j.a. bayona interview

J.A. Bayona‘s latest film packs a heavy punch. Bayona’s adaptation of author and screenwriter Patrick Ness‘ novel is a pure tearjerker, a movie that mixes the grand with the intimate. The film follows a young boy (Lewis MacDougall) struggling with his mother’s terminal illness. In need of help, he calls upon a monster (Liam Neeson), a talking tree that promises to tell Conor three stories as long as the boy reveals his deepest, darkest secret.

A Monster Calls deals heavily with the power of storytelling. After making only three films, Bayona has established himself as a very emotional storyteller. “Cold” is not a word that applies to the visual splendor of his work. We recently interviewed the filmmaker for his latest drama, which was originally based on an idea by the late author, Siobhan Dowd. Bayona discussed with us the music on set, King Kong, the silent moments in A Monster Calls, and his reaction to seeing Jurassic Park for the first time.

Below, read our J.A. Bayona interview.

What was your initial reaction to the book? 

Surprise because it had a lot of ideas in common with my other films. Of course, it’s a very emotional story, so you get a very immediate impression of how emotional this film could be. But what I thought was very interesting was this idea of exploring the storytelling and finding the truth, and express the truth, which is basically what you do as a filmmaker. You get to the set every day, and you try to get the truth out of your actors and put it on the screen in the best way possible.

What were some of the ideas that made you think of your past films? 

I think the few films I’ve done so far are about how we relate to fantasy. Even The Impossible was based on a real story, and for me, it’s a story that is a thought on how we live a fantasy as westerners living in a western world, going to Thailand and suddenly going through the experience of a tsunami and discovering what reality is about. That’s somehow a way of putting the characters in between a world of reality and fantasy, and how going back to that fantasy world that is living in the luxuries of the first world is something painful for them. It’s, again, how you get in contact with the uncertainty and how you put the worlds of fantasy and reality collapsing, in between them.

What were some of the novel’s key elements you wanted to remain faithful to?

From the very first moment, I wanted to be faithful to the book, but I also had the impression that I wanted to find some light at the end of the story. Somehow, I felt that I had to find light at the end of the journey of Conor. I told that my very first meeting to Patrick Ness that I wanted to find that and then I came with this idea that Conor is an artist and somehow his connection to art puts him in contact with the other characters and makes the whole interpretation of the story a little different. You have the last scene of the story in the film that it’s not in the book, that it’s all about somehow through art he can connect his past with his future, and you can see hope in there.


How did Jim Kay’s illustrations [from the book] influence you? 

I remember the first time I read the book it was an illustrated book, so it was impossible when I started to think about the film to separate the story of Patrick Ness from the drawings of Jim Kay. From the very first moment, I had to think about how I was going to put the stories on the screen, how I was going to visualize the stories. The drawings came to my mind because I normally don’t like movies where you can see stories inside a story, and you see other actors playing stories into a story that has its own actors. I always find it very distracting, so I thought animation is the best way to explain that. Then I thought about the drawings of the book, and then I had this idea that I wanted Conor to be an artist because I was obsessed with drawing when I was a kid, too. It was a way of finding something very personal to me.

After you read the book, were there any shots you immediately imagined? 

I wanted to put, I remember, a shot of a drawing of King Kong on the wall, and on the wall, you can see the shadow of the rain projected. It’s like seeing King Kong crying. I thought it was a beautiful way of showing the monster crying in my film. That was one of the images I was obsessed with putting in the film from the very beginning, and it’s in the film.

Is King Kong an important film for you?

I remember that when I was very little at school, they used to project every year King Kong at the end of the year. What I thought was very interesting about King Kong is that when you see the film as a kid, you are with King Kong. King Kong is supposed to be the bad guy in the story, and the good guys are the ones who killed King Kong. Then you start as a kid finding it very contradictory that they’re killing King Kong, but you like King Kong. I thought that somehow that reflected the confusion that Conor is going through. He likes King Kong, but they’re killing King Kong. Of course, when he sees King Kong falling from the Empire State, that image resonates with him because that image reminds him his own nightmare.

I think a lot of movie fans can relate to that experience — seeing an emotion in a film you maybe don’t fully understand when you’re a kid, but it still resonates. 

Of course. Dealing with emotions that you cannot control yet. That’s the idea of destruction. We, as kids, we love destruction. Especially movies with giant people, they deal a lot with destruction. We’re seeking the Godzilla, and we love to see Japan being destroyed by Godzilla. As a kid, destruction is a very fascinating idea and, at the same time, it’s a way of dealing with your own frustration of not knowing how to deal with some emotions.

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