For director J. A. Bayona, whose previous films, “The Orphanage” and “The Impossible,” brim with poignant emotional resonance, it only seems fitting that his latest project, “A Monster Calls,” offers another touching story about the trials of human existence.
Adapted from a novel of the same name by Patrick Ness — who also wrote the screenplay — “A Monster Calls” brings to life the emotional struggles of 13-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he copes with the terminal illness of his mother, Lizzie (Felicity Jones), and the unfortunate onslaught of school bullies. Conor comes closer to understanding the worldly battles he faces with the help of his drawings and, coincidentally, a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson), who confronts the young boy with whimsical tales of royalty and vengeance, all of which are the result of Conor’s vivid, adaptive imagination.
The PHOENIX spoke with Bayona about his film, sharing his love for Ness’s original work, and his thoughts on the fantasy genre.
Bayona eagerly shared that he finds Ness’s novel to be a compelling examination of child psychology. One of his favorite parts of Ness’s writing is how he recognizes the complexity and reality of childhood.
“I think emotions are very important because [kids] don’t have a sense of history, really. What they have is emotion. They are what they feel, and I think, in that sense, emotions are very important when you tell a story through the eyes of a kid,” Bayona said.
Bayona also said the story reveals an inherent connection between the fantastic and the natural.
“It’s very interesting, the way Patrick Ness separates the reality from the truth,” Bayona said. “I think reality is all about information, and information is not knowledge. I think we get the knowledge from stories — we get the knowledge from fiction.”
For Bayona, who said he believes that “reality is not 100 percent real,” one of the greatest challenges of visualizing Ness’s novel was trying to merge reality with fantasy in a way that enriched the existing storyline.
“I was trying to find a way of blending, in a very natural way, the world of fantasy and the idea of reality,” he said. “If you take a look at the film very closely, [you can see] how many frames, how many doors [and] how many windows separate the world of Conor from the world of the adults, or the world of fantasy from the world of reality.”
That visual element might have been influenced by Bayona’s artistic background, which he incorporated into the film’s plot to capture the depth of Conor’s emotional journey.
“I always loved movies, and I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid, … so making Conor an artist … was the way I tried to make the story more personal to me and a way of visualizing the inner world of Conor,” he said.
Bayona said casting Liam Neeson as the voice actor for the Monster — one of the film’s most important characters — was an obvious choice.
“We were looking for an Irish actor [who could] represent [Celtic] wisdom and bring the gravitas, the strong presence that we needed for the Monster … I don’t remember that we thought about other actors,’” Bayona said. “It was always Liam Neeson … he loved the book and the script, and he also loved the movies I did, and very surprisingly, it was very easy to get him to play the Monster in the film.”
Bayona also spoke about his decision to assign Lewis MacDougall the role of Conor, an important casting decision for the film.
“The truth is that … from the very first moment I saw Lewis, I knew that he was not just a great actor, but also someone very special — very unique. The way he approached the scenes was not the way the other kids … were doing them,” Bayona said. “He was more about rage, he was more about anger, he was reluctant to show me his tears, and that made the performance so real, so unique and so truthful that I knew that in Lewis I would find … a very special Conor for the film.”
In his final remarks, the director again explained his admiration for the film’s theme of seeking truth in our chaotic and often fabricated reality, and said understanding this aspect of the story helped him envision the film as a whole.
“The story’s a beautiful story that tells us how important [the truth is], — how much we care about the truth and how we need to understand that things can be black or white, but at the same time, things deal a lot with grey areas, and life is complicated,” Bayona said. “That was the key to understanding what the film was about … and following that, I was able to put the pieces all together.”
Director J.A. Bayona’s new film “A Monster Calls” is now in theatres nationwide.