The Book of Henry director Colin Trevorrow discusses the film's script, its unique tone, and moving from a production like Jurassic World to something much smaller. Trevorrow's feature-length directorial debut arrived in 2012's Safety Not Guaranteed - a unique mix of comedy, romance, and sci-fi that won over critics and moviegoers alike. The director followed it up with 2015's massively successful return to the Jurassic Park franchise, and he has since gone back to his indie film roots for The Book of Henry - which he'll follow up with a new installment in another tremendously popular series, when he next helms Star Wars: Episode IX.
For its part, The Book of Henry tells the story of single mother Susan Carpenter (Naomi Watts) and her two sons, Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) - who has a genius-level intellect - and Peter (Jacob Tremblay). Henry acts as a protector to his litter brother Peter, and he additionally tries to help their neighbor Christina Sickleman (Maddie Ziegler), the stepdaughter of police commissioner Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). He writes his plan to save Christina down in a book, and when Susan comes across the book, she begins putting Henry's plan into action.
In an interview with Screen Rant ahead of the release of The Book of Henry, Trevorrow spoke about his experience jumping from Jurassic World immediately into the smaller production of his latest offering, what drew him into the script by Gregg Hurwitz, and previews what fans can expect from Star Wars: Episode IX and Jurassic World 2 (the latter of which he wrote the script for along with Jurassic World co-writer Derek Connolly).
What inspired you to go from something like Jurassic World to a smaller production like Book of Henry?
It was really the script. I read the script before I was offered Jurassic World and it was the movie I was going to do after Safety Not Guaranteed and it really completely encapsulated the kind of thing I wanted to be doing. It was challenging, it had a narrative structure that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It changes the main character in the middle, it changes the perspective that the story’s being told from and it did so many things that I had never seen that I just felt like I had to do it. Then, that opportunity came up [to direct Jurassic World] and I knew that it was something, if I did it well, that I would be able to make movies that interested me for potentially a long time. So I did it, and it did alright, and I promised them that I was going to come back and do this and nobody believed me - like, ‘Sure you are, you’re going to be on a boat.’ I was like, 'No, no, no.' And three months after Jurassic World came out, I was on set shooting this movie.
Speaking of the script, were there any particular challenges of working on a script penned by someone who typically writes novels?
Interesting question. I don’t know. I found the script itself to be so acute and so well structured in what it was trying to do and he was so dialed into… The main character is somebody who has that righteousness that we all feel as a child and that need to destroy apathy at all costs, like, ‘No this is wrong! We’re going to stop it!’ And that’s how I was when I was a kid, and I felt like he really balanced these tones in a pretty beautiful way.
When I first read it, it was much more of a black comedy. So we worked on it together and we made it something that I found has become a film that is much more tonally balanced than it could have been, but it does change tones in the way that life does. Y’know, we go from comedy to tragedy overnight, as we’ve been seeing this week and it felt like a movie for our times in that way.
How is directing something smaller like Book of Henry different from something massive like Jurassic World?
It was harder than Jurassic World. Obviously, the emotions are much more intense in this movie and there were days that were challenging for all of us because I was staring down all my fears as a parent, and the kids were looking at the darkest aspects of childhood right in the eye. So for all of us it was draining in a way that’s different than standing in the jungle for three weeks in the rain.
Speaking of those tones, how did you balance them? And what changes did you make to the script when you were working with Gregg Hurwitz?
Well one of the elements - and it’s going to get into spoiler territory - but making sure Henry’s voice was heard throughout the rest of the movie. So that device that is used, that she’s able to hear him and connect with him wasn’t initially apart of it. She was just sort of following instructions in a book and I felt like the connection of mother and child was something that was obviously so crucial as she goes through this journey that we all go through of not really having found her compass yet as a parent and then losing it further over the course of the movie and really finding it at a moment that I think we all have. Y’know, I have two kids now and you don’t necessarily become a parent the moment your child is born, you can have it a little bit later, and then you kinda lock in. But that’s part of what Gregg did, and it’s part of what Naomi did beautifully and it’s part of the challenge of the movie.
So the trailer for Book of Henry kind of boils it all down to two and a half minutes, but how would you particularly sell this to someone who doesn’t really know what they’re going into?
