On Monday, Dec 5th, SSN held a screening for the upcoming Focus Feature release A Monster Calls, the visually stunning family drama that tells the story of 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) who’s coping with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with terminal cancer. Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Orphanage 2007 and The Impossible 2012), A Monster Calls is based on the award-winning children’s fantasy novel of the same name and opens in limited theaters on December 23 before expanding wide on January 6, 2017. The packed house screening, held at ArcLight Sherman Oaks, was immediately followed by an eye-opening Q & A with award-winning author/screenwriter Patrick Ness and was moderated by SSN’s Zorianna Kit.
A Monster Calls features an impressive cast that includes Sigourney Weaver, as Conor’s less-than-sympathetic grandmother, and Liam Neeson, in gravelly voice-over and full motion capture as the monstrous yew tree whose nocturnal visits help the boy overcome his difficulties. Not only is Conor’s mother dying, he’s also being bullied at school and his father has moved far away. The gigantic tree first visits at 12:07am and informs Conor that he’s going to tell him three stories that will change his life. He then begins to visit nightly at the same time weaving together these stories to help guide the boy on a journey of courage, faith, and truth. The monster insists that Conor hear the stories and powerfully visualize them, demanding that afterwards the boy must tell his own story in return.
The idea for A Monster Calls came from a fellow writer named Siobhan Dowd. She and author Ness shared the same literary editor, Denise Johnstone-Burt at Walker Books. The backstory is both interesting and bittersweet. As Ness tells it “Sioban was a really fantastic English writer who wrote 4 terrific young adult novels knowing she had terminal breast cancer. So she wrote them as quickly as she could. A Monster Calls was intended to be her 5th novel but she died earlier than she expected.” So Johnstone-Burt eventually approached Ness to see if he’d be interested in finishing the project.
Ness admits that he was initially skeptical to pick up where another author had left off. “My first instinct was to say no because my biggest worry is that’s not how a good story gets written. Novels are not collaborative. That’s very unusual. But the material was so powerful that I immediately started getting other ideas.” Ness agreed to finish writing the book, and explains what he had to work with from the start. “All she (Dowd) had written was an opening, one chapter — about 1000 words and a structural idea — that the tree would tell stories.” So Ness rolled up his sleeves and got busy, putting aspects of his own life into each character. He believes this is how the best stories are written. “Why would you trust a writer who didn’t? Writing is an act of hubris anyways. ‘Here please give me 8 hours of your life to read this book I wrote’. You wouldn’t listen to somebody’s kid sing to you for 8 hours, would you?!. I always think that if I’m not fully engaged, if I’m not feeling the pain of the loss, it’s arrogant to ask my reader or viewer to feel it.”
One aspect of Ness’ life, which continues to influence his writing, is a near-death experience that occurred in childhood. “When I was 8 years old, I was hit by a car in a crosswalk. A woman hit my bike and me and didn’t stop. She pushed us down the road. I should’ve been run over and killed. It was just a fluke that the bike protected me from the tires. I’ve always thought since; do those people who saw what happened that day tell the story of a boy who probably should’ve been killed? And I wonder what their story is like. I always wanted to know what happens after the end of the story.”
Ness’ first draft of A Monster Calls was well received but he did have his battles. “A few people suggested changes. I don’t have an objection to changes but they were mostly softening changes. Someone actually said ‘Does she (the mother) have to die. And I was like… well, yeah!” When asked about some of the other obstacles to adapting his novel to the big screen, Ness noted, “There were two big challenges. The first was how to take 7000 words of prose and tell it in a script and have it all fit correctly”. The other had to do with the casting for the demanding role of Conor O’Malley. Ness explained, “are we going to find a 12-year actor who will carry every single scene and do all of this work — really quite complex work.” Ness was clearly impressed with the remarkable emotional depths MacDougal was able to reach. “I thought he was absolutely extraordinary. He could do sadness. He could do anger. He could do the little funny smirk. But he could still be loving. He could be unpleasant in a compelling way. He’s even more extraordinary than you think because that’s not his accent. He did the whole movie Scottish but he has an English accent which is actually quite different.”
Ness also points out that he doesn’t believe in preaching while writing. “I really don’t like messages because then I think you’re writing a sermon. And who wants to hear a sermon even if you agree with every single word.” But the screenwriter does mention there is an important takeaway for young people. “Kids know more than we would like them to know. And I think we know that, but we kinda pretend that we don’t. In this situation, of course, Conor knows that his mother’s not gonna make it, but nobody is gonna tell him the truth of it. A clever kid will figure out 95% of the truth and plausibly fill in the last 5 percent. But the tragedy is how could you act any differently than the mother did. She’s acting with love. She feels she needs to be strong to give him hope.”
When asked about translating his work to the screen, Ness gives director Bayona his due credit, citing his approach to filmmaking,“ That’s one of the reasons I thought Bayona was such a great match. These movies take ostensibly great shock elements — horror or thriller — and use them to serve an emotional story. And that’s what fantasy does in A Monster Calls.” Ness also noted that the CGI, while visually spectacular, could also be a distraction. “Because the fantasy elements were so prevalent in the story, the more you could shoot practically, the more grounded it was going to be. You never wanted to be drawn away by the CGI. We’re kinda in a place where CGI can do anything, which is almost, in a way, a curse. So the question becomes ‘how can it absolutely serve the story rather than being a spectacle in itself’. We used a lot of practical stuff. And a lot of animatronics. The monster is full motion capture so it’s fully Liam Neeson doing a performance. And that keeps the movie’s feet firmly on the ground. You feel comfortable and don’t have to think about special effects.”
A Monster Calls opens in limited theaters on December 23 before expanding wide on January 6, 2017.