture and voiceover as the Monster.
“When you read the book, you experience such an emotional journey, a story full of fantasy, entering the world of kids in a meaningful way,” reflected Bayona. “It’s a story with so many layers.”
Key was casting the actor to portray Conor. Late in the process, young Lewis MacDougall came to Ness and Bayona’s attention. MacDougall had just wrapped filming his first movie, Pan. Ness, Bayona and producer Belen Atienza was favorably impressed with MacDougall’s audition video. Bayona noted, “We could see that Lewis was able to convey internal conflict. That was important because Conor struggles with a conflict that he is not able to externalize.”
Also critical was the look of the Monster. After exploring many designs, Bayona said that he and his colleagues ultimately returned to something more along the lines of Jim Kay’s illustrations in the book, opting to go “not with a man who looks like a tree but more a tree that looks like a man.” And rather than CG, Bayona gravitated towards “tangible physicality, crafting the building of an intimidating creature that still had warmth and soul. The animatronic on-set Monster entailed special make-up effects creations by Pan’s Labyrinth Oscar winners Montse Ribe and David Marti via their company DDT VFX--working in concert with production designer Eugenio Caballero, also an Oscar winner for Pan’s Labyrinth. Over a three-month span, 30-plus artists and four hydraulics specialists created head and shoulders, arms and hands and feet. In one scene there’s a giant paw that grabs Conor out of his bedroom. Conor later touches a massive foot. The Monster’s huge head is seen outside his window. These components are all real handcrafted work.
Several VFX houses created the digital components of the Monster. Helping to define him digitally were VFX supervisor Felix Berges of the El Ranchito studio. Berges and Costa earlier teamed on a VES Award-winning effort for best supporting effects on The Impossible.
And of course, actor Neeson, a Best Leading Actor Oscar nominee for Schindler’s List, brought a depth, humanity and persona to the Monster.
Asked what lessons were learned based on his experience making A Monster Calls, Bayona related, “We wanted the audience to see the world through the eyes of a kid who doesn’t know exactly what’s going on yet is somehow trying to cope with so much. What it came down to for me was the truth. Storytelling is about finding the truth, expressing the truth, finding your own truth, your own story, making it very personal to you. I hope this movie does that. We had so many great collaborators pushing to attain that.”
Among those collaborators were cinematographer Oscar Faura, editors Bernat Vilaplana and Jaume Marti, composer Fernando Velazquez, and aforementioned production designer Caballero. “It’s a great family of collaborators,” affirmed Bayona who goes all the way back to film school with classmate Faura. The DP has lensed all three of Bayona’s features. Caballero first teamed with Bayona on The Impossible, garnering Art Directors Guild and Goya Award nominations in the process. Vilaplana and Marti earlier worked with Bayona on The Impossible (Vilaplana as editor and Marti as post supervisor) as well as cutting the first two episodes of Penny Dreadful (both helmed by Bayona). Velazquez additionally scored Bayona’s The Orphanage and The Impossible.
Still there was room for Bayona to connect with first-time collaborators on A Monster Calls, including costume designer Steven Noble, a BAFTA and Costume Designers Guild Award nominee for James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.
Next for Bayona is the Jurassic World sequel (Universal Pictures), slated for release in June 2018.
Another first time collaborator for Bayona was writer Ness. A Monster Calls marked Ness’ first feature screenplay, adapted from his novel which was based on an original idea by Siobhan Dowd who died from cancer soon after starting the book--having written about 1,000 words, coming up with an idea for the structure, as well as a few characters. Initially reluctant when approached by Dowd’s editor to take on the novel following her passing, Ness decided to tackle the project, being true to its story and spirit. He observed, “To me, this is a story about fear or loss. I was really trying above all to find the truth of how Conor felt.”
It’s a truth that struck a responsive chord with readers. The novel "A Monster Calls" has been published in nearly 40 languages and has won many coveted awards including the Carnegie Medal and for illustrator Kay the Kate Greenaway Medal.
Bayona said first and foremost in his mind was to do justice to the story. Ness too felt a profound sense of responsibility along those same lines. “A few people had suggested how they might change or soften the story,” related Ness. “I had to stay firm. I felt like a real custodian for the story--looking after it for myself, Siobhan and the illustrator.”
Ness said relative to Kay, “I’m a words guy, not an illustrator. Jim Kay is a lovely man who brought incredible stuff to the story that I could never have thought of.”
This is the fifth in a multi-part series with future installments of The Road To Oscar slated to run in the weekly SHOOT>e.dition, The SHOOT Dailies and on SHOOTonline.com, with select installments also in print issues. The series will appear weekly through the Academy Awards. The Oscars will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017, at the Dolby Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center in Hollywood, and will be televised live by the ABC Television Network. The Oscar presentation also will be televised live in more than 225 countries and territories worldwide.
J.A. Bayona, director; Patrick Ness, writer; Oscar Faura, cinematographer; Bernat Vilaplana, Jaume Marti, editors; Fernando Velazquez, composer; Felix Berges, VFX supervisor.