I don’t think anyone knows how to sell this movie. I really don’t, and we knew it going in. And I think that what we do with the trailer is we showed them the beginning and the end, but [there’s] this major piece of information, obviously, that we leave out, which in the end for me, I get excited about because I feel like it’s something that I can tell parents: This is about all of our fears as parents, and this movie takes you on an emotional roller coaster that will hopefully mirror some of the emotions you might feel when you watch a big summer blockbuster but in a very, very small package.
So is this movie just for parents, or a movie parents can see with their kids?
I would love mothers and daughters to see this movie together. I feel like, Maddie’s performance is so beautiful and what she does to break herself out of the prison she’s in by using her art, I think, is wonderfully rendered by her and I could, having screened the movie and having seen the way mothers and teen girls respond to it in conversation they have together, I would encourage it.
It’s hard for me to tell parents to take their little kids; my son’s seen it, my son’s eight. There’s obviously nothing graphic or anything in it, but it has that same kind of challenging subject matter that an old after school special used to have when they would throw the harsh reality of the world at us. But, y’know, I will let [parents] make their own judgements.
I love the kids in this movie, all three of them were amazing. What was it like casting them and working with them on set?
I’ve always leaned into casting child actors who have already been in films, so Maddie was the first time I worked with somebody how hadn’t. What was amazing is the other two kids were pros, and so they took her under their wing and were like, “This is what it is, this is your mark, they put a little T and your eye-line is over here.” It was one of the most adorable things to watch Jacob Tremblay help her through the basics, but she got it pretty much on day one. She’s crazy talented. I thought I was just hiring a great dancer, and what we got was an amazing actress who - I knew she could emote through her dancing, just from seeing videos and seeing what she can do with her face to communicate her emotions, but I was pretty blown away by what she did in this movie.
And, the movie’s called Book of Henry obviously but it’s more of Naomi Watts’ character’s—
It’s a bit misleading.
Right, so can you talk about her journey a little bit?
Well, part of what fascinated me about the movie is you realize in the second half of the movie that you are watching Naomi’s story the whole time and he even says at the very end, this isn’t my story, it’s yours. She’s essentially somebody who goes through a tragic experience that drums up all of the anger that I think we all feel when we deal with a tragic experience these days and we have a sense of vengeance and we want someone to pay for what has been done. She goes down a road the is very dangerous and ultimately, in a crucial moment, makes the decision of a parent, and not a child. I feel that violence is the mindset of a child and I think in that moment, she goes on a massive journey over the course of the movie and she finally reaches the point where we know as her family is re-completed that she’s going to be the best mother in the world moving forward, which we all try, it’s hard.
So would you call this a coming of age story for Naomi’s character?
A little bit, I mean it’s a coming of parenthood story. She and I are of similar age, I think she’s a little younger, but I’d never seen that before. I’ve never seen a coming to parenthood story and I think everyone grows in the film. To me, Maddie’s journey is equally important and I hope that young girls who see this movie - and hopefully they will - will recognize the bravery of that character and how she took her situation into her own hands and found a way to really save herself, even as everyone around her is trying to figure out a way to save her, ultimately she saves herself. And that, to me, is the most important takeaway from the movie that I hope doesn’t get lost in all the sniper rifles and treehouses and everything else.
There are a lot of extreme emotions in this movie, what was it like handling that on set with the actors? How did they handle it?
Well, they’re all great actors and I feel like movies have shied away from melodrama and I feel like anything that may come off as cheesy and Patty Jenkins had an amazing quote about this last weekend, and James Mangold was writing about this - and I was looking at this little thread on Twitter and how these directors were coming out and being like, ‘Oh finally, someone said it! Can we stop using the word cheesy so we can have emotions in movies again?’ I was like, ‘Yes! I want to have dinner with the two of you, every night, forever.’ And I feel the same way, I feel that actors are dying to be able to dig that deep and show that kind of emotion. I think audiences will respond to it really well - we’re going to find out. I hope they do.
What exactly do you want people to take away from this movie, why is it especially relevant right now?
