Literary and cinematic works are not only creative forms of entertainment that distract audiences from the trials and tribulations of life; they also serve as relatable pieces of art that accurately reflect the true emotional journeys that everyone experiences. The acclaimed new fantasy drama, ‘A Monster Calls,’ takes the feelings of all of its characters, especially the adolescent protagonist, seriously. Much like the 2011 award-winning book of the same name by Patrick Ness that the film is based on, the drama’s story powerfully reflects on the realistic process of learning how to contend with having relationships change in times of despair.
The movie was adapted for the screen by Ness, and 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 this Friday, January 6.
‘A Monster Calls’ follows a British 12-year-old adolescent, Conor (Lewis 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.
Ness generously took the time recently to sit down for an exclusive interview at The Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City to talk about penning the novel and script for ‘A Monster Calls.’ Among other things, the versatile and talented writer discussed that he decided to adapt his ‘A Monster Calls’ novel for the screen on spec because he knew what was important in Conor’s journey, and didn’t want any outside influences to change the protagonist’s coming-of-age exploration. The scribe also humbly expressed his appreciation that Bayona allowed him to visit the drama’s set during principal photography, and the cast and crew valued his continued input on the story.
The writer began the conversation by explaining the process of how he began attached to pen the novel that the film’s based on, which is based on an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd. “The process was definitely unusual. One of the perks of writing novels is that you’re in charge of everything, which is why it’s so different than movies,” Ness noted.
“My first impulse was to actually decline the offer” by the late author’s editor, the scribe revealed. “I was worried that it would end up being a memorial, because it wouldn’t be something that (Dowd) would have written. I didn’t want the story to be overly polite, because that wasn’t her style. So I was originally going to say no.”
But Ness changed his mind about scribing the book because the materials that Dowd left “were small in amount, but rich in quality. So I immediately started thinking up ideas. One of the first ideas was Conor leaving the second tale, and discovering that he destroyed the sitting room,” the writer shared. “I then thought, that’s the book; everything’s there. It feels like the power of the story’s there.
“So I wouldn’t have (agreed to write the book) if I didn’t feel as though there was a story that could be chased. That feels as though it’s something that (Dowd) would have done. So the process was very unexpected,” Ness admitted.
“I get asked a lot if I felt pressure about adapting her material, but I didn’t. The only pressure I felt was to write a good story, like she would have. So that made it feel as though I was writing the book for the right reasons,” the scribe divulged.
Ness then shared how he decided to then adapt his novel into the screenplay for the fantasy film. He explained that he chose to pen the script on spec, which means he wrote the screenplay without being commissioned, and hoped to have it optioned and eventually purchased by a producer, production company or studio.
“I feel really protective of the book, as I’m looking out for a writer who’s passed, and for an illustrator (Jim Kay) who I really love. I thought, I feel like I know why this works,” Ness revealed. “I know what’s important to me in the story. So rather than having early input from a few voices that I didn’t care for, I decided to write the script on my own.
“I didn’t have my first truly successful book until my late-30s, so I waited a long time. I knew how things could happen. So for this, I thought, I’d rather just write it, and say, this is what I believe in it,” the writer added. “I’m not a filmmaker, so I didn’t say, ‘it has to be this way.’ But I could at least start and say, ‘Can it be told this way,’ and see if anyone responded. So it was an honor that someone did.”
Ness then described what his collaboration process was like with Bayona, after he signed onto direct the film. “He read the book and the script. When we then met, we talked about what was important to us, just to make sure we were on the same page,” the scribe noted. He affirmed that they were in agreement about many elements of the book’s story should be included in the film. “We both very much believe in the child’s point-of-view, and that it should be taken seriously.”
Bayona “also does something in his work that I really like-he has a willingness to allow genres leap together that really makes the story rich. He also said he had ideas that he wanted to talk about, including the idea of legacy and what you leave behind,” Ness also revealed. “He also likes exploring the idea of where things, like art, come from.”
**SPOILER ALERT** One of the key elements that Bayona had that Ness was drawn to was his idea for the story’s ending. “The ending was always going to be tricky to bring to the screen for the film,” the writer explained. “You can put the book down, but you can’t do that with the film, so we had to figure out how to do that.
“So the film ends slightly later than the book does, and I think it does so beautifully. He had an idea for that, and I said, ‘That’s a really good idea. So we can do this and that, which would lead up to the extended ending,'” Ness further divulged. **END SPOILER ALERT**
“So we talked about the ending a lot. One of the producers was also involved in that process, and none of the three of us were in any way demanding,” the scribe added. “It wasn’t like, ‘We have to do it this way.’ It was more like, ‘I have an idea, so let’s talk about it.'”
