J.A Bayona is at the airport heading to Barcelona after being in LA for a few days, but he’s still got time to talk about bringing the beloved children’s book, A Monster Calls to the big screen. It’s a weep-fest as young Conor (Lewis MacDougall, delivering a superbly heartbreaking performance) enlists a tree monster to help him cope with his mother who’s very ill. The C-word is never used in the film, but as the viewer, we know she’s stricken with cancer and deteriorating. Through fantasy, young Conor is able to deal with the truth and the reality that fate has in store for his future.
J.A Bayona and I talked about the common thread of truth in his films, The Impossible, The Orphanage, and now A Monster Calls. “The only way to survive was to tell the truth.” Bayona says of The Impossible, and when Conor finally faces the truth it A Monster Calls,”It was cathartic.” He says of the truth
“I loved that fantasy side.” Bayona says on what attracted him to the story. “I thought it was so unique in that it shows how we need stories of fantasy to help process reality.” He adds.
Read the full interview below as Bayona tells us about the challenges of bringing A Monster Calls to life.
Awards Daily: The topics you deal with are so moving. How did you first come into contact with the screenplay?
J.A Bayona: Sergio G.Sanchez was obsessed with the book. We had worked together on The Orphanage and The Impossible and he was telling me all about it. I didn’t read the book at the time because I was working on a TV series, a small show called Penny Dreadful. I got the script and wanted to read the book first, so I did. The emotional reaction you have when you read the book is so rare to see. I love the fantasy side of it too. I thought it was so unique in that it shows how we need stories and fantasies to help process reality which I thought was a beautiful subject matter for the basis of a film.
AD: You deal with a difficult subject. I love how you show the realism of how a child deals with loss. How did you handle turning that into what we see on screen?
JAB: The approach that Patrick used really was great. The psychological journey that Conor is on was done in such a profound way. It was so extraordinary that this really was a book for kids. The author, Siobhan Dowd, found out that she had breast cancer had wanted to write a book for kids to help them cope if their family faced the same thing, and that really was helpful knowing that. Patrick had done so much based on his experiences and so it was helpful in bringing that all to life in the movie.
AD: It shows there’s this legacy being passed on from the parent to the child. It shows that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.
JAB: That’s what I loved too, that it shows that. The key was that I had this idea that Conor was an artist and everything is connected through art. You talk about legacy. I found myself close to Conor after I had that added to his character because I was obsessed with drawing as a kid. I was obsessed with art, and it served as an escape. I like the idea of art and legacy, and had romanticized it, and managed to fit that into the story.
AD: Lewis is such a phenomenal find for you. He really drove the film in his performance.
JAB: The weight Conor carries in this film is something I had never done before. I was looking for the right kid, and that’s not something you can cheat with. I saw hundreds of kids, when I saw Lewis, I saw something so unique. We had these emotional auditions, and the kids would cry and they did what you’d expect them to do. Lewis, however, was all about rage and anger and he was so impressive. He didn’t want to cry. I thought straightaway that his mood was unique and there was so much truth to his audition. He was special and just extraordinary.
AD: There’s a theme of pain of survival in The Impossible and there’s the theme of survival in this film, but you always show hope.
JAB: Well, there’s a strong connection of truth in both The Orphanage and The Impossible, and the need to tell the truth. In The Impossible, lying was not a way to survive. The only way to survive in that film was, to tell the truth. In this film, the sickness is a means for Conor to tell the truth. We’re not used to this, telling the truth. We’re scared of the truth. Truth can be cathartic, and I found that to be the case in A Monster Calls, and it was healing, and that’s where we are when we get to the end. We feel relieved and grateful for watching the film,
AD: How did you come up with the way the tree is shown as the the monster?
JAB: We did a lot of research as to how it would look so as to not be distracting. We found that the more sophisticated we made him the less powerful he would be. We went to the original designs in the book. The monster in the illustrated book is what we ended up using. It reminded me of the old paintings where we see God, where we see Gods as an old man with muscles. It reminded me of Goya too where the monster had to be a simple idea.
The monster had to be simple here because he is the grown-up that Conor is turning to. He had to be manly and a tree that looked like a man, and not the other way around. We did a lot of research on the visual effects to keep him grounded. It’s a drama and so we had to make sure we were focused on the story.
AD: Another incredible addition to the cast is Sigourney Weaver as the grandmother?
JAB: Both Lewis and Sigourney had the right personas. When you first see her appear on screen, you feel she’s a strong woman who represents being like an evil witch to this little kid, but also in all of that performance, there’s a sense of vulnerability. I thought that it was just perfect because she’s playing both the mother and grandmother, and she brought this great versatility to the story.
AD: Was there anything you found particularly difficult in telling the story?
JAB: I think it was just finding the way to tell the story because it’s not an easy story to tell. It’s based on a book, and when you read a book it’s such a different experience to watching a film, so we had to find the right architecture for the film to tell the story. We’re dealing with so many different subject matters, like the delicate subject of cancer. It operates on a level of fantasy and reality, so finding the right tone for the film was challenging, and it took us time in the editing to find a way to tell the time so it would connect in the way it would for audiences.