The process of contending with grief, particularly over the loss of the person they love the most, can be a difficult experience for anyone. That occurrence can be even more harrowing for adolescents as they’re forced to realize the meaning of life and death at a young age, particularly as they witness a close relative struggle in their lives. But exploring how the adolescents’ fantasies, and how they help them deal with their difficult realities, can ultimately prove how they can overcome their fear of loss. That’s certainly the case with young acotr Lewis MacDougall’s protagonist in the new fantasy drama, ‘A Monster Calls,’ which is based on the 2011 book of the same name by Patrick Ness.
The film was directed by ‘The Impossible’ and ‘The Orphanage’ helmer, J. A. Bayona. ‘A Monster Calls,’ which received a limited theatrical release in the U.S. on December 23 by Focus Features, will receive a wider expanded distribution on January 6, 2017.
‘A Monster Calls’ follows a British 12-year-old adolescent, Conor (MacDougall), as he’s learns to contend with more emotional struggles than the other boys his age in his school. His devoted mother (Felicity Jones) is battling terminal cancer. Not only must the strong-willed protagonist watch his beloved mother try to fight her illness, he also has to try to find a connection with his overbearing, but well-meaning, maternal grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has returned to England to visit and help his son during the transition. But the pre-teen ultimately has trouble also connecting with his healthier parent, who has resettled in Los Angeles with his new family.
Conor is also dealing with his guilt of wishing his mother can finally find peace. His remorse manifests itself in horrific nightmares, during which he repeatedly watches her fall into a hole that violently opens up in the earth beneath a nearby church. Then one night, the title character, an old tree beside the church, mysteriously comes to life (through performance-capture and a voiceover by Liam Neeson).
The tree informs Conor that he’ll visit him again on three subsequent nights to tell him a story. On his fourth visit, the title character will ask the pre-teen to tell him a tale in return. Between the visits, not only does Conor worry about not having a story to tell his new ally, but he also must contend with being bullied by several of his peers at school.
As a way to express his emotions about the painful situations that are fueling his life, he spends his free time drawing in his notebooks. Conor’s drawings ultimately reflect the way he envisions the stories the tree tells him in his mind. The misplaced sympathies in the tree’s stories reflect the details of Conor’s family life. As the protagonist reflects on the messages in his new ally’s tales, Conor ultimately finds an unlikely ally in the Monster, who relentlessly guides the boy on a journey of courage, faith and truth.
MacDougall generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to talk about starring in ‘A Monster Calls.’ Among other things, the performer discussed how he was instantly drawn to portray Conor in his first leading film role as soon as he read the story that Ness had created in his novel. MacDougall also shared his awe of being able to work alongside Neeson during his motion capture sequences, as well as the close relationships he formed with Jones and Weaver during the time they spent together before they began filming the drama.
The actor began the conversation by explaining why he was drawn to play Conor in the film adaptation of ‘A Monster Calls.’ The first-time leading actor initially became intrigued by the protagonist when he first read Ness’ book, which he looked at before he received access to the writer’s screenplay.
Once he signed onto star as Conor in the drama, MacDougall referenced the book while he was preparing the role of, and began playing, the protagonist. “It was great to have the main character right in front of me that I could draw from. So the book was really something I would look to if I needed help with a particular scene,” the performer explained.
Besides admiring the protagonist’s emotional strength, MacDougall also appreciated his character’s love for drawing. “I like drawing myself, although I’m not very god at it at all,” the actor admitted. “But Conor’s extremely talented at it. I think for Conor, and even his mother, art is very therapeutic. It’s something that they, like a lot of people, use to escape from reality.”
In addition to the lead character’s love for art, another key element that Ness translated from his novel to the screenplay that MacDougall liked was “how strong Conor really is. When he first sees the monster, he’s not scared of him at all,” the performer shared. “That’s something I really admired about him.”
The actor was also intrigued by the fact that in the story, no one was telling the pre-teen what was truly going on with his mother, “and he really just wants to be treated normally and equally to everyone else. I think that’s something that a lot of people really want; they don’t want special treatment.”
MacDougall then described what his collaboration process was like with Bayona, once production on the fantasy film began. “I really had time to discuss what Conor was like with him during our rehearsals. We really talked about how Conor wanted to be treated normally, and doesn’t want special treatment because of what his mother is going through,” he divulged.
The actor and Bayona also spoke about how “In a way, Conor also feels guilty about what he’s dreaming in these nightmares. So he almost wants to be punished for that, which isn’t right. He also wants to be bullied by his classmates, since his teachers and parents refuse to punish him for his behavior,” the performer also revealed. “Since he isn’t being punished for what he’s done wrong, the anger keeps building up.
“In a strange way, the bully is the only person who’s treating (Conor) truthfully,” MacDougall pointed out. “The bully wasn’t giving him special treatment, which is why in a way, Conor almost wanted” to be the focus of his enemy’s torment. “He actually urges his classmate to bully him more.”
