Once upon a time, the cast and creators of the upcoming fantasy/drama A Monster Calls visited the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City to talk about their film with a number of media outlets. In attendance were the film’s stars Sigourney Weaver, Liam Neeson, and Lewis MacDougall; author and screenwriter Patrick Ness; and acclaimed director J.A. Bayona. Weaver left early on in the day before FanFest.com was able to get an interview.
A Monster Calls tells the heartbreaking tale of a young boy named Colin (MacDougall) living with his terminally ill single mother (Rogue One‘s Felicity Jones). The story details the emotional roller coaster for Colin as he faces the fear of losing his mother, school bullies, an absent father, and the prospect of living with his stern grandmother (Weaver). Colin unintentionally conjures up a tree monster (voiced by Neeson) who proceeds to tell the boy three tales that ultimately take Colin to the end of his own story.
FanFest.com was fortunate to attend a special screening of the film, where dry eyes were sparse as the film came to its conclusion. A captivating and emotional story, gorgeous visuals, and solid acting – especially from MacDougall in his very first lead role – make this a movie to see! Fans of Pan’s Labyrinth (like myself!) will find this film particularly enjoyable. Note: Bring tissues!
When Neeson was asked what attracted him to the film, understanding that he was at the top of J.A. Bayona’s list for the role of The Monster, he had quite the complementary comments to make about the director:
I had seen J.A.’s The Impossible and I thought it was a terrific film. I’m a big fan of Ewan’s [McGregor] and Naomi’s [Watts], but these kids were extraordinary. And, I thought, well [Bayona] has got to be another Steven Spielberg if he can bring performances like that out of these children. And I thought then, okay, with A Monster Calls, he has obviously picked some special kid. So that was a lure too.
Neeson also spoke about how he brought The Monster to life and how taken aback he was with his very first time performing through motion capture:
[The Monster] kinda looked as if it was someone who had walked into a tree and their face had all been squashed. So that helped inform me of how this thing might speak. Have trouble breathing; takes his breath from the graveyard in some way; and be quite spectral. So it was lovely… and the motion capture was… I had never done that stuff before.
I felt like a jerk. You’re in a onesie, with ping pong balls all over your body and attached to sensors. And there’s five computer nerds behind laptops. And they’re supplying you with… well, I forgot to say… your own space, but of course they don’t call it space because they’re computer nerds. It’s called the “the volume.” And there are 70 cameras going ’round in a circle and there are 70 cameras overhead. […] I’d be acting to a puppet that size [motioning a small object]. Lewis [MacDougall] would be off-camera, supplying these extraordinary emotions even though he’s off-camera. And then the computer nerds are giving you this digital makeup. So, when we’d shoot a scene, J.A. would show it to me – roughly what it would look like – and I was like, God, this is an extraordinary process.
A Monster Calls is based on a book written by the film’s screenwriter, Patrick Ness, but the idea of the story didn’t start with Ness. An Irish author, Siobhan Dowd, originated the idea and began to put it to page while battling terminal breast cancer, ultimately passing away before making it past the first chapter. After a bit of hesitation, Ness decided to finish the tale that Dowd had begun. It wasn’t too long before talks of a movie took place. “Hollywood started calling a bit, which is always very nice,” said Ness.
The film’s 14 year-old star, Colin MacDougall, had first appeared in the 2015 Peter Pan film, Pan. And while A Monster Calls is MacDougall’s second feature film, he described his feelings on being cast in his first starring role:
When I was told I got the part, I was obviously very excited but nervous at the same time. I mean, it’s such a big role to undertake with quite dark themes, so I was definitely a bit nervous about that aspect of it.
MacDougall also spoke about how Bayona helped him get through the very emotionally heavy scenes:
[Bayona] would often use music on the set. […] That I found very, very helpful in terms of getting emotional. I think music can, along with maybe thinking of things you’ve experienced yourself in your own life, music can really help to just surface that.
When I asked MacDougall if he was familiar with Sigourney Weaver (who sports an English accent in the film), he described his excitement for working with such a renowned actress:
Oh, I definitely was familiar with her before [working with her]. And it was very, very cool. It’s not every day that somebody at my age, as an actor, gets to work with somebody of that stature. […] I think I learned a lot from getting the opportunity to work with her and be around her while she was doing what she does best.
Director J.A. Bayona, known for his critically acclaimed films The Orphanage and The Impossible, also sat down with us and gave us some insight into his relationship with friend and fellow director, Guillermo Del Toro, and their mutual love for fantasy:
Guillermo and I, we love fantasy. And we understand reality better through fantasy. I think fantasy is a very important element in the location of every kid. I think we all need stories. We all need fairy tales. Fiction to process some of the most complex ideas or emotions that we go through when we are kids. And I think, somehow, this is one of the reasons I love so much this story, because it tells us about it. It tells us about how we need fantasy to understand reality – through this idea of the monster that comes every night to tell stories to the kid in order to process what he is going through.
Bayona also told us that he came to find out about Patrick Ness’ story through The Orphanage and The Impossible writer, Sergio Sánchez, who Bayona says was obsessed with book.
When we asked Bayona how he felt about being compared to Spielberg and about reviews that compare A Monster Calls to E.T., he shared his admiration for what Spielberg has accomplished with his work:
I love E.T. It’s one of my favorite movies. I think that one of the reasons I wanted to do [A Monster Calls] is the combination of fantasy and emotion, and I think Spielberg invented the drama for kids with [E.T.]. I mean, this is a movie for kids to make them cry. And the respect he treats [the kids with] all the time and the way he portrays childhood. The complexities of a kid when he grows up. You see Empire of the Sun and so many films about it. So, it’s always very flattering when they compare your film to Spielberg.
And in speaking of Spielberg, we ended the interview with Bayona by asking him what he could share with us about his upcoming film, the sequel to Jurassic World:
It was Steven Spielberg who asked me to do Jurassic and, of course, I grew up watching his films – and for me it’s a privilege to work with him. And after doing three very intense films about death – life and death – I thought that that would be an amazing break, playing with dinosaurs and try to have some fun for the first time. It’s gonna be darker than the other ones though. […] But it’s gonna be a lot of fun, of course.
One of the highlights of our day at the Waldorf Astoria happened when, just as Liam Neeson was about to leave the roundtable room, a reporter mentioned, “I do hope this doesn’t get swallowed up by Rogue One.” To which Neeson replied, “What’s Rogue One?” Qui-Gon wouldn’t be so thrilled.
A Monster Calls comes calling today in theaters everywhere.
Be sure to check out our interview below with ‘A Monster Calls’ star Lewis MacDougall, as he tells us what he’s a fan of and his thoughts on critics who may think that ‘A Monster Calls’ is too dark for kids.
Credit: Co-Interviewer and Camera by Onnie Bakhaus