I try never to get political, and I don’t want to talk about why it’s relevant right now in that context, but I do feel like there’s a lot of anger. When I feel like we lash out at each other and we judge and we make these reactionary judgements against each other that often can lead to violence or verbal abuse and when I look at all the anger in the world, even outside the context of the internet, I feel like it’s important to remember the way we saw the world when were kids. And yes everything was black and white and there was good and there was evil, but what an adult does is recognize that it’s complicated. And I think we just need to remember that there’s always nuanced explanations for a lot of things and if we listen to each other, then maybe we will stop being so angry and violent.
This is obviously a smaller production movie, do you prefer the smaller productions or the bigger productions?
They both have their own challenges, and they can both be hugely gratifying. I think the one thing about the smaller movies is I don’t know if anyone’s going to see them. So you make something, and I have my little art project with like Cheerios and string and cotton balls on it and I want everyone to love it. There’s this guarantee when you come to Jurassic [World] or Star Wars that people are going to go, so I’m out here on bended knee like, ‘Please, come look at my art project.’
So is the pressure different?
It’s a different kind of pressure. No one’s childhood will be ruined by [The Book of Henry] not working, but it’s interesting, that very idea itself, y’know the idea of ‘You ruined my childhood, by making a new version of something that I loved.’ I heard that so much in the years building up to - even before I got involved in Jurassic, it was something that was just kind of buzzing out there, that idea. And something about reading this script grabbed onto me because it was like, let’s talk about what a ruined childhood really means. Those are big words, those are loaded words. So I made a movie about that.
Are you going to continue to bounce back and forth between smaller and bigger projects?
I’m just never sure if I’m going to get to do one more after this. I will keep making them until they tell me to stop. But I think it’s really important to tell original stories. I don’t look at this as small or big, I look at it as franchise and original and this is my second original film. I think, like Safety Not Guaranteed, it’s fiercely original, it’s aggressively original, and that’s important to me because I think the audience has made it very clear that they want new, diverse voices and new, original stories and if we don’t deliver them, then they’re going to leave us. There’s great television now, so we need to need to keep challenging ourselves and challenging them.
Moving to Star Wars, are you jumping into that next? Where are you in that process?
I had to go shoot this movie right away and then I wrote Jurassic World 2, which we’ve been shooting and we’re almost done shooting. I was the on-set writer for that movie, so I would show up with my backpack every day like, ‘What do you guys need?’ That was by far the most rewarding creative experience of my life, just making a movie for another director who I respect and I like built it for him. So it’s different than maybe even the movie I would have written for myself that was a Spanish horror/thriller with dinosaurs in it. And I loved doing it.
And the process of Star Wars began way back in August of 2015 when I looked at what JJ and Rian had done and I’m very fortunate that I’m surrounded by some really really brilliant producers and brilliant creative minds - Kiri Hart and the Lucasfilm story group and my producer Rejwan and Kathy Kennedy and also JJ and Rian, Larry Kasdan. I mean, these are the best minds available and everybody’s engaged in making sure this is the most satisfying and emotionally resonant conclusion that we can possibly deliver.
Well when you put it like that… I was doing fine. I was a Star Wars kid, that’s all I thought about and that’s all I engaged in. It’s what I played for many, many years so it’s in my bones. And I think that in the moments when you start to feel doubt, you just have to slow down and remember, ‘I know this. I know how to do this, I’ve always known how to do this.’ So I just try to grab onto that. It’s, again, it’s going back to my childhood, it’s what we all do.
And are fans going to be satisfied?
How am I supposed to answer that? I’m going to give it 120 percent of myself, I will be a shell and I will wander the Earth barefoot for the rest of my life. So at least they know I’m laying myself on the line for it.
Turning back to Jurassic World for a moment, what do you think J.A. Bayona is bringing to the franchise? He is a different director than you…
He is a different director but it’s interesting, we have so many similar instincts as far as suspense and family and fears of childhood and the perspective that we want to tell the story from that even though I wrote the film, it’s J.A.’s movie from start to finish. He’s just - the film looks beautiful and is exciting, and we’re using more animatronics because I learned so much about how they can be utilized so I built scenes that would allow us to use them - because they can’t run, these are the lessons. [Producer] Belén Atienza has been great as well, and it’s just been something that we’ve all delved in and tried to make something deeper and richer and ideally better. I’m going to be the hype man for this movie, I think it’s going to be a better movie - sorry.
- The Book of Henry (2017) release date: Jun 16, 2017