Junior Justice: 'Jurassic World' director Colin Trevorrow switches gears with intimate thriller 'The Book of Henry'

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What does one do after directing one of the biggest domestic hits in box-office history? It’s a question that may have been prominent on the mind of filmmaker Colin Trevorrow after directing Jurassic World—a movie exponentially larger than his debut, Safety Not Guaranteed.

Fortunately, Trevorrow already had a game plan, although his new movie The Book of Henry—out in select cities on June 16 from Focus Features—is different from both of his previous films. It’s a smaller and more intimate affair dealing with topics one might not expect from a “genre” filmmaker, though certainly along parallel lines for a filmmaker who clearly enjoys mixing genres.

The Henry of the title is a brilliant young man, played by Jaeden Lieberher (Midnight Special), who is constantly inventing new ways to solve life’s problems. Henry’s mother Susan (Naomi Watts) isn’t a particularly responsible adult, so it’s up to Henry to take care of her and his impressionable younger brother Peter (Jacob Tremblay from Room). At the same time, Henry believes their neighbor Glenn Sickleman (“Breaking Bad” co-star Dean Norris)—who happens to be the town’s police chief—is abusing his stepdaughter Christina (Maddie Ziegler), so Henry decides to use his aptitude for solving problems to help her.

The film goes in all sorts of unexpected places from there, including a modern nod to Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, as it deals with how vigilantism doesn’t always come in the form of a gun-wielding veteran or law-enforcement officer. In a world constantly see-sawing between a growing concern to help others and extreme apathy, The Book of Henry makes for quite a compelling conversation-starter. 

That said, it isn’t the type of movie normally made in Hollywood, although the story behind how the movie got made feels like something that could only happen in Hollywood.

The Book of Henry was written by bestselling crime novelist Greg Hurwitz (Orphan X), who had been developing the idea from when he first began as a screenwriter 19 years ago. In the interim, he spent a few years writing some of comics’ best-known vigilantes, Batman and the Punisher.

“I think I have a somewhat overdeveloped sense of justice, and I hate bullies,” Hurwitz explains to Film Journal International, talking about the origins of the story and why he hung onto it for so long. “When things are unfair, there’s a part of me that never outgrew the emotional reaction to that, like I don’t have a shrugging reaction and go, ‘Oh, that’s just life.’”

By pure happenstance, former DC Comics president Jenette Kahn read Hurwitz’s script and came onboard to produce the movie, along with her Double Nickel Entertainment partner Adam Richman, following the success they had with Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.

The story of how the script got into Trevorrow’s hands is equally striking. Hurwitz had a meeting with Trevorrow shortly after the director met with Steven Spielberg for Jurassic World, neither of them realizing he would get that prestigious gig. At the time, Trevorrow told Hurwitz, “Maybe Jurassic will do really well, and I can come back and get this thing made.”

In fact, that is exactly what happened. Trevorrow had already attached himself to direct the ninth (and presumably final) chapter in George Lucas’ venerable Star Wars saga, but he still kept his commitment to Hurwitz.

“The script was just one of those stories that grabbed onto me and wouldn't let go,” Trevorrow told us in a phone interview from London, where he is in the midst of preparing for the next Star Wars chapter. “Sometimes I have a hard time identifying why a story grabs you, but I just knew I had to make that movie.

“I'm not sure I could honestly say they would have financed this movie in the way they did if I hadn't done well for Universal and Comcast,” Trevorrow adds. “But it's a good trade for me. The ability for me to try different things and challenge myself—those things are important to me.”

“It was much easier to get this thing on its feet based on what he had done and what his stature was,” Hurwitz confirms. “It’s an unbelievably ballsy move for him to have done this, and he deserves the credit, because the logical thing would be to go straight onto Star Wars. The fact he loved the script and was loyal to the script and wants to have an interesting range of stories that can be a bit more challenging—that takes a huge amount of backbone and conviction and artistic integrity.”