The actor added that his character struggled with the fact that he knew his mother was sick, but no one was telling him the full truth about what was happening to her. The adults not telling him about his mother’s prognosis made him at least appreciate the fact that his classmates were being honest with him about how they felt. **SPOILER ALERT** “In the back of his mind, he knew his mom was going to die, which made him feel guilty over wanting her suffering to be over,” MacDougall revealed.
“Conor not only wanted the suffering to be over for her, but also for him, because it was obviously also extremely difficult for him. In a way, he wanted her to go, which contributes to the guilty feeling he’s having. That’s why the Monster comes and is trying to help him,” the performer explained. **END SPOILER ALERT**
In addition to thriving on the attention he receives from his classmate, Conor is also happy that he’s being pushed to discover who he truly is by the Monster. In terms of interacting with the title character on screen, MacDougall also discussed the experience of collaborating with Neeson for about 10 days before they started shooting the film. “The weird thing about doing the motion capture with Liam was that he actually hadn’t done it before himself,” the young actor revealed. “So we were both new to it, which was weird, since Liam has been in the industry for ages. But I had actually only been in one movie before this one.
“So it was a good experience to get to work with Liam on that before we started shooting. That really allowed me to imagine what the Monster would be like. I was able to rehearse with the Monster as though he was a real person,” MacDougall also explained.
Once the main actor started filming his scenes with the title character on the set, “there wasn’t a real person there, acting with me. They made a model of the Monster’s face, which was spectacular, and I had that in front of me. It was really helpful for me, in terms of visualizing what he would look like on screen,” the up-and-coming performer also shared.
“When you’re making this kind of movie, you film each scene individually. So you only get to experience the entire story as a whole when you watch the final product. That was something I really did enjoy,” MacDougall revealed. “Even though I was there every day for filming, it was still a new experience for me to watch the film.”
Besides enjoying the process of working on the scenes with the motion capture that was used to film Neeson’s portrayal of the Monster, MacDougall also appreciated the overall experience of performing his own action sequences on the set. “I got to film a few stunts on ‘A Monster Calls,’ and that aspect of filmmaking was something I first experienced when I made ‘Pan.’ So getting to do stunts again on thi smovie was an enjoyable part for me,” the actor noted.
In addition to discussing Conor’s relationships with the Monster and his peers, MacDougall also spoke about the bond between the adolescent and his mom. The two “are really close with each other. So before we began shooting, I had a few bonding sessions with Felicity. We were able to go to a zoo and a theme park together, and really get comfortable together.
“The relationship between Conor and his mother isn’t a traditional one; it’s almost like they’re brother and sister, or even best friends,” the performer explained. “So bonding with Felicity, and building our characters’ relationship, was something I really enjoyed.
“The relationship that Conor has with his grandmother onscreen is different than the relationship that I had with Sigourney off screen. So I had a great time working with both” Weaver and Jones, MacDougall divulged.
The actor also discussed what the experience was like of shooting ‘A Monster Calls’ in several locations throughout England and Spain. “We shot the exterior scenes in Manchester, and that was a lot of fun. We also went to shoot in studios in Barcelona, and all of our trips there was like a holiday. I picked up some Spanish while we were there, and had a really fun time there, as well,” MacDougall also shared.
Once production on the fantasy drama wrapped, the performer was able to attend the movie’s premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival. “I was also able to go to the London Film Festival, as well as the movie’s premieres in Madrid and here in New York. So I’ve had the opportunity to see it with audiences, and it’s been really great to see how they react,” the actor noted.
“I hope that both kids and adults can benefit from the story that’s told in ‘A Monster Calls,'” MacDougall stated when he then began discussing what he hopes viewers can take away from the film. “Everyone will take away their own thing from the story. But the life lessons that are shared can help people who are in Conor’s situation. The message focuses on the importance of not only being truthful to other people, but also yourself.
“Like I mentioned before, Conor’s struggling because people aren’t telling him the truth. So that makes it difficult for him to be truthful with himself about what he’s feeling,” the performer also emphasized.
MacDougall then noted that his character is also struggling in his relationship with his father. The actor related to his character in that sense, because “even though I had bonding sessions with Felicity, I had no time to bond with Toby Kebbell, who played my character’s father. I think that was done on purpose, so that when we first started filming together, we were still new to each other. So that helped make it seem as though Conor and his dad really hadn’t seen each other in awhile.”
After he finished shooting ‘A Monster Calls,’ MacDougall then went on to shoot two other films this year, including the comedy-drama, ‘Boundaries.’ “Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer are also in that film. It’s a road trip movie, in which Christopher plays my grandfather, and we get into all sorts of trouble. It was directed (and written) by Shana Feste,” the performer shared.
“I also shot a movie in Ireland recently, and it’s called ‘The Belly of the Whale.’ It’s a really interesting movie that’s about two misfits who rob an arcade together. So I’ve had a really good time working recently, but ‘A Monster Calls’ is definitely an experience that I’ll never forget,” MacDougall sentimentally noted.
Watch the official trailer for ‘A Monster Calls’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello