Crafting compelling tales of beauty and pain, J.A. Bayona has been carving out his niche as a daring director. Thanks to the support of Guillermo del Toro, the Spanish filmmaker broke onto the scene in 2007 with the tender yet terror-laced The Orphanage. He followed the critically heralded horror-thriller with The Impossible, a heart-wrenching drama detailing the true story of a family of tourists swept up and traumatized by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. His sophomore effort scored an Oscar nod for Naomi Watts’ lead performance, yet Bayona seems poised for his biggest critical success yet with the fantastical family drama A Monster Calls.
Based on the illustrated YA novel by Patrick Ness–who also penned the screenplay– A Monster Calls centers on a young boy (newcomer Lewis MacDougall) as he struggles to cope with his mother’s terminal illness. As she grows weaker, the yew tree from a nearby graveyard comes walking, rising out of the ground as a gargantuan figure who descends on the boy’s bedroom to tell a trio of tales that offer complicated truths about life, but also a path forward.
Screen Rant sat down with Bayona to discuss A Monster Calls‘ striking aesthetic that blends 3D animation with inventive watercolors, the value of fantasy, and how Spider-Man: Homecoming‘s Tom Holland made a special contribution to the titular beast’s performance.
This movie has such a fantastic aesthetic, both from the dark elements of the monster, to the water color. Can you talk to me a bit about how that came together?
J.A. Bayona: Well, A Monster Calls is such a special and unique puzzle bringing many different pieces together. We have in the center a story of a mother and her son but at the same time we have the relationship between the kid and the monster and we have fairy tales that are told by the monster in the story. So the architecture was pretty challenging and finding the right tone for the whole thing was quite challenging. I think because it’s based upon an illustrated book for me was very difficult from the very first moment to separate the story from the drawings. From the moment I decided I was going to show the tales using animation, it was like a way of bringing all those drawing from Jim Kay to the film. Watercolors, somehow, establishes a connection with Conor in a way that he’s an artist and he’s obsessed with drawing and using the art, tell the story in a very visual way.
I think also the colors bleed in a way that it makes the watercolor feel more alive and more related to what he’s going through in a sense.
J.A. Bayona: The fact that it’s watercolors, most of the times you can only see shapes and you interpret the shapes. You can find your own interpretation of what you’re seeing through. And that’s very interesting because the movie is based upon a book, when you read a book you have your own interpretation, but when you do a film you need to do the interpretation for the audience. So as a director, you want to leave some space for the audience be part of the viewing of the film and the watercolors with these characters, they don’t have a face, there’s a space in there so the audience can be part of the interpretation of the story.
One thing that I really liked, this is one of several stories recently that’s about having sympathy for a monster. It pairs a small child with a great beast. There’s The BFG and Jungle Book and Pete’s Dragon and then, A Monster Calls. What do you think it is about that kind of pairing that is really apparently speaking to filmmakers and hopefully to audiences right now?
J.A. Bayona: Well I think fantasy is a very important part of our education. As kids we need fantasy to understand reality. This is what fairy tales were written for. Using fairy tales we can understand very complex emotions and thoughts that, the other way around, we wouldn’t be able to process as kids. So I think fantasy is more effective in telling a better comprehension of life and life itself.
And I heard that Tom Holland sort of has a cameo?
J.A. Bayona: Well, it’s more like a joke. We were shooting one day, the motion capture, and we had to do this scene with the monster tries to fit into the grandmother’s living room and we didn’t have a space for any actor in the kind of living room we had in our motion capture set and Tom Holland came to visit. I said, “Listen, why don’t you try to put on the motion capture suit and you try to do the shot yourself?” And he did it. He did a come takes with the motion capture suit. It was more like a joke and I put his name on the credits, but it was fun.
That’s nice. You sort of have a Spider-Man moment.
J.A. Bayona: *laughs* Yeah, more like Venom, with the black suit.
Very good point. So, what do you hope this will bring to families this Christmas?
J.A. Bayona: I think I’ve seen the movie so many times with the theater full of families that you can tell what the experience of watching A Monster Calls with a family. It’s a movie that you can have a strong sense of empathy for the characters. You can relate to the kid, or you can relate to the mother or the father or the grandmother. I think it’s quite an emotional journey to go and see the movie with your friends. It’s a movie that stays with the audience once it finishes. It’s very rewarding as a director because the energy in the room is special, so unique. It’s very emotional but it’s very thought provoking. It’s pretty rewarding when you watch the film with an audience.
Absolutely. Having seen it twice, I’d agree with that.
J.A. Bayona: Thank you so much.