Last month, I participated in a conference call alongside a group of college journalists with director J.A. Bayona. Bayona, famous for his films El Orfanato and The Impossible, was promoting his latest feature, A Monster Calls. The film is now playing in Philadelphia and most markets. Bayona’s fascination with fantasy and the power of human emotions was the highlight of the conversation, and excerpts from the call are interspersed throughout this piece.
J.A. Bayona became a sensation following his intimate, deeply moving film El Orfanato (2007), which followed a mother's story of grief and longing for the truth about the disappearance of her child. Poignant and deeply moving, the film established Bayona as a filmmaker who eschewed theatrics and cheap thrills for mature storytelling. His next feature, The Impossible (2012), told the story of a mother, again, who overcomes all obstacles to survive and reunite with her family following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Once again, Bayona showcased the undying and relentless power of the human spirit. With his latest feature, A Monster Calls, J.A. Bayona tells another emotional story, but this time explores death and fantasy from the perspective of a child.
A Monster Calls follows the story of a young boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), who befriends an imaginary tree monster in order to cope with his mother’s terminal illness. As such, Bayona and the cast aimed to tell this story through the use of fantasy and imagination, while still grounding the events in reality. Whereas Bayona’s first two films featured child characters in supporting roles, A Monster Calls hinges upon the world that Conor creates. Bayona relished an opportunity to tell a child’s story since their minds are so different from those of adults. Bayona claimed that “because kids don’t have a sense of history, what they have is emotion.” In simple terms, children are what they feel. So, Bayona’s task was to transfer Conor’s anxiety, rage, and tranquility, onto the big screen.
I personally asked Bayona about how the actor playing Conor, Lewis MacDougall, was cast. According to Bayona, the process was very long and detailed, because of the importance of the role. Without the right kid, the film would lose much of its emotional weight and appeal. Although there were technically four steps involved in the casting process, beginning with hundreds of tapes and leading to intimate camera tests with four or five kids, Bayona says that he knew Lewis was the one for Conor immediately. Unlike all the other child actors, Lewis was more restrained and controlled. Instead of showcasing rage, Lewis was more about being angry, he was reluctant to show his tears.” In essence, he subverted everyone’s expectations about what an emotional scene can entail. Perhaps most interesting was Bayona’s comments on the significance of films like A Monster Calls. One of the many things that drew Bayona to this material was the fact that the book “talks about how we need fantasy to understand reality.” This idea is highlighted throughout the script. Bayona stresses that despite the validity of reality, it is focused on information, which he believes "is not knowledge." Instead, knowledge comes from the tales, the stories, that we hear and learn from a young age. Balancing fantasy and reality was Bayona's biggest challenge, and based on my opinion and the film's reviews, he successfully embraced these two ideas.