“I felt like I hadn't seen that story told before,” says Trevorrow, explaining his passion for the project. “Beyond its emotional value and thematic weight, there was something in the way Greg constructed that narrative that I had never seen before, and I really wanted to be a part of it. As a storyteller, it's really the thing that gets me excited, when I feel like we may be able to take the audience's savvy and wisdom built over a hundred years of watching movies and knowing exactly what's going to happen next and potentially subvert it and genuinely surprise people. In Book of Henry, I think there are genuine turns that no one's going to see coming, and it's exciting for me.

“We're not all parents right out the gate, even if we have a baby. I think it takes a little bit of time to figure out how you can best help your kids become good adults,” Trevorrow muses on another of the film’s themes that interested him. “As a parent of two, I really felt this movie best articulated some of the fears I have as a parent, some of the hopes and the feelings in general that I think all of us go through.

“When you’re making a movie like this, you're not going to feel that kind of confidence every day, because you're not painting in the numbers—you're not filling in the blanks,” Trevorrow says about tackling the film’s unique premise and tone. “I think when a movie's set of values are at a place where anyone, regardless of what they believe, can connect to it, hopefully you have something worth making.”

For many directors, working with kids—especially while dealing with tough emotional material—might be a challenge, but both Trevorrow’s younger stars already had experience in that realm, so he knew he could “lean on them.”

“Based on each of their instincts as individuals, I was confident they weren't intimidated by some of the really difficult scenes,” Trevorrow explains. “Jaeden's performance in particular was surprising to all of us. You could see that character played very precociously and at a point where you might almost not like him. He found a way to be such a gentle, human and caring child, who happened to be intelligent but wasn't using his intelligence against others in a way that makes you really love him.”

“Jacob is always great, and is such a spirit to have around, but that wasn't a surprise, because I knew he was great,” he adds. “Maddie Ziegler was the big surprise of the movie in that I really didn't know if she was going to be able to find the emotions she found, but it was a leap of faith, and there were no other candidates. I knew I really wanted her to be a part of the film, but I felt she was able to find some really tough emotions quickly and really effectively.”

Some might wonder how hard it would be to go from a $150 million budget for a movie like Jurassic World to Henry’s significantly tighter budget. “This one we shot in 35 days in the fall after Jurassic came out, because I really had to have it finished by the next summer, which I did,” Trevorrow says. “Each of these things has their own challenges. In a lot of ways, I found The Book of Henry to be the hardest film I've made, just because it was so challenging emotionally to get through some of these scenes.”

Despite the lower budget, Trevorrow brought back much of his Jurassic World team, including composer Michael Giacchino, who helps ground the film’s difficult tone with the score, especially in the Hitchcock-inspired last act.

“I try not to watch the movies I know I'm referencing too close to when I shoot the movie, because then I'll just rip off shots, and I don't want to do that,” Trevorrow explains about his dive into Hitchcock territory. “The tone and the weight of the camera and the way it moves only when motivated are something that we really stuck to, and we had a very clear set of rules about the quadrants of the movie. It's much looser and less classically Hitchcockian in the first half. It feel almost a bit more like an ’80s indie movie that was unearthed and dug up from Sundance 1987, and that was intentional. As it goes along and moves into the suspense-thriller part, the camera moves more, it gets heavier and just as it ramps up, the editing gets tighter until we get to our final sequence.”

“I think now more than ever we all have that sense of vengeful anger that we wish we could take out on either the guy next door or someone else in public life that we have anger against,” Trevorrow says of the film’s tense last act. “This movie ultimately is about how that mindset is that of a child. We have to be examples and act like adults and not resort to violence to solve our problems.”

“We’re living in these times now when there’s such a mass polarization of opinions that it leads very readily to apathy,” Hurwitz agrees. “The movie, more than anything else, is a cry against apathy. It’s a declaration of the importance of taking care of each other.”