‘A Monster Calls’ Director on Finding the Perfect Balance Between Fantasy and Reality (Video)

TheWrap Screening Series: J.A. Bayona wanted “the monster to move a little bit like a puppet … and the puppet to be as real as possible”

“A Monster Calls,” based on a story that was originated by Siobhan Dowd but finished by Patrick Ness after Dowd’s death, tells the story of young Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall), who is bullied at school and then must go home to care for his cancer-riddled mother (Felicity Jones).

While it sounds like a tear-jerker, director J.A. Bayona was determined to give the film something of a happy ending.

“The first time I sat down with Patrick I told him that I wanted to find light at the end of the story because the book ends up with the scene in the hospital,” Bayona said at TheWrap’s Screening Series at the Landmark Theatre in Los Angeles on Monday. “I needed some light.”

“A Monster Calls” is a kids’ movie on the surface with very adult concerns not far below — one part “The BFG,” two parts “Pan’s Labyrinth.” As Conor is shaken out of his troubled life through encounters with an enormous and fantastical creature, the story tries hard to simultaneously be exciting, emotional and magical. And while it doesn’t always manage to nail that tricky trifecta, it provides a number of touching moments and a behemoth to remember.

“There were beautiful drawings from Jim Kay [the book’s illustrator] depicting the monster,” Bayona tells TheWrap’s Steve Pond. “There was a beautiful drawing in the book where you can see the monster sitting on a rooftop, such a powerful image, it reminded me a lot of the thinker of Rodin, it felt like an old Greek myth and from there I thought the monster should look more like a man not like a tree.”

Just as Mark Rylance‘s Big Friendly Giant does in Steven Spielberg‘s “The BFG,” the monster snatches the kid out of his room in the middle of the night (at 12:07, to be exact) and leads him on an amazing journey. In the case of “A Monster Calls,” though, that journey is not played for laughs — instead, the monster, voiced and acted (via motion capture) by Liam Neeson, tells Conor stories that will lead him to an understanding of what’s happening with his mother.

“We spent 10 days of motion capture and Liam was always acting in front of Lewis,” Bayona said. “Then on the set, we had a life-size replica of the head, the arms, and one foot. It was the acting coach feeding him [MacDougall]  the lines, sometimes myself, so he was always acting in front of something real.”

In terms of combing the film’s practical and visual effects, Bayona said:  “There is a moment in the film where you can see the old ‘King Kong,’ when you can see how they turn from a shot that is mainly the stop motion and then you see the real hand grabbing Fay Wray. I love that thing that makes it feel so real. It has soul somehow and I wanted to do the same.”

“I was telling visual effects guys, ‘I want the monster to move a little bit like a puppet and I want the puppet to be as real as possible,'” Bayona added.

“I think if you go all digital or if you go all animatronic there is a moment that you disconnect but I think the combination is the key,” he said.

Bayona, whose previous films include the well-received 2007 horror film “The Orphanage” and the stomach-churning 2012 survival tale “The Impossible,” reaches for magic with “A Monster Calls,” and finds it fairly often: a scene of gleeful destruction that turns all too real; a climactic cataclysm in which we figure out what the monster’s game really is; plus gentle moments late in the film between MacDougall’s tremulous, wide-eyed child and Neeson’s soft-hearted giant.