A Tree Grows…J.A. Bayona’s ‘A Monster Calls’ mixes fantasy and drama in tale of a boy’s emotional journey

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The holiday season is always a crowded time for movies, but among all the children’s-friendly fare and Oscar hopefuls shuffling their way into theatres, you’re not going to find anything quite like A Monster Calls. An intoxicating mix of drama and fantasy, with a smidge of horror thrown in for good measure, the Focus Features release (making a limited bow on Dec. 23, with a national rollout on Jan. 6) is the genre-bending third feature from Barcelona-born director J.A. Bayona.

One of the things Bayona has excelled at throughout his career is honing in on the emotional realities of the stories he tells. His first feature, The Orphanage, took a fairly standard haunted-house template—family moves into an old orphanage haunted by the ghosts of past inhabitants—and refocused it into a heartfelt thriller about the lengths a woman will go to protect her son. He took a small-scale approach to the disaster genre movie for his next film, The Impossible, about one family’s experiences in the chaotic aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

For A Monster Calls, Bayona again takes conventional genre trappings—this time dipping his toe into fantasy—and uses them to explore the emotional journey of a boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), whose mother (Felicity Jones) is dying of cancer.

Screenwriter Patrick Ness adapted his own award-winning children’s fantasy novel, itself based on an idea from the late children’s author Siobhan Dowd. Dowd came up with the core concept after she was diagnosed with breast cancer—the boy would be visited and told stories by the monster of the title, a yew tree (voiced by Liam Neeson), the source of so many anti-cancer drugs over the years. Dowd passed away before she could write the book, but the story ended up with Ness—and then, later, with Bayona, who recognized in A Monster Calls an echo of some of his own storytelling inclinations.

Both Bayona’s agent and his frequent collaborator Sergio G. Sánchez, who wrote The Orphanage and The Impossible, knew thatA Monster Calls was right up the director’s alley—“and they know me so well that I knew there was something in there that I had to take a look at,” Bayona recalls. “From the moment I read the book, I had an immediate reaction to it, because it talks about similar themes”—like the relationship between mothers and sons—“to what I talk about in my own movies.”

On top of that, the experience of making The Orphanage and The Impossible left Bayona intrigued by “the inner structure of stories,” an interest that had him poring over the works of Joseph Campbell, Bruno Bettelheim and Bertolt Brecht. And then into his lap drops A Monster Calls, which is in a very real way about the power of storytelling. The stories the Monster tells Conor—about an evil fairytale queen, a selfish apothecary and an invisible man—seem at first to have nothing to do with what he’s going through. But it’s through these stories that Conor comes to better understand not only the people around him—an overbearing grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), an absent father (Toby Kebbell)—but himself as well.

Using a fantastical framework to pick apart and explain to children the often messy realities of the real world is, Bayona notes, what fairytales are all about—and, in many ways, that’s what A Monster Calls is, albeit a fairytale with cellphones and automobiles and exactly zero earworm musical numbers. (Think Brothers Grimm, not Disney.) The film “talks about bullying and self-blame and rage,” Bayona explains—unpalatable concepts that adults oftentimes don’t like to discuss with children, because “they feel that they’re going to hurt them, talking about that.

“But kids want to know, of course. I think the way the story talks about [these ideas] is something very comprehensible to them. They need fantasy to understand a lot of complex concepts and ideas. You look at fairytales, and they’re full of complex ideas that children can process because they are filtered through fantasy. And that’s exactly why A Monster Calls deals with very dark subjects. We talk about loss, we talk about death, we talk about blame. Kids understand very well what it is we’re talking about, because they live that every day.”

What it all comes down to—for A Monster Calls and for Bayona as a filmmaker—is getting to the truth of things. “That is whatA Monster Calls is,” he argues. “It’s about being brave enough to find your own truth and tell it. I think that’s the secret. Every time you tell a story, you need to find the connection to yourself. Try to find your truth in the story, and be brave enough to tell it.” What Bayona connects to in Conor’s story is the idea that art can have the power to heal. Bayona’s father was a painter, and the director himself was “obsessed with drawing when I was a kid,” much like the constantly sketching Conor. (An invention for the film, which Ness substantially fleshed out from its source material.) “I thought it would be interesting to make the story a reflection of Conor’s subconscious mind,” says Bayona.

