J.A. Bayona Honors the Complexity of Childhood in ‘A Monster Calls’

Lewis MacDougall stars as Conor in director J.A. Bayona’s 'A Monster Calls.' (Photo: Jose Haro / Focus Features)

Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona's first two feature films -- the 2007 horror film The Orphanage and 2012’s The Impossible -- garnered both popular attention and critical acclaim. The Impossible, set in the aftermath of the 2003 Indonesian tsunami, caught the attention of Steven Spielberg; Bayona will direct the next installment of the Jurassic Park series.

But Bayona’s latest film, A Monster Calls, addresses neither horror tropes nor global tragedy. Adapted from a book by Patrick Ness, A Monster Calls is about a young boy (Lewis McDougall) forced to face the reality of his mother’s terminal illness, though not without the help of a storytelling monster (voiced by Liam Neeson). Bayona rewires the archetypal coming-of-age tale to create a beautifully rendered meditation on how we cope with grief. We spoke over the phone about his new film, which opens in the Bay Area on Friday, Dec. 23.

Actor Lewis MacDougall (left) and director J.A. Bayona (right) on the set of 'A Monster Calls.'
Actor Lewis MacDougall (left) and director J.A. Bayona (right) on the set of 'A Monster Calls.' (Photo: Quim Vives / Focus Features)

How did you settle on A Monster Calls for your next project?

I think it was the emotional impact when I read Patrick Ness’ book and the fact that it was a fantasy. I love fantasy. But somehow the way Patrick talks about fantasy is very interesting because he says that we need fantasy to understand reality. And I think this is what we do -- we try to tell stories, we try to understand reality using fiction.

Also, the fact that he addresses childhood with such a level of respect, and the complexity of being a kid is also there. So to find a fantasy with that level of emotion and complexity of being a kid -- that reminded me of a lot of movies I saw when I was a kid, like E.T. or The NeverEnding Story. I always wanted to be involved in one of those films.

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The story really approaches childhood with weighty themes.

I think in general A Monster Calls is a story that talks about a lot of elements that kids can recognize very easily. It talks about loneliness. It talks about rage and processing emotions that we don’t know how to deal with. We all have movies that do that. For example, Inside Out is a movie about the complexity of the mind of a kid. But these movies are so rare -- the movies that tell us that the world is not just black or white, it can be black and white at the same time.

Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is shadowed by The Monster (performed and voiced by Liam Neeson) in J.A. Bayona’s 'A Monster Calls.'
Conor (Lewis MacDougall) is shadowed by The Monster (performed and voiced by Liam Neeson) in J.A. Bayona’s 'A Monster Calls.' (Focus Features)

The film has three wonderfully depicted tales the monster tells within it, so it’s also about the act of storytelling as well.

Exactly, exactly. The kid needs to process the stories. These stories, they are not fairy tales. They are real stories, and for the kid, they feel like it. We always tell [kids] stories that are very simple [and] uncomplicated, but the moment they need to accept the complexity in order to grow up, of course, they reject it. The stories that the monster is giving him [are] to make him go through the moment he needs to go through with his mother.

You created real-life, practical parts of the monster that were finished with additional CGI. Tell me about that approach.

We tried to keep the fantasy as grounded as possible. I think from the moment you have that very intimate scene between the mother and her son, and [in the next scene] you bring in a 40-foot tall monster, you want to mold them in way that you don’t feel the difference in tone.

Lewis MacDougall (left) stars as Conor and Felicity Jones (right) stars Mum in director J.A. Bayona’s 'A Monster Calls.'
Lewis MacDougall (left) stars as Conor and Felicity Jones (right) stars Mum in director J.A. Bayona’s 'A Monster Calls.' (Photo: Quim Vives / Focus Features)

That combination of serious reality with fantasy seems to root the film in the genre of magical realism. Do you see that?

It’s true. I don’t know why, but Latin culture is very based in fantasy and touches fantasy very often. I think that magical realism is very natural in Spanish things. I don’t know why. It’s part of our culture, but I love it. It also reminds me of movies I saw when I was a kid. Very complex movies like The Spirit of the Beehive or [films by Spanish filmmaker] Carlos Saura.

How about working with Liam Neeson as the monster?

The monster is based very much on the Green Man, who is a very important character in Irish mythology, and when you think about an Irish actor that can bring the gravitas, the soul, and the wisdom to the voice that you want for the monster, there were not many names on the table. He was number one from the very beginning.

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A Monster Calls opens in Bay Area theaters this Friday, Dec. 23. For more information visit focusfeatures.com.

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