Lewis MacDougall and Sigourney Weaver confront monsters both literal and figurative in ‘A Monster Calls.’
Directed by J.A. Bayona (The Impossible, The Orphanage), A Monster Calls is a visually spectacular and stunningly emotional drama based on the award-winning novel. The screenplay adaptation is by the book’s author, Patrick Ness. Ness wrote the novel from an original idea by the late Siobhan Dowd.
12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall, in one of the breakthrough roles of the year) is about to escape into a fantastical world of monsters and fairy tales. He is dealing with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) illness, which has necessitated Conor’s spending time with his less-than-sympathetic grandmother (Sigourney Weaver). His daily existence at his U.K. school is one of academic disinterest and bullying by classmates. As Conor’s father (Toby Kebbell) has resettled thousands of miles away in the U.S., the boy yearns for guidance.
He unexpectedly summons a most unlikely ally, who bursts forth with terrifying grandeur from an ancient towering yew tree and the powerful earth below it: a 40-foot-high colossus of a creature (portrayed in performance-capture and voiceover by Liam Neeson) who appears at Conor’s bedroom window at 12:07 AM one night – and at that time on nights thereafter. The Monster has stories to tell, and he insists that Conor hear them and powerfully visualize them. Conor’s fear gives way to feistiness and then to looking within; for, The Monster demands that once the tales are told it will be time for Conor to tell his own story in return. Ancient, wild and relentless, the Monster guides Conor on a journey of courage, faith, and truth.
Academy Award nominated-actress Sigourney Weaver was sought for the role of Conor’s maternal grandmother. “I’m a huge admirer of Bayona’s earlier films. I found them so powerful,” she reveals. “I read Patrick’s script and found it to be a haunting and moving story. I felt at once that I would be in good hands with this director who could find the balance between the reality of the situation and the fantasy world that Conor escapes into.
“In both the book and the script, there is a great deal of respect for children; what they experience, what they feel, what they fear. The story doesn’t pull its punches, but it is also filled with love.”
Weaver had a clear idea of how to approach her character and “A Monster Calls marks my first grandmother role,” she muses. “In the book and in the script, Conor says she doesn’t really look like a grandmother, so that was a wonderful place for me to start!
“The grandmother in the book is rather scary. I liked the challenge of playing someone who isn’t so sympathetic, trying to find the humanity. But at the same time, her point of view is relevant. Conor doesn’t really like how different she is from his mother, with all her rules. She is very controlling; being a mother myself, I’ve been accused of this, so I’m on the grandmother’s side and I feel the grandmother is completely right all the time…”
Perhaps most poignantly, Weaver took note of how “the situation takes a toll on my character. What this story shows is how it feels to be losing a member of the family – in her case, her only child – to an illness. Ultimately, her and Conor’s relationship grows during the course of the film.”
Also crucial to the family dynamic was finding the right actress to portray Weaver’s character’s daughter, who is MacDougall’s character’s mother. When Bayona saw Felicity Jones (Rogue One) in her breakout role in Like Crazy – as her Academy Award-nominated portrayal in The Theory of Everything had not yet been screened – he knew he had found the actress to play the role. Jones took her character to heart. She states, “Lizzie is a vibrant, active woman who has never stopped loving art. In her home, there are arts and crafts that reveal her creative spirit. She has loved being a mother to Conor, although she’s a little unconventional.
“The fact that she’s a single parent – because the relationship with Conor’s father has ended – makes the story more powerful because she has formed such an incredible bond with her only child. What’s so difficult for Lizzie and Conor is admitting to each other that she is going to die.”
With the grandmother taking more of an active role in her daughter and grandson’s life, Jones reached out to Weaver for extra insight into their characters’ dynamic. She offers, “Sigourney and I were very keen to find the nuance in the daughter/mother relationship. In many ways, Lizzie is a bit of a rebel. She had Conor when she was young. She’s impulsive, and that has sometimes been difficult for her mother. There’s a tiny bit of friction between them.
“So what Lizzie wants for Conor is for him to live independently once she is gone; she says to him, ‘Don’t be defined by anyone else.’ She hopes that he will be free, because in many ways Lizzie herself has not been. She’s never quite been able to find her freedom independently from her mother, so she wants that for her son more than anything; there is enormous love between this mother and daughter, but like any family relationship it has been complicated.”
Weaver reveals, “we had rehearsals before we started, and we were able to root around in the scenes and with the relationships. From the very beginning, Felicity and I trusted each other so much that we could play out a huge fight and bring as much reality to it as possible. This mother/daughter relationship is highly emotional, and Felicity brings so much to these scenes.
“Each of us, with our own processes, tried to put our all into each of the family scenes. We researched details of the illness and the gradual decline of the body. Research is sort of like a suitcase; you keep putting things in it. I know it helped me very much.
“It was very important to all of us to get it right, to tell this story truthfully and with love and respect, especially for those who will see the movie and who have been through this experience with loved ones.”
To better portray the family member with the illness, Jones opted to “visit oncologists because I wanted to get the medical perspective, to know exactly which medications someone would be taking and just how people try and fight the disease.
“What was incredible was speaking to people who are going through chemotherapy. I met women who were very frank about their experiences and who would take me through the daily rituals of how you cope with something like this. After I had absorbed everything I could, I coordinated efforts with our movie’s incredible crew to chart Lizzie’s decline.”
Bald caps and prosthetics make-up were applied to dramatize the physical effects of the illness taking hold. Working anew with Noble, Jones mapped out how the clothes Lizzie wore might not fit any more because of weight loss – and the actress decided to “lose weight to show how the cancer was affecting the body. I wanted to convey how her breathing changes, and for us to see her body gradually getting weaker and altering. In reading the script, I identified four specific changes in her physicality, and it became all about trying to show those shifts as subtly and as truthfully as possible.”
A Monster Calls expands into theaters nationwide January 6th.
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