Back in September, Focus Features introduced Spanish filmmaker J.A. Bayona’s fantasy fable “A Monster Calls” at the Toronto Film Festival. I was wowed, as I had been by his first English-language film “The Impossible” (2012). This is a gifted filmmaker, as attested by his mentor-producer Guillermo del Toro, who hired him to direct “The Orphanage” and by Steven Spielberg, who hired Bayona to direct Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard in “Jurassic World 2,” accompanied by his essential right-arm producer Belen Atienza, the Brian Grazer to his Ron Howard. They’re in prep now.
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Bayona is poised to be the next Paul Verhoeven, Baltasar Kormákur, or Denis Villeneuve, someone who becomes a star in their own country and also can bridge the challenging cinematic culture of Hollywood. Bayona knows how to handle, with empathy and without sentimentality, intimate, emotional scenes with adults and children, plus action and VFX. He insisted on building giant monster arms and a face for his actor to play against. The student of Bruno Bettelheim, Joseph Campbell, and Umberto Eco has the rare gift of being able to create believable fairy-tale magic.
Check out my video interview with the director below.
Has Bayona given up any creative autonomy in the transition to working on a genuine blockbuster? “So far so good,” he said between Q&As last week, marveling (as so many do) at Spielberg’s remarkable attention to detail. But Bayona already has a smaller, more personal film lined up to shoot in Spain, after he wraps the “Jurassic” sequel.
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So what happened to “A Monster Calls,” the third movie of 2016 to feature a VFX giant holding a child in its hand? At that warm Toronto reception, Bayona and his film seemed positioned to become a strong potential awards candidate; what about now?
Based on the 2011 British fantasy novel by Patrick Ness, the four-hankie movie stars “The Theory of Everything” Oscar nominee and “Rogue One” star Felicity Jones as a single mother fighting cancer while trying to keep her bright 12-year-old son Conor (Lewis MacDougall) from falling apart. He’s bullied at school and doesn’t get along with his grandmother (Sigourney Weaver), who is a tough-as-nails control freak. He adores his father (Toby Kebbell), who now lives in Los Angeles with his new family.
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So Conor retreats into his imagination. Or does he? At any rate, a giant yew tree comes alive as a charismatic and ancient monster (performed with motion capture by Liam Neeson) who visits Conor at 12:07 AM every night (like a ghost from Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”) to help him deal with his conflicting emotions by telling him instructive and CG-animated stories.
“12:07 is the hour of the magician,” Bayona told me. “Seven is the number for growing up and spiritual change. I found out the meaning for that elevates the story and connects the audience. The emotional leaves a seed for an intellectual process later on … This is one of those rare films that’s accessible. To make it for the big audience, was not that easy.”
When she first met Bayona in London, “it felt like he didn’t hold back,” Jones told me at a cocktail party for “A Monster Calls” in Los Angeles. “I felt there was authenticity in the story he wanted to tell. He cared about the story deeply. After the meeting we were in tears. He isn’t scared about the reality of things, being able to negotiate with grief, what that means and to be able to come out the other side and have hope.”
Much like the film of Larry McMurtry’s “Terms of Endearment,” when Debra Winger is trying to look after her children while she is dying, Jones’ mother “has to trust the parenting,” she said. “‘Know I have given you everything you need to do this and be able to survive after it.'”
After Toronto, I thought Jones was a surefire supporting actress contender. Given the nominations announced to date, clearly there are too many people who haven’t seen the film.
That’s partly because when Focus Features pushed back “A Monster Calls” from October 21 to a limited December 23 release, the wind went out of the balloon. They’ve brought the team back to promote the movie ahead of the release at the height of the competitive holiday season, banking that this family-friendly tearjerker could have maximum awards impact, and then go wide on January 6.
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The risk of an October opening is a movie must hang on to theaters for months longer, and at greater expense, waiting for the media attention that comes with the awards season. However, that time also allows you to build momentum, and Focus’ choice to postpone suggests a lack of confidence in the film’s box-office potential. (It’s a huge hit in Spain, racking up 12 of 28 possible Goya nominations, and has already grossed $27.6 million worldwide.)
“We’re quite bullish on the film given both tastemaker and press reactions at some of our early screenings,” distribution chief Jim Orr told me in an email. “A holiday launch gives us a rich box office runway and more time to galvanize word of mouth. Bayona has created something quite original that we’re confident audiences will find special and really embrace.”
I don’t disagree. But this movie, which is not an animated movie, seems caught in the same Disney live-action family ghetto as David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” and Mira Nair’s “Queen of Katwe,” a ‘tweener that isn’t one genre or another, that defies standard formula definitions. Even Spielberg’s “The BFG” may have to settle for some tech nominations.
And, without fall box office cred, “A Monster Calls” needed critics’ group support; that did not come. Now, it needs to grab audiences in theaters during the most competitive time frame of the year.