Ness added that Bayona doesn’t feel as though “an idea has an ego, and it doesn’t matter where it came from; it’s either good or bad. If it’s bad, you chuck it, and move onto the next one, and it’s no problem. That was really freeing, because we could all contribute, and bring ideas into focus. That way, we could make the movie that the three of us all wanted to make, and that was a pleasure. Writers don’t get that opportunity very often.”
The story in ‘A Monster Calls’ focuses on important issues teens face, such as contending with peer bullying and a parent’s illness, and is told from Conor’s perspective, like Ness mentioned. He noted that he felt it was essential to tell the story from Conor’s perspective, and highlight the triumphs he achieves while overcoming his struggles.
“This isn’t a story that hasn’t been told before; there are other stories about kids who are losing their parents,” Ness pointed out. “So when I got the first idea for the book, (Conor’s) anger felt slightly different to me; it felt like a slightly new way to look at it. You don’t hear about anger being mixed with grief very often.
“So that element was really important in the book and the script. That was one of the things that I hoped made the story different and worth telling. It was a really important element to include in the story, since it’s usually left unaddressed,” the scribe emphasized. “So that was a very important part of the script that Bayona responded to immediately. It was something he really understood.”
Another vital aspect of the book’s story that Ness felt was essential to include in the film adaptation was how Conor was targeted by a few of his classmates while he was also contending with his mother’s illness. “The thing about bullying is that it inspires a particular sense of powerlessness. The bully has taken away all of the things that you can respond with; no matter what you do, you’ll still be bullied. You can get bullied in a way that you can’t ask for help,” the writer pointed out.
“I think that particular feeling of powerlessness is under discussed. The kids who are bullied feel really lonely. It also reflects the powerlessness in the rest of Conor’s life,” Ness explained.
“The perverseness of it is that he keeps returning to the bully, because he’s the only one who will continuously treat him like a normal kid. Even though it’s destructive, at least he’s still being seen the same way he was before his mother became ill by one person. That signals his desperate worst,” the scribe pointed out. “I think the one evil thing in the entire movie is when the bully says, ‘I don’t see you anymore.'”
‘A Monster Calls’ features a diversely talented cast, including MacDougall as Conor, as well as Jones, Weaver and Neeson, who were all able to bring the characters’ anger and grief to the screen. Ness then explained how the actors became attached to the fantasy drama.
“I lived in L.A. for 10 years, and you’re constantly meeting writers who have Brad Pitt attached to their script. So I would just kind of laugh when they would mention these big names,” Ness admitted with a chuckle.
“But I did have a wish list” that began to form once the film started to pick up momentum, and seem as though it would be made. “It’s funny-Liam Neeson was so clearly number one on the wish list, so we assumed that we would never get him,” the writer revealed. “He was the one we wanted the most, so of course, he wouldn’t be available. But he really liked the project and was available,” so that was a pleasant surprise for Ness.
“We also spoke about who else would work and why. So (the casting department) found Felicity, as they saw her on television and thought she was really good. This was before ‘The Theory of Everything‘ was released, so we got her before she exploded,” Ness explained.
“With Sigourney, she has a different persona than most actresses have. So people expect slightly different things from her, because they’ve seen her be so strong and powerful,” the scribe pointed out. “So that was perfect for us. She could come in and you’d think you know what was going to happen. But then she starts to crumble, and that’s unexpected and compelling.
“So we were extraordinarily lucky to get her. It was unbelievable, because it doesn’t always happen that way,” Ness pointed out with a laugh. “When we’d talk about casting her, I’d just laugh and say, ‘Okay!'”
Once the actors were cast, ‘A Monster Calls’ went on to film in several locations throughout England, including West Yorkshire and Manchester, as well as Barcelona in Spain. The writer was able to visit the set once the movie began filming. “They got development money, which is important for a film like ours. We didn’t have a $100 million budget. It wasn’t made cheaply, but the budget was that high, either. So we had to prove that we were going to spend everything very wisely,” Ness explained.
“So they got some development money, and then we spent about nine or ten months getting the script ready to begin shooting. We got everything that (Bayona) wanted to do, including the visuals, ready. They also had time to explore the visuals, and design the Monster,” the scribe further revealed. “I was able to see how the Monster would look during that development process.
“I was then able to visit the set about 10 or 12 times in Barcelona and the north of England (once filming began). While I was there, they were constantly saying, ‘We’re thinking of this, so can you write something for it?’ That experience was great, because they were very collaborative,” Ness shared as he praised the work that the director and the rest of the crew did during pre-production and principal photography. “I was really lucky as a writer.”
Watch the official trailer for ‘A Monster Calls’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello