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Capone talks A MONSTER CALLS and the JURASSIC WORLD sequel with director J.A. Bayona!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

One of my absolute favorite filmmakers in recent years is the Spanish-born Juan Antonio García Bayona (better known stateside as J.A. Bayona), who I’ve been fortunate enough to interview for each of his feature films, THE ORPHANAGE, THE IMPOSSIBLE, and his most recent, A MONSTER CALLS. He’s a wonderfully imaginative visionary, who makes the fantastical feel real, and seems to have a particular fondness for stories about kids being separated from their parents—just one more reason to love his work.

Based on the novel by Patrick Ness (who also wrote the screenplay), A MONSTER CALLS is another emotional journey involving a boy named Conor (newcomer Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (ROGUE ONE’s Felicity Jones) is struggling to beat cancer. While she’s in the hospital, Coner is forced to live with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), whom he does not get along with, while eagerly hoping that his long-absent father (Toby Kebbell) will return from the states to take him away from so much pain. Instead what happens is that a monster (voiced by Liam Nesson) visits him at night to deliver three stories (and take one as well) in the hopes of fortifying Conor to both overcome his current problems and prepare him for life moving forward. The film alternates between scary, funny, heartbreaking, and quite touching, and it’s all quite wonderful in a way I think both young and old will respond to with tears, laughter and everything in between. In other words, all of this is Bayona’s sweet spot as a filmmaker.

Oh and did I mention, Bayona's next film is the JURASSIC WORLD sequel, set for release in June 2018, and I can’t wait to see how he uses his gifts to deliver sometimes terrifying moments in that context. This is one of the few interviews I actually went after in 2016. Usually when I see a film at a press screening, the interview opportunities are either offered or they aren’t just before or just after we see the film. But after seeing A MONSTER CALLS, I chased JA Bayona down for a chance to walk through this magnificent film with him. I hope you enjoy our talk…

J.A. Bayona: Hello, Steve.

Capone: Hey, sir. How are you?

JAB: I’m very good, and it’s so good to hear your voice again. How are you?

Capone: Good. And it’s great to talk to you again as well. So this is the third film about childhood trauma that you’ve made. What is it about torturing children that you like so much?

JAB: [laughs] I think what I really like is movies that definitely deal with the complexities of growing up and childhood. We’re so used to seeing movies nowadays that we see childhood treated in such a flat way, where things are black or white. And this movie is about how we need to understand, as we grow up, these things can be black and white at the same time. I really like how seriously Patrick Ness takes childhood in his stories. I think he’s an artist in his portrayal of child characters in his stories.

Capone: In addition to whatever was in the book already that you liked, did you also do research into coping mechanisms of children through fantasy? That’s a fairly common way of escaping traumatic events that children frequently use.

JAB: I think fantasy is a very important element in the location of the kid. We all need fantasy to understand reality. Even as a grownup, we need movies, we need books to understand what reality is about. I think at the heart of this story is this idea that fantasy gives us a better comprehension of reality. And in that sense, I think what Patrick Ness makes is very interesting, the way he separates reality from the truth. I think reality deals with more with information, and the truth and knowledge are something that come with fiction, with art. I think the stories reveal the truth in a better way than reality.

Capone: Well those are the two primary themes of the film: art as means of expression and a means of escape for young minds.

JAB: Don’t you think that we all feel the same? We go around watching movies. In my case, I was also obsessed with drawing, and that’s a idea I suggested to Patrick, that by making Conor an artist, it’s a way of articulating the story details using animation. And doing animation was also a way of introducing Jim Kay's illustrations from he original book, and I really made the whole thing closer to me from the moment we decided that Conor was an artist, because I was obsessed also when I was a kid with drawing.

Capone: Let me ask you about the animation sections, because those are so beautiful. It’s almost like you’ve got these short films in the middle of your own film. Tell me about designing those segments and moving between them in the film.

JAB: It’s quite a complex story. It has so many different subject matters, with a level of reality and fantasy. I thought that having stories inside a story was pretty challenging, and my first idea is I didn’t want to use actors, because I felt that using real actors in a story inside a story with other actors, it would be too distracting, it would pull the attention too much from the focus of the story. So I came with this idea of the animations. I thought somehow that the animations, they allow the audience a space to keep interpreting the story by themselves. One of the ideas I had is I didn’t want to see faces. I wanted to have the [animated] characters without faces, and by doing that, you leave the audience the chance of imaging the characters for themselves. They can have their own idea of the characters.

Capone: The other thing this film deals with is finding the truth, and it forces Conor to come to grips with how his life is about to change. That ultimately is the goal of the entire fantasy. But that’s a tough transition for a kid to make, and I think you personified it beautifully. Talk about that element of it as well.

JAB: Yes, especially the complexity of the psychology of Conor and the way he needs to understand that sometimes your thoughts can be black and white at the same time, so you know you grow up as a kid watching films things teach you that things are black and white. Then you grow up and discover that things can be black and white at the same time, and accepting that uncertainty definitely deals a lot with growing up. There’s a moment where the kid is watching KING KONG. The reason I chose that film is because, when I was a kid, I used to watch KING KONG every year, and of course you are with King Kong when you see KING KONG. For every kid, King Kong is a good guy, but it’s the good guys who are killing King Kong at the end of the story, and that contradiction reflects the complexity of the moment that Conor is going through. To accept this idea that things can be black and white at the same time.

Capone: Guillermo del Toro says he always sides with the monster.

JAB: What’s interesting about the monster is that the monster is a result of your nightmares, and ultimately the solution. So that contradiction makes it very human, makes it very real.

Capone: Let’s talk about creating the look of the monster. Did you design him to look like something a talented young artist might actually be able to draw?

JAB: We had the beautiful drawings from Jim Kay, and in the book, there was a drawing that I love where you can see the monster sitting on a rooftop, and it’s such a powerful image. It’s basically the shape of a man, and it reminds me a lot of The Thinker. Then I thought about one very powerful image from Goya, the Spanish painter, called The Colossus. It’s also the image of an old man with muscles and naked, and my idea of having such a manly character was that the monster represents the man Conor is turning into. So we came to the conclusion, after going through lots of different designs, that there was something very powerful from the drawing, that simplicity, and this idea that we want a monster that was more of a tree that looks like a man, and not a man that looks like a tree. That simplicity makes it very effective and very poetic.

Capone: Was any part of the monster that we see in the film built practically?

JAB: Yeah, there was a lot. The movie, it’s a fantasy but at the same time it’s a drama. We had to get the fantasy very grounded in order to blend it with the reality of the story. There were moments very dramatic, very intimate, between the mother and the son, with the monster inside the room, and that had to be re-created with very complex, very complicated visual effects. So that was reason for doing the monster so simply, so as not to draw the attention.

And also, we tried to re-create the monster the same way they did the old King Kong in the ’30s. This is also why we used KING KONG, because he’s watching KING KONG, and that same night he meets the monster. We are re-creating the same things that they did: we have a real, life-size head, we have the big arms, we have one foot, and the way they were using stop motion we were doing motion capture. It’s a great advance, because for the first time you can capture the soul, you can capture the pace, the sensitivity, the reality of a performance and put that in the animation, and that’s a great advance.

Capone: I have to imagine that helped Louis, who may not be used to working in a special effects environment, to have something actually there to touch and look at.

JAB: Yeah. It’s always very important to have the actors acting with something, so when we did the motion capture with Liam, Louis was always there. We spent 10 days doing the scenes again and again, and always in front of Louis. And for Louis, it was the best rehearsal possible, so he kept that for the shooting. And in the shooting, he was again against the animatronic or the acting coach or even myself. I was feeding him the lines sometimes on set.

Capone: A couple of months ago, I was fortunate enough to sit down for a while with Geraldine Chaplain. We were talking about how she’s become your good luck charm and appears in all of your features. But the one thing she didn’t know was whether she was going to be in your JURASSIC WORLD sequel. So I’m putting you on the spot. I’m asking for her.

JAB: [laughs] I really don’t know. I always try to find space for having her, because it’s always great to meet her, to talk to her. She’s a great person. Having the chance to talk to her and listen to the stories that she knows and the stories about her father [Charlie Chaplin], it’s always great to spend time with her.

Capone: One of the best interviews I’ve ever done. She loves telling those stories. So you’re moving from these very deep psychological stories, to something that is designed for maximum thrills, maximum entertainment. Are you going to find ways to make it the scariest version of that since the first one?

JAB: [laughs] For me, I love Steven Spielberg. You can tell that from watching my movies. It’s very exciting to have the chance to work with him in the new JURASSIC film. At the same time, I consider JURASSIC his baby, so I’m not planning to kidnap his baby and take the baby in such a different place that you would not know it. I think what I should do is take care of it as much as possible. Also, I see this film as a collaboration between filmmakers, because Colin Trevorrow is very involved with the script. So it’s very exciting to work with these guys.

I think the reason they chose me is because they love THE ORPHANAGE and THE IMPOSSIBLE, and the plan was to bring the new chapter to a darker place. And of course, it’s going to be a lot of fun and exciting, and you know that from the moment you have Chris Pratt that it’sgoing to be a lot of fun, and it’s a JURASSIC movie. I could see that there are some parts in the other JURASSIC movies that are pretty dark, and I would love to get back there and put my stamp on it.

Capone: I’m depending on you to do exactly that.

JAB: [laughs] I’ll try to.

Capone: [Producer] Frank Marshall gave an interview recently, and he said that you’re going to use more animatronic dinosaurs—at least that’s the plan.

JAB: Well, yeah. I think that the trick always is to mix different techniques. So you have the audience not really knowing what they’re seeing. The moment you use only CGI, you can notice there’s something missing. Also, I’m very aware the audience nowadays, they don’t accept animatronics the way we accepted them in the ’80s. So I think it’s a question of finding the balance between animatronics and CGI. That was my goal with A MONSTER CALLS. We were using the animatronics as much as possible, but from the moment you’re capturing the performance from another actor, it’s tricky. In this case, I think we’re going to try to use animatronics as much as possible. You have a real sense of weight, of reality, when you have the balance, but at the same time there’s going to be lots of CGI.

Capone: You have Sigourney Weaver in this film, and I love that at first you play her up as the only bad guy in the movie, and of course that’s not what she is at all. But Conor sees her that way initially. We really do come to be on her side in a lot of ways, because she may be losing a child just as much as Conor may lose his mother. And by the way, I should thank you for reversing the trend of British actors taking all the American roles by giving a British part to an American actor. But talk about that role of the grandmother, because she’s so important here.

JAB: I think it’s true that all of the characters in this film, they deal with some contradiction, because that’s what Conor needs to learn and that’s what makes them human. When we talk about the grandmother, you need to be aware that she’s playing the witch for her grandson, but at the same time she’s playing the mother for Felicity. She has these dual aspects that makes her very human. I think all the characters, they try to do that. You can tell how the mother is trying not to hurt the kid, so she tries not to tell him the truth and not to hurt him, but not telling him the truth is creating a bigger pain.

That contradiction of trying to keep your baby safe, but at the same time, by doing that she’s creating a bigger pain. Or the father, for example, who does the most unspeakable, unlikable act in the film, so because he does that, I wanted the father to be the more likable character. He’s a really nice guy. You can tell he’s not a bad guy, but he’s a weak man. For me, the father is a very interesting character, because he represents how Conor would be if he had grown up without meeting the monster. He’s a Conor without fantasy in his life. So all the characters, they try to keep that contradiction that makes them very human and that gives sense to the journey that Conor is going through.

Capone: In retrospect, do you see these three films as a trilogy, as something that has a connective tissue among them about broken families and trying to find a way to heal those families?

JAB: I think so. I think it’s a trilogy about the relationship between the mother, the son, and dad. Quite a triangle that you know well, but I think those three elements, they define the story in THE ORPHANAGE, THE IMPOSSIBLE, and A MONSTER CALLS. It was never planned to be like that, but from the moment I read A MONSTER CALLS, I realized that it was the perfect company to the other two films I did before.

Capone: And Now you're jumping off the deep end with the next one. [Both laugh] Make it as dark and you can, and get Geraldine in there. Juan Antonio, thank you so much for talking. Always great to talk to you.

JAB: Yeah, you too. Thank you so much.

-- Steve Prokopy
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