Taking a jaunt through the land of the metaphorical—stories about stories about stories—is well and good, but there’s still the small matter of wrangling all those layers into an entertaining, effective whole. On the surface, A Monster Calls appears to be an easier story to tell than The Impossible, for which Bayona had to stage a tsunami and wrangle crowds of extras for a shoot that tended heavily towards exteriors. But A Monster Calls, on top of its CGI monster element, had a lot of moving parts that made it the most challenging film of Bayona’s career to date, at least in terms of narrative.

“You’re telling the story of a kid who doesn’t really know what’s going on,” he explains. “You begin the story in a moment where all the characters know more than the audience. There are two levels: fantasy and reality. And it’s a movie about very delicate subject matter: cancer and grieving. The architecture of this film was a challenge.”

And his next film stands to be an even bigger challenge. A Tyrannosaurus Rex-sized challenge, in fact, as Bayona takes over from Colin Trevorrow to direct Universal’s yet-untitled Jurassic World sequel. “I’ve never done a production like that,” he says. “I couldn’t say no. I grew up watching Steven Spielberg’s movies, you know? It’s a dream to be working with him and trying to bring these creatures to a different level, to the next step. It’s a luxury.”

That’s what comes across more than anything else in speaking with Bayona—the way he relishes the creative process of filmmaking, whether it’s untangling storytelling knots or marshaling a dinosaur attack. There’s a thoughtfulness to Bayona’s style, a willingness to experiment and adapt. Experimentation takes time, of course: Bayona admits to preferring long shoots and estimates that A Monster Calls’ was 14 weeks. “I love to try things on set. I don’t like to go there and just shoot the script,” he explains. “It’s great to have time to process every scene and work properly with the actors.”

Though Bayona enjoys working with actors in general, he admits that children are often more open to his chosen technique of “play[ing] with the character and try[ing] different things” than adults. That’s one answer to the question of how Bayona consistently gets such amazing performances from child actors, from Roger Príncep in The Orphanage on through Tom Holland in The Impossible and MacDougall in Monster.

Another key is a meticulous casting process. “Every time we do an audition, we see a lot of kids,” Bayona explains. Holland, swinging into theatres next year as the new Spider-Man, was a near-unknown when he went out for the role of The Impossible’s Tom, a boy struggling to save his injured mother all while dealing with the trauma of thinking his father and younger brothers are dead. Holland was one of the first to audition, but Bayona still “auditioned hundreds of kids” after him. For A Monster Calls, MacDougall stood out from the start, but it still took him “four or five auditions” to be chosen among the approximately 1,000 candidates up for the role of Conor, around 200 of whom Bayona personally saw. “The kid in this film is carrying all the weight of the story,” Bayona explains. “Every scene is from his POV. So we needed to be sure.”

Once MacDougall was locked in, he spent a lot of time with Felicity Jones, who plays Conor’s mother—going to dinner and an amusement park, rehearsing, basically forging the sort of authentic connection needed between actors playing mother and son. For Toby Kebbell, who plays Conor’s semi-estranged father, “it was completely different. I decided not to have them connected. The first time [they worked together] was in front of the camera. You can feel that they’re still not comfortable with each other, which was perfect for that relationship.”

Whatever techniques Bayona used, they paid off: MacDougall, who only had one small role before A Monster Calls—in Joe Wright’s Pan—turns in one of the most heart-wrenching breakout performances in recent memory. Though Bayona generally likes experimenting with different approaches over multiple takes, the climactic scene where Conor finally realizes the truth he’s been trying to hide from himself was done in one scene, one take. (If that description doesn’t sound like much, take my word for it that it’s an enormously powerful scene and you will probably cry.) “I normally would do a bunch of takes,” Bayona recalls. “But in that scene, I did a master shot and he was so impressive that I looked at my assistant and said, ‘We’re not going to cover that scene.’” In case “mom dying of cancer” didn’t clue you in, bring Kleenex to this movie—MacDougall’s performance, as a child whose mask of self-possession hides a monster of its own just waiting to break out, will tug at all but the most rigid heartstrings.