I interviewed J.A Bayona about directing kids, working with actors, and his latest film A Monster Calls.
What drew him to A Monster Calls:
First of all, I was very impressed with the book by Patrick Ness. He did an extraordinary job in describing the psychology of the kid… of what he was going through at this time in his life. And I think the fact that it was a fantasy attracted me. And the complexities growing up. The story sounded special to me. I like movies that treat a child with respect and talk to the psychology of the kid. You mix that with fantasy. With Ness’ book, we had all the information needed for the process. And then I had this idea of colorizing the psychological process and that the monster is a result of what the kid was going through and the solution. The contradiction makes him human and very real.
On Directing kids:
For me, the most important and the most challenging is to find the right person for the part. Of course, Lewis was such an important piece because everything is seen through Connor’s eyes. We had to get the right kid. We had a lot of auditions. And from the very first moment, I saw that Lewis was so unique and so different from the others. We were doing a very emotional scene for the auditions and a lot of the kids were going through the very predictable style of emotions you would expect. And Lewis was going for a rage that Connor was going through and afraid to show his fears. That’s what made him so special. I thought he was going to be that person to portray Connor. It was a very long audition. We saw hundreds of kids and did 40 tests. It began with a self-tape and then the acting coach met with them. There were four or five very good kids. Very good actors.
On letting the kids know they didn’t get the part:
It’s always difficult when you made a decision and you have so many talented kids. They had gone through so many tests. I wrote a letter to all of them saying, “Sorry, it’s not that you weren’t as good as the one we are choosing, but there’s someone more suitable for this role.” From the very beginning, Lewis’ acting was very different from the other ones. He was unique in the way he approached the character. He was not just scared, but made it very personal. And I thought that was the kind of approach I was looking for.
On childhood being a central theme in his movies:
I really like fantasy films and fantasy plays a valuable role in education. When you think about fairy tales; they help kids to process complicated ideas and emotions they cannot understand without a fantasy element. The monster, the stepmother, these are figures that appear or referenced in fairy tales. I love that fantasy helps explain reality. I think we all need stories or films to get a better comprehension. Before I got the book, I was doing a show called Penny Dreadful, and I was reading a lot about fairy tales and famous monsters. I found it very fascinating. I always say it’s like someone telling you the meaning of a dream. You can relate to it. So, I was already into the storytelling thing when I got the book. I found it interesting because it was somehow telling me about my work as a storyteller.
Working with actors:
I love working with actors. The most vulnerable moments of filmmaking are working with actors. I love working with an actor and catching a moment of reality that collides and breaks through the screen. For example, the last scene of the film. It’s a scene that we prepared very well. I talked to Lewis and asked him if he would mind to not know what the scene was about. He said okay, and I requested that a page from the script be taken out before he read it. He didn’t know anything about the last scene. We shot the scene the last day and as always was very emotional; especially for a kid shooting his first lead role. So, I was ready to capture the moment Lewis discovered what the scene was about. That moment of reality is captured in front of the camera. It’s always one of those moments I think is rewarding, like in this film. With actors, it’s not always about the energy. Give them the attention and the moment and the time they deserve to perform. Nurture them. Feed them. I don’t talk much about the characters. Actors can get overwhelmed when a director talks too much about character. I would rather have a creative environment and do things like play music. It gives them the feeling without having to use words. I always let them do the first take. The first take is always what the actors bring. And then we start to work on the scene.
Identifying with Connor:
I was obsessed with drawing as a kid like him. For that I felt very close to him. My father was a painter and he couldn’t make a living of it. Kind of the same way Felicity Jones character is in the movie. For me, it was kind of putting myself into it and trying to find truth in the story. Like Connor needs to find the truth and express the truth. You somehow need to do the same as a director when you get the job of bringing a story to the screen.
Challenges with the Monster:
The most challenging was we had to find chemistry between the kid and the monster. We didn’t want only the voice of Liam, we wanted the performance. We spent 10 days shooting motion capture. We always made sure Lewis was acting with him. Liam had cameras all over him, plus it was a good rehearsal for Lewis. And then on the set, we had a life-sized replica of the head and the arms. A little bit like the old King Kong version. Which is why I referenced King Kong in the movie. You can watch how the kid is processing reality and turning to fantasy the same night the monster shows up. The difference between King Kong and our film is stop motion. We were using motion capture, which is a great advantage, because you can turn a performance into ways to communicate reality into a CGI character.
Being influenced by other filmmakers:
I’m more into the way some directors take childhood seriously. There are two films that I love from Jack Clayton, Our Mother’s House and The Innocent. This is why the mother is called “Clayton.” And of course, Steven Spielberg. Also, one of my favorite films is Small Change. It is amazing what he does with kids in that film. Those are directors and films that inspire me to direct kids seriously and with so much respect.