Liam Neeson and Lewis MacDougall are two of the stars of the ensemble drama A Monster Calls, an absorbing, beautiful film that tackles the pain of loss and isolation. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with them, as well as screenwriter Patrick Ness and director JA Bayona. I came out of the interviews with one clear piece of knowledge: that every single member of the cast and crew truly loves the tale. Working on this film was both a work of labor and passion for each and everyone, so it was truly a pleasure to talk to each one about their creative contributions.
I have loved Liam Neeson’s work for years, so meeting him was somehow personal. His deeply emotional and powerful voice suits the giant tree he plays. He’s perfect for the role as a monster and on playing in this movie and the role, he said:
It’s a lovely film, isn’t it? And it’s very… It’s-it’s-it’s very entertaining and emotional. And it’s like the book, it’s just I remember it was a very, very quick read. And, uh, but it kept coming up and biting me in the back of the head again. I’d keep reaching for it, you know, there’s a wonderful essence on it.
J.A. Bayona had shown me a bust of how he… saw the Monster looking like, and that informed me a lot because it looked like someone had just squashed their face up against a tree. And, uh, I thought well his nose is broken, so that affects breathing and that’ll affect the voice in some way. I was acting to a puppet or little doll to get the scale and perspective right.
MacDougall is outstanding as the little boy who must come to term with his mother’s death and changing reality. He and Neeson share several scenes together. On their relationship on and off screen, Neeson said:
So, uh, so part of me was intrigued if only to see who this kid would be. And also that I had all my acting would be with him, you know. And he picked a, I have to say, um, Lewis is, I mean, Shakespeare’s Hamlet doesn’t go through the gamut of emotions this kid has to. And he was fucking fantastic. Really and there was no acting at all with the boy, you know. And he did take after take, you know, especially for this motion capture thing. And he was always there. Always giving it as much as he could, you know. Terrific, really terrific.
Their relationship was a bit father to son. After all, the monster is a combination of the boy’s grandfather and other key figures in his life. I had to ask him if he brought any parental experience into the role.
Not really consciously, but I’m a Dad of two boys and when my first son was born, everything I did afterwards, even tying my shoelaces is informed by the fact that you’re a Dad. You know, you don’t act it in a different way, you do, you do everything exactly the same, but you’re different, you know. So I trusted that.
Talking to MacDougall was interesting. He played his character with such dignity and his portrayal of a boy living in so much angst and turmoil was so completely inspiring. Every gaze, every look, every stare he made into the camera when his character was being bullied or watching his mother fade away went right through my soul. When asked about his attraction to the film initially, he answered:
Well, you know, I, the first thing I read was the book ’cause obviously it’s Patrick Ness adapted his own book into the to the screenplay. So after I did the first audition, I we-went and immediately sought out the book and I suppose, I mean, it’s a beautiful story obviously. So that obviously attracted me to it. But I also like in terms of like the character Conor I really just admired his, you know, like as for example when he first met the Monster, how he just, you know, completely defied and not-not afraid of him at all. And, you know, that’s something that made me really want to-to play that part.
The movie also stars Sigourney Weaver, and for an actor who has only made one other movie, working with her and Neeson was an extraordinary feat. MacDougall agreed that the experience was fantastic.
It’s not every day that somebody my age gets to have the opportunity to work with these people. In fact, anybody-anybody at all who’s an actor gets an opportunity to work with such great, um, names such as, uh, people you mentioned. So yeah, this definitely I think I learned, you know, a lot just from having just from, you know, a lot I probably wasn’t even conscious of just, you know, being around them and-and-and getting to, you know, do scenes with them I think, you know, I absorbed as a so like a lot of what l… what they were doing.
The movie was adapted for the screen by Ness, and directed by The Impossible and The Orphanage helmer, 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.
Ness kicked off his interview 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.
I was reluctant at first ’cause I worry that, uh… you can’t write a memorial. You know, you can’t write a eulogy. It’s gotta be a story, ’cause that’s what she would have done. But even though the materials were small, they were potent enough to suggest other ideas. But I knew that there was power here and I can really go somewhere with this, so it was definitely an unusual way to write a book. The the book came out with beautiful illustrations by Jim Kay and Hollywood started calling, which is always very nice but I always take things with a grain of salt. Like I, uh, my first book was, my first hit book didn’t happen until I was in my late 30’s, so I know there’s a lot of time of graft and, I know how things can come and go very quickly.
I told Ness how his writing really resonated with me, both as a survivor and as a parent, to which he responded:
The I… in writing the book especially ’cause, you know, that’s where I started with the kind of story, I really wanted to get past what I call sort of the pretty crying, you know, the-the picturesque tear on the cheek, you know. I wanted it to be ugly crying. And ’cause I thought unfortunately sometimes the parents of young children die. Do those kids see themselves in books? Do they see their real experience in a book? Do they see the fact that it is something that can be got through? And survived. But without pretending that it’s any less difficult than it actually is. So for the book, I really, really kept pushing to remove the sentimentality from it.
And to just try to get to the power of it. If I didn’t feel emotional about it, I figured I was doing it wrong. ‘Cause I-I think it’s arrogance to ask a reader to feel something that I’m not feeling. So I just kept pushing and pushing. And for the book I had a couple rules. There’s only one hug in the book and it’s a comedy hug. Nobody says I love you in the book. It’s a book filled with love I hope, but nobody says it, ’cause I didn’t want any easy fall backs. And so for the film that’s we talked about that a lot, about how to, um, how to make that accurate. You know, there’s a few more hugs in it, but, you know, he’s Spanish.
On his choice of a tree as a monster in the book, Ness said it was Siobhan Dowd’s choice.
Everything in the movie about the yew tree is true. They do live for thousands of years. They are used for healing and medicine. When Siobhan was being treated for breast cancer, uh, she was being, there was controversy, because our national health service wouldn’t pay for an expensive drug called Taxol, which is a breast cancer drug. The Latin name for yew tree is the Taxus. It actually came from the yew tree. So that’s why yew tree. They do live in cemeteries. They do live for thousands of years. So it’s a there’s very good reasons. Everything is true about the yew tree in the movie, except that they walk and talk.
Finally, hearing Bayona talk about the film was a treat. He had to bring together so many different layers, including animation, and he thrived on the process.
First it was a book that I love, but then putting that on the screen was quite challenging. You know, it’s such a rich but you unique puzzle with so many different pieces. That finding the right architecture was pretty challenging. Uh, we were going from scene very intimate with the Mother and the kid and to spectacular animations with fairy tale characters. And then we had the motion capture or the visual effects. You know, it was quite difficult to find the tone. And to find the architecture. And also reading a book is not the same experience as watching a film.
The film is a very sensitive portrayal of grief and dying. I talked to Bayona about getting to the heart of the experience. His response was very telling of his total dedication to this story.
I remember talking with a lot of people a-about the process of going through the, through the experience of having a-a person that you love, uh, sick, you know, and I-I remember there was a friend of mine illustrator that h-his Mother died from cancer. And he told me that he was thirty at the moment. He was quite a grownup at that moment. And he was absolutely mad about-about his Mother’s sick and he was blaming her for leaving him alone. And being 30 years old and blaming your Mother for leaving you alone with such a selfish emotion. You know, it’s so it’s so unpredictable but so true, you know.
I think that’s what makes the whole thing so human, the contradiction, you know, all the characters, they-they-they-they have contradiction. This is what the kid needs to learn, that life is about contradiction. That life can be black and white at the same time.
Since many of the characters evolve in the film, I wanted to know if Bayona had his own transformation during the course of the film.
Yeah. I think that somehow the-the story of Patrick Ness tell us about how we need to find the truth and-and-and e-express the truth in the most, uh-um, effective way. You know, I think that the directors that we do the same, we try to find out, um, what the film’s about. Sometimes you-you find what the film is about doing interviews. So if you’re lucky you will find what the film is about as you’re doing the film.You can articulate it. I think that somehow in-in making Conor an artist I was able to find myself in the story. To put my personal experience at the, um, my father was a painter and he couldn’t make a living of it.
This is a movie that will stay with you. It’s a beautiful look at grief, growing up, obstacles and dreams. It will make you think about your own life and that of your children’s. I urge you to see it.